The boat left Bagan right on 6am. It's a regular sailing during peak season but only once or twice a week in the low period. Fortunately it was sailing the day we were leaving. It was scheduled to take 10 hours depending on the strength of the tide which was against us. 10 hours doing nothing sounded good to us.
The boat can carry about 130 passengers. Today it had 20 so there was lots of space. As the sun rose we could see the size of the Irrawaddy river. It's no Amazon but still quite impressive. IPod on, feet up and enjoy the scenery.
The time went very quickly. Among our companions were an American couple who have a business in the Virgin Islands selling Asian furniture and ornaments. They take time out during the hurricane season in the Caribbean and go on buying trips to Asia. Jill liked this idea. We also met an elderly English couple originally from Sussex. Not for the first time we were asked which part of Australia we were from. I can understand South Americans not knowing we are English but an Englishman. I'm getting a little worried cobber.
As we approached Mandalay the boat Captain said we could go to the bow of the vessel. It gave us a good view of the bridges and temples at the port entrance. We had planned to get a cab to our hotel but the ship operators had it all worked out. Us and two other couples were loaded into the back of a small open sided lorry and driven to our hotel. It made for a cheap ride. Because there is no reliable internet and no on line booking we had phoned the hotel from a lean to shed by the roadside in Bagan. It was a recommended hotel in Lonely Planet. We have a nice room with breakfast included.
It was dark when we arrived (6pm) and so not easy to judge the location. We went to a little bar round the block and had dinner. We had noticed water in the streets when we arrived. As we left the rain came. We are at the end of the rainy season but no one told the rain that. It was like a tap being turned on. A deluge that lasted about 30 minutes. Overnight it rained again.
In the morning we went outside. We wondered for a second if we were still on the boat. The streets were like rivers. We needed to go and get money and book flights so off we went. We were wading ankle deep through dirty water mmmmmm lovely. Rudyard Kipling waxed lyrical about Mandalay. His description conjured a peaceful place unsullied by modern life. Kipling had never actually been here.
At times we were sharing a 4ft line of tarmac in the middle of the road with the traffic. After a bit of a walk stepping through water and dodging traffic we found the travel agent. It all went very smoothly. It is a bit like winding the clock back 20 years. We told the girl when we wanted to fly and who with. She then phoned the airline and confirmed the booking. She then hand wrote all our details on paper with a sheet of carbon in between and said we should come back in half an hour as the tickets had to be written out at head office down the road. We have a few $20 bills that we have brought from the UK. One hotel took them another refused them. I had done a bit of cosmetic work on them to get out wrinkles. I took a breath and handed them over. She looked at them, and then called a manager who looked some more then said 'Ok'.
Flights paid for we went across the street to a bank to get more dosh. Then it was off in search of coffee while we waited for the tickets. Myanmar must be the only place outside of North Korea that doesn't have a Starbucks. In the end we went into a busy local restaurant. As usual we were celebrities with five waiters arguing over who would serve us. The coffee was surprisingly ok which was handy as the skies opened and we had to have another. 30 minutes or so and it cleared and we went to get our tickets. Nice hand written ones like in the old days.
We took them back to the hotel in case we got soaked and the ink ran. As a tourist there are only a couple of sites in Mandalay. Most people come here to visit the old cities that surround it. We had planned to visit the one or two sites in the city that afternoon but the weather was threatening so we cancelled.
We booked a trip for the next day. For about $35 we would get a taxi to ourselves for the day. The driver would take us to all the major sites and stop where we wanted. That evening we decided to have a local's dinner. We headed out to a renowned Chapatti stand. What we found looked a bit daunting. It was basically a big tarpaulin over a metal frame taking up a street corner. Under it were cookers and woks with small plastic chairs and tables out front. It was heaving with locals and a bit intimidating. Oh well here goes. We sat down and were soon handed a plastic menu by a smiling young chap. As usual the waiters seemed amused by us. We ordered fried vegetables and byriani rice with some chapattis.
This is fast food. 5 minutes and we have a huge plate of rice, potato curry, fried veg, chillies, mint and soup. It could have fed 20. It was gorgeous. We ate as much as we could and asked for the bill. It came to about £2.
Well after that we needed a beer so we set off to find a bar. No bars were open just another restaurant so we sat down with the locals and watched Myanmar beat Cambodia 3-0 in an Asian cup match. 4 beers cost £2. So our gut busting evening meal washed down with some local hooch had cost £4. Result.
We were soon back in the hotel. Just in time as the skies opened again. We slept well with full bellies.
Next morning after breakfast we were met by our taxi driver for the day Mohammed.
