Sunday, December 23, 2012

Mandalay: Sagaing and Innwa

After the overnight bus ride from Yangon, I got a good rest at my hotel. It turned out to be quiet at night, with disturbances starting only when it was time to get up for breakfast anyway. I wanted to visit some places outside of Mandalay, Sagaing and Innwa, and the way to do that was by motorcycle, so in the morning I rented one. As I have done in the past, I got the guy who rented them to give me a quick lesson in how the bike worked and then I took it for a cruise up and down the least traffic clogged street I could find while I worked out how to operate it without task loading, and then I took it on the busy moat road around the palace to the other side, where I pulled in the foreigners' entrance and visited the royal palace, a sterile collection of restored buildings pretty much devoid of furnishings or artwork. There was a tower to climb to get an overview, of Mandalay Hill mainly, heading much further up to the north.

To reach Sagaing I was told it was quite simple; I had to head south on 84 St and keep going. This took me through the center of town where I was surrounded by moving transport comprised of hundreds of other vehicle operators who knew what they were doing. By the time I reached the outskirts I knew at least knew better how to drive the bike. 

Reassuringly I found a signpost for Sagaing and followed it. This took me out a leafy highway maybe 20 km, not sure, but eventually I came to a pair of bridges. I stopped to ask directions and took the first one, which was for all kinds of traffic including cars approaching from the highway.  As I entered the bridge I couldn't see over the hump to where it was going, but once I got onto it, I could see my destination, the stupa covered hills to the east of Sagaing, with hundreds of pagodas glimmering in gold-tipped white above the treetops there.

Coming off the busy bridge there were no signposts in English and no obvious way into the hills with the pagodas, so I exited first chance I got on the far side of the bridge and motored into the townships there. The tarmac ran out and I was on dirt pathways, passing simple folk, the ladies with faces painted in the cosmetic they normally wear. I couldn't really see now where I was going but I eventually I came to small pagodas and then one with a covered stairway climbing up the hillside to a larger pagoda on top. I figured that from the top I would have a better view of the area, so I pulled my bike up to the gate and parked it there.

A couple of people were just then coming down the steps to the pagoda carrying their shoes, so I deduced I was meant to climb barefoot, but the steps went way up the hill and were quite dirty and there was no one else in sight, so I decided to start out with shoes. Such steps have several landings, and there are normally people at them, but this pagoda had no one around at any of the landings. I climbed all the way to the top of the stairs and took my shoes off there to enter the pagoda proper. 

There was no one at the top but an old monk who seemed glad to see me. He showed me to his office, a room with a few chairs, and told me to keep my shoes there, and then he said follow me, and took me around the top, pointing out the views, encouraging me to take photos, pointing out the most interesting pagodas I should visit when I got down. I spent a pleasant 20 min with him and when we returned to his office he offered me a bunch of bananas. I declined, he insisted, I said, ok, I'll take one, he said take two, and then he reached behind him and handed me a warm Pepsi. I declined the Pepsi, but reached into my pocket and offered him a small bill I found there. He took that but insisted I take the Pepsi. He said he was well provisioned. He showed me to the top of the steps, and when I started down barefoot, he said I could put my shoes on and walk down. What a kindly man.

I can't describe really what it was like getting back on my motorbike and starting out on the roads around the pagoda area. The road followed the river, and I passed monks walking in columns, and nuns in their precisely pressed pink gowns. With heads shaved, the color of the robe was all that distinguished them from the young men. The road along the river was a roar of motorcycle engines coming, going, passing me, coming at me, cars honking to get by, overloaded passenger vans. The road went though a town reminiscent of an Omani one, then disgorged along the river, which I followed north until I suspected it was the wrong way. I stopped and asked and was told the road went to Mingun. Interesting, you could make a two day circle trip here overnighting in Sagaing, from Mandalay to Innwa and perhaps farther one day, then north to Mingun along the river, where you might as well be in India, you could return to Mandalay over the bridge from the north, taking in the sites along the way. Next time :-)

Once I'd backtracked and checked the time I figured I'd better move on to Innwa if I was going there. Navigation was complicated because, though I had stopped in Mandalay to buy a map, I was at that moment was not on it (and I was never able to get Google maps to load in Burma, though now that I'm home, this map shows the way, and I'm finally able to visualize the route properly.

