Wandering around Yangon, Myanmar’s mythical capital

Five days in Myanmar’s chaotic capital, Yangon, provided us fascinating insight into the city and country’s present (and hopeful future). In other ways, we left feeling like we barely scratched the surface of this rapidly-changing metropolis…

Like Mandalay, Yangon has a history that, even by New Zealand standards, doesn’t stretch back hugely. Although existing as a village for far far longer, it didn’t become Yangon until King Alaungpaya conquered central Myanmar and built a port city there, from 1755. But the city was flattened by fire in 1841, and destroyed further during the Anglo-Burmese war of 1852.

After this time, with the British now in charge, a new city grid was laid down and a bustling colonial centre constructed. Migrants poured in, especially Chinese and colonial bedfellows from India, and the early twentieth century city’s ethnic mix was actually majority Indian for a time (although, despite the benefits of this diversity we’d today celebrate, it should never be forgotten that the British encouraged this primarily as a divide and conquer tactic, to dilute the power of the Barmar majority).

But there’s no getting around the fact that yet another fascinatingly dynamic and complex urban mass emerged from this history. A lot from this period – both impressive and crumbling – remains standing today, providing a veritable visual feast for visitors. Downtown Yangon actually feels and looks in many ways like a less chaotic Kolkata or Mumbai: the unique mixture of architecture, street markets, religious buildings, people; the heat, smells and noise. There’s Chinese temples and storehouses, mosques and Hindu temples, and, just like other British colonial cities, a synagogue and Armenian church!

The unique feature of Yangon’s urban form comes from its grid, with long narrow streets running perpendicular to the waterfront, designed to allow a breeze to filter uptown. Main roads cut across them east-west, creating a situation where each street is further subdivided into upper, mid and lower blocks. Many streets, blocks, have specific industries and identities. A book I’m reading at the moment brings this to life in wonderfully descriptive detail:

“Here on the corner, you can find a great local barber at the Thiri Mon; antique chairs and a cut-throat razor shave for 1000Ks…A bit further along, Mr Myant Thein proudly acts as host at his Penang Restaurant, where he’s been serving excellent Myanmar Muslim food for twenty-five years…Next up is World Star Antique Shop, once overseen by an owner who seemed intent on showing no interest at all in selling his goods. There were treasures here, such as British made antique Berkefield ceramic water filters…”

– Bob Percival, Walking the streets of Yangon

Although undoubtedly an energetic metropolis, Yangon’s infrastructure is seriously creaky. Multiple power cuts per day – on, off….on, off; even our hotel’s generator was taken out at one point – and chronically congested traffic make the experience just that little bit less accessible than you’d want of a big city.

The main bus station is impossibly impenetrable, more like a neighbourhood of streets, and is situated on the city’s northern outskirts. Once you’ve negotiated your way through the taxi mafia – Lonely Planet describes the city’s drivers as the most honest and courteous in Asia, to which I say hah! – you’ve got a long, hot, possibly hair-raising ride ahead. There appear to be bus/minibus options to/from downtown…who knows? Best you get a SIM use the local version of Uber to ‘grab’ your rides wherever you need to go.

The creakiness extends to downtown, too, which is truly shabby chic, but firmly on the shabby side. This is no gentrified city, yet anyway. Although wistfully melancholic, many buildings look perilously close to the point of being unrecoverable, the result of decades of, how to put this politely, ‘underinvestment’ by the military government. It’s left the city (the country, really) in a race just to get back to the surface, let alone soaring above the stagnant waters of inertia.

(As always, though, there’s two-speeds of economics going on, with some places being transformed, while much else remains as it ever was.)

But, in spite of all this, Yangon has that magic ingredient – intrigue – that makes these cities so interesting to experience. It’s just an interesting place to be in, to walk around its streets and make sense of its buffet-like range of signifiers, each a window into a different characteristic, a different facet of the story.

Of course it wouldn’t be Myanmar without a pagoda or ten, and Yangon is no exception. In Myanmar pagodas (Buddhist temples) are called paya, and the holiest is one around which the city was laid out.

Shwedagon Paya is one of Buddhism’s most holy sights, and the original pre-Yangon village was built around it. The pagoda contains eight of Buddha’s hairs as well as relics from three other previous Buddhas. Legend has it that two merchant brothers met Buddha 2,600 years ago, and were given the jewels from his head (presumably it was head hair) to bring back to Myanmar. King Okkalapa enshrined them in a temple, and one has stood in this place ever since. It’s worth pointing out that archeologists disagree, dating the first stupa back to the Mon period, between the sixth and tenth centuries.

Either way, it is without doubt one of the country’s more remarkable paya, and we spent a great deal of time inching our way around the complex, watching the throngs of people praying and making offerings at the large number of adjacent halls, temples and birth day images. In fact, aside from the neighbouring Maya Wizaya, it was the only one we visited whilst in the city.

(Maya Wizaya was built in the 1980s and is notable for being one of the few you can walk inside, where you’ll find fake trees crawling up the sides, leading to fantastical depictions of constellations. Quite unique.)

I left Yangon wishing I could have spent longer there. There’s a lot to see and much we didn’t get to experience: parks, museums, neighbourhoods, paya; even downtown felt barely scratched. Alas, however, our visas were up and our flights back to Thailand booked. It was time to move between borders once again.

