To Mandalay. Not by road.

After a short flight from Bagan, today was my first experience of Mandalay. The weather could have been a little kinder, but in truth it didn’t get in the way of sightseeing.

The first stop was Amarapura, one of the former capitals of the country. The town is a home for weaving and silk and is thus a popular shopping destination, but it is also home to the longest teak bridge in the world built across Taum  Tha Man lake. It’s notable for using pillars from a royal palace as the foundation of the structure, and can be walked across in its entirety if time permits.

The town is also home to Mahangandayon monastery, which while relatively new in construction does offer the sight of the monks lining up to receive their alms on a daily basis. I must confess to being in two minds about this. It is clearly a fascinating thing to witness, but it also requires those tourists doing so to conduct themselves properly and with respect. On a gloomy, rainy day the clatter of photographs being taken is one thing, but the endless flash from cameras lent it the appearance of paparazzi lining the red carpet at a movie premiere.   When granted the privilege of allowing visitors to watch, it surely behoves those doing so to conduct themselves properly. Tourists can get themselves a bad name by behaving disrespectfully – the monks are not specimens in a zoo.

No visit to Mandalay is complete without seeing the Mahamuni temple. Although temples are hardly in short supply throughout the country, this one is different in offering what is thought to be the only image of Buddha outside India cast during his lifetime. One of the traditions of adherents is to attach a small piece of gold leaf to the body, meaning the torso has become somewhat shapeless and much larger in consequence.

The other complex well worth seeing is Kuthodaw Pagoda, except in this instance it isn’t the pagoda itself that is the attraction.  For here you find what is often described as the world’s largest book, where a page of the Tipitaka ‎is inscribed on a marble slab. So far so unremarkable. Except that there are 729 pages, and thus the “book” is simply immense.

The centre of the city is comprised of the walls of the Mandalay Palace. They are more or less the only intact part of it left, the palace itself falling victim to allied bombing raids during World War II. A replica of much of it has been built in order to give an indication of what it would have looked like, and while relatively new it is still worth seeing as it allows the scale of it to be appreciated.

Fortunately given what was to happen half a century later, Shwenendaw monastery had been moved out of the palace in 1880 and reconstructed elsewhere in the city. As a result, it means that one original building does at least survive, and it is scheduled for considerable renovation and restoration work in the near future.

It’s fair to say that Mandalay isn’t short of things to see.   My only regret is that I have such a short time here.

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Bagan, balloons and 777 steps

Sometimes on a lovely summer’s day in England, you might look up into the sky and see a hot air balloon or two. And maybe even people waving from it. At that moment, thoughts idly turn to what a lovely thing to do it must be, and how one day I really must sort that out.

I never have.

So on the basis that if you’re going to do it, you might as well do it properly, I got up this morning at 4:30 (yes, I was thrilled) and headed over to a field near New Bagan in order to fulfill a long held wish and go up in a balloon. Of course, given the location, this wasn’t an ordinary trip. Having written yesterday about the stunning sight of the 3,000 temples, pagodas and other monuments that comprise Bagan, rarely has such an early start been quite so anticipated.

It was everything you could hope for. Those who have done it before will know that the rate at which you lift off the ground takes you by surprise, but having been in helicopters many a time, the thing which is most striking (and of course obvious) is the relative silence.

As the sun comes up and floods the landscape with colour, it shines off the various structures. Flying over them is an experience not to be missed, there’s no other way of describing it.

In the afternoon, I took a trip to Mount Popa, a 1,500 metre extinct volcano, with the classic caldera shaping the cone. The mountain itself is impressive, but the real experience was climbing the 777 steps of the volcanic plug attached to the mountain called Taung Kalat.  ‎ It is, as so many features here are, a religious site, but irrespective of that, the views across the whole floor of the floodplain around the Irrawaddy are something to behold, and more than make up for the lactic acid burn in the calves.

That’s it for Bagan, just two days. One more would probably be ideal, but tomorrow I am off to Mandalay, and if I can find a road sign to allow for cheesy “Road to” jokes, I shall be sure to oblige.

Bagan – put it on your bucket list

In this Internet age, true surprises are hard to come by – a modicum of research and the endless supply of online photos ensure that the visitor has a fair idea what to expect in advance. And yet there are some places so stunning, so much more than anticipated, that the oft used phrase about photographs failing to do it justice becomes not just true, but also serves as a rallying call to anyone considering it for the next trip.

Bagan is unquestionably such a place.  ‎The concern of the first time visitor is often that temple fatigue will kick in, particularly so given the numbers here, but it doesn’t apply because of the context in which they can be visited.  The Shewizigon Pagoda might be the most striking at first sight, given its gilt appearance, but it is not the abiding memory that will form across the first day of visiting.

Indeed, it is the sheer number of temples, stupas and monuments that take the breath away. A drive in any direction means passing dozens of them within the first mile or two, and realising that this is to continue unabated over a significant length of time  is truly astounding.

Of course, gazing in awe through the car window is one thing, getting up close and personal to a number of them is what counts for more. And having done so, and realising that what you really want is to look down over the scenery from above, climbing those where it is permitted becomes less a challenge and more an obligation.

