After our wonderful experience hiking from Kalaw to Inle Lake we were already sold on Myanmar, definitely my new favourite country! And we still had some of the main tourist destinations of the country to come: Mandalay, Bagan and Yangon.
Mandalay is the second-largest city in Myanmar and it was going to be the first ‘big’ city we were visiting. It’s probably one of the most evocative of any destination in Myanmar, mainly due to the famous poem by Rudyard Kipling (who only ever spent two days in Myanmar and not even in Mandalay).
From Inle Lake we took a minivan, which was surprisingly comfortable and 7 hours later we were in Mandalay. Conveniently we got dropped off in front of the hotel so we didn’t have to navigate through town. It was dinnertime and we found some nice street food near the hotel. It was street food, but with a large seating area and we got served by very young boys all between 12 and 16 years old. Later we found out that this is normal in the bigger cities in Myanmar, especially in the many teahouses. The boys often get sent to the big cities from all over the country to work in the teahouses and send the money they earn back to the village. They often live in the teahouse and don’t get to go to school. Not a nice sight to see basically child labour right in front of you and to participate in it (teahouses are really nice and cheap places to have food). But at least I felt we could give the boys a nice distraction from daily life whenever we visited. They got to practise their English a bit and if it was good enough we even were able to chat with a few of them.
Typical road scene in Myanmar. Our van was slightly less overpacked and no-one had to sit on the roof.
The next day we had a fairly busy schedule as we only had one full day in Mandalay. In the morning we went to an amazing wholesale market (Zay Cho market) where they mainly sold spices, textiles, household items, toiletries. As much as the many stalls and how cheap everything was amazed us, Harry’s height and our white skin amazed the ladies who run the stalls. Most of them just giggled and smiled at us as we walked past. Some of them were brave enough to touch my skin and say ‘beautiful’ and to jump to see if they could get as high as Harry’s head.
Zay Cho Market
From the market we walked to the King Galon gold leaf workshop. A big stop on all the tour groups that you see in Mandalay, as it was a right old parking chaos outside the place. We came by foot and without a guide so we just walked around but didn’t get the full explanation. Nevertheless it was very interesting to see. How they make the thinnest leaves of gold out of a solid piece. They just hammer it for hours and hours on end until it gets thinner and thinner. There are some men hammering and they make an awesome tune as they do it. A bit like a techno beat, here is the movie.
Someone’s laundry just randomly hanging on the side of the street.
Women at work at the gold leaf workshop.
In the late afternoon we had organized a taxi through the hotel to take us to the Mahamuni Pagoda and the U Bein bridge (apparently the most photographed sight in Myanmar). On the way to these sights, south of the city, our taxi driver stopped at the gas station asked if we could pay him half already so he could pay the petrol. We were a bit hesitant as what if the driver wouldn’t be waiting for us anymore at the pagoda and the bridge? But as it is Myanmar, I feel you can trust anyone and driving off wouldn’t even come up in their minds.
The pagoda was really quite nice, but as we had seen quite a few in Myanmar and Thailand we didn’t hang around too long. Besides, the main Buddha is only accessible for men who can apply gold leaf to it.
The enormous gong undergoing some restoration.
Young monks and nuns everywhere. These two were brave enough to ask for a picture with us.
When we got to the U Bein bridge I had a bit of a shock. All these tourists! Where did they come from? Most of them were retired people from the UK or US on their luxury tours through Myanmar or Chinese. The U Bein bridge is believed to be the oldest and longest teak bridge in the world! It’s 1.2 kilometers long and was built around 1850. I was a bit disappointed by the fact that most of the bridge was going over dry land and only a very short bit is going over the water, but this was probably because we were there during the dry season.
U Bein bridge
Sunrise (too early for us) and sunset are the most popular times to go here for the great pictures. And at sunset we were definitely not the only ones trying to capture that moment. It was stunning though and well worth it. I had to take pictures from the shore with all the plebs while the people on the luxury tour enjoyed it from a rowing boat with bubbles in hand… I can’t deny I was a little bit jealous, mostly because of the bubbles 😉 Of course we also walked across the bridge, which was an experience as well, I was convinced it could collapse any moment as it feels anything but stable.
