The early morning flight to Mandalay was our first in Myanmar, so there was a fair amount of uncertainty involved. The national flights terminal will certainly look familiar to seasoned travelers: small, basic, with signs in completely incomprehensible script and no announcements whatsoever. The novelty here, is that you put a sticker on your clothes at check-in, so they can tell whether you are cleared for boarding! There was a number of flights boarding at 6am, all “announced” with one guy carrying a picket sign with the airline logo. Primitive but it works better than in, say, Cuba where you are just guessing.
The aircraft was an ATR-72 in good condition and the service to Mandalay stopped in Bagan, which offered us a sneak peek at the area. Landing in Bagan right after the sunrise, means that you get a bird’s-eye view of the impressive landscape, scattered with buddhist temples, under an orange-blue sky full of sightseeing balloons that run their morning schedule.
I have to admit that it feels good to be a millionaire. I experienced this warm feeling that runs through your toes when I changed one thousand dollars for more than one million kyat at the Mandalay airport counter. Instantly I realized why our guide gave us two wallets as welcome presents the day before in Yangon.
About an hour later, we were in Sagain, 20 km away from Mandalay on the opposite bank of the Ayeyarwady River. First stop at the local market, one of the many to follow on this trip. Visiting the local markets was, after all one, of the reasons we came to Myanmar. I was surprised to see that we were the only tourists visiting at this time of the day, which made the experience even better. It is always exciting to walk local markets, anywhere in the world, it gives you a sense of getting in touch with the local life, you feel the vibes, you suck the smells, you emerge in the colors, and the more exotic the culture to your own, the more exciting the feeling. An added bonus, is that people in Myanmar are friendly and do not mind at all having posing for pictures. We ended up buying bananas, fresh coconuts and black sugar and refrained from buying a million other things. Nice.
A few hundred meters down the road is a pottery village with houses made of bamboo. The main activity here is of course, pottery. They make containers for storing water and food which are very popular all over Myanmar.
Sagain was the capital of Sagaing Kingdom (1315–1364) and briefly became the royal capital between 1760 and 1763, in the reign of King Naungdawgyi. Today it is an important religious and monastic center, with a large number of pagodas and monasteries crowding the numerous hills in the area.
We visited the thirty caves Pagoda, housing an impressive array of 45 Buddha images, the central Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda with a huge sized Buddha image and the almost abandoned Shin Pin Nan Kaing Pagoda. We had to climb 271 difficult steps under 35°C to reach the last one, but we were rewarded with spectacular views of the Ayeyarwady river and the bridge connecting the two banks.
After the pagoda-visiting frenzy, we took the way to Innwa (also called Ava) and Amarapura and crossed the river with a small wooden boat. We had lunch in an indifferent, tourist approved, restaurant, listening to the loud music coming from a nearby farewell ceremony for young novice monks and then we jumped on a colorful horse carriage to visit the area. I admit it pretty touristy, but arguably the best way to do the sightseeing, although not the most comfortable.
First stop at the old wooden monastery which offered the opportunity to watch a class of the monastic school housed here. Nowadays there is only one resident monk in this monastery and he is responsible for teaching the few young students that attend the daily classes.
The Yadana Hsemee Pagoda complex, a few hundred meters further, consists of brick pagodas that were destroyed by earthquakes and restored twice.
After a brief visit, to the old royal watchtower that leans slightly less than the Pizza tower, we visited the large Maha Aung Mye Bonzan monastery, a fine example of Burmese monastery architecture during the Konbaung dynasty. Also known as the Brick Monastery is a well preserved building in ochre color, decorated with stuccoed sculptures (more info here).
Next stop, at the Mahagandayon Monastery, home of more than one thousand novice monks that study the principles of the buddhist monastic life.
The peak of a full day, was none other than a visit to the famous U Bein Bridge. The wooden 1200m bridge across the Ayeyarwady River was built around 1850 and is believed to be the oldest and longest teak wood bridge in the world. The best way to enjoy the sunset is to hire a boat and we were lucky to get the most interesting character on the dock as our boatman. The experience is not to be missed, especially when visiting with your better half, as the romance meter can go well in the red zone. At least when you are not preoccupied with shooting pictures like there is no tomorrow.
A brief stop at the local shops to buy our longyis, a piece of cloth, worn around the hips like a skirt, by men and women alike. Actually the men’s and women’s versions are different, something I only discovered after doing some shopping. Men in Myanmar wear longyis almost exclusively. In the following days I managed to wear the longyi on a couple of occasions. It feels kind of weird, always fearing that it will drop in public but it offers a sense of freedom that you do not get when in trousers 🙂
Next: Mandalay (day 2)