Shwedagon Paya on New Year's Eve 2015.

Cities of the Burmese Heartland: Yangon and Mandalay

Myanmar is one of my absolute favorite countries to travel in. I had first visited in January 1995 when the country was very much a pariah state. Although the country was open for travelers, there were severe restrictions on where you could travel. The country was lead by a military junta, who ran a quasi-Orwellian state. The Independence leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was under house arrest and she had recommended that travelers stay away to help maintain worldwide sanctions on the country’s government. The country was isolated, desperately poor, and difficult to get around. The black market rate ran at twenty times the official rate, and the only place to change money was at local markets. Transport was awful, decent accommodation hard to find, and even getting a proper Burmese meal was tricky. However, this trip remains one of the highlights of my life and started an obsession with Asia that continues to this day. I returned again in 2000 and again that trip was extremely memorable. To say I had high hopes for this trip is the understatement of the year!

The visit was also bittersweet for me. I was looking forward to visiting on the 21st anniversary of my first trip but it was also almost exactly a year since the funeral of my dear friend, Graham Dietz, who accompanied me on that trip. No doubt I would find a way to pay respects to my great travel buddy in Myanmar but I must admit to severe pangs of sadness when I remember that Graham will travel no more.

We flew in on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve. We had one day in Yangon before flying out to Bagan early the next morning. Kelsey had booked us into the rather splendid Humble Footprints Hostel. Thankfully, it was close to Yangon’s foremost attraction, the Shwedagon Paya. But first, we desperately needed food. We found a wonderful restaurant near the Paya called Feel Myanmar Food and gorged on a several plates of typical Burmese dishes. We tried tea leaf salad, several vegetable curries, and plates and plates of sour, fishy pickles and salads.

The food had a distinct flavor that we came to love, and at times hate, that we later found out was a mucky sludge of fermented fish. We washed it down with several cups of sweet milky Myanmar tea, which thankfully washed away the sour fishiness of the food!

Shwedagon Paya

Sunset. Shwedagon Paya
Beautiful afternoon clouds at the Shwedagon Paya.

The Shwedagon is one of the finest religious buildings anywhere in the world. The centre piece is a gold clad and preposterously bejewelled 326 feet tall stupa. The spire is surrounded by a magical array of Buddhas, pagodas, temples, frescoes, ceremonial bells and drums, and shrines to Nats (animist spirits). Most of the famous religious buildings in South East Asia such as those found at Bagan, Angkor, and Borobudur are more or less museums these days, but the Shwedagon is an active religious site. The entire complex was buzzing with devotees offering flowers, incense, and candles to the Buddha. As the sun set, the scene became ever more intoxicating. The spire continually changed color as the sun lowered. Devotees were making special offerings to mark the changing of the year so the Pagoda was surrounded by thousands of candles which made for a beautiful scene… and great photography!

Gold pagoda, gold light. Shwedagon Paya
Late afternoon light hits the Shwedagon Paya.

Monks. Shwedagon Paya
Worshippers and monks at the Shwedagon Paya.

I managed to sneak away at one point to turn my thoughts to my old buddy, Graham. I offered up a few prayers and burnt some incense and asked the Buddhas to watch over him. Graham was fairly irreligious at heart but I know he retained a fair amount of respect for Buddhists in Burma. I have no doubt he would be absolutely chuffed that Myanmar is heading towards democracy and that Suu Kyi is free to lead her country after several years of incarceration.

On the way back to the hotel, we grabbed another full-on Burmese meal and turned in early to be fresh for our early morning flight to Bagan. There’s so much to say about Bagan that we’ll devote a separate post to it.


Mandalay was the last port of call for Mama and Kelsey. The once miserable 12 hour journey from Bagan by local bus on terrible roads has been replaced by an efficient door-to-door express service on sealed roads. Four hours after departing Bagan, we were comfortably ensconced in the modern but lovable A1 Hotel. Mandalay has a few sites of interest including one of the holiest shrines in Myanmar, the Mahamuni Paya, but it is mainly a base to visit the four ancient cities that surround the town.

We rented a taxi the next day to drop us off at the dock for a 9am boat ride up to Mingun, and then pick us up at the dock before visiting Sagaing, Inwa, and Amarapura. However, something must have got lost in translation. After an auspicious start to the day, a quick visit to see the Mahamuni Buddha, the trip suddenly went awry. It was 8.55am and we seemed to be heading away from the docks. I pulled the taxi over, and after a few telephone calls it appears that it is actually not possible to fit in the boat ride and visit the other towns in one day. It seems like we had unwittingly signed up for a taxi tour to all the cities. Kelsey was a bit bummed since she had been keen to get out on the Ayeyarwady for the whole trip. I had done the boat trip twice before, and to be honest, I found the road trip more interesting but still I felt bad for K since this was her last opportunity for river travel.

