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Map of the Mandalay Palace Complex

The seven-tiered tower at the entrance commands the view.

Margaret was feeling much better this morning – Yay!! We were picked up by the JJ Tours bus company (for Joyous Journey, M told me) and we took a bus from Bagan to Mandalay. The bus asked us for the address of our hotel and dropped us as close as they could. We had only nine blocks to walk. Still, it’s in the 90s here every day. Personally, I love the heat (not humidity), and after a couple days I was used to it. We also didn’t know the city, and had to cross the railroad tracks which took a while because we had to find a bridge first, then figure out the street signs till we were sure we were headed in the right direction. Dragging luggage nine blocks on busy streets with no sidewalks felt hotter than the 90s though. We were so relieved to find our hotel finally.

We dropped our bags, freshened up, and met in the lobby by 3:30 pm. There was a lot of day left. We caught a taxi to the Mandalay Palace. It was $4.50. I’m getting used to taxis for everything when it’s so inexpensive.

Entrance to the main palace building.

Detail in wood on all the buildings is elaborate.

The palace was built from 1857 to 1859 and the monarchy was in place when it was built. It was designed to be the center of the new capital city of Mandalay. The complex is an enormous square in the middle of the city, and surrounded by a fortified wall and a moat. There were cannons out front. The security is more rigid than anything we’ve experienced so far, with police/military meeting us at the front gate and asking us to turn over our passports and name our hotel before we could go in. Also, no photos were allowed in the grounds outside the palace area.

I included the map at the top to show how many buildings are here. The grounds are extensive and well-kept, and visitors are allowed to wander through all of it. The larger buildings are more decorated. Inside they contain several old thrones for different kings and queens. One building holds artifacts such as the royal betel spittoon, royal sandals, and a royal pot.

The royal sandals, Yak tail whisk, the royal dagger.

Inside one of the buildings at the palace.

More mirror adornment.

Life size replicas of king and queen on their throne.

More carved wood detail.

The buildings near the rear of the complex.

Fiery red in the setting sun.

We walked through many of the buildings, and came out again near the spiral watchtower. We collected our shoes and went back to our taxi, where two young swindlers tried to cheat us by trying to talk us into having them drive us to our other destinations. They were so sneaky, and so bad at it, we lost our patience and told them to forget it. For example, they quoted us 20,000 kyats at one point. So then one says, “Ok, I’ll give you a discount of 2,000. So the price will be 22,000 kyats.” Margaret said, laughing, “That’s going the wrong direction!” A fair price for what we wanted would have been more like 8000 kyats anyway. When they took us back out to the front gate, I handed over my 2000 kyats that we had agreed to in the beginning. “No, it’s four!” the tall one says. “You told me two,” I said. “But there are two people,” he counters, “Two thousand kyats for each of you.” “No way! We discussed it, and we agreed to a price of 2000.” Well, we went back and forth with those scheisters, and I finally gave in and handed over another 2000. We have not had anyone try any kind of manipulation this whole trip until these two. It’s only $1.50. But still. Ugh.

Margaret and me in one of our taxis. You ride in the back and it’s open air.

Young monks at the palace, with cellphones and sunglasses.

Looking across the moat toward our next stop: Mandalay Hill.

We were so mad we walked to our next stop. It was only a mile to the base of the hill we were about to climb. On the top of the hill is the Su Taung Pyae Pagoda, and apparently the place to watch the sunset. Many people gleefully told us there were 1700 steps to the top, which is 755 feet above the rest of the city. So. We started up the steps.

It was a pretty long haul. That’s a lot of steps in 90+ degree heat. We stopped for breaks and took photos of the city on our way up. There are a few smaller pagodas on the way up. And finally, we came to an escalator to carry us the last few feet. Since we had to leave our shoes at the entrance, I remarked that stepping onto the escalator in bare feet did not seem like the safest thing to do. At the second level, we walked around spilled blood on the floor, then passed an older woman as she had her toes bandaged. Right. Not safe to ride escalators in bare feet. Just sayin.

There were a lot of steps.

You can see the rooftops over the steps as they continue up the hill.

A view on the way up.

Inside one of the pagodas on the way up.

