Sunday 12 October 2014

More Stuppas, Pagodas and Buddhas in Myanmar (and wine)

Our last update was in Pyin U Lwin, where we boarded the train to Hsipaw. It was pretty busy at the train station, with all the locals waiting for it and also some tourists who wanted to do the same as we. Once on the train, we noticed that it is slightly different from the trains back home, well, the train was ok (good seats and lot's of space) but the track is rather bumpy. This sounds a bit strange since a train ride is usually not bumpy as a road, but this was! The train moves quite slowly through the hills around Pyin U Lwin, the coaches of the train shake from left to right and sometimes it feels like a roller coaster when train drops over some uneven parts of the track... So there is a reason why the train is slow and it takes 6 hours to Hsipaw. But after about 3 hours, we stopped at Gokteik where we had a great view to the viaduct over an about 111m deep canyon, definitely worth to see it! After it, the train continues through the hilly areas and you can pick up some food every now and then when the train stops at a station.

Train station
Posing local
Viaduct (no pictures allowed!)
Getting lunch at a stop
Once we arrived in Hsipaw, we got a lift to our accommodation where we planned our next days. The area around is a nice place with small villages, rivers and waterfalls, so we hired bicycles and explored it a little. But you have to be careful with the directions and maps given by the locals since they sometimes are not as accurate as you might expect, so we got lost some times on the road, but there is always somebody to help, finding the main road again. We visited 2 nice waterfalls (both with a short hike) and we also visited a place called little Bagan due to some old clustered stupas. Hsipaw is also known as a good place for longer hikes but it was too warm for us so we decided not to do any longer hikes into the hills, we rather spend another day on the bicycle to drive around and had nice drinks at Mrs. Popcorns garden (everyone goes there once!).

Waterfall in Hsipaw
Hiding Buffalo
Little Bagan
Mini Monks
The last highlight was the visit of the Shan Palace in Hsipaw, which is an old british style manor house. This was the place where the last Shan prince lived with his wife (from Austria) and their daughters until he got arrested by the military in the 1960's (and most likely killed as well). The house itself is not very spectacular, but the wife of the last prince's nephews, takes a lot of time to explain all the historical connections and pictures in the house. Very friendly and interesting!

Shan Palace
So after this morning stop, we had to wait for our night bus down to Inle lake. If you want to travel by bus in Myanmar, make sure that you have some warm cloth with you (yes, it's 35 degrees outside but the temperature in the bus can drop to 14 degrees!). Instead of changing the air-con, they actually distribute blankets to the people as well :-) so, we had a freezing trip to the Inle lake which took a bit longer than expected, since the bus driver did not know the way (we had to turn several times on the way). But finally, a bit stiff from the night, we were at Inle lake.

View to Inle Lake
So, what to do here? We had a hotel which features the only pool in Nyaungshwe (8km away from the lake) which was very nice to have. Besides this, it's a good place for hiring bicycles to explore the area (left side of the lake, right side of the lake) so pretty relaxed. And even better, just about 4 km out of town, there is a winery (Red Mountain Estate) which is producing fairly good wine (and which has a superb view into the valley).

Our Pool
Red Mountain Estate View
But one of the main attractions is Inle lake itself, with the local villages surrounding it. Since it was around full moon, we were even able to visit a festival that takes place in October where they bring some holy statues out of a pagoda and transport them on a boat to all the villages around the lake with a biiiig ceremony and lot's of boats (tourists and locals). Some of them use the traditional "one leg rowing technique" to move the ship forward. It's very colourful and interesting to see, but it starts early in the morning. After the early start, we visited some of the villages (some are very touristy, others are nicer to spend some time) and there are the unavoidable stops at all the local manufacturing places (silk and lotus weaving, cigarettes, silver jewellery, ...).

Ceremony at Inle Lake
One leg rowing
Ship with the statues
iMonk? taking pictures
The silver place was one of the better ones since we could see how the melt the silver right in the shop!
We also stopped at the pagoda where they take the statues from (except for the smallest one that has to stay at home!) and it's funny to see it, since it has no buddha shape any more at all due to all the gold leaves donated to it... it looks more like a golden snow man (somewhat). Also worth a visit was the stop in Inthein, where the host about 1'000 little pagodas on a small hill (and yes, there is about as many shops to buy souvenirs as well!).

Golden buddha statue
Inthein pagodas
Local village
river shopping
So, we spent one day on pleasant day on Inle lake, with lot's of different impressions.
We expected to take another freezing night bus to get back to Yangon, but fortunately, there is now a day bus as well which we prefered to take, so we could stay one extra day in Nyaungshwe (which means another stop at the winery!) before we left for Yangon. The ride was equally cold, but the bus was equipped like an air plane with tv screens in every seat, so we could watch some movies in the mean time.

