A chance encounter with a picture of the Schwedagon Pagoda in a magazine back in the very distant past brings my wife Kath and I to Myanmar.
Myanmar has held that sense of intrigue for me that has so often disappeared in an age where little comes as a surprise or delight. Just grateful I could share this adventure with Kath. Our various roles in life mean we travel often but rarely together. Adventure might be stretching it a bit as this journey had us travelling on the Scenic Aura from Mandalay to Bagan. However I think Myanmar still firmly fits within the adventure destination category.
(if you prefer a video please scroll to the end)
The flight from Yangon to Mandalay takes 55 minutes. In that time the highly impressive MNA hostesses satiate your desire for cleanliness with a refreshing towel, serve a rudimentary but tasty snack and finish everything off with a selection of hot and cold drinks. Outstanding service! The Boeing 737-300 is new, roomy, clean and tidy.
Happily our Scenic transfer was ready and waiting for us on arrival and off we went to Mandalay on a hour journey in a well appointed Toyota Crown. The joining point is the Mandalay Hill Resort. It is an odd sort of place playing off the colonial past with things like the Kipling Bar. It is actually a Mercure and looks like it from the first floor up. However the restaurant, aforementioned bar and pool area are definitely exotic and very Burma! We had a very nice breakfast here and an enjoyable beer by the pool waiting for our Scenic transfer to the Aura.
In between times we hired a taxi to take us to the summit of Mandalay hill via a terrifying escalator ride. The temple at the top lacked age to make it memorable but some encounters with locals provided our first insight into the nature of the friendly locals. We followed this up with a stroll around the hotel area coming across a stupa off significant visual appeal.
Mingun and it’s unfinished pagoda, large bell and proliferation of tourist stalls isn’t going to be the greatest thing you have ever done. It does however serve as a gentle introduction to the tourist sights of Myanmar. Sales tactics are undertaken with gentleness and humour. Respond accordingly and you will enjoy some laughs. The unfinished pagoda is monumental for the sheer amount of bricks involved, it is little wonder the locals were relieved when the ruler responsible passed away before its completion and they could get on with constructing their own lives. The world’s largest bell also belongs here. Kath was able to make it chime in the Buddhist manner. Our fabulous cruise director Pa Pa also provided us with the opportunity to visit an aged home run entirely on donations, a prevalent theme on our journey highlighting the generosity of the Burmese. Returning to the ship for lunch, this would be another ongoing theme, the quality of the food is exceptional. You won’t get tired of the food as it is perfectly served by Moon and Lal in perfect proportions. The chef and his team are magnificent, the food served on this journey includes some of the best I have ever had in there various genres and easily consistently the best on any cruise I have taken, just superb!
Back in Mandalay our early evening excursion was to take in sunset beneath the U Bein bridge. I think a little of the spectacle was removed by the low water. No fear Scenic made it a memorable event firstly by just having two in each craft. Some others had 6 or 7 which would remove any semblance of enjoyment. We made our way under the increasingly fragile teak structure before taking our prime position to await the event. To make our journey that bit more comfortable the Scenic crew glided between our vessels dispensing champagne to the point I suspect more photos were being taken of them than the bridge! As the sun dipped I began to understand what all the fuss was about, there is just something about the bridge, the water and the setting sun that turns the place magical for a few minutes each evening.
Like previous travels in places like in Iran and Syria, the people are primarily focused on the day to day and are incredibly hospitable and generous. They desire the same things as the rest of the people on the planet, security, health and an optimistic future. I have yet to visit anywhere where the people wholly endorse the actions of their governments and by not visiting we deprive ourselves of any hope of understanding the often multifaceted nature of conflict, often centuries in the making.
Our visit to the monastic village of Sagaing again highlighted this. Schools funded by Myanmar citizens for children whose parents cannot afford to educate their children. No government assistance here, this is the generosity of locals and is not confined to Sagaing. As a consequence Burmese enjoy the highest literacy rate and lowest crime rate in SEA. I thoroughly enjoyed our visit here, the children, teachers and monks freely discussed their education and goals. The class sizes were a bit eye watering but you can only work with what you have.
That evening as we sailed to Yandabo we were invited to experience Scenic’s signature teppanyaki dining experience. As with all things culinary on this journey the food and presentation were magnificent.
I’ll admit a visit to a village where pots are made didn’t stand out as a highlight for me. However it soon became apparent it was going to be one. A feature of our journey is our tour director Pa Pa’s easy going nature and relationships with the people in the villages we visit. Her knowledge is undoubted but it is the small experiences offered in conjunction with the locals that set her apart. As I said I never expected a village of pots to be that exciting but it was!
Our afternoon visit to the town of Pakokku wasn’t as enticing despite a fun jumbo rickshaw ride. A visit to the market resembled many in this part of the world while a fabric factory left me a bit uneasy given the age of some of the workers. Easy to judge, but we don’t live here. The day was redeemed somewhat by a sand bank party in the evening. Mooring next to one of the Irrawaddy’s multitudinous sandbanks the crew set up a fire, hired a local band and we were treated to an hour of classics. Over the top, yes, great fun, absolutely!