The sunset at U Bein bridge (the people in the rowing boats sipping champagne).
Some people take taking the perfect picture very seriously.
Me on the bridge 🙂
In the evening we went to a lovely (and way above our budget) restaurant and it was quite far from the hotel. We walked there but after dinner I just wanted to take a taxi, as I was too full to walk… No taxi to be found anywhere! Then we saw one parked but no driver. I asked two guys playing badminton next to it where the driver was. They didn’t speak much English but asked where we wanted to go. I said the name of our hotel and they explained how to walk there. When I said I didn’t want to walk, next thing we knew we were in their car and they were driving us there. We got to the hotel and I wanted to give some money. But they absolutely did not want to take it and said; ‘it’s a present for you because we are so happy you are in our country’. Honestly, where in the world does this happen in a city with almost 1.5 million people where two tourists are too lazy to walk? Now we know for sure, the people from Myanmar are the nicest and friendliest in the world!
The next morning we took a bus to Bagan, only 5 hours away but probably the worst bus ride in all our travels so far! Don’t ever take OK Bus (it’s clearly not OK) from Mandalay to Bagan! It was a small bus with about 24 seats but absolutely no space for any luggage. This had to go in the aisle and at our feet. But as we stopped everywhere to pick up locals along the way, the luggage had to move from the aisles to on top of our legs etc. as people had to sit in the aisle. The rest stop was also horrible and I was sooooo happy when we got to Bagan.
OK Bus is not OK. Worst bus ride in the whole of Asia.
Bagan is famous for its big temple complex and the town is divided into 3 parts, Old Bagan (where you stay if you are really rich), New Bagan (not sure what is there) and Nyaung-U (the more backpackers town). We stayed on the road between Old Bagan and Nyaung-U and our guesthouse provided free bicycles, which was great!
The next day we didn’t do too much but in the afternoon we met up with Aoife and Liam, an Irish couple who we got to know on our Kalaw to Inle Lake hike. They had found an absolute gem of a café (Fantasia Garden) on the banks of the Ayeyawaddy river with an amazing view and delicious (and cheap) lemonade. The café also organized sunset cruises and with the four of us we did a private boat tour. It was so nice and good fun! We got to see some of the temples from the boat and went to a temple that was connected to a cave. And of course we got treated to a stunning sunset!
The view from Fantasia Garden.
Temples on the river bank.
Relaxing on the boat with the captain on the roof.
The Buddhism flag in the sunset light.
In the evening we went for dinner with Aoife and Liam at a very well known place for British people: Wetherspoons! Although it’s called Weather Spoon’s in Bagan and the food is much better. It was the best burger I had in a very long time.
We tried not to have a late night as the following morning at 5am we rented an e-bike (no motorbikes or scooters in Bagan) to see the sunrise over the temples. Painfully early but an absolute must-do in Bagan. Nearby our guesthouse was one of the most famous temples, Shwesandaw Pagoda, for sunrise and sunset and we heard it gets very overcrowded so we tried to find an alternative. Online I found a ‘secret’ temple (Lawkaoushaung) and yes, when we got there we were the only ones. But very soon, more and more people started to arrive and it got really quite busy. What annoyed me most were the people who hid the ‘do not climb’ sign and climbed up to the top level and on to the little towers of the temple. So rude and disrespectful! No wonder that they allow to climb less and less temples. Besides that it was actually quite busy, the sunrise was spectacular! Especially when all the hot air balloons take off and you get to see the famous Bagan scene.
The not so secret temple we went for the sunrise.
Worth getting up early for: The famous Bagan sunrise!
Shortly after sunrise, great light for temple pictures.