Traditional fishermen
Monestary in Nyaungshwe
Back in Yangon, we had one major task to do: visiting the biggest pagoda in Myanmar, the Shwedagon paya. It sits on a hill not far from the city centre and it is a massive construction, surrounded with many small temples, pagodas and other holy things so it's an really impressive site (and full of people as well). So, we spent some time there before we changed the location for some night pictures of the pagoda (impressive as well) and we went for dinner at "Sharky's" which is run by a guy that worked 20 years in Switzerland (the desserts were just perfect! And there was good, real bread as well). After dinner, we went back to Shwedagon paya again, which was a good decision since it looks different in the night and it's less busy in the night.

Shwedagon at day
Shwedagon at dawn
Shwedagon at night
Buddhas at Shwedagon
This was the last stop in Myanmar and we took once more a plane to KL, where we stay in the same hotel as the last times, but this time in a "theme room" which is very pleasant. Now, there is just some days left in KL (shopping, what else?) before we hop on the biggest passenger plane A380 for our flight back (upper deck seat)!

Flight to KL
Theme room

Some more impressions:

Waiting for the train
Gokteik Viaduct
Waterfall in Hsipaw
Waiting Buffalo
Lunch in Hispaw
Traditional fisherman
Souvenir sellers on Inle Lake
Local drug store
Lotus leaves
Monestary in Nyaungshwe
Monestary in Nyaungshwe
Buddha in Nyaungshwe

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Stupas, Pagodas and Buddhas in Myanmar

We cached the night bus on mainland Malaysia (a comfortable one, but freezing cold!) and arrived in the early morning in the town connecting the islands with the mainland. It's just a bumpy boat ride (45 min) and then you arrive on the small island. As it is small, there is not much to do except for sunbathing, swimming, snorkelling, eating, etc. so we had another relaxing days there. But after some days, we had to leave again since we had the 25 USD flight back to KL (special offer from Malaysia Airlines) and we went back to our hotel in KL. We didn't do much in KL, we just had to stock up on brand new USD for Myanmar and the laundry was due to as well, so after 2 days, everything was set up to head to the Airport again (luckily in the afternoon since it takes about 1 hour to get to the airport).

We arrived in Yangon and had pre-booked a room which was right in the city centre. The centre is nice, so we spent one day exploring it, visiting some Pagodas and exploring some parts of it by foot. But since we will be back in Yangon, we did not visit the big and famous pagoda in Yangon so far, we'll do it on the way back.

Freedom statue
Train crossing the street in Yangon
Gold covered inside of the pagoda
So we left Yangon for Bagan, which is known for it's thousands of pagodas and stupas from former kings of Myanmar. It was an enjoyable bus ride of about 10 hours and we found a nice local guest house to stay in. In the evening, we also visited one of the high-lights in Bagan, the big Shwezigon-Stupa. It's a massive building which looks great at sunset!

Shwezigon in Bagan
Next morning, we rented some bikes to explore parts of the temple fields. It is actually amazing, how many stupas were built there over the last few hundred years, and most of them are in a fairly good state. Well, a lot of reconstruction work was done and not all of it matches the former style of the buildings, but nevertheless it's very nice. Usually, you get a very good view for sunset, if you climb one of the pagodas, but since a thunderstorm was approaching, we went back to town quickly and luckily made it before the heavy rain started! It was a very pleasant day.

In front of Htilominlo Pahto
Standing buddha
Ananda Pagoda
Gawdawpalin Pahto
The day after, we did exactly the same as the day before, but this time, we targeted the buildings a little bit further down the road. All buildings are within 10 or 15 km so you can do it by bike although it's very hot during the day, so it's not the best time to visit Bagan, but since it is before high season, there is not too many tourists around and you don't have to book hotel rooms in advanced and there are not too many others visiting the temples. So it's pretty relaxed at the moment.

Sulamani Pagoda
Looking for directions
Farmer at work
On the last day in Bagan, we rented an e-bike to explore the areas a bit further south of bagan (you can do this by normal bike as well, but they have these funny bikes, so we had to take one) and we set off quite early in the morning. Unfortunately, one of the e-bikes had a flat tire after about 2 km, so some friendly guy called the owners and they showed up with the repair kit and fixed it within some minutes. After this unexpected break, we were able to visit some of the major pagodas in Bagan and once we arrived at the southernmost part of it... we had another flat tire... same bike... so we had to call the company again and after a little while, they showed up again and fixed it for the second time. And after some issues starting the bike again (third call to the company) we were able to visit the rest of the temples. So, after 3 days of visiting buddhas, stupas and pagodas, we continued to Mandalay, a 5 hour bus ride away.

