Mandalay & surrounds, and Hsipaw
Flew from Bagan to Mandalay and opted for a shared taxi (mini-van) for 4000 kyat instead of paying the 10,000 for a private taxi into town. Ironically, the flight was a mere 30 minutes but it took more than an hour to get into town! As soon as I arrived at the hotel, I inquired about hiring a car to take me to Sagain and Amarapura, and then U bein for the sunset. They said I could have one of those little toy blue taxis for 17,000 kyat or a regular white rust bucket for 20,000 so I opted for the cuter of the two. My driver, Win San, took me to a little café to get something to eat first as I hadn’t had lunch yet. We had some tea and Indian bread-like things with beans (750 kyat) and then headed to Sagain. Sagain was only 21kms from central Mandalay, and we arrived in no time (even putting around in that little toy car!), and while we approached the area I could see the white stupas and gold spires dotted along the mountainside, quite an impressive scene! Win San dropped me off and I made my way up the 185 steps to the top of Swanbonnyashen pagoda. The top of the pagoda commanded spectacular views from every angle- one could see the monks’ university, the river, and several other notable temples walking around to the other sides. After Swanbonnyashen we headed to Amarapura (11 kms away) and Win San asked me if I was interested in seeing some weaving. I love textiles so of course said yes, and went to a sizeable workshop where young men & women were busy weaving away on their looms with silk and cotton threads, producing some very fine-looking longyis. The shop across the way, Shwe Sin Tai Silk, had some lovely items (prices negotiable) and I picked up another longyi to add to my collection, and 3 nice cotton/silk blend blouses. We stopped at another pagoda that was jam-packed with Buddha images (Buddha overkill, actually, it was kind of creepy!) and then left for U Bein to see the sunset. We arrived early and Win San suggested we visit a local temple in a village nearby and we headed off walking, and 10 minutes down the road came to a procession, oxcarts with their occupants dressed up in all their finery for a Novice ceremony. Win San said that when the boys of a village become novices, the families and other villagers hold this special ceremony for them. He said that it is not common in the city, and is becoming rare nowadays but is occasionally still held in rural areas, so I felt lucky to be able to witness it. The children looked more than adorable in their sequined costumes and make-up, the boys dressed up as little princes, all on horseback. I was fascinated observing this, and was hoping to get some candid shots of people but they seemed quite interested in watching what I was doing (fiddling with my camera?), and constantly smiled and waved! It was getting late, so we walked back to the bridge, 2kms of teak that crossed a river connecting two villages. The sunset was just breathtaking, and after I finished shooting pictures and walking around, we sat down at a little stand under the bridge and I had a beer, and treated Win San to a cola. Returned to the hotel around 6:00pm and I walked over to Lashiolay restaurant and had a good Shan meal for dinner (3400kyat, with 1 large beer).
Inquired at the hotel about transport to Hsipaw and they said the bus was 5000k but takes 8 hours. I decided to go by shared tax (15,000 for the front seat, 13,000 back seat, I chose the front) which only takes 5~6 hours.
Left for Hsipaw the next day at 9:30am, spending about an hour picking up people (3 others in the back seat) and various parcels before we ever got out of the city. The car was an 80s Toyota, one of those rust buckets that had a completely torn out interior (no radio/A/C, glove box, nothing) and you could see the road through the holes under your feet! Every time we hit a bump, little pieces of rust would fall into my lap! Stopped for lunch a few hours later and we were off again. The driver had to stop several times to buy more betel nut and also fill the radiator as it was constantly leaking water and overheating, and at one point near the end of our journey, he discovered the leak and patched it with a mashed banana! So 6.5 hours later, we arrive at the Yamin Shwe Zin (aka “Mr Kid”) guesthouse, and I bade my fellow passengers and betel boy farewell.
Simple but adequate guesthouse, and it was odd but this place had the hottest water I had experienced in a shower my entire trip, not bad for $8…Washed my face and set out immediately to check out the town, and walk to the top of “sunset hill” for some evening photos. It was a 10~15 minute walk to the top of the hill, and the view was amazing, would be even better in the daytime (in the evening everyone is burning fires for cooking, and it gets very hazy). After the sun had set, I went to find a restaurant, and saw a little stand that had a lot of interesting looking items cooking, and a place to sit inside. I ordered a bunch of food, whipped out the whiskey I brought with me, and had dinner. The owner of this place was super-friendly, and soon his buddies showed up, asking for “san eyah”, the local hooch. He scooped it with a ladle from a large, clay pot and funneled it into cola bottles! (In Shan, the owner said, the local hooch is known as “Lao!”) I shared my whiskey with the guys, and when that was done, we switched to the Lao. Two hours and several cola bottles of hooch later, I stumbled back to my guesthouse. (Don’t ask me how much I paid after consuming all that alcohol, but it was under 5000kyat!)
It was seriously chilly in Hsipaw, I was glad I brought all my clothes from wintry Japan with me to Hsipaw! (I left a bag at the hotel in Mandalay). The guesthouse had a lot of comforters on the bed, and I just crawled in and slept under the entire heap (3 or 4?). Very warm!
The next day I slept in (9:00 is late for me!) and then went out to explore. I walked through the town, investigating the morning markets, the fire station with fire trucks from the 60s (?), some ancient pagodas and a neat little temple with a collection of animal statues. Following the train tracks back to “The Road to Mandalay”, I passed the Hsipaw train station, then a nice monastery further up the road. I walked another 30 minutes on the street down to the turnoff, then through a couple of cemeteries, a smoldering dump, and the start of the trek to the falls began. It was a beautiful walk, and if I hadn’t gotten lost towards the beginning, I imagine it would have only taken me an hour to find the falls. (Plodding through ha field, I had to ask a guy tending his buffalo which way to go!) The falls were quite lovely, and I would imagine even more impressive when there was more water.
I was determined to catch a good view of the town from that hilltop so I went back towards town. Visited a couple of other pagodas on the hilltop, the scenery was just spectacular, and people hadn’t started cooking yet, so it was a clear view! I had dinner at “Akaun-che” a nice little restaurant near my hotel. Huge meal+beer 3800kyat. I had purchased a bus ticket back to Mandalay that morning (5000kyat) and I was to leave the next morning, so it was back to the guesthouse. I must’ve walked about 20 kilometers that day and was bushed anyhow!
Bus stopped in front of my guesthouse at 5:45am, and was packed full of people, yet it was as cold as it was outside (“heater broken”)! I froze my butt off until 8:30am, when he sun came out and it finally warmed up in there. The bus trip was very smooth and I arrived at noon, and hopped on a pickup (free) to get to my guesthouse. Spent my last day in Mandalay just walking around, absorbing the atmosphere (and a lot of exhaust fumes!), and walking all over town to find a CD shop to purchase a couple of CDs that some guys I met recommended. Had dinner at a great little restaurant (in the remodeling process) called “Too Too”. Some ladies my hotel showed up and asked to join me, but they saw my meal and whined; “ooh, too greasy”, “ooh, I’m vegetarian”, “ooh, I don’t like Myanmar cuisine”. Hmmm. Too many tourists I met refused to give Burmese food a chance, it is a shame as I think it is the best cuisine in Southeast Asia, and I never tired of it…I enjoyed my prawns, rice, soup, cauliflower, plate of vegetables, spicy paste (3800kyat) and whiskey, and then met my trishaw guy to take me back to the hotel (2000 round trip).
See pictures of the above on my flickr site here