At the top the pagoda is beautiful and mirrored (which by now you know I like). There were people everywhere and the sun was setting, making the light a little bit magical. We walked all around the pagoda and talked with people and took selfies and had a fun time till the sun set. The sky was rather hazy and obscured most of the view, but turned the sun a bright red as it dropped to the horizon.

People waiting for sunset.

All these vessels contained drinking water. Not sure what the signs say, or what difference it makes, drinking from one pot vs. another.

This dude was really into his shot.

Setting up a great shot.

There it is! Sunset over Mandalay.

We left just a bit before sunset in order to beat the crowd. We had to wait in line at the elevator, and the queue was growing so long (and sunset not quite happened), that they reversed the order on the escalator, and had both elevator and escalator going down. Finally we got to the bottom, paid a donation to get our shoes out of the locker, and went out into the parking lot to find a taxi. After our last experience, we were afraid of being taken advantage of. The guy who took us was totally no-nonsense, and practically rolled his eyes when we tried to bargain. “Look,” he says. “It’s 5000 to take people to the bottom of the hill. You want to go to your hotel. That’s 10,000 total.” We asked, “How about 6000?” He just looked at us. “8000?” He rolled his eyes and gestured to us to get into the taxi. “The price is 10,000,” he stated matter of factly. Ha ha ha!! So funny.

I can’t help myself. The street views are still so captivating to me.

We were passed by lots of fire engines on the way back to our hotel. We saw at least five of them. Note the man in back is wearing a sarong. Is that safe? Will he change to other clothing before fighting fire? He will certainly put shoes on.

This place was packed nearly the whole time we were there. You can always spot Margaret’s blonde hair in a crowd here. Just below and to the right of her, you can see where the curb of the sidewalk is. All the tables in front of that are in the street! (Curt- notice the plastic chairs)

Delicious buffet from Shan State, a large region on the east side of Myanmar.

We were hungry and ate dinner at a place recommended by the hotel staff as having authentic Shan State traditional food. When we arrived, there were only a couple people there, though tables from the place were spread out onto the street. We sat down and ordered and before our food came, people started arriving. In no time, the place was jammed with people, and more and more arrived to grab take-out meals. Margaret and I were seated at a large table, and the staff asked if we would mind having others seated at our table with us. Of course not. A lovely young French couple sat down and we told them what was delicious on the menu. They were getting ready to go – not on a three day trek as we had done – but on a six day trek! Out in the western part, I think they said. “Where women tattoo their faces,” they told us. “Not many tourists go out to that region.”

Finally we walked home to Home Hotel (aptly named). What a day! Bagan in the morning; Mandalay in the evening. Full belly and comfortable bed. Life is good.

 

24-hour tea shop in Kalaw

The overnight bus from Yangon (craziest bus station ever) was due to arrive in Kalaw at 4:30 am. It was late and arrived at 5:30 am. I was grateful.

I mean, I wasn’t exactly sleeping, but at least it was dark and the intent was to sleep. My seat was in the back of the bus and all the luggage that didn’t fit underneath was jammed behind my seat so I couldn’t recline. And the air conditioning was blasting. I mean, full-on blasting cold air. What the heck? And the little air control thingies over my head were broken, so I was in the wind for about two hours till I found an empty plastic bag and shoved it into the hole. And the road was so rough – the worst in our entire trip. Margaret said she literally caught air on at least one bump. Maybe the worst bus trip of my life.

Despite all that, I actually think I slept a couple of hours. I had thought enough to bring my rabbit-soft wool scarf, and with that, added to the little blanket provided by the bus company, I managed to cover up completely. And we both used earplugs. That way I was a bit shielded from the light and noise and cold.

But at 5:30 we all had to disembark. Margaret had heard from the tour company that there was a 24-hour tea house nearby, and that we should wait there for someone to meet us. It was still dark and cold out, and we had a long wait.