(Full disclosure, though: our Yangon experience was quite unlike the other places we’ve visited to date. We have friends there, you see, part of the expat community providing knowledge and expertise to assist in the country’s continued development. We spent the last day of our first visit with them, being absolutely treated to a five-star brunch buffet, one whose sheer scale made my eyes spin around like a stunned cartoon character.

On our return from the South, we stayed with them, and spent our final weekend chilling, yarning, eating, and learning about their lives as a gay expat couple in Yangon. These experiences undoubtedly influence the desire of return, the desire to better see and know the city; perhaps I feel like I didn’t get there, yet, not in the usual fashion of our meandering, anyway.)

Caves, temples and lush landscapes in Southeast Myanmar

With our Myanmar expedition drawing quickly to a close, we only had time for a couple of quick stops in the lush countryside southeast of Yangon. Still, we managed to fit a fair whack into four days.

‘Scruffy’ Hpa-An

Our first stop was six hours away, Hpa-an, the capital of Kayin state. In reality a pretty small, scruffy town, its nonetheless pretty riverside location was not the reason for our visit. We were there for the surrounding countryside, full of villages, caves and karst hills.

With only a day to spend, we quickly signed up for what turned into a very long day of sightseeing. We were away by 8.30am the next morning and not back until after 7pm, puttering around in a very slow open-air share taxi, pulled along by a motorcycle (we were seven people; us, couples from France and Denmark, and the driver). It was, at least, a good way to see the countryside: slowly. Well slow enough to say hello to villagers as we puttered on by.

It was also a day of many sights; some were magnificently epic, and some were more historically/sacredly important.

Saddan, football stadium-sized, apparently, although I don’t know who’s doing the measuring, was an example of the epic. Replete with Buddha images at its entrance, before disappearing into winding blackness, festoon lighting, squealing bats and ‘cathedral-high’ stalactites, it had a bit of something for everyone! At the other end you emerge into serene countryside, from where ‘fisherman’ will gladly glide you through a second watery cave, and you then walk back around.

Yathaypyan cave, at the other end of the day, provided a similar experience in terms of scale, with expansive countryside views the payoff for persevering through darkness and rocky terrain barefoot (these are temples, remember).

Kyauk Kalap and Kawgun cave are significant in different ways. Kyauk Kalap is a pagoda that sits atop a skinny finger of sheer rock that protrudes straight up out of a(n albeit artificially constructed) lake. A monastery and temple sit nearby and the whole setting is so serene and peace-inducing you can’t help but not calm the hell down. A photo display inside the temple, showing rituals and festivals, indicate its importance as a sacred place.

Kawgun cave provided the day’s historic ‘wow’ moment. Dating from the seventh century, the path leading up to and inside the cave is lined with thousands of Buddha images. Regrettably, a few years ago, a cement company blasting through rock caused some to crack and fall off; fortunately, it is still a stunning sight.

The day ended with a surreal ‘wow’ moment, as we watched literally thousands of bats stream out of a cave. We arrived as dusk was falling, poking our heads in the cave to see how workers spend their days collecting bat shit to sell as fertiliser; the smell was unimaginably overwhelming. We lasted mere seconds before backing out and climbing to a viewing platform beside it, to settle in and wait.

Luckily the bats took their sweet time, so long in fact that the light was fading and the now group of backpackers seated at the top began to fall away, worried about it being too dark to find our way back down.

We arrived at the bottom just in time to see them swarming out overhead. Where I’d imagined lots of screeching and squealing, a real circus orchestra, it was instead like a silent rushing river of featherweight flapping; on and on and on and on. It was a surreal moment; we collectively gasped and expressed awe at a completely new experience; it was a fitting way to end our short time in this beautiful part of the country.

Unfortunately my camera battery died, so this is not my pic

The next day we jumped a further two hours south, to Mawlaymine (Moulmein), which was the first colonial capital established by the British. You can immediately see its appeal, sitting as it does at a strategic bend in a wide river system. It’s lush, it’s green, and a row of pagoda-topped hills overlook the small city. It’s a romantic setting that, currently, isn’t doing a great job of telling its story.

Supposedly the city has colonial era charm, buildings, churches and mosques, and old communities. It’s somewhat true. It certainly has the feel of an old tropics town, full of intriguing stories and histories of those drawn here in days gone by. But the historic jewels are presently camouflaged. It’s like all the pieces of the product are there, but someone just needs to put them together in a way that visitors can access. At the moment you have to essentially root around mapless.

Nonetheless, wandering along the hills, taking in the pagodas and views below, and then strolling down for a scootch around was an easily enjoyable way to pass an afternoon. The pagodas alone are stunning, and we’re kind of experts in mapless meandering at this point!

Otherwise it was again the countryside that was a key reason for our visit, this time to see the world’s largest reclining Buddha, and to climb a wee hill. We set off on scooters the next day, accompanied by Audrey from France, who tagged along for the ride.

Buddha sits ‘draped across green hillsides’ and is surrounded by a ‘forest of other pagodas and shrines’. In reality, the setting is nowhere near as serene and beautiful as those descriptions might have you believe. It is, or is well on the way to, becoming a kind of Disneyfied tourist theme park, Burmese-style. Nonetheless, it was still a surreal experience.