After the sunrise we went back to the guesthouse for some breakfast and rest. We then got back on the e-bike to explore some other temples. It was quite difficult to drive around as the roads were like beach sand and the e-bike kept getting stuck or falling over. So we actually didn’t drive around too much but luckily you don’t have to go far to see a lot of temples. For the sunset we did go to the most famous sunset temple, Shwesandaw Pagoda, as it’s famous for a reason. We went early and as we arrived it wasn’t too crowded but soon it was packed and I was a bit scared that someone would accidentally push me off, as it’s so steep. The sunset was great but neither of us managed to take a nice picture, as there were too many people in front of us.
E-biking around in the loose sand.
One of the many temples.
Three generations of temple-keepers and Harry.
Climbing the steep steps up to the different floors of the temple.
And we were not the only ones…
On our last day in Bagan we went back to the café on the riverbank where we just chilled and enjoyed the views. For lunch we met up with Elske (who we had met in Hpa-An) and her mom who joined her for her last weeks of travelling. In the evening we took the night bus to Yangon.
Fresh lemonade with a view at Fantasia Garden cafe.
Upon arrival at the Yangon main bus terminal at around 6am, we experienced for the first time taxi drivers that were waiting for us and trying to get us into their taxi. They even asked almost triple the price. This is normal anywhere else in Asia but unheard of in Myanmar. But they are not that experienced yet, as we just laughed and said the price a taxi ride to the city centre should be and then the driver said ok straight away. No haggling and endless negotiating needed, so refreshing!
Our hostel was located in a nice and quiet area really near a famous teahouse that does lovely, cheap food and of course coffee and tea. We went there for some breakfast and waited a little bit until we could check-in. Once we were checked-in we just crashed and fell asleep for most of the day. Oops! In the evening we went to a very western (and overpriced) pub/restaurant where they showed the Six Nations rugby and I didn’t see a single Burmese person, except the staff.
Fully rested we went exploring the next day. We walked around the town and visited the Bogyoke Aung San market. It’s a huge bazaar with beautiful colonial architecture and inside cobblestone streets. The market was opened in 1926 and used to be called Scott Market but was renamed after the Independence in 1948. As I was going home to the Netherlands for a one-week surprise visit after Myanmar, I could actually buy things! That makes a market so much more fun! For months have we been going around markets that sell the most amazing things but never bought anything as it doesn’t fit in our backpacks and we don’t want to carry it around all the time. The prices at this market are also really good and the salespeople all asked really fair prices and some negotiating was possible, so I bought lots of great souvenirs. The rest of the day we just wandered around and took it easy as it was very hot.
Bogyoke Aung San Market.
Traffic is really bad in Yangon and no motorbikes allowed.
We passed the Minister’s Building on our wander through Yangon. This was the home and administrative seat of British Burma. Beautiful building!
Nearby the Bogyoke Aung San market was another more local market that was closed the day before but we went back to, as I wasn’t done buying souvenirs. Here the prices were even lower and it was fascinating to see all the things on offer. Yangon is quite touristy compared to other places but at this local market, we were the only tourists and everyone wanted to say hello. Harry also bought a traditional longyi (known as lungi in India) and he actually wore it. Almost all men in Myanmar wear a longyi in their daily lives; even in Yangon and you don’t see many men in trousers so Harry didn’t stand out that much. Lots of people came up to him to say how much they liked it.
In the afternoon we went to Yangon’s most famous pagoda, the Shwedagon Pagoda. A little bit pagoda-tired after seeing so many in Myanmar, we weren’t sure about it. But I’m so happy we did go and see it. It was definitely the most beautiful pagoda in Myanmar! Nearby the pagoda was the Kandawgyi Park where we spent the rest of the afternoon just relaxing and enjoying our last day in this amazing country.
Shwedagon Pagoda. So much shiny gold it hurts your eyes.
Buddha being polished.
You need sunglasses to look at this picture.
Harry showing off his longyi in Kandawgyi Park.
The next morning began the long trip home for me, first to Bangkok, change airports and wait a long time and then via Dubai to Amsterdam to surprise my best friend for her birthday. Harry flew to Bangkok as well and from there took the bus to Pattaya to start a 10-day sailing course to become a yacht skipper/crew.