Mingun has two main attractions: the ruins of what would have been the world’s largest pagoda, and the world’s largest uncracked hanging bell. The town has a splendid setting on the banks of the river and is fringed by tropical woodlands. The best view of the area is to be had from the top of the ruined pagoda. Mysteriously, on the way up you pass a sign categorically stating that ‘under no circumstances were tourists allowed to climb the pagoda’. Maybe it should have told the dogs not to shit on the stairs too especially as tourists and locals alike were walking up barefoot!

After Mingun, we sped south for a quick visit to Sagaing. The hills around Sagaing are strewn with temples and golden stupas. Bagan it is not, but it is an impressive site all the same. We particularly liked the Umin Thounzeh temple with its crescent-shaped hallway of golden Buddhas.

Hall of Buddhas. Sagaing
Curving hallway of Buddhas. Sagaing

The whole gang is reflected and refracted in a mirrored wall in Sagaing.

The highlight of the day for all of us was the gorgeous little town of Inwa. At last, Kelsey got her trip on the river albeit a two minute jaunt over a minor tributary of the mighty Ayeyarwady! Everyone who visits Inwa does the two hour tour of the sites, traveling in a horse drawn cart. The cart cost 10000 kyat for two people and, the inevitable extra few kyat for ‘the horse’s food’ after we had finished the trip. I don’t mind paying extra but please just charge us upfront and don’t bullshit me that it is for horse fodder! You visit a number of lovely old temples and stupas in a gorgeous rural setting but the absolute highlight is the astounding teak monastery, Bagaya Kyaung.

Horse cart. Inwa
A horse cart on a rural road in Inwa.

After the serene setting of Inwa, it was a bloody shock to see the state of U Bein bridge in Amarapura. In 1995, yadda yadda, I strolled over this bridge in the company of one Graham Dietz and a small number of locals. Most of the locals were in the fields doing what rural folk do the world over. The centuries old teak bridge was in fine shape and the sunset was sublime. A few years later, it was pretty much the same deal. In 2016, it is a fucking nightmare. Bagan has 3000 sites, Inle has 5 or 6, but, poor old Amarapura has one- the bridge. And, they all attract the same numbers since they are all on the typical Myanmar circuit. Where once there were a few fishermen out on the river there are dozens of boats with flabby tourists taking photos (with flash, for Chrissakes!) and the paddy fields are strewn with plastic glasses from the ill-advised makeshift bars that are found under one of the most photogenic spots in the area. On the banks of the river are myriad souvenir shops. All-in-all, what you came to see no longer exists. The sunset was nice but, of course, most of the tourists leave before the light gets good. I have never understood this but it happens everywhere! If we had already considered burying the idea of Inle Lake, this was the last nail in the coffin! No more big tourist sites in Myanmar!

Sunset. Amarapura
Sunset on the river from the U Bein Bridge in Amarapura.

A gazillion tourists could never destroy the ambience of Mandalay’s main market, the Zay Cho. It sprawls for several blocks right in the center of the city. This market defines the word ‘quintessential’! It is the noisiest, smelliest, and most colorful market I have ever visited. The lanes around the market are tight but this doesn’t stop motorists from trying to race through. At one point, a motorcyclist slid on splodge of gobbed out betel, and fell from his bike. Not quite sure what was going on, but a woman raced up behind him and started assaulting him with a lump of wood. The biker seemed terrified and mounted his steed and sped off, hitting Mama in the process. She was a little shaken but no real damage done. Our favorite section of the market was the smelly section- dried and fermented fish, and pickles of all descriptions. No words can do this place justice but I hope the photos give you a flavor.

Vendor. Zeigyo market. Mandalay
Zeigyo market. Mandalay

Vendor and cart puller at Zay Cho market in Mandalay.

Fish paste and chili. Zeigyo market. Mandalay
Chili flakes and sludgy fermented fish paste. Zay Cho market.

Food and Drink in Mandalay

We particularly enjoyed the Burmese specialties on offer at Aye Myint Thar. The pickled lemon salad is particularly divine. It is preposterously cheap too. This was the case for most places in Myanmar. A massive meal for four rarely cost more than $8. The Shan food at Shan Ma Ma Noodles was particularly tasty too. Our absolute favorite place though was a little Nepalese place called ‘Nepali Food’. A typical meal for two was dal puri, potato paratha, curd, several plates of curry, and milky masala tea and it cost less than $5. On our last day there, we found a trendy little coffee shop called ‘Nova Coffee’ which served up delicious espresso based drinks made from organic coffee from Shan State. It also had decent WiFi, which is rare in Myanmar.

