Travelblog#5: Bago – Burma

29th August, 2014

After over a week spent exploring Burma’s rustic south, it was time for us to head north. We rose early in the morning and, Roy and I did not know this yet, but we were about to encounter an entirely new kind of Asian experience.

The Burmese Discobus.

2

Anyone who has been on a long bus journey in Thailand has probably been tortured with those terrible music videos that they like to torment people with over there. If you are one of those people you are probably thinking right now that you understand what Roy and I went through that morning in Burma. Trust me; you do not understand. This was not your typical Asiapop – it was in an entire league of its own. It sounded like the theme tune to an unwilling bride being dragged down the aisle in a very awkward wedding. It was truly bad, but we could live with bad. It was more the sheer ear-ringing volume which was the problem.

“Why!” we exclaimed. “Why?”

It was so loud, even some of the locals were a bit disgruntled by it, but the bus conductor was peculiarly adamant and seemed to think that there was nothing wrong with turning the speakers up so high it made the windows shake at 8 am in the morning. I began to wonder if we had been magically teleported into the heart of North Korea.

The bus was eventually stopped by the military – like it usually does when there are foreigners on board.

“Yeah… I will do anything. Whatever you like. As long as you get them to turn-it-down.” Roy shouted. Even with Roy shouting, the uniformed soldier had to lean down to hear what he was saying. The soldier then turned and made an angry expression at the conductor, who hastily brought an end to our torment. It didn’t last very long though; as soon as we drove away again the volume was flicked back up to max.

2

Luckily we only had to be on that bus for five hours. We got off at Bago, and the Discobus drove away, still loudly thumping its discordant beats.

We had six hours to wait for our sleeper bus to Kalaw. Bago is a temple town, so there were plenty of things to see while we waited.

Many places in Burma have admission fees which are enforced by the government, and the Bago temple area is one of them. If we had any faith that the money being collected was going to good causes we wouldn’t have a problem with paying up, but if you know anything about the military junta which has been in control of Burma for the last fifty years you’ll probably understand why Roy and I are very reluctant to pay government fees. When we want to make donations we usually give them directly to the monasteries.

The good news is that the Burmese dictatorship is almost as incompetent as it is corrupt, and it is generally quite difficult for them to enforce an entry fee when the “site” is actually a multitude of attractions which are scattered across a town. There are several online guides about how to avoid paying, but they all seem to be a bit out of date. If you are a traveller searching for more up-to-date information, like we were, then please scroll to the bottom of this page and I will tell you how we managed it*.

Bago does have some interesting sites to see, but endless pagodas and Buddhas can get a little bit boring to read about so I won’t clog up my blog with them. What I did find very interesting about Bago was its history and lore. It is home to this humungous creature for a start.

3

A 17ft long Burmese python. He is over 120 years old and believed to be the reincarnation of monk who was once the head of a monastery in northern Burma. It is said that the snake instructed his carer to set off on a pilgrimage to Bago to complete a stupa which he had never managed to finish in his previous life. The snake-monk’s master did just that, and now people come from miles around come to pay homage.

I also found this interesting:

4

This Buddha was, quite literally, unearthed by British colonialists in 1880. It had been previously reclaimed by the jungle after Bago was pillaged in the 18th century. It took them several years to clear away all of the foliage which had grown over it but they fixed it up pretty well. Extra mosaics and other bits of bling were added in the 1930’s.

In the tunnel leading up towards it, a series of paintings tells the story of King Migadepa, who ruled over this region back in the days when most people in this region were still practicing tribal animism. Local legends say that that when his son fell in love with a girl and ran off with her, the King was enraged because she was a believer in Buddhism. The King had them both hunted down and killed, but then, later on, he himself converted to Buddhism and had this monument constructed as penance.

 

*How to get into Bago without paying Government fee

There are a lot of blogs out there which will tell you about the various side entrances you can use to avoid the ticket-booths, and this can be effective way to avoid paying, but the problem is that the government seems to be closing up the holes in the net and new ticket booths keep appearing. Roy and I visited one which we had heard was safe only to find ourselves approached by a weaselly woman who jumped off her seat, very eagerly, to ask us if we had bought a ticket yet. We both pulled our best innocently-confused-foreigner expressions and walked away.

We later got talking to some of the (many) motorcycle and tuk-tuk drivers who offer tours around the temples and discovered that the majority of them will give you a “no fee tour” if you pay them a little extra. It isn’t much and, as the official fee is a whopping $10, you are still saving money this way. Not only that, but your money is going to a much better place for when you’re in Burma; the pockets of locals rather than their oppressors.

Some of the temples of Bago are quite far away from each other so most people end up taking a tour anyway, so I would thoroughly recommend doing this. The locals are always going to be more up to date with any changes than a blog you read online.

Travelblog#4: Hpa-an and Mount Zwegabin – Burma

25th-28th August, 2014

The last few days we had just spent roaming around Mawlamyine had been very fast-paced, so when we reached Hpa-an – our next destination – we decided we would take a day to relax at first.