For the next two hours I peeped through a window into a world of twenty-somethings engaging in devil-may-care life of travel around the world on $5 day. Margaret and I walked up the steps into a small room, floor and walls covered in white and blue linoleum, and lit – painfully – with fluorescent lighting. The room had three sides and the fourth was a half-wall and open air. And it was cold. There were a few low tables and 30 tiny plastic stools and heaped all over the place were young, beautiful travelers and their luggage. A vivacious redhead from Croatia caught our attention with her chatter, next to us two slender Italian women were trying to sleep on the floor (people stepped over them without blinking). There was a New Zealander, a Czech, Frenchmen, all crammed together drinking very bad instant coffee and smoking cigarettes. For a moment I was in Michener’s novel The Drifters, with all its young beautiful people traveling around the world with no specific plan beyond the day’s hopes and dreams. We were all meeting guides for treks, and we compared names of companies and how many days we would be out.

Guide from A1 Trekking carries our luggage from the tea shop to the company’s office in Kalaw.

My seat was facing into the room, and when I got up after a while and went out to pay for our wretched coffees, I was startled to see the pale blue dawn. Soon after, a person met us and led us to A1 Trekking in town, where we checked in and were immediately taken to an Indian restaurant across the street for our first meal with the company.

After breakfast we were told there was still time before departure, and that a market was setting up in the center of town we could explore while we waited. So we explored.

I am grateful that Margaret loves markets as much as I do. Who can resist the colours and textures and smells and sounds?

These fresh veggies trigger an instinct in me to want to buy them all and eat, eat, eat.

This woman twisted leaves into a wand to make carrying the coconuts easier.

Margaret (hands clasped in the chilly morning air) at the market in Kalaw.

Dried fish in heaps.

Pasta, beans, grains, and soup starters.

Bananas and bananas. The market in Kalaw was one of the best we saw during the whole trip. (Trust me I left out a ton of photos.)

We returned to A1 and it was time to go. We met our fellow travelers, Fumi from Japan and Lukas and Anna from Austria. There were just 5 of us, with our guide Hein, who grew up in Kalaw, and the cook. Some of the other companies take 15 people, we spotted one group later that looked like it could have been 18 people. A-1 has a policy of never more than six, to ensure a quality experience for each person. We walked out of town and directly onto a trail.

For the next three days we walked. That day to Hin Kha Gone and Myin Taik villages, through areas with the Paulaung and Dannu people.

Dried up terraces for rice paddies. Hein said they only have one season for rice per year because it gets so dry.

Left to right: Margaret, Anna, Lukas, Hein

While still in the forest we came upon a man herding cattle.

We stopped for a break here at the reservoir.

During our food breaks, Hein handed out a variety of local things for us to try. This fruit was pretty good. I don’t remember what it was called.

The view from our lunch stop.

Unused to walking so much, I was grateful when it was lunch time. We had a cook that traveled along with us, and damned if I can remember his name. But this young man made the most delicious foods and fed us very well, three meals a day, while we were out trekking. While he cooked, we explored the site.

The shop at our lunch stop. What you see here was pretty much the entire stock. Those “water” and “liquor” bottles you see on the left are petrol for sale.

My favourite toilet of the entire trip!! Everyone in the country had outhouses, and this one had an unparalleled view.

We could see a pagoda in the distance.

Hein encouraged us to walk over to the pagoda and monastery during our lunch stop, and down to the village below if we wanted to. And we did.

The village below the pagoda.

Me with some pretty obliging kids.

Off we went and finished up with some serious hiking. At one point we walked along train tracks, which is pretty hard if your natural gait doesn’t match the frequency of the supports beneath the rails. Lukas and I fell back, but it did allow me some shots of the others.

The others gain ground as I struggle with the awkwardness of walking on train tracks.

More lovely rice paddy terraces.

Work truck rumbles along the red dirt road.

Cute little house along the way.

Finally we reached our destination for the night, Ywar Pu village. We were surprised to find out that we were staying in the home of the village chief. The family stayed nearby, but gave up their beds for us that night. Our fabulous cook went to work and we took our chances bathing in the icy cold water of the family’s cistern. Then we walked around the property and the town till it was time to eat. The families contract with the tour companies, and get about $5 per night per person. They also sell water and Myanmar beer and… well… we were hot and tired and beer was just the thing! They probably earn as much selling drinks as they do on rent.

This was not where we stayed, but an example of a typical home in Ywar Pu village.

