Bagan and the Night Train to Yangon

IMG_5236 (1280x424)

There were a few things that I had wanted to do  but wasn’t able to because of lack of time and unfortunate weather.  I had wanted to take the train out to Pyin Oo Lwin, a colonial summer town, and on over the Gokteik Viaduct, but my flight delay meant I had a day less in Mandalay. One piece of advice I have for travellers to Myanmar is allow more time than you think you need for travelling, and to be flexible because transport will be delayed and/or breakdown. I had also thought about getting the ferry downriver from Mandalay to Bagan,  but it didn’t seem very appealing in the rain so I took a minibus from my hotel that got there in much less time, as it sped down the well-paved but extremely narrow road to Bagan, where ancient pagodas dot the landscape as far as the eye can see.  Foreign tourists have to pay $10 for a ticket to the Bagan Archaeological Zone.  Our bus stopped at a ticket office where you could also buy maps of the area and copies of George Orwell’s Burmese Days in various European languages.

IMG_8232 (600x800)IMG_8234 (800x600)Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, Bagan was the capital of the surrounding kingdom, and there was a religious building frenzy as a way of earning merit for future lives.  There are many large and lavish pagodas, temples and monasteries, and countless other small, crumbling structures.  You could spend weeks exploring the plains.  The most stunning images of the area are taken during the dry season, and you can even take hot air balloon rides at sunrise at that time of the year.  Unfortunately it rained most of the time I was there, despite Bagan being located in Burma’s central ‘dry zone’ where it supposedly rains much less than in the rest of the country.  Bagan is a very popular tourist area, so with the friends I made at my hostel, we rented e-bikes (electric scooters) and braved the rain and the mud to explore some pagodas.  It was quite an adventure, as the following picture can attest!

IMG_5259 (800x800)IMG_5228 (800x591)

Our e-bikes got stuck in the mud, ran out of battery and got flat tires.  We started out as a group on five bikes, and arrived back on three, one of which had to be pedalled.  My front tire went totally flat and I left it by a pagoda, taking the photo above to show the bike shop where to pick it up.  They are the best (and most fun) way to get around, but I would recommend travelling in a group, especially if you’re going off the beaten (and potholed) track.  The rain was relentless that day and I couldn’t take many pictures because my lens kept getting wet, but even so, I did appreciate the lushness of the greenery surrounding the red brick buildings and golden stupas.  I was also grateful for the lack of crowds and for the coolness, because I’m not sure I would be able to bear the heat, dust and hecticness of the dry season.  On the morning of the day I was leaving, a number of us at the hostel woke before dawn and rented e-bikes again to go to a pagoda you could climb to watch the sunrise.  The rain held off, and although we couldn’t see the sun, it was very beautiful to see the the landscape change from darkness punctured by illuminated pagodas, to the green and red of day.

IMG_8239 (800x589)IMG_8241 (599x800)IMG_8243 (800x599)IMG_8248 (800x600)IMG_5254 (566x800)An experience I really wanted to have on my trip was a train ride, especially a night train.  I had done my research and knew what kind of journey it would be, even this review didn’t put me off!  It didn’t seem so fun to do it alone though, because even bad experiences (see the e-bikes above) can be great when you have someone to laugh about them with.  But luckily, another friend I had made at the hostel wanted to do it too, so we went for it.

IMG_5283 (800x600)The Bagan train station is an elaborate building situated in the middle of nowhere.  We were the only two foreigners there, and we had an audience as we bought our tickets.  There were two very creepy waiting rooms – one for tourists in a long dark room, empty except for three grand but uncomfortable seats, and one for VIPs(?), which had lines of chairs facing the blank wall at the back.  There was also a bathroom that would have been totally fine (it had toilet paper and soap) if it weren’t for the fact that the light didn’t work in this windowless room, so using my headlamp made it feel like I was in the bathroom in Saw.  We waited out near the platform with the rest of the passengers and people were eager to make sure that we got on the right train.  One small train with ordinary seat carriages pulled up while we were waiting, and our train was delayed by an hour.