Where I’d anticipated a 570 foot-long hollow structure, with a moment of ‘wow’ as you entered, instead Buddha is actually filled with rooms, so many rooms, with each recounting scenes from (presumably) Buddhist texts that get progressively more violent. Further, the more you ventured away from the entrance, the less complete they were, until you reached where Buddha’s reclining arm will be, and effectively were in a roofless building site. It was all rather strange.

We moved on to a more straightforward experience: climbing Kyauktalon Taung, a pretty steep, craggy hill rising from the flat agricultural fields around it. A plenty sweaty scramble, the summit as always afforded stellar views, and an unexpected cave at the bottom an added free gift with purchase.

For our final stop we visited the Pa-Auk-Taw-Ya monastery. One of the largest in the country, it covers 513 hectares of lush woodland setting, and is peppered with all things monasterial. It was lovely to ride through and to get an idea of what all those sparse and abstract ruins we’ve visited this year would have actually been like in their heydays. Further, Audrey wanted to visit the meditation centre, and I’m so glad we did; it was another completely new experience.

Ascending the steps to the centre, which is effectively a large two-level wooden structure consisting of two halls, signs warn you to respect the sanctity of the place by maintaining silence. So you do. The upper meditation hall, stunning as it is with glossy wood panelling, was a standard temple affair, all lit up with a Buddha image at one end. A few monks were sitting in quiet contemplation.

The lower level though was in darkness and, peering through the open windows, all you could see were ghostly orbs of monks and meditators, sitting completely motionless under mosquito nets with the outside light passing through them. It was totally silent and totally calm, and was quite eerie, although not in a menacing way. It was one of those moments where you have no prior experiences to call on to make sense of the scene, so you just drink it in as it is. All you can be is grateful for the privilege of having such unique experiences. And so you are.

Myanmar’s tourism highlights II: gliding on Inle Lake

I was not expecting to find myself smoking a cigar on Inle Lake, but there you go. When in Rome and all that. One of the last stops on our day trip, the cigar factory was a fascinating lesson in what goes into them (tobacco, obvs, but also spices, local honey, alcohol and so on) and how they’re wrapped in local cheroot leaf and fitted with a filter made from corn husk. All natural. And so, surprisingly, I found myself enjoying the distinctive taste of a star anise cigar.

The longboat tour is the quintessential Inle Lake experience. Yes it’s contrived: the stops at little lakeside industries, the ‘fishermen’ that we were later told only come to life as the boats float by, like some kind of tourist-operated animatronic, the floating market that is essentially complete gimmick (the real local markets take place in the villages that surround the lake). But, like most things in life, you take the good with the tack, and if you accept it for what it is, then it’s quite enjoyable.

Besides which, it does provide interesting insight into local cottage industries, such as the cigars, and also silver making process, weaving and making fabric from a silk-like residue from lotus stalks (who knew?).

In between these is when, floating around, you catch glimpses of daily life on the water: the wonderful array of produce grown on or basically in the water; the huge operations that collect seaweed used as a natural fertiliser*; the rhythms of daily life where houses are perched above a liquid earth and longboats are cars, buses and taxis, gliding through liquid roads.

The entire area has a rotating market that works on a shifting five-day schedule. People from local hill tribes, villages and towns come from all over to buy and sell goods and produce. The day before, it happened to be in Nyaung Shwe, the main tourist town, so we’d already had our fill of market action.

Thus, we skipped it entirely and siddled around to the village of Indein instead. Around the heavily touristed village lie a number of old (but not ancient) crumbling stupas; I don’t think we were quite expecting the numbers of stalls and restaurants and tour touts that greeted us.

No mind: the real reason to visit is the 1,054 stupas (in better condition) that sit at the top of a hill. Beyond that, a slightly hidden track leads to a further stupa from where you are afforded magnificent views of the lush countryside. Local kids will probably show you while simultaneously asking for money; otherwise you just scrub around. The stupas are also fascinating, with many now renovated using donations from refugees/migrants who emigrated overseas and did well.

The standard day trip also includes another couple of important stops.

History seeps out of the dark wooden walls of the ‘jumping cat’ monastery. There are no longer jumping cats though, with our feline friends these days preferring to lie around rather than perform the tricks of their better trained predecessors! It has a stunning collection of ancient wooden Buddhas in the main shrine, in different styles (Shan, Tibetan, etc.), which make a delightful break from the usual gold covered images.

Speaking of gold, the Phaung Daw Oo temple is the holiest in the region, because it houses five ancient Buddha images that have been transformed into amorphous golden blobs due to the sheer amount of gold leaf applied to them by devotees. We didn’t know this beforehand, but could tell by the size and embellishments of the temple they were housed in, combined with the number of people taking selfies with them, that these strange looking blobs were clearly significant and sacred.

The Inle experience is complemented by its surrounds – the temple-topped hills that dot the landscape, temple caves, the lush, rice paddy-infused countryside – so we grabbed bicycles and spent a day tutuing about. It was so quiet, and peaceful, and empty, it felt like cycling around rural New Zealand at the height of summer. It was a lovely way to spend a day in the freedom of countryside and warm breeze.

