Yet again… the wee hours of the morning. Dropped off in darkness in what appeared to be the business district of Mandalay. Fending off the touts and getting our bearings, we managed to find the moat surrounding the palace grounds. This slowly led us to the downtown area with its handful of budget accommodation options. Taking a shot in the dark (no pun intended), we decided to see if a hotel would let us check in before the sun was even up. Knocking on the door stirring the night shift, they opened up and jackpot. Either out of the kindness of their hearts seeing the exhaustion on our faces or simply not wanting to deal with us and continue with their own sleep, they tossed us up in triple room. Nonetheless we were in and back to our disturbed slumber to finish resting for the long, dehydrating day ahead.
Late start, taking in all the A/C I could, we slowly made our way to the streets. It didn’t take long before the sweat was beading off my forehead. A rice salad of sorts for some energy, enjoyed only by me I think and back to the moat. 2 kilometers squared doesn’t seem that big, but with the oppressive heat sapping at the motivation levels, I was happy to have some friends at my side. Feeding off each other and complaining as one, we were united in seeing this city in a day. Time was of the essence.
4 km later, we were at the northeast corner of the moat where a cluster of temples reside. With the purchase of a combination ticket, we started clockwise from the direction we approached. The first one being the Sandamuni Pagoda. 1774 slabs engraved with scripture all housed individually by a mini pagoda. This somehow trumped by the Kuthodaw Pagoda (next in our walk around the clock), considered the ‘world’s largest book’ even though it only has 729 slabs engraved. Not that it is a small amount, but it’s no 1774. Still both are tremendous complexes with a story and history I wish I was only capable of reading. This followed by my favorite of the four compiled here. The stunning, intricately carved teak home for a king turned monastery. The Shwenandaw Kyaung’s dedication to detail captures the eye from the bottom tier to the top. Dragons carved on every pillar, and god-like figures on the walls. The time and artistry this must have taken I can simply only imagine. Last and least, the Atumashi Kyaung. Beautiful from the outside and since it was part of the ticket I went in and lost 15 minutes.
Accepting the lost time, not everything can be of extreme interest, it was back to the east side of the moat. 2-3 liters of water in already and heading for the palace. Upon entering the outer sanctum is a village. Military patrolled for decades now, no access is allowed to outsiders to wander. Straight ahead in the center is the inner sanctum. Cannons greeting us at the entrance (presumably disabled), looking to defend against age old invaders. Actually a reconstruction in the 90’s, it’s a grand cluster of richly decorated buildings and courtyards to freely walk around. We split up to explore and I spent the majority of my time chatting with a monk who spent many of his days here. Before we left climbing the watchtower was necessary to take it all in. We ascended the spiral staircase to the panoramic view that awaited. I felt like a king overlooking his land (“everything the light touches is our kingdom” Mufasa), even though only one king ever ruled from here before the British decided to show up.
Burnt out and dehydrated, but working off the adrenaline of an already productive day, there was only one thing left to do other than eat of course. Renting a few pedal bikes through rush hour traffic, we chased the sun to U-Bein Bridge. Anything with wheels or legs coming from every direction weaving amongst each other in an orchestrated symphony of bells, horns, squeals and the spitting of betel. 30 minutes or so and we locked up the bikes to join the crowd on the world’s largest teak footbridge. Just over 1 kilometer, in the wet season it spans across the lake below, but now more so shallow ponds and crops planted where land has appeared. Traversed by many, but least of all foreigners. Myanmar tourists flock here as they discover their own country, hopeless romantics posing for their thousands selfies trying to avoid the countless photobombs of passersby (just let them take a selfie), and a hangout for some of the younger crowd. The sun bouncing on the bright clothes and maroon robes of the monks creating a spectrum of color across the length of the bridge while we stand to the side until the sun sinks below the haze sending the sky ablaze. A quick dinner of Indian curry and biryani and back to the A/C to rejuvenate somewhat for tomorrow.
A five hour minibus through a half a dozen checkpoints which to me appeared more like a drug run than anything. Quickly pulling over, performing a quick handoff and speeding back down the dusty road. Arriving in Bagan in the late end of the afternoon, we dropped our bags at the Pann Cherry Guesthouse, one of the cheapest around, and headed for dinner. Too late to justify riding out to the pagodas and Manchester United was playing. Decisions almost make themselves. Beer and munchies obviously.
E-bike races begin… the sky was just beginning to glow as we stepped into the brisk morning air. Strapped in, we peeled away at a whole 20 kilometers an hour in a cloud of dust and disappeared in the distance. Putting along with excessive use of our inadequate horns, a recommended pagoda to watch the sunrise was our destination. Climbing the steep, narrow steps to the top of the pagoda, the ascending sun began to breach the horizon as the hot air balloons took flight with it. My eyes stuck scanning over the hundreds, yet only a mere fraction of the thousands of temples, shrines and pagodas scattered across the flat plain. The site was mesmerizing, rivalled only with the temples of Angkor Wat. To see everything would take weeks, months or may be just impossible. After the balloons drifted by and the land was bright, a quick trip back to town for breakfast was needed. Then best get started since I had a mere day.
A dish I have yet to mention, which is a Myanmar staple, possibly the national dish, is Mohinga. Generally only found for breakfast and sold out by midday, it’s a must have. This was not my first bowl, but my best. A little lady set up with a cart near the market. A rice noodle and fish soup, it is prepared differently from region to region. A rich broth flavoured with fish paste, lemongrass, ginger with rice vermicelli and catfish garnished with cilantro, scallion, squeeze of lime and chilies. A variety of accompaniments are sometimes on offer, the one I saw most was pieces of Chinese donut dunked in the heavenly broth. Street vendors are your best bet as usual, set up nearly everywhere.
We cruised out of town exploring the land with no particular rhyme or reason. There is no right or wrong way to go about this. Other than the dozen or so ‘big’ temples pointed out on the map where you are guaranteed to see a few tourists, with ease you can find yourself totally alone surrounded by these decrepit structures beholding such ancient beauty. The speed of the E-bike would usually feeling impeding, but here it is perfect. Slow enough allowing you to take all that is in your view. Sites seen still by so few of the world only being accessible in recent years. The countryside dotted always in proximity of a thousand year old architecture, history emanating in the silent stillness, a blast from the past is brought forth with a sudden gust of wind. It was only a day, but a fairly good attempt at justice for a place so vast and magnificent. A race back to town, winner decided by who had the most juice left and a quick bite before being herded onto the back of a pick-up. On to our final night bus in Myanmar on the last leg of the journey.
To Be Continued…