That can be done during the day to allow for finding bearings, but it is at sunset that both the scale and the astonishing variety of Bagan becomes apparent. Watching the sun sink and silhouette the monuments right across the horizon has a tendency to cause the visitor to alternately lapse into awed silence, or to provoke squeals of delight – plus delving into a swift crash course in the panoramic feature on the camera.

The Angkor complex in Cambodia is often viewed as being the other side of the same coin as Bagan, but the experiences and the landscape are so different, it requires visiting both to truly understand their differing natures.

I have another day here, and tomorrow morning it will be to see it by hot air balloon. Suddenly that seems incredibly exciting.

Myanmar – Day Two: Yangon

If there’s one variable we would all like to control when travelling, it’s the weather. So the sight of fluffy white clouds and rays of sunshine when the curtains were pulled back meant that the planned sightseeing was well and truly on.

Where to start is easy – the Shwedagon Pagoda dominates the Yangon skyline both because of its imposing height and also because of its appearance. For the uninitiated, it’s gilded with 20 tons of gold leaf – in the sunshine it is so bright as to be painful to look ‎at when close up. In addition, that Yangon is still largely a low rise city means that orientation is straightforward.

The Pagoda is sited on top of a small hill, further raising it above the city. Of course, when seen from afar, a small part of the brain is trying in vain to point out to the rest of it that if it is that dominant from a distance, it must be simply enormous close up – but it still comes as something of a shock ‎on approach to realise just how massive the structure is.

At 2,500 years old (according to tradition – spoilsport historians and historical architects insist it’s more like 1,200 give or take a few ‎centuries) it has also had time to generate impressive numbers of surrounding shrines; they in themselves are a startling sight, both in number and the degree of opulence.  A walk around the pagoda takes some considerable time, even without taking into account the regular stops to admire a particularly impressive view.

Despite this, access is straightforward. In recent years a lift to the site has been installed, saving visitors from having to climb the steps to reach it.

No matter how cynical and world weary the traveller, a visit to Shwedagon is one that will leave the visitor stunned. It is, quite simply, a global must-see.

If that were all there was in Yangon, it would still be worth coming, but of course there is far more. The National Museum of Myanmar is essential for any student of history, while Inya Lake provides welcome relief in the shape of cooling breezes from the heat of the day.

Yangon is famous for its collection of colonial architecture, possessing greater numbers of colonial buildings than any other city in South East Asia. ‎Context is always key, and it is their presence in the downtown area at every turn that marks them out. Maintaining them is proving a challenge and as the city develops some are inevitably lost. But the conjunction of spectacular historical architecture in a city that is developing at an astonishing rate provides a contrast that is well worth seeing.

It’s not just sights either, for lovers of a bargain Scott’s Market (or Bogyoke Market as it is now known) is the place to fill up with local souvenirs without coming close to breaking the bank.

It’s been a short visit, a day and a half in which trying to fit everything in has proved a challenge. Yangon is changing quickly, and there are no guarantees that some of its particular attractions ‎won’t be lost in the years to come. If in doubt, book sooner rather than later.

Tomorrow, it’s Bagan, a place on the Bucket List of huge numbers of travellers. I’m looking forward to it.

Journey begins

Travelling to new places has always been as much a journey of the mind as the body, and visiting somewhere new remains one of the most exciting experiences that a person can have. And yet there is an irony in this – the more one travels, the more aware we become of just how much there is still to explore. The list of places still to see grows longer, not shorter.

Myanmar has always been on my personal list, a mysterious, deeply evocative country with an astonishing history, yet one that has had restricted opportunities to visit in more recent times. No longer. With air connections now excellent, and a burgeoning tourist industry, it may be off the more familiar beaten tracks, but it is both accessible and inviting to visitors.

The secret to arriving in a new country is to do so without preconceptions, for every country has the capacity to surprise, and an open mind has always been the most rewarding way to travel. But not even in my most far fetched thoughts did I anticipate that the immigration officer would be quietly singing to herself as I arrived into Yangon. As welcomes go, however inadvertent, this one possessed a charm entirely unique in my experience. ‎ It is a rare thing Indeed to be smiling to oneself going through the formalities.

‎On day one of a ten day trip, the first day is one of familiarisation. Yangon’s traffic congestion is rightly renowned yet the patience of the people is what strikes initially – there may be queues on the roads, but they are handled without rancour, and my mind kept turning to the frustration I would be feeling at home in the UK. A relaxing traffic jam – there’s a first.

The other immediate impression concerns the striking colonial architecture of the city. Building after building is passed by, but this is no past time frozen in aspic, it’s a modern thriving metropolis, where past and present co-exist, and the structures are there to be used, not merely admired.

‎Tomorrow is when the exploration truly begins, and each day I shall be providing an update that will hopefully provide some kind of flavour of the journey. I have no idea what to expect, so since it is always better to travel in company, perhaps you’d like to join me on my exploration.

Until tomorrow then…‎