Spectacular sights aside, Inle will always have a further special place in the memory banks, as gastronomic rehabilitator. While the temples at Bagan were unquestionably a highlight, gastronomically speaking it was not unlike its surrounds: sparse and arid; a bit of a desert. Combined with a bit hit-or-miss eating at our previous two stops and I was starting to fear that Myanmar was going to disappoint in the all important eating stakes.

Thankfully, Inle delivered in spades.

We spent the four nights eating at only two restaurants: Indian food that made us feel like we were back in India (hallelujah!) and a Shan eatery that was gobsmackingly good. Thinking about sticky noodles infused with peanut, multiple textural salad delights, tasty local vege dishes and super tasty fish has me salivating at the memory.

Our two lunches in and around the lake were also great. At the whim of a commission-linked boat driver, I had reservations, but he took us to a delightful restaurant set over the water. Local lake fish curry, vibrantly red, with fermented bean fried rice and watergrass and oyster more than hit the spot. Our cycling tour, meanwhile, took us to a wonderful little place, set amongst lush countryside, and brought us yet more super delicious fish and crazily imaginative ginger and carrot salads. Cooks here are the masters of salads!

Getting there, away, and around: how we did it

Thankfully, all was super simple. The guide books that tell you there’s no direct transport are now out of date. We were able to book our OK express minibus direct from Bagan to Nyaungshwe through our guesthouse; as I explained elsewhere, there were other options too. It dropped us directly to our new guesthouse, the wonderful and recommended Aquarius Inn (if you were staying out of town, though, then you’d have to taxi from the local bus stand).

The good folk at Aquarius then booked our onward day bus to Yangon, which included a pick up from the Inn. Easy.

The Inn also had a boat tour, for which we paid 9,000 kyat per person (there were four of us) for the whole day. Easy.

For cycling, we simply wandered up to town and found some sturdy looking mountain bikes for around 5,000 kyat (8,000 in high season, from memory). Too easy. Spot the theme?

The only bung note came when we went to cross the lake with our bikes (the recommended cycle route takes you down one side of the lake, you boat across, and return up the other side). There was another couple there, and for the pleasure we were charged 6,000 kyat per person (a helpful local had told us it should be 8,000 for the entire boat!). Compare that to the price for an entire day trip, and you see how much the men, who are otherwise simply lying around rather than working, have got the poor tourists over a barrel.

Unfortunately, we had a tyre puncture so had little choice but to return to home base, but for sure, if this hadn’t been the case, I simply would have cycled back to town and then out the other side. The whole area is not that big, is flat, and the cycling is by no means punishing. At all.

(* We were told that, five years ago, the region initiated a collective effort to rid the area of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. I couldn’t find information online about this, although signs around town support the claim. It is important to note that there are dire concerns about the future of the lake, and especially the very real negative impacts that the tourism explosion has had.)

Myanmar’s tourism highlights I: the temples at Bagan

Bagan is likely the first image you’ll see if you Google image search Myanmar. The intoxicating image of balloons flying over an early morning, mist-covered and temple-littered landscape certainly captures the imagination, and was unquestionably a primary motivator in our visiting the country.

Having now experienced Bagan, in reality I’d say you do need to check your expectations just a little. It’s still a breath-taking sight, but those pictures were taken at exactly the right time of the year and in an era when the temples essentially represented an all-comers adventure playground. Visitors were able to amble at-will all over these pieces of precious historical taonga (treasures), in order to find those jaw-dropping vistas.

Today if you come to Bagan expecting an Insta-perfect experience, you may leave disappointed.* This is because you cannot simply climb all over the temples anymore. A combination of the impacts of too many tourists climbing all over them, and a pretty significant earthquake in 2016, have caused a lot of damage and make it simply too dangerous (and perhaps we shouldn’t have been doing this in the first place anyway!). Thus, the upper reaches of temples are now out of bounds.

*In saying this, if your budget stretches that far and you’re in season, I’m pretty sure taking the famed dawn balloon ride would come pretty close; they had stopped for the season by end of April.

Once a grand city, around a particularly fertile bend in the Ayarwaddy river, the 4,000 temples of Bagan were constructed in a 230-year long building frenzy, until the Mongol invasion of 1287 put an end to it all. At its height, it is estimated that a new temple was begun every two weeks!

In recent decades, there has been some very questionable restoration projects completed (a ‘Hindu’ temple that looks unlike anything we ever saw in India, for example). Some argue that the original boon of immense activity was a case of trial and error anyway, so they’re simply following in their ancestors DIY punk ethos, which is an interesting perspective.

Damage, degradation, and questionable rebuilding aside, Bagan is a pretty mesmerising and utterly unique landscape, as the photos hopefully make clear. I can’t think of anywhere else in the world that looks quite like Bagan. There’s days worth of exploration here, just waiting for you to unleash your inner adventurer and explorer.

We spent two full days exploring the landscape on e-scooters. It’s a large area, so we spent the first day in the surrounds of the Bagan Archeological Park, ambling through the landscape and stopping at points of interest (or anywhere that took our fancy). It was really quite a freeing experience, knowing that you could go wherever there was at least a sandy track to take you. And with main roads essentially squaring you in (or the river if you really went off-road), you couldn’t really get too lost.

