Monks and Moustaches in Mandalay...

Trip Start Apr 23, 2011
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Flag of Myanmar  ,
Wednesday, March 30, 2011

We rose early to catch a cab (6000 kyats) to the bus which was miles out of town. It took about 45 minutes even in the very quiet traffic and I almost felt we had gone halfway to our destination.

The bus station was total chaos and it took a while to find our bus company. I think there were only a few that took foreigners. Even the taxi driver had to ask about 4 or 5 people before we got the right one.

The bus was totally full with us the only foreigners as far as we could tell. We were entertained by very loud M(Myanmar)- Pop, then M-Rock, then M-Karaoke in which some of the passengers happily participating. Most of the film clips appeared to have been filmed at the same location. The same dancers were in several of the clips and whilst they did change costumes many of the "moves" were very similar. There was also the same team squirting water on “the audience” gyrating and cheering on the back of trucks. In some clips they appeared to be having a good time. In others they were ducking their heads and looking like they wished they were somewhere else whilst half heartedly giving a bit of “crowd action”. All very peculiar! But at least they appeared to have a music industry. Later on we watch half a movie, then another half a movie when that one gave out. Then I think an episode of a soap opera. I really had no idea what was going on so I had a sleep.

The road for most of the way was a pretty new highway. Quite a number of toll gates, one roadside meal place, absolutely nothing of interest gaze out at and very little traffic. Very strange until we found out that the average person was only allowed to fill buy 3-4 gallons of government subsidized petrol at a time at the standard petrol stations. If they wanted any more they had to buy from the black market at twice the cost. Now we began to understand the mile long queues we had seen. Apparently this rationing system was to “prevent” people on-selling petrol they had bought??? Ie. Meant to discourage the black market...Hmmmmm! Logic...I think not. Burma has its own energy resources so you would think fuel would be cheap and plentiful. How productive is it for people to spend hours (and hours) to fill their cars? Why not let them have as much as they want effectively wiping out the need for a black market at all. People with very little money are surely only going to buy what they absolutely need to go about their jobs and lives. Who would bother to buy at black market prices if they could get all the cheap stuff they needed? It makes you wonder just who is profiteering from the current situation and we picked up a few hints while we were here that it's not the average Joe Blow.

Much to our delight, the bus trip only took 8 hours instead of the expected 10.apparently due to the new road. As soon as we rolled into Mandalay we immediately realised it was very different to Yangon. First of all there were lots and lots and lots of Scooters. This was the South East Asia we were used to. The noise level was much, much higher and the driving so much more chaotic. We were duly informed that people in Yangon obeyed the “rules” whereas those in Mandalay didn’t. OK. Mental note...take more care in crossing the road!

The bus station was crowded, noisy, totally disorganised and muddy. We were helped to negotiate a ride into town by a lovely man who spoke English and his lovely wife who was a Professor at one of the University. It was a none negotiable 7000 kyats to get into town in a pick-up taxi which we ended up sharing as they were headed in the same direction. He explained that unlike Yangon where cabs were cheap and plentiful, cabs in Mandalay were not. Probably, we mused, because there were so many scooters!

The guesthouse we had booked into was very nice. Clean, quiet and comfortable just like we like them. It was a bit more expensive than we would normally have had paid at $25 for a standard room but it had AC, a fridge and a TV that sometimes had movies on; a bonus after a hard day of tromping around in the heat. We also found a decent internet about three blocks away which was reasonably fast and where we could get Hotmail.

We went for a very, very long walk to find a supermarket. The second “very”, mainly because we started out in the wrong direction and had to back track. Right next door to the store, and a sight for weary travellers, was a Beer House with icy cold Myanmar beer on Tap. The first glass didn’t even touch the sides. Mandalay appeared much hotter than Yangon and it had been a very long day.

The first day we spent walking around....a lot. From the hotel we headed over to the internet which was mercifully quick. Tim had some work to do so I went scouting for a way to get up to Myitkyina where we could catch boats back down the Ayeayawady river. Unfortunately, or so the story goes....we could get a plane or train up there but there “were no boats” back as the river was too low. Bugger!!! It was double bugger when we met several lots of people about a week later who had actually done it!!!!