Our beds. You do not wear your shoes into this room. Each home we visited has a shrine like this.

Our cook in the kitchen, getting the flames hot for our dinner.

Catchment pool to the right, cistern (slightly out of sight behind the fence) to the left.

One of the family’s three pigs poses for my camera.

I had inexplicably slept poorly at the Golden Sunrise Hotel, waking up at 2:30 am and not able to sleep again. The following night I was on a freezing cold bumpy bus ride all night long. Trust me when I say this night in Ywar Pu, under all those blankets, I slept like a rock.

The Golden Rock from a distance.

Our day was primarily travel. We are aimed for the Golden Rock, or Kyaikityo Pagoda, well outside of Yangon. We are planning a trip up the mountain to see the balanced rock at sunrise. In the meantime, our goal was simply to get here. From what I read prior to the trip, there is little else to do out here aside from visit the rock.

From the hostel this morning, we walked 10 minutes to a travel agency and bought bus tickets for the day. To get there we passed through a marvelous market just steps from the hostel that we had no idea was there. I just LOVE these markets. They are so crammed with activity. People, food, rickshaws, trucks, and dogs, all jumbled together in this kind and warm environment where everyone is looking out for each other and ready to laugh together in a shared experience. I believe this loving community must be how no one dies amidst the ruckus.

Unlike my previous experience of east Asia, in Japan, here people stare directly at you and fully engage in acknowledging your presence on the street. A truck honks from behind, one of us yelps in surprise, and three or four people nearby laugh with us. A woman carrying a large tray of fried shrimp and spinach cakes tells me she likes my sarong. Her face is covered in the yellowish-white Thanaka lotion that most women and many men wear. Children, beautiful beautiful children – I can’t even express how beautiful they are to me with their dark hair and enormous eyes and trusting, open stares – wave and smile. These people are loving toward each other, often laughing, often with their arms around each other: men, women, adults, children, makes no difference. I have relaxed my own careful observance of others’ personal bubbles and reach out and touch people when I speak to them here, the same way I would with my friends at home. Only these are strangers, and they are completely comfortable with physical closeness.

Woman prepares betel leaf with Areca nut.

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Betel nut expectorant splashed on the road.

I haven’t mentioned the betel leaf that we see constantly. I have read about it often enough that when I saw it for the first time, I guessed right. Among the vendors of toys and food is always someone with a tray of leaves. They lay out the leaves, spread a thick white creamy liquid across them, sprinkle some kind of spice, then drop some chopped crumbles of the Areca nut. The leaves are wrapped up into a little packet. I haven’t seen anyone put one in their mouth, but I assume the whole thing goes into the mouth. Betel nut is a mild stimulant, like tobacco, and people keep it in their mouths and spit out the red juice. People who chew it have bright red mouths and teeth. Sidewalks are stained with great red splashes. The walls in toilet stalls are stained with red. Nearly all of our taxi drivers have opened the door and spit during a pause in traffic.

After we purchased tickets, we said goodbye to our lovely hosts at the hostel and walked out to the main road. We knew we were headed north, so we crossed the street to catch a taxi northbound vs. southbound. Crossing streets here is always an adventure, but we are getting used to it. Rarely are there crosswalks, and always there is congestion. In Yangon there are so many large vehicles that it catches our attention. Large, like USA large, and not something I’m used to seeing outside of the US. Very few motorbikes or bicycles, and way more vehicles than the infrastructure is prepared for. It’s always bumper to bumper and painted lanes are more of a suggestion than a rule. Someone tired of waiting might pull out into the oncoming traffic lane if no one is coming, in order to pass several vehicles and then cut back into the proper lane when oncoming traffic shows up.

Anyway, crossing a road is an adventure because one must walk right into the street and make a path. Just wait for a bit of a space between cars and go. People tend to wait and cross in clusters (safety in numbers!). It’s best when the cars have come to a halt because of a light, or simply because of congestion. Then people walk with no fear at all, bicycles, women holding hands of toddlers, weaving in between vehicles to get through. At first it’s unnerving, but after only three days, I’m so relaxed about it. Just step right into moving traffic, and everything kind of flows around. No one gets concerned. And voila! Soon enough you’re on the other side.

