Mandalay. Onward and upward as we left Kalaw to Mandalay, the former royal capital second largest city. It is dominated by the former royal palace fort which is surrounded by a large moat and filled with trees, a military base and a facsimile of the old palace which was destroyed during World War II. The palace itself is inspiring for its evocation of former grandeur but also somewhat empty. S. and I agreed Mandalay city authorities should create a Central Park of the east, an arboreal retreat in the middle of the city. Immediately to the north stands Mandalay Hill. The top is ennobled with a spectacularly-sited Buddhist temple and the flat plains of central Myanmar strike off in all directions. Low mountain ranges loom faintly through the haze to the west and east. For the rest, the lazy Irrawaddy river pulses slowly south, in a few short months to be awoken to its monsoon glory.   

Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw. These towns are known as hill stations in the old British vernacular. Retreats from the broiling heat of the summer and are dotted with colonial teak mansions. We took a train from Pyin Oo Lwin to Hsipaw and crossed the famed Gokteik Viaduct on the way. This tottering steel lacework is set across a deep jungle valley and far below some trickle or other. First class train travel was a delight. Cushy seats with enormous open windows allowing food to be easily purchased on the station floor from the comfort of our own seats. The train shook from side to side as the rail gauge is less wide than standard. From Hsipaw we trekked into the Shan State tea-growing hills against the advice of our hostel in P.O.L., warning there was strife (shooting) between the Shan State army and the Myanmar army…


Our guide explained much as we puffed our way up the steep hillsides. The terrain was very different to Kalaw/Inle with lush green foliage, clusters of towering bamboo, verdant crops, burbling streams and the occasional soldier. The ascent to leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi (Nobel Peace Prize Winner and daughter of the Father of the Nation, General Aung San) has ushered in a slew of ceasefire agreements between many of the warring armies but it bubbles up now and again. Each village is protected by its own ethnic army often funded by drug production (opium, heroin etc.) who also replenish their ranks by forced conscription which is why young men like our guide are so keen to keep out of the villages! He is building a school for the village which had the most amazing view I think any school can claim. This to educate the children who otherwise have no education whatsoever. He himself had a primary school in his village and had to live in a monastery for seven years for high school. The monasteries in Myanmar function also as an open-to-all school for people who can’t afford otherwise to attend. The hillsides are dotted by the occasional tea plantation but for the rest lushly coated in jungle, hill after hill fading away into the distance like some Chinese watercolour painting.


Bagan. Home to the most famous of Myanmar’s tourist attractions, the ~4,000 temples dotted around the plains of Bagan stand mute testament to the glory of the civilisation spanning 1,000-1,200 A.D. Their fanatical building spree meant we, via electric scooter, were able to judder along dirt trail after dirt trail and uncover temple upon temple, I really felt like a tomb raider! The whole area covers some 13×8 km and we decided to go all in and plump for a dawn balloon trip to really get a sense of the scale. Just an incredible feeling of peace, soaring above into a cloudless sky, punctuated by the roar of the gas burner keeping us aloft, the dry bush below stippled by the stupas and pagodas of a fallen civilisation. Scattered villages with herds of goats driven out in the early morning, farmers scything obscure plants and the knowledge that at some time, in between all these isolated temples, a giant wooden city was once there and now no more.

Ngapali Beach. The beach paradise of Myanmar complete with the whitest of white sand, swaying coconut palm trees and incongruously expensive luxury resorts. Hands-down the best seafood we’ve had on our trip so far; red snapper, sea prawns, grouper, squid, octopus, shrimp, barracuda and king mackerel.

   

Now back to reality for S. and back to Netherlands for a month and as for your scribe, I shall journey onto parts unknown. Mountains, rivers, unusual animals, bustling hives of humanity and a kaleidoscope of ethnicities. To be continued…


Title note: Speech by Aung San Suu Kyi, 1990. 

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