If you ever held (unrealistic) fantasies of an archaeologist bashing through harsh(ish) landscapes to rediscover remarkable lost pasts, now is your chance to run wild. Run Forrest, run..

On the second day we zero’d in on the heavy hitters, the grand, still-functioning temples that give you an idea of how magnificent a city Bagan must have been in its day. Visible from all over, they’d been our orientation points the day before, and now we drank them right in.

Both days ended atop obviously more recently constructed viewing mounds. From there we were able to get pretty breathtaking views of stupa-pierced vistas – photos don’t really do it justice – even though on both days the sun failed to set in truly dazzling fashion (the pre-rainy season haze – not mist – that has followed us around once again obscuring the horizon).

To be frank, there isn’t one temple that sticks in the mind as being truly truly remarkable, but I don’t think that’s the point of Bagan. It’s more about the experience of the whole, not entirely unlike Cambodia’s famous Angkor Wat. The key temples were grand, to be sure, but they combine with the quirkiness of others and the randomness of discovery to create the overall feeling of the experience that remains with you. And you can’t capture that in a photo.

Getting there, away, and around: how we did it

To Bagan, we arrived from Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), and afterwards moved on to Inle Lake. Both rides were with the same company, OK Express, in minivans that were, as their name suggests: OK. They were a little squashy, a little uncomfortable, and the AC struggled against the heat, but they did the job. We’ve certainly had worse minibus rides (hello Laos!)

From what I could gather, OK are only company plying the Maymyo-Bagan route, and it was the only option presented at our guesthouse. From Bagan there were more options, but OK ended up being the only company going to Inle Lake around the time we wanted (mid-morning).

At Bagan, it seems like there is no option but to be dropped off at a bus station 3kms or so out of town. We were, in fact, on a bus that went directly into Nyaung U, but were swapped onto one that was transporting the other tourists, and we watched as our original bus went to where our accommodation was, while we went in the opposite direction!

Tourists must pay a 25,000 kyat visitor fee, and this is collected at a stand on the way into town from the bus station, so this might be the reason. Either way, you are at the behest of the local taxi mafia once you arrive at the bus station (it was a pretty hefty 8,000 kyat for the 3km ride, where the 7-hour, 400km bus has been 15,000!). Yes, they’re well aware of how the tourism game works here…

In terms of Bagan itself, out of season Nyaung U was certainly the more lively and convenient option as a base (Old Bagan and New Bagan were very quiet, although fine for lunch stops on our days of exploring). Even so, Nyaung U is really just a large village, with everything a traveller will need centred around the one road. This is not a Siem Reap or Kuta style destination…

For the two days tiki-touring, I used the wonderfully detailed maps.ME (I’ve spoken of it before), Lonely Planet’s pretty extensive overview, and Google maps, to plot out a rough plan, which we more or less then followed, along with our noses! Day one took us in and around the roads that run south/south-west of Nyaung U, leading to New Bagan and north of (the blue tags), while the second day took us along the main road to Old Bagan and finishing off where we left off on day one, south of Anawratha Road (the pink tags). Of course the on-the-ground reality was not quite so linear, but you get the drift..

A ride through Shan state’s fascinating, sad, and intriguing history

After our heady introduction to Myanmar, we headed northeast into Shan state for a quick blitz through two stops: Hsipaw and Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo), one famous as an emerging trekking base, the second as Myanmar’s example of that colonial institution: the summer hill station. In between, there was also a famously rickety train ride over one of the world’s highest viaducts.

Recalling our random ride into the middle of nowhere, for our pilgrimage to Sri Lanka’s Adam’s Peak, our bus up to the Shan hills was one of slowly disappearing into blackness as night fell.

A region-wide power cut was the cause, but it was also a good lesson that, outside of the cities, Myanmar is an overwhelmingly rural country. I had imagined Hsipaw to be a bustling town, and exhaled slightly anxious relief everytime we passed through another small pocket of deserted darkness.

What if that had been it, turfed off the bus into unexpected nothingness? “Off  you go, into the night…”

That is, in fact, what happened. Kinda.

Hsipaw is a large village, and we arrived to a fairly sleepy scene. With accommodation booked only a short wander away, we weren’t stranded. Still…it’s always a strange sense of disorientation when you have a picture in your mind of a place, and arrive to find it completely at odds.

No mind, we quickly found and settled into Mr Charles’ sprawling guesthouse/hotel/restaurant/travel services compound, and the apprehension melted away.

With any kind of serious trekking out of season and out of the question, we focused on the few key sights around town, with time to explore the countryside too.

Hsipaw was once the capital of one of Shan state’s many kingdoms. Quite unlike anywhere else we’ve travelled, where power was historically centralised, Shan state was comprised of 32 independent but linked kingdoms, ruled by sawbwa (‘sky princes’).

The story of the last sawbwa of Hsipaw is the story of Myanmar’s post-independence history: political, sad, with many unanswered questions. It is recounted by Fern, the wife of his nephew, at the surviving second Shan palace (in reality, an early 20th century British-style manor house).

The last sky prince was US-educated and married an Austrian women he met while studying. He was arrested, along with the other sky princes and key figures in the Shan state government, after the military takeover in 1962. But where others were eventually released, he was disappeared. His wife and two daughters were left effectively under house arrest and eventually fled the country, settling in America. They never returned.