Soe Brothers Guesthouse, the place we checked into, was perfect for that. Not only did it have free wifi and a tea making station, but it also had wash-rooms and plenty of hanging lines on the balcony which meant that we could also catch up with something we had both been neglecting recently; our laundry. We did take a little walk around though to get our bearings and discovered that it was quite quaint for a Burmese town, and it had a thriving market.

The next day we went out on our first trip in the area; Saddar Cave. And another Brit we had met upon the road called Rory joined us.

We caught a bus to Eindo, but once we got there none of the tuk-tuk drivers seemed to want to drive us the rest of the way so we were forced to walk. I was glad we did in the end as we passed through some very scenic rice paddy farms which were surrounded by limestone mountains and floodplains.

1

And we even got to watch some local fishermen casting out their nets to catch fish, Burmese style.

2

We realised why the tuk-tuk drivers were reluctant to bring us when we had to remove our shoes and wade our way through the knee-deep sodden clay which had clogged up the end of the road. When we did finally reach the cave we were disappointed to find out that we would not be able to reach the “secret lake” on the other side because of flooding, but the cave itself – which was filled with beautiful Buddha statues and pagodas – was definitely worth the trip.

3

Rory made his way back to Yangon the next morning because he was flying to Bangladesh, so it was just me and Roy again. We decided it was time to do something a little more challenging: climb Mount Zwegabin.

Zwegabin is the highest mountain in the area, but the way it juts out from the relatively flat terrain surrounding it, it more resembles a cliff. There is a monastery perched upon its highest peak which, rumour has it, occasionally lets wanderers stay overnight.

We packed some basic provisions and left the rest of our stuff at Soe Brothers, who very kindly agreed to look after them for us, and then we hired a tuk-tuk to start of the trail. We stopped at Kyauk Kalap on the way to take some pictures of – you guessed it – another pagoda. This one was perched on the top of an interesting rock formation and surrounded by an artificial lake.

4

We also caught a view of what was to come.

5

You see that tiny collection of buildings up there? No – probably not. Let’s zoom in a bit.

6

That, was where we were about to climb to. I will admit, the sight of it was a bit daunting.

“Why are we doing this, again, Roy?” I asked. “Please remind me.”

We began the hike. It was gruelling, but the trail which skirted around the slopes of the mountain was quite well maintained. It tested both my stamina and my fear of heights but, somehow, I managed to make it up to the top. Mostly by clinging to the side of the mountain, taking many breaks, and lastly – but definitely not least – not looking down.

I took photos of some of the finest landscapes I have ever had the privilege of seeing, which can be found on my Flickr page. I would like to mention here as a side-note that I am definitely not a photographer, and my photos are generally just holiday snaps taken with a crude point-and-click digital. Roy is wonderful with a camera and the pictures he is taking of the places we are visiting do them much more justice, so I would recommend checking out his Flickr account.

There were only two monks in residence at the time we visited, and they seemed quite surprised that we wanted to stay. Once we had made ourselves understood they were reasonably hospitable and guided us to a dormitory room where we were given mats, blankets and pillows to sleep on and, most importantly, a pot full of hot Jasmine tea.

We were there just in time to witness the afternoon feeding of the monkeys, whom the monks seemed to have formed a tenuous but functional relationship with by giving them meals twice a day and keeping a dog called “Manni”, whose job it was to keep them in line. Whenever the monkeys got a bit cocky or boisterous they would exclaim “Manni! Manni!”, and she would rush over to chase them away.

Me and Roy were both sweaty from the climb, so we were guided towards some cubicles where we could wash, using buckets of cold rainwater. We then wandered around, taking pictures of the stunning views which were all around us.

7

Just as we entered dusk and the sky started to turn hazy, the mountain was suddenly enveloped by a cloud and we watched as streams of white fog floated towards us, obscuring the nearby mountains until all we could see past the balcony we were sat at, was fog. It was one of the eeriest moments of my life.

Later on in the evening one of the monks went out to the central pagoda to meditate, and then he began walking circles around it while chanting. We watched from a respectful distance and caught a few photos (without using flash).

8

Their dog Manni dutifully slept in our doorway all night to guard us from the monkeys, and when we packed up and left the next morning she even escorted us all the way back down the mountain. A part of me was relieved to be leaving. It truly was a beautiful and atmospheric place but my fear of heights made it almost impossible for me to feel relaxed there, as no matter where I looked I could always see a sheer drop below us somewhere.

When we reached the ground again we took a small trip to another monastery in a village called Thamanyat, where they have the embalmed bodies of two deceased monks still preserved in the lotus position. It was interesting, if a little bit creepy.

9

 

Travelblog#3: Mawlamyine – Burma

22nd-24th August, 2014

On the morning of the 22nd our bus pulled into Mae Sot and we made our way straight to the Thailand-Burma friendship bridge. It was fairly painless, as far as border crossings go. We had already been granted visas so it was just a case of filling out a form and being stamped into the country.

