My friends and I are going to Bagan, Burma's shining jewel of temples. It's an 11.5 hour trip from Mandalay, and it cost us US$40 per person including a light breakfast and dinner. You can choose allocated seats online at nmaihka.com, but the boat we're on is so quiet I was able to stretch out over four seats and have a snooze following our 4.45am wake up.
The alternative was a 7 hour bus, without a toilet and along Burma's less than perfect roads. We have two long bus journeys coming up so we decided to spend the extra money to have a more comfortable day. And although the boat takes all day, we've seen sunrise and sunset, and had a great view of the riverside dwellers throughout the day too.
But anyway, I want to recommend something, because we had a fantastic day yesterday.
Mandalay is fine, but there's not a huge amount to do, so we wanted to take a day trip to somewhere I'd read about months ago. It's a small town called Monywa, about three hours west of Mandalay (it's not too far distance-wise, but the poor quality of the roads means that getting anywhere takes a long time). The main thing I wanted to see was the Thanboddhay Pagoda, but there are several other things in the surrounding area that are worth seeing.
There is a local bus from Mandalay to Monywa every hour on the hour from 5am to 5pm daily, but it's not air conditioned and takes three and a half hours, so we asked a taxi driver how much it would cost for him to take us. He quoted us 80,000 kyat for all of us, and we decided just to do it for the comfort. I'm so glad we did. We got so much for our money. He picked us up from our hostel at 8am sharp and announced he'd brought a friend along whose English was better and she'd guide us for the day.
He gave us all a bottle of water each, and when he heard that Laura loves watermelon he stopped at a roadside stall and bought us one. He'd planned an entire itinerary (which he probably does for all the tourists to be fair) and made us very comfortable.
Even driving there through the semi-desert was part of the experience. Visiting Burma is like stepping back in time. Huts line the streets, farmers guide their sheep and oxen on the roadside with bamboo sticks, you overtake the occasional ox-drawn cart, and at one point we saw a community building a tarmac road with their hands and basic tools. This is a truly fascinating country.
Our driver and guide were lovely people, and were so keen to show us their country and teach us about Burmese culture. At the first temple we stopped at along the way, the guide asked my friends if they wanted to try the Thanaka that Burmese women have applied to their faces for thousands of years to protect against the sun. It's made from grinding a particular wood with water until it becomes a paste, and then applied to the face. It's very distinctive, and along with the longi (a finely crafted sheet of material that both men and women wear around their waist, kind of like a skirt) and the red bitter leaf that men chew and spit out, leaving red marks on their teeth, it's a fashion not yet diluted or polluted by Western aesthetics.
Our first main stop was the standing and reclining Buddha of Monywa. They are truly magnificent, and unbelievably huge. You can climb the steps inside the standing Buddha and see the view, which we didn't have time to do, but with its height I'd imagine you can see from India to China.
After a hearty lunch that resembled Burmese tapas (costing just 4,000 kyat per person), we went to the main event. Thanbodhay Pagoda, which resembles a palace more than a pagoda. Its reds and golds, pillars and over 500,000 Buddha statues make for a stunning wander round the complex. There's a viewpoint to the left as you walk in the main entrance, which looks like a helter-skelter. Unfortunately only men are allowed to climb it (yay equality) but the view over the temple surrounded by trees is absolutely amazing. That's what I went there for.
We finished the day by visiting a lacquerware workshop, and in a very surreal moment, sat down amongst 1940s British biscuit tins and ate the watermelon our driver had bought for us that morning.
As with the vast majority of Burmese people I've come into contact with, they were extremely accommodating, polite and keen to impress. Although it did cross my mind that this might be a scam and they were taking us to be sold into slavery, it turned out that they were just generous. Just another thing to add to my list of experiences here.