IMG_8254 (800x597)IMG_8256 (800x597)I was glad I had known about the existence of ‘special’ sleeper cars, so it wasn’t a total shock when we found that our small car would have no access to the rest of the train.  The train is scheduled to arrive in Yangon at 10:30 a.m., but I had read that it usually arrives at around midday.  When we got into our carriage, before the train pulled off, we were told that we would probably arrive at 2 p.m. and we could order dinner and breakfast from the restaurant car that would be passed in to us through the window.  I would definitely recommended getting the food – I can say it was some of the best that I ate during my whole trip!

IMG_8259 (800x600)As we pulled out of Bagan, we really were wondering what had we signed up for – 20 isolated hours riding a train that is said to be more like riding a horse.  At first we crept along the tracks, swaying gently, going past palm trees and waving locals.  We got ourselves accustomed to our new home.  There are upper berths that are parallel to the train, and two sets of four seats by the windows that also pull out into a bed.  Every surface was covered in grime (no wonder, because these trains have been in operation for decades and it’s only the occasional tourist who uses them, while the locals somehow sleep on the wooden bench seats in the ordinary class), but we did get clean sheets and a pillow.  The toilet was western-style, but just over a hole in the floor, the fan didn’t work and the glass in the windows was opaque with dirt.  But none of that mattered.  We kept the windows open while it was light, looking out at the scenery, and in order to have our (delicious) dinner and beer passed in to us.  It wasn’t too stuffy either when the windows were closed, and the pull-out seat beds were quite comfortable.  I was glad we didn’t have to sleep in the upper berths because we would have definitely hit the ceiling and probably the floor during the night.

IMG_8275 (800x600)IMG_8280 (590x800)IMG_5270 (590x800)

The carriages of the trains are built for wider tracks than what they run on, so that means that when the train picks up speed (relatively speaking), there is a lot of swaying from side to side and bouncing up and down.  The train lurches rather than glides.  We got used to it though, and I slept really well, apart from sometimes being woken up because my body had lifted completely off the bed with particularly violent lurches.  We were woken up for breakfast by the restaurant man who had to wait in our carriage for the next stop to get off.  I spent the rest of the morning dozing and looking out at the changed landscape of drowned rice fields and small towns.  Once we had been stationary for quite a while, and when I looked out the window I could see some men tinkering with the connection between our carriage and the rest of the train.  Luckily the whole train got moving again!  I was so glad we had taken the train, because if I had taken the night bus to Yangon, I would have arrived at 5 a.m. which would have been miserable.  I enjoyed taking the slow, scenic route, and we both agreed that it was the most unique train journey we had ever taken.

IMG_8287 (800x599)IMG_8289 (800x591)IMG_8300 (800x583)IMG_8293 (800x578)IMG_8286 (541x800)IMG_8294 (800x598)IMG_8296 (800x582)IMG_5279 (800x595)IMG_8304 (800x582)IMG_8306 (800x600)


IMG_5216 (800x598)

The day I was to leave Myitkyina was the day that the rain, which had until then been sporadic, fell steadily with few breaks for the rest of my trip.  It wasn’t until I left Myanmar and saw on the news about the severe flooding that I realized how seriously some parts of the country were affected.  I’m still not sure how much of the flooded streets and structures that I saw is what they’re used to in the rainy season, or unusually severe.  One night coming back from dinner I had to walk almost knee-deep through the watery streets.  It’s possible to walk around parts of Mandalay where the attractions are clustered together, but I thought the best way to see the city would be for a guide to take me around.  I asked at the reception desk at my hotel (where all the staff were so nice and helpful), and the girl got her brother to take me around the city on his motorbike.  Despite the rain it was a great way to get around, because it’s how most local people do, either on their own bikes, or on the back of motorcycle taxis.

IMG_8113 (800x600) (2)After driving alongside the reconstructed walls of Mandalay Palace, our fist stop was the Kuthodaw Paya, where 729 marble slabs inscribed with Buddhist text are housed in little shrines.  Burmese script is similar to Korean in how syllables are composed by adding vowel symbols around the consonant.

IMG_8095 (800x600)IMG_8094 (640x800)IMG_8148 (800x600)IMG_8122 (800x545)Perhaps because of the bad weather during the rest of my trip, I wasn’t hassled much by souvenir sellers, although some of the other tourists had stories of the elaborate ways people would try to convince them to buy something.  For instance, taking their shoes from outside a pagoda and keeping them ‘for safety’ at a shop.  I bought some postcards from a girl at this pagoda and when I admired her leaf-shaped thanaka make-up, she offered to put it on me as well.  It didn’t suit me at all but it was fun to try it out and she was very sweet.