The first problem was to find my way back over the bridge to the Mandalay side of the river. The two bridges were obvious, my road passed under them, but how to get onto them? That took some more backtracking but soon I was across, and right on the other side I saw the road marked Innwa. This took me a few kms down a leafy road with not much traffic, though anything on the road is serious traffic to a motorcycle.

At the end of the road I found a river and a ferry crossing.  The ferry was a small boat the size of a large canoe with a platform on the bow for motorcycles. There were other tourists and locals crossing, all sitting on benches built in between the bulwarks, but I rolled my bike onto the platform, and on the other side, gunned the motor up the steep dirt track and puttered past the line of horse-carts waiting to collect the tourists. 

On a motorcycle I had the run of a huge area of ancient pagodas and monasteries which I could zip to much faster than most tourists could trot a horse to and then walk.

Innwa was an interesting place, spread out over several acres (whatever an acre is). There was a teak monastery where on the causeway to it, a procession of some sort was forming with decorated horses and bullock carts carrying a retinue of celebrants in costume, many of them children decked out in their most colorful finest, very photogenic, reminding me of something I might see in Bali. 

On a motorcycle I was able to cut out long walks, like down that causeway for example, and motor over to pagodas where I might have otherwise had to walk to the far side of a walled compound to find an entrance, and I could stop to admire clusters of pagodas and stupas, or not if I so chose, unlike the occupants of horse-carts, that might gallop by or pull up before uninteresting ones.

At some point I became concerned about the time and headed down the back roads the direction of what I hoped was the ferry landing, and somehow came on it. I was concerned because I was on the wrong side of the river and I had no idea when the ferry service might stop for the day. 

But I got across, and back on the other side I followed the road signs pointing to Mandalay. This again took me down a leafy road, but this road went longer than I thought it should, and I noticed that the sun was setting on my right, so I was heading south, away from Mandalay. When I came to an unfamiliar market town, I realized I should have been backtracking down the river and have passed the bridges, but I hadn't.

To make a long story short I was heading for the intersection with the main Yangon / Mandalay highway which was a busy one. If you've ever traveled in some conveyance down a highway in Asia, and the driver is honking all the way, that was me on the motorcycle you just passed.  Yikes! I was in the big leagues now. 

At some point to my right I noticed a very impressive pagoda and pulled off to check it out. I had no idea what it was, but later I found out it was where a pair of pythons were kept and fed at 11 am everyday. It was closed when I got there, the pythons apparently resting for feeding next day. In the LPG, it also tells you to check out the forest of Buddhas in a field near the pagoda. I pulled over and took some pictures, but at the time, didn't know where I was.

Even coming into Mandalay proper I had no idea where I was. I asked directions occasionally, and eventually I spotted the familiar walls of the palace and its moat. This got me back to my hotel, but after a rest I decided to head out again and have a Myanmar meal followed by a beer stop and then check out the puppet show. At this beer stop, at a busy intersection in Mandalay, they brought me soup, which I didn't want after my meal, but they also brought me watermelon, which made a great desert. After a couple of beers I continued to the puppet theater, where a world famous troupe are reviving the art. Occasionally they would lift the top curtain to let the audience see the puppeteers manipulating the marionettes which were the diminutive stars of the show compared to the larger than life (by comparison) manipulators.

That night the a/c in my room cut out at 5:30 a.m. I was trying to switch on the lights to get dressed and go downstairs and complain when I discovered that one of the switches was to a fan overhead I hadn't noticed before. It came on, made a reassuring hum, and I went back to sleep.

The following installments of this traveler's tale are posted with photos:

Inle Lake and Bagan be edited and posted shortly (but not today :-(so, stay tuned :-)

1 comment:

  1. Having visited Mandalay, Sagaing and Innwa with you, I can come back to my swimming pool. Thanks !!! Really interesting and specially colourful.
    Your description is so vivid that I could imagine everything.
    I'll stay tuned.