Friday 24 February – Bagan to Yangon

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It was a long and tiring day.

Flew with one of the several local airlines after farewelling Mr Winn and Jaw.

We were picked up by Myat, the Yangon based guide and visited an enormous reclining Buddha pagoda as the day got hotter. Fortunately our van was air-conditioned.

After lunch we took a crowded local train into the outer Yangon suburbs – we noted more of the piles of rubbish we have seen everywhere – dominated by plastic bags, and similar villages we have seen in the more rural areas cultivating crops which are then taken to Yangon markets. It’s hard to say if people are poor or unhappy or is it that their way of life is different from ours? Certainly life expectancy is shorter than ours at about 65 and there isn’t universal access to education and healthcare. But exposure to the way the Myanmar population live, raises lots of questions.

What was most interesting was observing normal Yangon people and their goods on the train, going about their normal lives – families, pedlars of sweet corn, bottles of water, watermelon and quails’ eggs getting on and off the trains. Goods are sometimes carried on donuts on their heads.

It took ages to get across town in the gridlock of Friday night rush hour – so much more development is pending, that you shudder to think of traffic in 2 or 5 years – and we had to stop at a loo on the way because of the state of Carol and Paul’s guts. We had only a brief opportunity for me to don a long skirt, before we ventured out, just Greg and me and the guide, to Shwedagon the huge, elaborate and impressive gold Buddhist temple, mecca for the pious and Yangon landmark. Incredible really when you observe the reality of people’s lives next door!

Had said good-bye to Jessica, and were pleased to hit the sack in this flashest of flash hotels designed with pagoda themes, exhausted after a light dinner.

Thursday 23 February – Bagan

Today was a temple crawl by bike – 5 temples each with its own story of past patricide, fratricide  and general mayhem that has occurred over many centuries to gain or retain power and the temples were built to ensure each despot was immortalised in history. The area is amazing, the multitude of brick pagodas being much more attractive than the ones we have seen elsewhere. Saw plenty of merchandisers employing the usual sales techniques, around these touristy areas and lots of westerners on motorcycles or ‘e bikes.’ Another Pokhara?

Temperatures were expected to reach 37 today – it felt like it and we were happy to have a dip and laze around the resort’s swimming pool after lunch trying to guess what nationalities belonged to the assortment of bodies we observed. Some westerners have no shame, exposing views of themselves which they shouldn’t.

We said farewell to the faithful steeds as they are readied for the next group of suckers intrepid cyclists!
We feel pleased that none of us suffered any bike mishaps although Jess fell over on a run!

As sunset approached, we were picked up and ferried to one of the temples where all tourists congregate to view the spectacular sunsets. The is temple is chosen because there is plenty of room for the masses at various levels. Judging by its popularity it must be mentioned in Lonely Planet as a ‘must-do in Bagan’. And it was indeed spectacular if hazy, but it took ages after sunset for the assembled masses to descend the narrow and steep stairway – not for those afraid of heights or narrow spaces.

At the last supper with Mr Winn and Jaw, we handed over the generous, but expected tip.

 

 

Wednesday 22 February – Mt Popa to Bagan

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When someone says “it’s all down hill from here” you never believe them, but occasionally it is true!

Today’s 53 km ride was said to be just that and so it was apart from 10 km or so in the middle which was easy undulating, snaking around the mountain and through the small villages we are becoming familiar with. It was also nice and cool to begin with as we headed down from the hills and the ride a real blast. We passed a place which makes products from the Totty tree: palm sugar, a light beer, a spirit, syrup, leaves for thatching, trunks for construction and we watched a chap shinny up the tree on a ladder attached to the trunk and place pots which catch the sap. At the same place we observed a cow attached to a grinder going round and round in circles to produce peanut oil. We sampled some yummy sweet products.

But it got hotter and hotter and we were pleased to reach the little restaurant for lunch. We visited a lacquered goods factory on the way to our hotel on the banks of the Irrawaddy river. The lacquered products have a skeleton of bamboo, are covered in lacquer from a tree confined to this area of Myanmar, dried several times and then decorated with designs and mosaics made from e.g. gold, egg shell and then polished. We have some placemats made from this process which are probably from here. Greg was OK again and managed the whole ride despite feeling not quite 100% but eating again at least. The many temples we passed are made of red brick -a nice change from the gold or paint, often deteriorating, we have seen elsewhere.

We are on the last lap of our trip and will be happy to say goodbye to the Trek mountain bikes which have taken quite a hammering on these roads. It is excellent to easily and quickly be able to change a wheel with a punctured tyre with a spare from the van as happened to me at the lacquer factory – shades of Tour de France!

Lazed around all afternoon, watched the sun set across the river sipping on smoothies, dined and were happy to hit the sack after a hot and tiring day.

We often tune into the BBC or CNN but are reminded of our disappointment in the past with their shameless and endless self promotion seemingly taking up as much time as the programmes themselves. Still NZ has featured – one of the cricketers has been bought by the ICL, NZ beat SA in a ODI due to Ross Taylor’s record and that’s about all.

Monday 20 February – Mandalay to Mt Popa

This 70 km ride began after a drive to the Irrawaddy where we and bikes were transported across the river by boat to Ava a previous capital with visible remnants of walls and temples. Lots of horse drawn vehicles were waiting for tourists to come the way we came and go across the river – one of the must do experiences of Mandalay we are told!