IMG_8101 (800x600)IMG_8104 (800x590)The Shwenandaw Kyaung is a nineteenth-century teak monastery, a former palace building that escaped the destruction of WWII because it had been moved outside by the last king of Burma.  Foreigners have to pay $10 for a ticket that also provides access to Mandalay Palace and three sites outside the city.  I didn’t visit any of the other places covered by the ticket, but it was interesting to see a non-reconstructed historical site and the wooden carvings were very striking.  Across the way was another massive monastery that had been reconstructed, with pictures inside showing before and after its destruction.  The interior was a vast hall with a relatively small Buddha shrine at the back.  As at all the pagodas I visited during my stay, there were people just hanging around inside, chatting or using their new smartphones.  It was nice to see these spaces having a social as well as a religious role.

IMG_8142 (800x600)IMG_8126 (581x800)IMG_8132 (800x600)IMG_8128 (600x800)IMG_8146 (800x601)IMG_8147 (800x593)Kyauktawgyi Paya was very colourful and lively.  Near the gate you can see larger-than-life-size statues of the penultimate king of Burma, Mindon and his wife.  As in many of the popular pagodas, the Buddha images are lit up with neon lights, surrounded by flowers, and somewhere in the pagoda a monk was chanting sutras and this was played through speakers.  All of these pagodas and monasteries were to the northeast of the palace, just under Mandalay Hill.  I didn’t climb Mandalay Hill because I wasn’t convinced that the view would be worth it and I wasn’t too sure about going up the steps barefoot either, because the level ground was slippery enough.  Shoes have to be removed at the entrance to pagodas and monasteries, which felt a little strange coming from Japan where it’s shoes-outside/socks-inside, whereas here it’s barefoot outside and in when it’s holy ground.

IMG_8164 (800x600)IMG_8167 (600x800)IMG_8160 (800x590)We then drove to the other side of the city to visit the most spectacular pagoda, Mahamuni Paya, which is most famous for its ancient Buddha statue that has a peculiar knobbly figure due to the layers of gold leaf applied by (male) worshippers.  I sat with the women and my guide offered to take a close-up picture for me.  I would have felt more annoyed about the sexism if I weren’t also feeling a little embarrassed about being a sightseer in a place of devout worship, although I don’t think anyone has a problem with that.

IMG_8177 (800x600)IMG_8184 (600x800)IMG_8182 (800x591)IMG_8194 (600x800)IMG_8197 (800x600)IMG_8202 (589x800)One of the most recommended things to do in Mandalay is to experience sunset at the U Bein bridge, the world’s longest teak footbridge.  I knew there wasn’t going to be any sun to see set, but the bridge over the rainy lake was worth a look.  It was a solid bridge, but with no railings and irregular planks, it did take some mindfulness on my part not to trip.  The flooding here is usual, and it is an actual, if shallow, lake that happens to empty during the dry season.

IMG_8209 (800x600)IMG_8225 (800x600)IMG_8221 (800x600)IMG_8213 (800x600)IMG_8227 (800x600)IMG_8229 (800x600)The rain had gotten heavier as we crossed the lake and we stopped at a typical Burmese teashop.  Earlier in the day I had asked my guide if we could go to one, but he had taken me to a very fancy place where the only other customers were foreigners.  I think he was worried that I had high expectations for tea. This was his first time taking a tourist around the city and I could tell he was nervous in the morning, but he relaxed by the afternoon when he could tell that I was just happy to be taken around.  He wanted to show me his university on the other side of the bridge, which was unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, closed that day, so instead we went to a teashop where I got to try the Burmese way of drinking tea (sweet black tea with condensed milk), he helped me practice some useful Burmese phrases (which I couldn’t make the tea girl understand because of my terrible pronunciation), and he told me about his plan to go to work in Japan in the next year and how he had been going to Japanese classes to prepare for it.  It was a really nice way to spend my first day on my own in Myanmar – seeing some interesting historical/religious sites and spending time with a local.

IMG_8217 (800x600)IMG_8215 (800x600)