With the coming of democracy, this is obviously now technically possible, but there are still too many sensitivities around military matters, and the daughters – now grandmothers – refuse to consider return until the whereabouts of their father is finally resolved. The military has always maintained he was never detained long-term.

Hearing the story in the living room where so much of this family tragedy unfolded was quite a moving experience; the kind of impact the best museums can only dream of.

Fern and her husband have been telling their story to visitors since the 1990s, when Myanmar first opened up, and when there was a real risk in doing so. They relied on travellers sharing details with trusted acquaintances only. The authorities tried many times to jail them, and eventually succeeded in jailing Fern’s husband for having an unregistered library (the unofficial grapevine would let travellers know that the couple, effectively prisoners inside their home, loved to receive books).

Now, of course, they are free to receive visitors, and are busy gently fundraising for the Palace’s centennial in 2024. What was fascinating was the number of locals in attendance. Chatting to a young Monk outside, who grew up in Hsipaw, we learnt that locals had no idea about the story behind the end of their monarchy. Now that they can, they are desperately keen to learn about their pasts.

Hsipaw is also home to the so-called Little Bagan. While nowhere near the scale of real Bagan, it was certainly a charming wander through the countryside just to the north, where the original capital was, and Mrs Popcorn’s restaurant, set amongst a sprawling organic garden, was a great place to stop for lunch.

We had intended to head into the hills on day #2, and end by ambling up to a hill above the town and across the river, for a sunset view, however that plan was scuppered when a case of food poisoning hit and required a day of rest, so the Hsipaw experience was in some ways cut short. Bummer.

Next morning it was all aboard the Mandalay non-express for the slow train to Pyin Oo Lwin; the seven-hour ride covers less than 200km. While it is as bumpy as the legend recounts (you do wonder in places how it is that the carriages remain on the tracks), mercifully, you are generally going so slow that it doesn’t quite have the same unsettling feeling as we experienced at-times in Sri Lanka!

The key reason for taking the train is to cross over the Gokteik Viaduct bridge, which was the second-highest in the world when constructed in 1901. It was definitely an experience. Visible for some distance, as the train winds its way across the plateau, it slows right down across the viaduct. This is to avoid too much pressure being put on the aging infrastructure, but ignore that and focus instead on the pretty stellar views right down the valley (interestingly, coming the other way by bus, was in some ways just as interesting, riding the very sharp switchbacks…)

After the choking heat of Mandalay, I can see why Maymyo came to be, offering much needed respite from. However, like every other ex-British colonial hill station we’ve visited, the tagline is a stretch. Hill station conjures up very particular images and I think maybe the phrase needs to be consigned to the history books now; these places have moved on!

These days, Maymyo is best known for its strawberries (and jam), emerging wine production, and as a popular destination for domestic holidaymakers. It will no doubt continue to change.

That’s not to say it wasn’t a pleasant stopover, although I wouldn’t consider it a vital stop on the Myanmar itinerary.

There are indeed many examples of colonial buildings to discover. While the institutional buildings now seem to be government offices, many of the summer retreats are/seem closed up and/or in varying states of decay, sitting as they do on large barren/overgrown sections. It certainly adds an air of melancholy to the whole scene; something I always find appealing. They are also located just outside of the urban centre, in leafy settings, so you feel like you are exploring the countryside. The story of these places, however, needs to be told more effectively for it to be a real attraction.

Alongside this, the town boasts pretty extensive municipal gardens (including an unexpectedly fascinating and beautiful butterfly museum and a tower offering great region-wide views), a few temples (of course!) and a pretty lively market area (ditto). There’s plenty enough to make for an interesting day trip.

The other interesting thing about Maymyo is its pronounced Indian-ness, and it was the first time we learnt about this (for now) little discussed part of Myanmar’s modern history. Once under colonial rule, Burma, in fact, was officially governed as part of British India and Indian immigrants flooded into the country. For us, walking around Maymyo felt at-times like being back in a hill town in India, and it also meant we were able to find good Bhuja mix and great curry. #forthewin

Mandalay: A tale of two cities, part two

Lonely Planet opens its chapter with the words ‘it’s the rare traveller who immediately falls for Mandalay…it doesn’t have a ton of immediate appeal’. A fellow Kiwi we met had passed through a few weeks beforehand and, having followed her blog, it was clear she didn’t have the best time; not terrible, but a case of mismatch between anticipation and reality.

Add to this the rather more mixed reviews I’d been reading about its food – and, as I’ve reflected before, I now realise how central eating a nation is to how much I enjoy the experience of travel – and I had started to worry that Myanmar was going to be a case of incompatible expectations.

I needn’t have worried. As I wrote in part one, our initial experience of the city was completely shaped by Thingyan, the wild Burmese New Year celebrations. Thankfully, once ‘normalcy’ returned, we got the explore the city unencumbered. Mandalay intrigued me, and it really did so from the moment we stepped off the plane, walking across a tarmac that felt slightly otherworldly, or at least like an outpost airport in the middle of the desert.

The greater area was home to the Burmese kingdom, and is thus considered the cradle of Burmese culture and civilisation. Since 1364, with few exceptions, the capital moved back and forth around three locations, which today are the key historic sites to visit outside of the city (the kings had a habit of moving capitals, literally).

