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