For the first 20 km we rode through villages but then the remainder of the ride was through desert like landscape – dry, scrappy vegetation, no shade, few villages, a large new industrial complex waiting to happen in the middle of nowhere, the Myanmar equivalent of Think Big perhaps, palm trees yielding palm sugar, cotton, tobacco, beans, and millet, and very hot, around 35 degrees. I flagged the ride at this stage because of the heat and rode in comfort in the air-conditioned van but Greg pushed himself and rode the whole distance, enjoying the challenge but feeling absolutely stuffed at the end. A highlight for me was the delicious ++ coconut doughnuts at the morning tea stop.

We transferred to van for a 100 km drive to Mt Popa Resort going through lots of road works and laborious sealing of the roads which were in poor repair. The resort is high on the side of a hill, the decor predominantly teak, with infinity pool, restaurant and some luxurious looking villas, for the rich and famous I suspect, although our unit was looking somewhat tired.

Myanmar is not a beautiful country but the way of life and the people and history are interesting. There is also a sameness about the food wherever we have been.

Tuesday 21 February – Mt Popa

We looked out the window into the haze surrounding the bush-clad hills this morning and spied a temple complex perched on the top of a large rock, like a pimple on a pumpkin.

But alas the bot had hit Greg who was up several times in the night with diarrhoea and feeling queasy. It was a later start and after I at least had a wonderful breakfast, we left in the van to scale the pumpkin. We are told it was 900 steps up and on the way we passed souvenir shops and chaps who asked for money for keeping the steps clean! And lots of monkeys were roaming free – when Greg asked one his name it attempted to scratch him. Anyway Greg was very weak and didn’t attempt the steep climb, and I was pleased that my walking ability from “The Hip” was not affected. At the top there were the usual stupas and temples with the more devoted Buddhist saying prayers and laying offerings. And the 360 degree view pretty good – we could just spot our accommodation, environmentally sympathetic as it is. Bus-transported tourists everywhere.

We collected Greg at the bottom and returned via a lunch stop for a rest and recreative afternoon – Greg was incredibly weak but after Loperamide and a sleep seemed to perk up. Riding tomorrow may be another thing.

Sunday 19 February – Mandalay

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We were getting quite tired with the heat and the kilometres, and were grateful for a slightly later start and short day.

Today’s 20 km tide took us around the city of Mandalay on a public holiday, to a huge carved wooden temple (like Bhaktapur, Nepal) and another series of stupas each with one of the Buddhist writings inscribed in the Burmese equivalent of Latin. No more temples or stupas please!

The adventure of the day finished with a sedate ride through villages on the outskirts of Mandalay on rather pitted, dusty roads, which would never be seen by proper ‘tourists’ – those in buses – we intrepid cyclists set ourselves apart from these guys, and a large snack of Indian chai and naan bread before returning to the hotel for an afternoon ‘off’, a chance for us to just relax, read, write blogs and poems, review photos and listen to Simon and Garfunkel on YouTube via the hotel Wi-fi. Others in the group are on sightseeing or running benders!

Actually we are getting on very well with the other three. There’s always lots to talk about as they are great travellers and opinionated about politics, Trump, Brexit, the evils of procreation, and alcohol.

Saturday 18 February – Mandalay

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The 53 km ride mercifully began early before it got too hot. We crossed town with the morning traffic, mainly motorcycles and an assortment of large and small trucks driven in quite an orderly fashion weaving in and out of each other and manoeuvring through the many uncontrolled intersections without incident. Didn’t feel unsafe although at one left hand turn Mr Win inserted himself and the van into a line of traffic to allow us to cross the flow.

After 11km or so riding alongside the river, we reached the UBien bridge across the Irrawaddy – it has some claim to fame – the longest teak bridge in Asia?
As with the other tourist destinations souvenir sellers and beggars lined the bridge including a woman with a cage full of sparrows and she invited us to pay to release one. On another stall we were grossed out by a plate of spatchcocked field mice and dried fish delicacies. Each to his own!

As the day got hotter we had another “if only the kids could see us now” moment – a previous one was the dusty road to Mandalay – as we cycled across the Irrawaddy on a bridge with shades of the Auckland Harbour Bridge and were impressed with the breadth of the river and the assortment of craft.

The best in category winners continued as we visited a huge pavlova – a white pagoda – some memorial to a lost wife, a 90 ton bell and an unfinished stupa – possibly the ‘largest pile of bricks in the world’ said our day’s briefing. We are in awe of the grandiosity of some of the completed or aborted schemes of previous moguls considering the poverty around them.

Like the colonial wannabes that we are, we enjoyed a slow ride on our own river craft, in reclining deck chairs, downstream back to Mandalay. It was f@#$^^#@ hot and we had a dip in the f#@$^$# freezing hotel pool followed by a shower to ‘warm up’! We ate Thai and the chocolate we finally found was inedible.

Everywhere we have been, but particularly here in Mandalay…….where “there are more monks than anywhere else” we have seen numerous shaved-head monks in their flowing robes of marone, red, orange and variations, clutching begging bowls in one hand and cell phones and I pads in the other. Anybody can become a monk at any age and for as little or as long as they wish as long as they obey the Buddhist precepts. This pathway is also available to females but there are many fewer and they dress in fetching pale pink  – as we drove in to Mandalay, we passed a line of pink nuns carrying baskets on their heads, gliding along the road. I wonder if this an option for children of poor families who have too many mouths to feed. They are respected but probably not revered.