Later in the day we then headed over to Mahamuni Paya, about 4-5km away. It made an interesting but hot, dry and dusty walk. The Paya was very nice. Not as spectacular as Shwedagon in Yangon but still pretty good with it’s very big gold Buddha that keeps having gold leaf added to it. Women not allowed but Tim got to get up close. We might have been more impressed had we not had a bit of an unpleasant experience that left a bit of a sour taste in our mouth. We were “befriended” by a monk who we asked straight out was he trying to be our “guide”. He admitted to that but declined to name his price despite us pressing. “What you like..” His English wasn’t that great and I would have preferred to wander around by myself. It had rained a little and the tiles were deadly with a fine oily layer of pigeon shit and drizzle (remember...no shoes!!!) As it was getting on to closing time, there was very little to see except the big stuff we could have admired by ourselves but he insisted on dragging us around to stare into fenced off displays of bits and pieces. When we finally extracted ourselves I had decided it was worth $5 to get rid of him. I actually doubt he was a monk at all as I had seen a couple of others giving him a dirty look. My suspicions were even further increased when he announced that the price was $40. Who did he think he was kidding??? I just walked off and Tim gave him a good dressing down about being up front etc. I guess one bad egg amongst dozens of great encounters is still pretty good odds.

We got off to another late start the following day. We wanted to get up to Mandalay hill but it was pointless going until it cooled down late afternoon. We went and lined up the cyclo, drivers who had been cajoling us for the last two days. 4000kyats return with a side visit to a very old, teak monastery. The drivers were twins who were both at uni and earning their way by pedal power. The first thing they said when we said we were from Australia...”ACDC”. Turns out they were rock fans...none of the M-pop for them. We also lined up a visit to the Moustache Brothers and a full day out the next day to see the ancient cities of Amarapura, Sagaing and Inwa.

It was a stiff, bare footed climb to the top of Mandalay Hill. 1927 steps we were told at a later date. At least they were fairly evenly spaced cement stairs with a number of well spaced landings interspersed. There were a number of Buddas, temples and small settlements on the way up as well as the usual souvenirs and offering stalls.

The view from the top would have been a whole lot better had it not been so hazy but you could still see for miles around. A number of bus tours and high end tourists had arrived for sunset the easy way...by bus/taxi then elevator. “Where’s the fun in that?” I asked as my pulse rate slowly subsided from the danger range.

We didn’t stay for sunset as the sun set into the haze well before the horizon. We scampered down to the “Cyclo Brothers” as quickly as our aging knees and joints would allow us. We also had to get our skates on as we had a 7pm rendezvous with the taxi to take us to “The Moustache Brothers” via dinner at “Chapati Brothers”. A bit of a family affair all night really.

Dinner was awesome. The place was bustling with locals and backpackers alike. The food was turning over so fast it didn’t have a chance of going off. Fresh, fresh chapattis, tasty dhal, a heap of accompaniments, coconut rice and chicken curry...all for less than $3.

The Moustache Brothers (8000 kyats) are a local institution. Two brothers and a cousin form “the brothers” but the show also includes various other relatives like wives and sisters. The show is performed in the living room of their home as they are no longer allowed to perform in public. A good part of the show is Lu-Maw, the only English speaking member, cracking corny jokes about the Government, the Generals, his wife and the fact that the two other “brothers” had jailed for 6 years for mocking the Generals in the late 90’s. The corny humour is used to present some serious home truths about the corruption that is rife within the country. The show is only allowed to be performed for foreigners and all in English which means the rest of the cast can only communicate through actions and facial expressions. It’s not all about jokes however, and there is an opportunity to see some traditional dancing presented by the ladies and the Myanmar version of Vaudeville presented by Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw. I’s pretty clear that it’s the tourists that are keeping them going with mentions in the international media and the subsequent attention keeping them safe from further retribution. I would definitely encourage everyone who visits Mandalay to go along and pay their respects, enjoy the show and support one of the few avenues of “free” speech telling it like it is.

Our final day visiting the surrounding ancient cities was a memorable one with so many photo opportunities Tim ended up with almost 300 just for that day. (1 day in a taxi 25kyats) First up was a local temple with a very large reclining Buddha. Not so special but it was very quiet and not on the usual tourist run. Next up was the Ganayon Kyaung, a monastery attended by over 1300 monks, novices and pre-novices. . Zso Zso, our driver, showed us around the outer buildings. We were allowed to visit the kitchen beforehand where large vats of soup, curry and rice were being prepared. Everything was on such a scale that there was no bothering with ladles...the curry was being dealt out into serving pots with square mouthed shovels! This place was definitely on the tourist circuit as they trucked them in on tour buses to watch all 1300 monks line up for their last meal of the day at 10.15am. It turned into a bit of a circus as people jostled to get their shots. Yes we took pictures as well but we did try and maintain a respectful distance and demeanour. Most of the monks stared squarely ahead, trying to block out all the attention I imagine. A few of the little ones however, just couldn’t help themselves sneaking cheeky grins when they caught your eye.

