From Mandalay I travelled by boat to Bagan. This boat was not the usual ferry but a tour boat slightly more expensive and comfortable with breakfast, lunch and a village tour included. I bought the ticket online at http://www.alliancemyanmarrivercruise.com/. Depart at 0635 and arrive in Bagan at 1740, journey time 11:05 hours, speed 20kph, we lost about an hour in the morning when we twice had to moor near the riverbank due to heavy fog. After you get off the boat there is a check point where you pay the Bagan zone fee of US$20 or 25,000 kyat.
Bagan – the city of Temples, more than 2000 of them and that’s what’s left over from the original 10,000. They are spread out over a vast area, you need some form of transport to get around, I had a car, driver and a guide. The guide was a bonus he was practising his English and learning the job. Shoes and socks off and on at each Pagoda, wear sandals.
Today we drove to Popa hills, stopped on the way at a place that makes products from the Palm tree and peanuts. First grinding peanuts for the oil using a bull to pull a grinder while walking around in circles. Next collection of the sap from the Palm trees using a ladder and pots, next tasted the 3 kinds of toddy extracted from the sap, sweet and fresh (no alcohol), 5% alcohol (like beer), next distilled spirit (firewater), all tasted good. Next to where an old woman was stirring the sap in several large woks over a fire waiting for it to thicken after which it is divided into small chunks to dry into palm jaggery. From the jaggery they make various sweets mixed with Ginger, Sesame & Coconut and dark jaggery. From the palm leaves they make toys, roofs and walls, from the trunks they make furniture.
There is a temple on top of one of the Popa Hills with hundreds of monkeys running around, stealing and fighting. I walked halfway to the top and stopped at the point where I had to take my shoes and socks off, balancing without them on is difficult on uneven surfaces. On the way back we stopped at another temple on a hill and then a visit to a village where they also sold handicrafts, then we visited a few more Pagodas.
Finally back to the hotel to wait for pickup to the bus station at 2100. On the bus at 2130 departed at 2140, new modern Scania with large comfortable seats, 3 seats across in a 1-2 arrangement, I had a single, total 9 rows of seats 27 passengers max. Snack box and juice handed out at the start, EU 2 pin outlet for each seat. Stopped at 0120 for half an hour at Napyidaw toll gate rest stop which had a few restaurants busy with passengers eating. Arrived in Yangon at 0540, the bus station is quite a distance from the centre of the city past the airport unlike the train station which is right in the centre of town.
Mandalay – second largest city in Myanmar after Yangon and the last capital of the country, population 1.2 million.
The train journey from Yangon to Mandalay was one of the highlights of my trip to Myanmar, literally a step back in time. Apparently nothing has changed since the days of the British Raj. The carriage rocks from side to side, bounces up and down while swaying, all at the same time hahaha, you actually get bounced completely off your seat and get airborne. How on earth it stayed on the tracks is beyond me. I took the day train for the view, there is a night sleeper train but that would be a waste of time because you would miss the view, not get a wink of sleep and would finish the journey bruised and battered from getting bounced out of your bunk :-). The seats are narrow with more than enough legroom and the carriage was half empty. The travel agent booked my ticket which cost $10. We departed at 0600 on the dot and arrived at 2120, journey tine of 15:20 hours, distance 650km, average speed 40-50 kph. The train stops frequently and there is a constant stream of hawkers parading through the train, selling food, snacks, beer, water, etc. The noise is deafening with the rattling, banging, clattering of the carriage combined with hawkers shouting and most of the windows open letting in noise and dust. My ticket got checked 4 times, every time a new conductor got on the train I think, so keep it handy.
First stop today was a hand loom workshop, next to the Mahagandhayon Monastery which has 1400 monks, they parade along the street in the morning with bowls and tourists who are lined up on either side of the street put food and gifts into them. Next drove to the U Bein Bridge, a very long footbridge across the river, walked across it and back, lots of people out and about it being Sunday the one holiday of the week. Next to a wood carving workshop and then to a place that makes gold leaf the old fashioned way by beating it with a hammer. Lunch at a restaurant that stunk of cat pee really bad, did not want to upset anyone so sat down hoping I would get used to the smell, ordered Pork Mango Pickle and it only had one piece of meat the rest was fat, never order pork in an Asian country unless you like pork fat. After lunch was an unscheduled surprise we went to a Wedding reception, the drivers friends son/daughter. Next to the Palace, here you have to buy a 10,000 kyat Mandalay Zone Pass which gives you access to 5 sites. Wandered around the palace, the grounds are huge with a wall and moat around them, the military has barracks inside. Next to the Shwenandaw Kyaung Temple carved out of wood then the Kuthodaw Pagoda which has 700 something smaller pagodas around it. Last stop for the day was sunset from the top of Mandalay Hill, parked and then an escalator to the top 1000 kyat fee, lots of Buddha’s, mirrors and lights, waited for an hour until sunset, many foreign tourists. You have to wait for the escalator to reverse direction to get back down.