As a city, Mandalay only came into being in the mid-19th century, within what is now the fortified palace grounds surrounded by a magnificent moat. It was the last capital of the Burmese Kingdom. Its reign was short though, as the Brits arrived in 1885. The grid city layout of today was initially laid down during the colonial era, and continued to expand post-independence in 1948. After having been occupied by the Japanese during WWII and coming under severe attack, a lot of the city, including the palace, lay in ruins.

With this patchwork history, there is actually a lot to see. With two days lost to Thingyan, we abandoned hope of exploring the countryside, and instead focused on the city. What emerged was a fascinating sense of dualness: a city that is both rural and urban at the same time; a city that has fragments of the brash new Myanmar ripping through its dusty crust; a populace dressed in typical Burmese dress, while wildly colouring its hair a new shade of twenty-first century, social media-tinged, freedom.

As a relatively new city, there is an absence of history in Mandalay, both pre-colonial and colonial; not altogether but noticeable. Aside from a number of notable examples – some of the older pagodas, for example – much of the city feels and looks post-mid twentieth century, post-independence.

Post-colonial Myanmar obviously exists right in front of our eyes, but at the same time it is everywhere, it also feels nowhere. At the moment, it doesn’t exist in that there are not many ways for us to understand how what we’re seeing is shaped by its recent past. In other words, the years after 1962, when the military took over and the wall came down, is not yet available to us.

There are no museums or art galleries to fill in the gaps; no memorials to the disappeared; no urban history books contextualised against life under military rule. Although democracy has come to Myanmar, it is still embryonic and fragile. There will come a moment when those stories can be pieced together and spoken freely. Understandably, we’re not quite at that moment yet.

It is probably that inaccessibility that made Mandalay even more intriguing. What I’ve learnt at this point is that, for me, the best travel is where my interest is sufficiently piqued, where I’m intrigued and really want to know a place better. This is either achieved (or near enough to), or leaves me wanting more, wanting to return. Either way, intrigue is a key measure of success.

‘Downtown’ Mandalay is where this patchwork history is on full display. It’s a fascinating mix of some (late) colonial era buildings, some new cookie-cutter buildings (identical to other fast growing SE Asian cities we’ve visited, see Phnom Penh, Saigon, etc.), some more interesting new additions, and many more mid-century gems. All rubbing shoulders with residential houses, grand market buildings, and temples, along grand wide avenues.

I wouldn’t call it ‘pretty’, like, say, Paris, but I really found it fascinating. It’s an architectural wonderland (or possibly dystopian nightmare!) and I felt like I could have spent days in and around those streets, observing its rhythms, documenting its style, and probably making a nice coffee table in the process!

The city’s dual rhythm is mapped out on its grid pattern. Its urban pulse is located along its key arterial routes; busy, busy thoroughfares teeming with traffic, people, big new commerce, bars and restaurants. It’s loud, it’s brash, it’s new Myanmar. These arteries are most immediately surrounded by almost-as-busy suburbia, where the traffic is still teems but the shops and restaurants are more suburban, more family-sized.

But step back literally only a street or two further, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by unsealed village-like lanes. Here, a much quieter life is taking place. Mandalay reveals both massive houses and compounds surrounded by canal dwellings. From the atmospheric Mandalay Hill at sunset, you can see that even the most frenetic city spaces are literally surrounded by countryside, which engulfs the city as soon as you get beyond its urban fringe.

This dualness is reflected in the people, who are revelling in newfound freedoms and connectivity/exposure to the outside world. Typical materials/patterns and lungi-style dress (think sarong but more fitted and better looking) are still seen everywhere, even in young people.

However, alongside this, locals are expressing themselves in interesting ways: loud, big, comparatively wild hairstyles, and clothing I would call a localised version of ‘80s ‘cock rock’ or maybe ‘90s grunge (black jeans, old rock band T-shirts, checked shirts, chains and jewelry). It stood out so much because it contrasted quite sharply with the more gentle look and feel of typical Burmese dress.

It is such a cliche, but, after all of our traveling, the overwhelming friendliness of locals was memorable. Everywhere we went (or cycled) we were met with warm and curious stares, smiles, and waves. There were hand shakes, attempts to communicate across languages, English practicing with youngsters, a couple of full-on conversations, and an avalanche of hellos and his. It may sound silly, but having literally hundreds of moments of connection every day, even if only fleeting, was a real serotonin booster! I was totally charmed.

Mandalay made me want to go back. It’s reminiscent of all the Southeast Asian cities we’ve visited undergoing these hugely rapid transformations, and I’m fascinated to think how much it will have changed in five years, ten years, down the track. I feel like we only scratched the surface…

Two days cycling around Mandalay, what we did:

Day 1 – cycled around the moat, explored ‘downtown’ including Eindawya Paya and market area, lunch, back around the moat, Kuthodaw and Sandamuni payas, Mandalay Hill walk for sunset.

Day 2 – Mandalay Palace, Shwenandaw Kyaung monastery and Atumashi Kyaungdawgyi, Kyauktawgyi Paya, cycled around the moat, lunch downtown, cycled out to and along the riverfront, down to Shwe In Bin Kyaung (continue on to the U-Bein bridge for sunset).