He was about 70 and had a nice Toyota car with doilies on the headrests. His English was pretty good, much better than my Burmese. He had a plan for the day. He was going to take us to all the main sites in the three towns near to Mandalay. First he was going to take us to the sites in Mandalay that we hadn't seen yesterday. At each city you arrive in they get you to buy a pass to enter the main sites. We had bought one in Yangon and never needed it. We didn't bother in Bagan and never needed it. We hadn't bothered here either. Mohammed asked if we had a pass. We said 'No'. 'No problem' he said 'I will take you to entrances where they don't check'. Mohammed told us he had been born in Mandalay. His father was Indian and his mother was a Christian. We never found out where she was from but I suspect she may have been English.
I asked him about the driving on the right thing. He said that they had always driven on the left in right hand drive cars. Then in 1962 the government just decided to change to driving on the right. He said it was stupid. In fact he felt the government were still stupid. Overall he had no time for politicians was not happy about the number of Chinese living there, but thought Myanmar people were great. It all seemed reasonable to us.
He took us to some temples then to one he said we could walk up to get views. What he should have said was I could walk up. 'Ladies not allowed' was the big sign at the bottom of the steps. We turned around and left. Mohammed said it was Buddhist law. Men are above women. He was a Muslim so I guess he knew all about that. He wasn't a fan of Buddhists. Everywhere we went he said 3 monasteries but no school and no hospital.
I had always thought that Buddhists thought everything was equal. Not so it would appear. I had also thought it was not a religion but a doctrine as it did not have a single deity like God. It seems I was wrong. Buddha was a god like creature living in Nirvana (Heaven). He was persuaded to come to earth in human form. Stop me if this is one you've heard somewhere else. One night a virgin called Maha Mahay had a dream. When she woke up she had given birth to Buddha. He had a quiet childhood. As a young man he went walk about teaching and preaching about how to live your life. He also performed a couple of miracles like bringing a child back from the dead. Sound familiar? He said if we followed his teachings we would eventually reach Nirvana. He died and is now revered by millions. The pope is believed by Catholics to be chosen by God to be his voice on Earth. The Dalai Lama is believed by his devotees to be the rebirth of a long line of tulkus who are considered to be manifestations of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara.Call me cynical but what a load of tosh.
Anyway back to the tour. We went to a temple we were both allowed to go to. It was on a hill overlooking Mandalay. Mohammed told us to go slowly up the steps and stop often. Off we set. As we walked up I shouted at Jill 'Stand still, don't move'. 'What, what' she said. 'Look' I said, 'There's a bloody big snake right in front of you'. There on the floor was a 4ft long snake. If Jill had kept walking she could well have stepped on it. It started to move and was now trying to get away from us, but the steps had walls so it couldn't escape. We followed it as it went up the steps until it eventually found a gap and slithered away.
Mohammed was right, the views at the top were great but Jill still wasn't allowed to approach the main altar. Religions, created by men to benefit men. I showed Mohammed my pictures of the snake and he told us the Burmese name of it and confirmed it was venomous.
Our tour continued to Amarapura. We went to U Bein's bridge an old teak bridge which spans a lake. It is 1.2kms long, 200 years old and the longest teak bridge in the world. On the way we passed a sort of shanty town along the road side. Lots of lean to shelters covered in tarpaulin with animals tied up on the central reserve. Mohammed explained these were refugees. They were people who lived by the river and in the rainy season their homes flooded so they came here. He said it happened every year.
Mandalay is home to nearly 1 million people and 200,000 monks. Next stop in Amarapura was the monastery at Ganayon Kyaung. This is home to about 1300 monks of all ages. At 10am and again in the afternoon the monks eat. This has become a tourist attraction as 100's of robed monks queue with their bowls for their food. It is a fascinating and perverse spectacle. One part of me says don't gawp they are people not zoo animals. The other part is compelled to watch. Many of the tourists of course make donations so it has a commercial aspect. Some of the novices can't be more than 6 years old. Families give them to the monasteries to get an education. At what price though? We came, we saw, we left.
Inwa was our next stop. This is cut off by rivers and canals so we had to take a small ferry across. On the other side you are met by an army of pony and carts. The roads are deeply rutted and some are flooded so this is the only practical way around. We paid a few pounds and were taken around the sights. Most notable is Bagaya Kyaung an unrenovated monastery made from teak. It is supported by 267 posts. A bit of timely approaching and we slipped past the ticket checker unnoticed. It was so different from the stone and gold leaf temples. After one and a half hours in a bumpy cart we were back at the boat. We went back on the ferry and met Mohammed.
We drove back to the hotel having had a really enjoyable day. Mohammed even took us to the supermarket on the way to pick up a bottle of red. Good man. Mandalay was quite different to Yangon. More modern due to Chinese investment.
Next morning we were up early for our flight to Inle Lake. They do seem to like early starts here.