Plenty of tea, fruit juice and a delicious egg pancake surrounded by Mandalay’s early-morning business people at Shwe Pyi Moe cafe started my day, and then I hopped into my hired taxi for a day around Amarapura, Saigang and Inwa, former royal capitals. My driver called himself Poe, and was a heavy-set tall man in his 40s with a kindly face and spoke good English. He wore a jacket with a big ganja leaf on the breast pocket and on the back, and a dark blue, green and crimson longhii. We exchanged pleasantries, then we were off through the drizzly streets of Mandalay.
“A cloudy day. Hope you lucky and get sun, then see beautiful sunset at U Bein’s bridge”, Poe said, and his words brought good fortune, for the sun began to slowly break through the clouds until it was a glorious, cloud-free sunny day by mid-afternoon. The first stop on our tour was supposed to be the monastery, but it was too early for monk-hunting with a camera, so we popped into a place where they made lovely embroidered pieces of art and puppets instead. I was alone at first, free to browse around the interesting workshop, see the puppets and wooden masks on display, and the embroidered works of art, as well as purses and bags made at the shop. A group of women were sat cross-legged sewing a huge piece of work. Suddenly, 2 coach loads of middle-aged French tour groups burst in, and the ambience was shattered by the clicking and flashing of cameras and the excited, gesticulating gabber of foreign tongues. From here on in, the number of tourists were to swell to uncomfortable levels around the main sites. Burma has indeed ‘opened up.’
Poe and I drove on to a workshop where they made longhiis. Poe told me that it takes 4 women working 8am – 6pm two months to make a good quality longhii, a ‘smart’ longhii worn by the rich of Mandalay. This particular workshop made longhiis for Myanmar’s movie and pop stars. I walked around, witnessing first hand child-labour, as kids as young as 10 seemed to be working the spinning machines, bored looks on their poor, uneducated faces, a future in a longhii workshop earning a pittance guaranteed, but little else. The French were here too, joined by a league of Germans, and the workers tried their best to continue their work like animals in a cage, as blinding camera flashes went off in their faces.
I popped into the shop next door to try my hand at wearing a longhii. They are comfortable things, something that David Beckham could make fashionable in England and make the fashion victims look like fools – like the sarong times. English men can’t pull it off, and I wasn’t to be duped into buying one. Only Scottish men can get away with wearing such things. I suddenly wondered if Poe wore anything under his longhii. The thought caused me to dry-retch briefly, and I decided to look at the silk scarves instead.
Poe and I drove on now to Maha Ganayon Kyaung, a Budhist Monastery, home to a thousand young monks, and about 1 million European tourists by the looks of it. Huge coaches were everywhere blocking the road, and Poe gave up trying to park, asking me to jump out and meet him later. I walked with the throngs of tourists, not quite sure why so many were here in the sprawling monastery grounds. Then I saw the reason. Hundreds of young monks were lined up in two rows, shiny black vase-shaped bowls in their hands, waiting to go to the huge dining room to eat, hungry looks on their smooth light brown faces. Flanking the monks, jostling for space, were a about a thousand tourists, all with their weapons aimed at the poor monks, who were blinded by the constant flashes. It was as if Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were walking the red carpet the oscars ceremony. It reminded me a little bit of the ‘tunnel of death’ from my school days, where, if you missed a penalty in football, you had to run through a human tunnel of rogues who kicked you as hard as they could until you broke through the the other side, battered and bruised. The monks looked as I did on those days, and I could see they were wishing they could just run away from this circus.
I walked around the monastery grounds, peaceful and with no tourists, and saw the monks returning to their rooms with their bowls full of food. A group of young children sat begging the monks for some food as the monks walked past. Most monks ignored them, but some kind-hearted chaps threw them a bit of bread and some fruit, which the kids put into their pockets for later. I saw the ‘kitchen’ where they prepare all the chicken for the monks, and I swore never to eat chicken again. I left with some nice photos and Poe was waiting to take me onto Saigang.