Mandalay: A tale of two cities, part one: A new year to remember

With its patchwork history, Myanmar’s second city, Mandalay, offers a rich landscape to explore; so much so that we extended our stay, intending to explore both the city and surrounding countryside. As it transpired, we ended up losing two days to Thingyan, the country’s New Year celebrations. We still got to explore the city, but we also experienced, at full velocity, how locals celebrate. For us, it was one of the wildest, wettest days to date…

At a distance of only a few weeks, it now seems quaintly naive, foolish even. We thought we’d be able to head out on our first full day (and day three of the four-day holiday), circle around where the main festivities were centred, and then spend the day exploring the palace, surrounding pagodas and Mandalay Hill, where people were no doubt gathering to make peaceful New Year’s offerings.

Wrong.

Within minutes we had become targets for ‘blessings’. These are delivered via buckets, basins and bottles of water, hoses on maximum, and basically any other receptacle that will a) hold water, and b) allow the blesser to throw it at the blessee.

Now of course it wasn’t the fact that we were foreigners that made us targets, everyone – with very few exceptions – is fair game. I should also point out: we knew that the New Year was celebrated here in the same way it is simultaneously celebrated elsewhere.

We had, of course, just come from Thailand’s Chiang Mai, where domestic and international tourists swarm each year to done water guns and turn the old city into a real-life battleground. Truth be told, although I enjoyed some moments, I found Songkran in Chiang Mai mostly, well, just not my cup of iced coffee. The New Year was rather overshadowed by the throngs wanting to bring out the inner child, and the at-times aggressive nature of it seemed at odds with its real meaning.

In Mandalay, it was the total opposite. There may have been a few water guns, but the only ones I remember seeing belonged to fellow travellers at our guesthouse. And while a bucket of icy water slapping against your mid-section is certainly not peaceful, a large number of times people came up to us to pour water over our shoulder and down our backs, the traditional way of offering a blessing. Some asked, some seemed almost apologetic (their gestures seemed to say, I’m sorry you probably don’t get this, but how can I not bless a foreigner?), and many waited until we’d taken our bags off.

Of course this is not to say we didn’t get soaked and have water coming at us from all directions at-times. We did, repeatedly; we were wringing out our t-shirts on the side of the road. And truth be told, after one long day of this, the novelty had quite worn off (which is why we spent the next day doing ‘admin’ at our guesthouse, aka hiding out in aircon!).

Any annoyance, though, was more about how disorienting it was, which meant we needed to keep stopping to work out where we were in relation to where we wanted to go (it was day #1 remember). However, we could only do this when we were sure we were in a dry zone and could safely pull out our phones. It just made the day a lot of start-stop, start-stop.

So, as I was saying, within minutes it was clear that our plans were going to have to become – and pardon the pun – far more fluid. Even if places were open, which they weren’t, there’s no way we could have wandered in dripping wet.

We decided, therefore, when in Rome…so instead of circling around, we headed straight for the centre of the action. Ground zero for official celebrations is the ring road that runs around the giant moat that circles the palace (each side runs over 2kms long). The entire southern half has been closed off and there are stalls, installations, and plenty of spaces for mutual blessings. Unlike in Chiang Mai, though, the moat is strictly out of bounds. Water is instead provided in large containers.

Best of all though, along the entire southern edge and stretching around and up the western side, there are stages, many stages. Each seems to be catering to a different audience – EDM, middle of the road Burmese pop, something that can only be described as Burmese pop meets Slipknot – and, in front of each, the locals are going wild. Water included.

It was a spectacle that won’t be easily forgotten, as was the intersection of the southern and eastern roads, which was so flooded…ahh, blessed…kids were literally swimming in the gutters. With such elated spirits everywhere, and as two of only six obvious tourists we saw, we were inundated with hellos and waves and handshakes and happy new years, and a few inebriated conversations in Burmese thrown in for good measure too. Sunshiney day.

Our second mistake – again, now acutely naive – was assuming that the liquid fun would be exhausted by late afternoon. We were kinda dry by this point, so, we thought, let’s tick one thing off the list and cycle 8km south to see the world’s longest teak bridge. It’s a 30-40 minute cycle, they told us at our guesthouse. Perfect, we thought.

Wrong.

Our second round of blessings were received as we navigated the increasing pandamonium of the streets heading south. The water works officially end for the day once the sun goes down, but, rather than tapering off as early evening approaches, they simply intensify. Pickup trucks, stuffed with people and stores of water, engage in all out battles with people on the side of the road, as the PM peak traffic swirls all around them. Log jams were occurring all over the place.

For our part, there wasn’t much option but to plough right through it all. We had to engage our best defensive driving skills, as our best avoidance tactic was to whizz down the middle of the road and passed traffic that had stopped to do battle. So in between buses and trucks and around bikes we rode; a little hair raising, fortunately no snarls, and it wasn’t always successful in avoiding oncoming waterwalls.

Once out of the city and speeding down an old main road, we finally broke free and managed to again almost dry out (thanks 38° heat!). We still arrived at the bridge quite wet, though, and a third, and mercifully far less severe, number of blessings awaited us as we arrived.

I can’t comment on whether the ‘world’s longest teak bridge’ was worth that degree of effort, but I’m sure you can now understand why we stayed indoors for Mandalay day #2!

To be continued…