The late afternoon sunlight danced off the bright golden stupa. Beneath us sprawled the town of Mawlamyine (formerly called Moulmein) the first British colonial capital of India. It was no longer the thriving port it once was but there were still ships in the delta bringing goods to the port. As we watched the sunset over the mountain tops our thoughts turned to Kipling.
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay! ”
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay ?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!
Heading out next morning for a stroll (certainly beats the commute to work) along the side of the waterway the whole town was coming to life. Men were unloading heavy sacks from the barges and trucks were pulling in with goods from the countryside. In the market people were busy shopping for the day as the market vendors hastily prepared their goods for sale. Motorbikes whizzed everywhere dropping people off and then speeding off again. The men wore traditional longhis rather than trousers and the women’s faces were decorated with Thanaka, a yellow paste, to protect them from the sun. Even after travelling for so long it felt exotic. The sense of being in a new country was palpable, a lot of it felt much closer to India than Thailand only a short distance away.
Up until recently it was not possible to drive your own vehicle across Myanmar. When we set off on our trip we never thought this would be possible so we were delighted when the opportunity opened up. There has been some backwards and forwards over the last year with the rules changing so at what point we could not drive across but we were delighted to get our permit giving us permission. It’s not that straightforward though. The only way to drive across is to be accompanied by a guide and tour company.
So it was that after swiftly exiting Thailand we were met at the border by our guide Kyaw (pronounced “Joe”) , the driver also Kyaw and a representative from the Ministry of Tourism, Tante. They would be driving ahead of us in a minibus throughout our time in Myanmar. Whilst we would rather drive by ourselves, this did have several advantages along the drive to Mawlamyine. They dealt with all the road tolls as well as the numerous checkpoints along the way. We just followed them through.
Stopping for lunch at a small roadside restaurant, the staff spoke no English and the menu was only in Burmese. Here Kyaw came to the rescue explaining what was on offer and ordering for us our first delicious Burmese curry.
The next day was to be spent seeing some of the sights around Mawlamyine. Here having a guide and driver with a van came in handy again. It didn’t make sense to drive two vehicles to the sights so we all hopped into the van to be taken on the tour. While I am not one to really enjoy guided tours it made a nice change to be able to just sit back and let someone else do the driving. The sights themselves were not that outstanding but it was a pleasant enough day and we got to try some more local food specific to the Mon area we were in.
The people of Myanmar seem to be into building giant Buddhas and we visited the largest reclining Buddha in the country. Even though it wasn’t completed they were already building one opposite it and whilst it’s size was impressive it was already starting to look a little dilapidated from the tropical weather, even though it was only a few years old.
The rest of our tour took in the first Baptist Church in Myanmar built in 1827, a local beach and a poignant visit to the Allied war cemetery. We had previously visited the more famous “Death Railway” in Thailand, this was the Burmese end of the railway.
Mt Kyaiktyio (“Golden Rock”) is a major pilgrimage sight for Myanmar Buddhists. The day we arrived was also a sort of celebration day for Truck drivers or something, so the hair raising truck transfers up and down the mountain were free. As a result the town at the bottom was thronged with local people. Once we reached the top we had to continue towards the Golden Rock barefoot. People were laying out mats preparing to spend the night up there and all sorts of food was bubbling away. The Golden Rock itself is an enormous Boulder covered in gold leaf balanced precariously on the top of the mountain. Legend says that it is balanced due to a precisely placed Buddha hair in the stupa on top. I have to say it did look finely balanced but even an earthquake in the 1970s had failed to shift it. I (much to Alisha’s disgust only men are allowed) was able to touch the rock and add my small piece of gold leaf to it.
As we approached Yangon (formerly Rangoon) the largest city in Myanmar with a population of over 4.5 million we had a bit of a dilemma. We wanted to stay in the centre of town but the problem was parking the truck. If we stayed where we could park the truck, it would be a long journey into town to eat and see the sights. In the end we parked the truck on the edge of town and jumped into the van to stay in the centre ( how convenient). On the way into town we stopped at the entrance way to Aung San Suu Kyi’s house. This was where she had been held under house arrest for nearly 20 years. Whilst there is not much to see at the gateway it has been at the centre of many political events in the recent history of the country so we had been keen to visit.
Late in the afternoon we headed out on foot into downtown Yangon. Smoke belching buses chugged past and the pavements were clogged with people hawking their wares. Pedestrians ran the gauntlet trying to cross the clogged street. We thought jumping in a taxi was safer until we saw the way they drove. Weaving in and out of the traffic we arrived at Sule Pagoda which was now surrounded by a giant traffic clogged roundabout. It was much more peaceful inside looking up at the 46m high golden Chedi.
As dusk was approaching quickly we set out back on foot to see some of the colonial buildings from the time of British rule. The light was fading fast and it looked like many of these buildings were also fading and were well past their former glory. As we walked it came to my mind again that we felt closer to India than Thailand and that the buildings were from the time of the Raj. As it was now dark we jumped into another kamikaze taxi who forced his way through the traffic, including driving down the wrong side of the road for several hundred metres at a traffic light queue just so he could pull in at the front. Relieved we were dropped at our restaurant set in an old mansion where we enjoyed a lovely meal form the Shan region of Myanmar. A relaxing end to a hectic day.
Our sightseeing day in Yangon involved a lot of temples all linked to the bringing of 8 of Buddha’s hairs to Yangon. The Botataung Paya is a temple originally built over 2,000 years ago. It was where the Buddha’s 8 hairs were originally stored. When they were moved it was allowed to keep one hair which was the reason for the temple. Unfortunately the stupa took a direct hit from a bomb in the Second World War. When trawling through the ruins they found the casket containing the hair. The temple has now been rebuilt and unusually you can walk into the Chedi through the gold panelled walkways to see the tiny gold casket containing the hair.
After all this culture we needed some refreshment and what better way than to visit a Yangon institution, the tea house. The tea house is to Yangon what the pub is to England. TVs show sports games and there is plenty to eat along with loads of tea instead of beer. It made a great lively stop for lunch.
We left the highlight of our visit until last. Shwedagon Paya (where the rest of those Buddha hairs are entombed) is regarded as one of South East Asia’s finest temples and it doesn’t disappoint. The golden stupa stands 98 metres high and the gold glimmering on the light is the real thing. It’s covered with tons of gold leaf and gold plate and right at the top of the stupa set in a jewel encrusted case is a 75 carat diamond. It’s a working temple and when we arrived it was alive with pilgrims, monks worshippers and tourists. The girls, especially Lucy, continued to be patient as we circuited the stupa. Since entering Myanmar they have become minor celebrities with local people wanting to take their photos wherever they went and at this temple it was no different.
Circling the stupa is over 400 metres and whilst there is plenty to see at floor level your eyes just kept drifting up to the wonderful stupa which looked magnificent from any angle. As the dusk settled lights came on to light it up against the darkening sky and oil lamps were lit around the base. A truly wonderful sight.
We retreated down the hill to a street full of activity. The tables had spilled out on the sidewalk and there were skewers of food everywhere waiting to be grilled. We moved passed some of the more imaginative offerings and instead went for chicken, quails eggs and some vegetables all washed down with some local beer at the end of a fascinating day.
As we pondered our first few days in Myanmar, Gilly and I both agreed it was definitely a bit different .. and that was not just because we had to follow a van everywhere we drove.