To get to Saigang, the capital of an independent Shan kingdom in 1315, we had to drive across the Ayeyarwady river on a new bridge, and the views of Saigang Hill and it’s 100 pagodas and 1723 monasteries gleaming in the sun was very impressive. Poe stopped outside the southern stairway leading up to the gilded 97ft-high stupa of Soon U Ponya Shin Paya. The climb up was tiring, but oh-so-worth-it, the wide balcony at the top offering impressive views of the surrounding stupa-studded hills and the Ayeyarwady river. I sat for a while, read something, reflected on life, observed monks coming and going, mingling with tourists. A serene scene.
The next stop on our tour was Inwa, Burma’s royal capital for over half of the past 650 years. To get to Inwa, I took a ‘ferry’ for K1000 return, and it took 2 minutes to get to the other side. Suddenly, I was transported from busy roads to what resembled an old rural backwater of fields dotted with the odd stupa, dirt roads, and horses and carts trundling around. It was lovely. I had lunch at one of the two restaurants near the river, and the waiters looked surprised when I asked for a table for 1, the place being very popular with tour groups. For some reason, they prepared a special table in the field behind the main eating area, and served me like a king, much to the amusement of passing troops of old European tourists on organised tours. I sat and enjoyed a leisurely lunch, watching the horses and carts rumbling around, and reading Burmese Days.
After lunch I walked through a small village where the children came up to me curiously and were amazed when I showed them their photos on my camera. Everywhere the people greeted me with big smiles and ‘Mingalaba’ which means ‘hello.’ I was beginning to see the genuine friendliness of the Burmese shine through. I strolled through vegetable fields to Maha Aungmye Bonzan, an 1822 royal monastery temple of stucco-covered brick. Bats roosted in here, as it’s thick walls provide a nice cool sanctuary from the sweltering sun. From here, I bargained with a local in a shop to get a ride on his motorbike to some of the other main sites. We agreed on K5000, then we were off through gorgeous fields to the beautiful 1834 teak monastery, Bagaya Kyaung, supported by 267 teak posts. It was like a grander version of the one I saw in Mandalay. I was lucky to get there before the hordes of tourists arrived – my motorbike driver had done a good job of racing past the horses pulling carts stuffed with overweight tourists on the rocky road there – so I had the place to myself for 5 glorious minutes. Inside the monastery it was lovely and cool, and I saw some young monks studying maths together. Like the monastery in Mandalay, I could see as I treaded on very creaky floorboards and stepped over holes big enough for a child to fall through, that this place was a death-trap, an accident waiting to happen. But not today.
On the way back towards the river we stopped at Yedanasini Paya, a small place with a few brick stupas and a couple of locals selling ‘razor-blade’ paintings. It provided some nice views over the corn and rice fields, and I could see buffalo ploughing the fields with farmers directing them, the old-fashioned way fitting perfectly with the ancient feel of Inwa.
I got back to the riverbank to get the boat back across to where Poe was waiting to take me to the final stop of the tour – U Bein’s Bridge back in Amarapura, the world’s longest teak footbridge, spanning 1300 yards across Taungthaman Lake. I walked across half of the creaking old bridge, which everyone from monks to women carrying baskets on their heads to men cycling across on old bikes seemed to use. I got down at the halfway point as the sun got lower and lower. The sunset here, behind the bridge, was nothing short of spectacular, the sort of sunset you see pictured in magazines like National Geographic and think you’ll never see. As the sun lowered itself without protest into the lake, it glowed shades of orange and red, framing the teak bridge, the fishermen standing in the lake, the boats passing back and forth. It was truly a magical scene, and ranks amongst the best sunsets I’ve ever witnessed. I walked back along the bridge as the sun threw up it’s final splashes of pinks and purples into the wispy clouds, and got talking to a monk and his friend who were sat on the bridge enjoying the scene. Then I headed back to the car and headed back to Mandalay. I tipped Poe K2000, he only gets K5000 a day, and headed to a Western-style restaurant for a spicy rice meal with a watermelon juice. Exhausted, I headed back to the Mandalay View Inn. At reception I picked up my boat ticked to Bagan leaving the next morning, and arranged to share a taxi to the jetty with a Spanish couple who were doing the same trip, leaving at 6:15 am. Then I returned to my room, more than tired and more than satisfied. It had been a very good day around Mandalay.