We stepped onto the streets of Myawaddy. Me, Roy, and a Swiss guy were the only caucasian people there so we immediately found ourselves surrounded by some very enthusiastic, betelnut-chewing touts, who all insisted that we would not to find a ride to Mawlamyine for any cheaper than 10,000 kyat each. It is never a good idea to trust the first people who approach you when you enter a new place, so Roy walked off a little bit further away from the main drag to see if he could haggle for something a little cheaper while I looked after our bags.

“I found a ride for 5,000 kyat each,” he said when he returned a few minutes later. “That’s half what they said.”

“Let’s go see,” I said, picking up my backpack.

Roy led me to our ride.

“It’s a bit ‘local’,” he said. “You up for it?”

1

“Yeah. Let’s do it.”

The Swiss guy (Sandro) joined as well and at first it was just the three of us, an elderly lady, and a Burmese couple with three kids. We sat ourselves down on the mats, claiming the spots which would be our living space for the next ten hours. It was more than an hour before we even left because, as usual in Asia, it did not leave until all the spaces had been filled. In the meanwhile we were approached by many random passersby who wanted to greet us between the bars. Roy practiced numbers and some other Burmese words with the mother of the family we were cooped up with, while the father (who was almost certainly drunk) was very insistent that we eat some of his bhajis and biscuits.

When the rest of the spaces were finally filled the driver started up the engine and we began our journey to Mawlamyine.

Roy had spent much of that morning complaining that he was tired because he didn’t manage to get much REM time on the sleeper bus we just caught from Bangkok but, apparently, once he was crammed into the back of a songthaew this was no longer a problem.

2

It was a rocky journey. The road between Myawaddy and Mawlamyne only runs in one direction (which alternates each day). Even then, it was chaos. We were held up for almost an hour at one point. We were also stopped at least four times by the army who checked our passports and asked us questions about where we were going.

Despite all of this, it was one of the most enjoyable – and most definitely, memorable – journeys I have ever been on. The first half of it was along a narrow road carved into the side of a steep mountain range, and we caught some sights of very beautiful limestone cliffs jutting out from the flatlands below. The locals we were sharing carriage with were very friendly. I began to feel like I was travelling again, after three all-too-comfortable weeks I had just spent in Thailand.

By the time we reached Mawlamyine it was almost evening so we didn’t have time to do much else apart from check-in to a guest house. Most of the landlords turned us down because they were not allowed to accept foreigners so we only had three options, all of which were a bit dingy and overpriced. We ate dinner by the waterfront and discussed what we were going to do with the next day ahead of us.

“There’s a place just south of here which has the worlds’ biggest reclining Buddha,” Roy said, as he scrolled through our copy of Budget Burma.

“How big is it?” I asked.

“About five hundred and sixty feet long.”

“That’s one big fucking Buddha…”

“Yup.”

The next morning we woke up early and went to the local bus station to find out how we could reach the big fucking Buddha (also known as Win Sein Taw Ya). We were pointed to a local service running to a nearby village which could drop us off along the way. All of the seats were already taken so I sat upon one of the sacks of corn which had been piled up in the middle of the aisle.

Half an hour later we were dropped off and, after a short walk down the driveway, we found the Buddha. It wasn’t exactly hard to miss.

3

It’s not the prettiest Buddha I have ever seen, but the scale of it alone was pretty damn impressive and it was definitely worth the trip.

4

We ventured inside and found that it contained a massive labyrinth of rooms and corridors. Most of them were merely empty space but some were filled with scale models depicting scenes from Buddha’s life.

On our way out Roy spotted a trail of identical Buddha statues lined up along the roadside which seemed to be leading somewhere. A procession of cows and goats were keenly upon the trail, so we realised that it must be something very important and followed them.

5

We found ourselves being led through a small forest and then up a nearby mountain to where we had a great opportunity to take some photos of the surrounding area.

6

In the afternoon we went to see a temple in a village nearby called Kyaikmaraw, where the monks were very friendly and keen to practice their English. We couldn’t stay there for very long though because the last bus back to Mawlamyine was at 4 pm.

On our second day in the area we ventured out to Nwa-la-bo Pagoda. We were told by the Lonely Planet that, as it was the weekend, the place would be filled with pilgrims and tuk-tuk rides to the top of the mountain would be available, but when we were dropped off by the bus the driveway was more or less empty. We started upon a gruelling two hour walk up the mountain. It was steep, sweaty, and long, but the higher we reached the better the views became.

When we finally reached the top the resident monk was very surprised to see us. Apparently not many people bother to make the journey during the wet season. We had a look around and took lots of photos of its main feature; a pagoda precariously balanced upon three golden rocks.

7

After eating lunch, refilling our water bottles, and having a quick rest we began to make our way back. Two men who happened to be riding down the mountain offered us a ride back so we jumped on the back on their motorcycles.

We reached Mawlamyine again in the late afternoon and we had just enough time to stroll around Mahamuni Paya and watch the sun set at Kyaikthanlan Paya, which was a perfect ending to the day.

9

10

As usual, more photos can be found on my Flickr account, here.