Next stop was Sagaing, with its hill tops studded with dozens of stupas and monasteries. We readied ourselves for the climb to the top. Much easier than Mandalay Hill we thought with only about 300 steps and we could keep our shoes on. Bonus!! What I didn’t account for was the drum tight calf muscles and Achilles from the night before and the steeply sloped path rather than steps all the way. So it did hurt a bit but we got up there no worries. Once again the view was rewarding, if not a little hazy. There was a huge, impressive Buddhist monastery to one side that looked very flasthat was a nice and expensive. We were told however that tuition was actually free. Good one, as we had been told that tertiary education was very high, relatively speaking.

We headed off to Inwe, stopping right by the boat pier to have a simple lunch. Inwe is cut off by rivers and canals. It cost us 1000 kyats return on a small boat to make the 2 minute crossing, then 5000 for a horse and cart to take us around the 4 main sights. It was a peaceful 2 hours visiting the sights.

First up was Bagaya Kyaung, a beautiful old teak monastery. As we entered the compound we could hear a bit of a ruckus going on inside. Further investigation revealed a class of about 15 kids, ranging from about 6 to 16, some dressed in monks robes and most running about and having a good old time. Where was the teacher we wondered? And there he was....flat out like a lizard drinking behind the desk blowing zzzzz’s. Either they had worn him out totally or he was the only one observing “quiet time”. Tim thought about taking a sneaky pic but thought it might be a bit naughty.

Next stop was some old temple ruins. We didn’t catch the name but they were quite atmospheric. We then trundled onto the 27m high Namyin watchtower where a very rickety climb rewarded you with a great view across the fields. Last stop was Hsinbyume Paya, a large terraced pagoda that was being spruced up with a new coat of white paint. We were persistently followed by the cutest little girl who wanted to sell us everything from bells to postcards which we of course refused. She like all the other merchandise sellers was very gracious in defeat but extremely persistent. In the end she got a packet of chips because she had a great smile and was extremely polite. Were we duped. Absolutely. Do we care? Nup. Did we do the right thing buying her junk food? Not sure.

We grabbed the next boat back to the “mainland” and set off for the last stop of the day, the beautiful surrounds of U Bein’s Bridge back at Amarapura. At 1.2km it’s the worlds longest teak bridge which I guess could be a handy fact at a trivia night. What we were most interested in was the views and sights around and the wonderful light as the sun receded. We watched groups of monks traversing, a flock of ducks of parading, fishermen casting, young couples courting and the locals spruiking their wares. It made for some terrific shots as we relaxed over a couple of cold bottles of Myanmar beer.

It was a pretty full day but we still had a number of tasks to sort out. We couldn’t get seats on the bus to Hisipaw (6000kyats) or find a share taxi with others (at 18000kyats/seat) so it was looking like it would cost us 50000 for the whole car. Not an option and we were starting to feel a bit railroaded by the Hotel. Zso Zso drove us around without complaint to another couple of options with no joy. One was full and the other wouldn’t take foreigners. Oh well we would just reverse our plans and go to Pyin U Lwin first and head to Hisipaw from there. Next he found us a good money changer. We were offered the best rate yet for crisp clean $100 at 840 and 830 for mint condition $50’s. Unfortunately two of our $50’s didn’t pass muster with minute wear marks on a none existent fold and we only got 820 for them. In the end we got an average of 830 was the same as in Yangon. I was beginning to regret taking the advice on recent blogs. We were spending 4 times as many Kyats as dollars (rather than the other way around according to most blogs!) and I regretted not having bought more large notes for changing rather than lots and lots of small ones. The fall of the $US was having an effect even here. Next stop was a supermarket so Tim could grab a couple of cold beers and then we were home. I can highly recommend our driver who can probably be contacted through a guy named Bhamo who frequents the outside of the Royal City Hotel.

We went back and arranged a share taxi (7000 each) to Pyin U Lwin for 9 the next morning, checked the internet and collapsed in a heap. We didn’t even bother to have dinner, sharing a packet of chicken biscuits instead. Cheapest dinner yet at 500 kyats!
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