The next morning we arrived at one of the places that was on my bucket list, Bagan. I knew we were close as half a dozen balloons appeared on the horizon and several pagodas came into view on the shore, it really is a magical sight. Today’s activity involved jumping on a dodgy boat, interacting humorously with the local mobile vendors and jumping on a horse and buggy to wind our way through some of the 4000 temples that dot this area before finishing at the mother of them all, Ananda. To be honest I enjoyed the lesser lights more and looked forward to our return visit. In the evening we attended a dinner that, truth be told, was a bit naff. Set in the grounds of a beautifully lit temple it was a killer location. However the attempt to create an 11th century dinner and dance fell flat in my opinion.
Over the course of the next three days we sailed south along the Irrawaddy taking immense pleasure in simply watching the world drift by and relaxing. The days were interspersed with visits to Salay, Minhla and Magwe, all worthwhile stops made even better by the enthusiasm and knowledge of our superb tour director Pa Pa. Everywhere we went our visits were punctuated by grabbing some snacks from street vendors.
Immediately setting foot in Salay both Kath and I thought Zanzibar, that mix of decaying colonial edifices with buildings repurposed for modern purposes. Again the importance of education to the Burmese was apparent visiting a boarding school and local school. The town itself exuded tranquility as Buddhist temples, pagodas and stupas shared the real estate with with structures erected by the British and the more recent bamboo walled houses. We visited a Buddhist museum which held some interest but the star was the town itself. We finished our visit at the Sulay House Hotel, a splendid spot on the riverbank and a wonderful place to stay should you ever find yourself here.
Minhla provides a change of sorts visiting a 19th century fort only made alive by Pa Pa’s always excellent commentary. Our visit was concluded by sampling the culinary gems produced by a local street vendor.
In Magwe we embarked on a tour of the town by trishaw. As always on these types of excursions, my rider can count themselves unlucky. However I did help out by running some of the hillier sections. In every town is a statue of the much revered Aung Sung. Magwe is no exception and was our first stop. We then ventured through town to visit a large pagoda on the banks of the Irrawaddy.
After Magwe we had a day on the river as we headed north back to Bagan. Important to note this journey is very leisurely, a day on the river meant drinks on the sun deck, spa treatments, pool time or simply watching the world go by ... a day on the river is a holiday within a holiday. The main event of the day was sailing northbound into Bagan as the sun started setting … magnificent! That evening we had a puppet show on the sun deck. Again not something I would have thought of as a highlight but these gents were masters of their art, the movements and nuance were as filled with emotion as skill … tremendous.
Keen to see more temples in Bagan, Kath and I embarked on a Scenic 'Free Choice' excursion around some with another splendid guide, Nila. Our first stop was the Tharabdar Gate, one of the main entrances into walled ancient Bagan. We asked Pa Pa to arrange for us to go somewhere we could get a view over Bagan. There are few highpoints in the area bar one manmade mound where we found the view we wanted to put the area into perspective. Satisfied we then went to the Bagan market … I was thinking, oh grief not another one! However if there is one market you should go to in Myanmar, make it Bagan. Colourful, friendly and full of life, this was a fabulous experience. Next up Swezigon Pagoda and what a treat! Gold to the heavens, lots of monks and nuns adding colour and ambience and a great guide explaining to us the difference between pagodas, stupas and temples. This excursion made me very happy! In between main sights Nila stopped at various photography friendly points.
On the final day of our time with Scenic we had our final breakfast on the Aura, they will be missed. We then made our way to Nyaungu Airport for an Air KBZ flight to Yangon. As with all of our flights on the airlines of Myanmar, the aircraft were new, the service exemplary and the legroom a touch limited. Arriving in Yangon our bus delivered us to our final lunch as a group in the House of Memories, one of the final refuges of the revered Aung Sun. To be honest it was a bit of an anticlimax. The food was nowhere near the standard of the ship and the venue itself had character but in need of an update.
Kath and I said our farewells and headed off on an afternoon tour around the highlights of Yangon. First stop a relatively recent addition to the pantheon of reclining Buddha’s. Nice to see but didn’t fill me with awe. Next stop the colonial heart of Yangon, plenty of wow factor here, I had no idea of the extent and magnitude of the buildings the British built during their rule. Some are very, very impressive, some are still maintained and in use while others are neglected shells.
We only spent a short time here as the main event awaited, the Shwedagon Pagoda. Approachable through gates at each of the cardinal points it does take a while from entering the precinct to arriving at the pagoda itself. Once you are there you are in a world apart dominated by the gold clad pagoda with a supporting cast of smaller stupas and 100’s of worshippers. Like every other religious monument in Myanmar it is a perpetual living entity which adds so much vibrancy and interest.
The Pagoda was the catalyst for our visit, was it my favourite place? Probably not, I really loved Bagan. That’s the joy of travel isn’t it, the things that drive you to go often lead to surprising discoveries and experiences that you didn’t even consider before leaving ... love it!
Check out the video below ...