First Burmese meal. Feel Myanmar Food, Yangon
A typical Burmese meal with lots of small dishes to share.

Mama’s last day

Mama was still gung ho for more tourist sites so on her last day we visited the quiet meditation center called Shwe In Bin Kyaung. The meditation houses are miserable concrete huts but the main building is a fabulous 19th Century teak temple. The whole building is covered in intricate carvings of Buddhas and Nats. It was a fitting place to end Mama’s 3 weeks in South East Asia- a little oasis of peace and calm in the middle of a somewhat crazy city.

Light. Shwe In Bin
Nat sculpture in teak wood on a door at Shwe In Bin.

Mama headed off to Mandalay airport to begin her long journey home and the rest of us jumped into a shared taxi for the two hour ride up to Pyin Oo Lwin.

Pyin Oo Lwin: Mohinga!

Kelsey had two more days with us, which was more time than we needed in Mandalay but not enough time to get to somewhere truly interesting. However, the quirky sounding Pyin Oo Lwin, an old British Hill Station, was only a short drive away so we headed there for a change of scenery. Our hotel, the Orchid Nan Myaing, was an old colonial mansion that had seen better days. Mind you, the old British hospitality was still alive and kicking so we got a drop of local fruit wine on arrival. No complaints there! The hotel block was reminiscent of a 1920s sanatorium, or maybe lunatic asylum, and I half expected Matron to pop out and spank my bottom for being a naughty boy. Well, wished Matron would…anyways, I am sure you get the picture!

On day one, we headed into the town center to grab coffee, a Spirulina Beer, and soak up the old colonial atmosphere. There were a number of large mansions around but to be honest the main vibe was one of ramshackle stereotypical Burmese hill town. The coffee at Barista-Khine was excellent… espresso style without the shiny Italian machine. The cafe is set up street food style in a tent by the side of the road with no electricity. Thick Vietnamese-style coffee takes the place of espresso and the cappuccinos are frothed by hand. The girls told me the eye candy was particularly tasty too!

Barista at Barista-Khine cafe in Pyin Oo Lwin.
Hipster barista makes our coffees at Barista-Khine. Photo by Kelsey Jacobsen.

Pyin Oo Lwin is the only place that serves Spirulina anti-ageing beer and there seemed to be only one place in town that served up this intriguing sounding tipple. It was a really grotty bar that probably hadn’t seen a woman in 25 years. Not that the drunk as fuck clientele noticed! The beer was tastier than the average Asian lager but nothing special. The locals seemed a grizzled bunch so I didn’t see much evidence of its anti-ageing qualities. We ordered a second beer just as a real revolting lush took up residence opposite us. He ordered his bottle of cheap whisky and promptly vomited into the bucket at his feet. Suddenly, the beer didn’t taste quite so good. The man proceeded to vomit several times more while knocking back large glasses of hooch. I decided we had seen enough and we paid up and left before Mr Creosote exploded all over us!

The next day, we grabbed three bikes from the hotel and headed out to the Botanical Gardens, a legacy of the colonial era. The gardens were pleasant enough but the real highlight was the open bird conservatory. There were a number of exotic species within including several Hornbills. To be honest, these birds should be let free but it was amazing to see Great Hornbills, Wreathed Hornbills, and Blythe’s Hornbills up close.

Great hornbill at the botanical gardens. Pyin Oo Lwin
Great hornbill at the aviary in Pyin Oo Lwin.

We headed back to the coffee place for more eye candy coffee before hitting another local restaurant for another splurge of cheap Burmese food. Probably a mistake in hindsight since the mix of greasy food and winding roads back to Mandalay led to Kelsey spectacularly barfing on the side of the road. The driver came over to see how she was and laughed and yelled, ‘Mohinga!’ Mohinga is the fish noodle soup that is a common breakfast in Myanmar and the color and consistency of Kelsey’s barf looked very much like it. Noodles and all! Obviously, I was heartily amused and I think Kelsey saw the funny side too. I am not sure she is keen on it for a new nickname… MOHINGA!!!

Kelsey set off for Kunming in China the next day for a little overnight Yunnanese fun on her way home, and we headed off to Mrauk U for some more off the beaten track adventures. It was fantastic having some company for a few weeks but we were now back on our lonesome. People following our blog often make comments about traveling vicariously reading about our adventures but I would prefer it if more people were encouraged to join us. Because reading and commenting will never put the taste of fermented fish soup in your mouth or on the ground!


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