Pagoda field view
View to pyramid pagoda
Sunset view
Racing home on the e-bike
We arrived in the afternoon and we stayed in a fantastic hotel in Mandalay, with a roof top terraces, nice rooms and very friendly service. Due to the early time, we decided to have a walk around the royal palace in the city centre (which we thought is not too far away). So we started walking and kept walking for quite a while until we noticed, that the royal palace is rather big; it has a 2 km long wall on each side and since we had to walk to the other side of it, it was more than 4 km walking in the city. From the end of the palace, we climbed Mandalay Hill, the sun set view point for all tourists. Besides tourists, some local students show up there as well for practising English with the tourists, pretty funny though! Unfortunately, we could not get a taxi once we were back down the hill, so we had to walk back the whole way, but we squeezed in dinner so we did not have to leave the hotel any more once we were back!

Pagoda on Manalay Hill
Manalay Hill view
After our breakfast on the roof top, we got a taxi to the royal palace (we learned from the day before) so we could visit the inside of the palace this time. It was completly destroyed during WWII so it is just a replica but nice still. Since it serves as an army base, you can just visit a part of it and the rest is guarded by soldiers (which seems a bit strange). Next to the palace (3 km walk) there is some more pagodas to visit and some more buddhas to see (you notice that we have seen a LOT of buddhas and pagodas in the meantime). One of the nicest ones it close to Mandalay Hill and contains the "Buddhist Bible" written on stones. Each stone is covered with one stupa and it's therefore pretty amazing. In the afternoon, we were able to get a taxi which drove us down to the gold leaflet factory area. In this area, they produce very thin gold leaflets (by hammering them for about 6 hours) which are used to cover buddha statues and pagodas and even local people buy them to donate the gold leaflets to a holy statue or place. It's hard work to flatten the gold and even more difficult to cut them into squares and pack them... pretty nice to see.

Pagoda close to Mandalay Hill
Cutting gold squares
Flattening the gold
Preparing lunch in a bamboo stick
The distances are big in Mandalay, so we hired a driver for the next day do drive us to some other sights in the surroundings. This included the most holy buddha statue in Mandalay where people donated so much gold so far that the statue does not look very nice any more. We also visited some carving workshops and weaving shops (no, we didn't buy anything) and continued south with a visit of a monastery where about 1300 monks live. Luckily we were late for the "feeding" of the monks (they just eat once a day and queue for the food, so a lot of tourist go and visit the "feeding" to take pictures of the monks, which seemed a bit odd to us...) but we could still chat to some of them. Later, we went up a hill in Sagain where you have some more impressive Pagodas with buddhas and a very good view over the surroundings. One nice stop was Inwa, where you hop on a horse carriage which brings you to the interesting places nearby (yes, more stupas, pagodas, monastery's, buddhas). At the end, we stopped for sunset at the famous U-Bein (or U-Pein) Bridge, a wood bridge that crosses a shallow lake. It's a very nice spot for pictures, but not if there are too many people and there were too many people this day!

Gold buddha in Mandalay
Buddhas in Sagain
Buddha in Inwa
Our last full day, we organized a boat ride to Mingun, where some of the kings wanted to build the biggest pagoda in the world. He finally managed to build the biggest pile of bricks in the worlds (50 m high) which is an impressive pile of brick and you can actually climb it! It gives a good view to a very nice white pagoda and in between, there is one of the biggest bells in the world. It just takes half a day to see the main sights there but it's very relaxed and if you don't want to walk, you can catch a local taxi if you like to... And in the afternoon, we went to a bank to change some money. This would not be of interest at all but how the locals bring money (or get it?) was rather special. They unpacked a pile of money right in the entrance hall and stuffed it into some plastic bags... (we estimated about 100'000 USD in cash!!)

Mingun Paya (brick pile)
Big Bell
White pagoda
Local Taxi
Cash in bank
Next day, we left Mandalay in the afternoon for Pyin Oo Lwin, but before, we visited the U-Bein bridge in the morning and this time it was much nicer since there were hardly any tourists; so if you go there, it's better to go in the morning.

U-Bein Bridge
Tree next to bridge
Monk is passing the bridge
Pyin Oo Lwin is a small town with colonial background in about 1'100 m altitude so it's not too hot up there and it looks a bit like England. The main attractions here are the botanical garden (which you can reach by horse carriages), which was very green when we visited it and they have some smaller waterfalls in the surroundings, so we rented some more (old) bikes to visit them. Since the temperature is lower, the bike rides are more pleasant (but we had another flat tire). One of the water falls is not very high but it is used as a swimming pool for the locals (which is used heavily on the week end) and opposite they build a big pagoda (for a big buddha). Very nice.

Horse carriage
Pagoda in Pyin Oo Lwin
Botanical garden
Monks collecting donations
So now, we plan to take the train to Hsipaw, where we will cross a big bridge which is supposed to be the star of the train ride, before we continue to Inle Lake in the south. As we had some issues taking trains in other countries, we hope that everything will work out nicely! So we try to do another update either in Yangon or with a better internet connection in KL!

Slippery ground...
Construction site in Bagan
Monastery in Mandalay
Budda carving
Monks collecting donations