Day 2 in Mandalay I was woken at 0500 by the Muslim call to prayer so there must be a mosque in the area, this place has a Muslim population of various ethnicities. The day started with a drive to Mingun across the Irrawaddy river. There is a 5000 kyat zone fee, they gave me a sticker and a map but no ticket did not think of this until later, capitalism at work. First stop a huge brick monolith Pa Hto Taw Gyi, walked around it then kept going to Molmi Paya an abandoned Pagoda, next the Mingun Bell, after that another Pagoda and then the White Pagoda. This is a tourist area both local and foreign. Street lined with shops and stray dogs. With the new Government of Aung Sun See schools are now free, seatbelts are compulsory and many roads have been resurfaced. From Mingun we drove to Sagaing where there are a number of Monasteries, Meditation Centres, Pagodas and a convent or two. Pink robes everywhere, that’s what the nuns wear, looked fairly young but hard to even tell their gender with shaven heads. Drove to the top of the hill, a pagoda with a view and a pagoda built by the Japanese. Next stop the river for lunch at a local restaurant very good. After that I took a 5 minute ferry across the river to Inwa or Ava, about 50 “Horse Carts” as they call them waiting to take the tourists for a ride at 10,000 each, I declined and walked on. Small villages, very primitive, still using bullock carts and making everything by hand including cloth and houses with walls and doors made of palm leaves. Ruined pagodas, Museum closed, walked through the fields using Maps Me to navigate, back to the boat after 5.5km and 1.5 hrs.
Dhaka to Yangon on Biman Air the Bangladesh Airline, short (1:50hrs) and expensive flight, there are very few options on this route. I got an Uber to Dhaka Airport, traffic was the usual chaos, a policeman offered to bypass the queue at the Airport Entrance for a fee, I declined. Chris Gayle after successfully winning the Premier league cricket final the previous day was also on his way out of the country.
Yangon formerly Rangoon, population 7 million was the old capital of Myanmar formerly Burma.
Landing in Yangon from Dhaka was like arriving on another planet, clean and traffic actually staying in lanes and they drive on the right unlike the surrounding countries which all drive on the left. Apparently this change from left to right happened overnight in 1970 due to the whim of the reigning dictator but most of the cars and busses still have the steering wheel on the right and many of the road signs have not changed either hahaha.
I booked a car and driver (no guide) for 2 days in each of the cities I visited Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan in advance through a travel agency (Hue Nguyen, https://myanmartravel.com/). They also booked my train ticket from Yangon to Mandalay and bus ticket from Bagan to Yangon.
First thing I did was get an MPT SIM card costs 1500 kyat ($1.50) and 2GB Data for 30 days 2999 kyat ($3), you have to give them a copy of your passport photo page. It started working straight away 4G and fast, amazing. Sightseeing for the day was Sule Pagoda, Independence Monument, High Court and the City Hall, Botahtaung Pagoda, Bogyoke Market, Shwedagon Pagoda, National Museum, St.Mary’s Cathedral, very big lying down Buddha Paya Chaukhtatgyi Temple and huge sitting Buddha Ngahtatgyi Temple. This is the only country I have been to where you have to not only take your shoes off when entering a religious site but also your socks, a real nuisance.
Bago is a town 91 km north east of Yangon and it has the distinction of having the tallest pagoda in Myanmar, on the way is the Taukkyan War Cemetery, the most visited cemetery in Asia, mainly Indian and English soldiers. At the first site you visit in Bago you will be sold a ticket for 10,000 kyat which gives you access to a number of other places.
Bangladesh – has a complicated history, once a part of British India it next became East Pakistan, until it gained independence in 1971 and became Bangladesh. Predominantly Muslim with about 10% Hindu, Bangla is the national language and they have their own numerals. They are passionate about their culture and language and in 1952 when the Government in West Pakistan tried to impose Urdu on them as the National language there was a protest and a massacre by the police. Finally in 1956 Bengali or Bangla was granted official status and the day of the massacre 21 February 1952 was declared International Mother Language Day by UNESCO.
I flew from Paro, Bhutan to Dhaka. Visa on arrival was simple and quick, fill in a form, pay US$51 in cash and you are through. The Immigration Officer actually called my Tour Agency to check up on me because I could not give them a Hotel name, my first night was spent on a boat. So make sure you have the phone number and address of your hotel.
I was picked up from the airport by my guide from Bangladesh Expeditions. I booked a private tour because that is the only way you get to visit the Sundarbans. First day was a tour of Dhaka, it was like stepping back in time, cycle rickshaws rule the roads and due to the narrow streets and congestion they are in most cases the quickest way to get around. Some of the rickshaws are battery powered. I bought a SIM card for 410 taka (US$5) with 200 taka credit of which 46 went towards 250Mb/7 days for 3G Data, it started working immediately and the speed was reasonable.
At the end of the day we boarded the Rocket Steamer, an ancient boat which leaves Dhaka at 18:30, travels down river and arrives in Hularhat the following morning at 10:00. I met my companions for this part of the tour, Milu and Safiun, a retired Bangladeshi doctor who spent most of his life in the UK and partner and Ellie a young English girl who is now a professional travel blogger. Check out her website at https://soultravelblog.com/, it coincides with my travel philosophy and that of Chief Seattle, a 19th century Native American Chief who famously said “take only memories, leave only footprints”. Conversations with them helped relieve the tedium of 3 days on the boat in the Sundarbans where for the most part we saw muddy riverbanks devoid of life.
Day 2 was a drive in a minivan from Hularhat Jetty to first a tomb and then the 60 dome mosque or Shaat Gombuj Mosque, wandered around, small museum and then on to Mongla for the night. Along the way we had to stop at a Police checkpoint where money changed hands and we were allowed to continue on, apparently you have to pay Baksheesh just to buy a 1st class ticket on the train or the Rocket steamer.
The next two nights were spent on a smaller boat following the river Pushkar and then the Sela towards the Bay of Bengal. It drizzled most of the time, we visited a couple of beaches and saw a few Kingfishers, Herron, Spotted deer and a single Otter and a Monkey. We were accompanied by a Guard with a rifle. After 3 days on the boat we returned to Mongla and drove to Khulna, from there I got a train back to Dhaka. The train left at 2030 and arrived in Dhaka the next morning 12 minutes late at 0642.