A taxi pulled over immediately and we asked him to take us to the bus station. It’s supposed to be a two hour drive. This man got us there in an hour and 15 minutes. Margaret was having a heart attack and I finally told her to stop watching! Me, I was having so much fun. The driving is simply astounding, the way vehicles swerve and merge and slow and speed up. I was constantly delighted. Our driver took multiple shortcuts, such as through the University of Yangon campus, to get around stalled traffic.

This wins the prize for craziest bus station.

Market behind busses.

You can see Margaret in there, waiting for the bus.

Thus, we arrived at our bus station with over two hours to kill. This is the craziest bus station I have ever seen, and I’m guessing it will hold that top spot for years. It looks as though many bus companies all have their offices side by side in a big square, all facing the center. As we had already seen in Yangon, vendors set up their stalls anywhere people might walk, which is an excellent business plan you have to admit. People walk through, busses occasionally drive through, honking to warn the people to get out of the way. So imagine a giant “U” of shop fronts that belong to a menagerie of bus companies. Then imagine a bus parked in front of them all, making a smaller U. And out at the front of the busses are some vendors, but between the busses and the buildings is a regular market. There are kiosks set up, and walking vendors carrying their wares will thread their way through.

Even though I ate all of my breakfast at the hostel, I was hungry. I wandered around and bought some cookies at a small shop, then bought some more green mango with chili powder. Out here the chili powder is coarser and you can identify the chili seeds, unlike downtown where it really is just powder. Yesterday we had purchased some avocados on the train, and I put the leftover chili powder on the avocado, which was delicious. I ate some roasted peanuts. Finally I felt full.

Our bus took off at noon. Another nice thing about a super friendly country: they look after you. At one point a kid came up to Margaret and me and told us it was time to get on the bus. He took my bag and stowed it, then asked for our ticket, which I showed him (written in Burmese so the information it held was lost to me). The boy led us to our seats on the bus. I was oblivious the whole time, but this kid was not an employee, just an entrepreneur. He wanted a tip and Margaret was at least savvy enough to figure that out. She gave him a few hundred Kyats (which is mere coins in US dollars).

The plane ticket to get to Myanmar was expensive. But balancing that out is that everything is unbelievably inexpensive once you arrive. Our rooms are cheap, food is cheap, transportation is cheap. Each day Margaret and I settle up the day’s expenses. We are splitting costs, but often in the moment it makes sense for one or the other of us to pay for both, like a taxi ride. It inevitably arrives at something like this, “Ok, I owe you 2500 kyats, let’s call it $2.”

Kin Pun is small and clean, with mountains in the background!

The bus ride was comfortable and clean and not that adventurous other than vendors selling stuff during stops. It’s still a bit weird for me: a guy hawking boiled eggs, for example. He was going down the cramped bus aisle selling chicken eggs and quail eggs to people for a snack. At one point the bus stopped and everyone got off. We had to ask other tourists what was going on. “Lunch stop!” we were told by the Germans. “How was Yangon?” asks Simon, from Denmark. BTW, every tourist seems to speak English. It makes me embarrassed.

We arrived, and Margaret carried her backpacks while I dragged my bag (I am clearly not as cool as the other tourists) less than a mile to our hotel. The town of Kin Pun is small and clean with red dirt. It feels more like home than the big stinky city of Yangon.

The Golden Sunrise Hotel is gorgeous. Landscaped and classy, with no trash in sight. The staff is all fluent in English. This is more English than I’ve heard since I arrived. I’m feeling distinctly spoiled.

Our rooms are here, on the second floor.

View from my room.

Restaurant on the grounds

Entrance lit up at night.

We are going to meet in the lobby at 5:30 am to pick up a boxed breakfast and then we will walk into town and find the “truck station,” where we will get a ride up the mountain to the balanced rock in time for 6:30 am sunrise. It’s a lot of time, effort, and expense to see a rock. Margaret likened it to Mount Rushmore, which I think is apt. The attraction itself is amazing. But the time, effort, and expense to get there is significant. And once you’ve seen the display, there is nothing left but to go home.

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