Its all becoming a bit of a blur!!

Since leaving Yandabo a couple of days age we have been cruising up to Mandalay and other towns and cities. A relentless series of amazing experiences and photo ops. In order to catch up will post a load of photos with brief explanations etc. Several villages along the riverbanks when we start to wonder who is more fascinated by who. The facial expressions (Happy !!) say it all…

Sunsets and Sunrises at a variety of locations including the U-Bean Bridge ( the longest Wooden bridge in the world).

A selection of paintings and faces to get started ….

The unfinished Pagoda which is the largest brick structure in the world. Had King ??? not run out of bricks and money it would have been higher that the Great Pyramid at Giza. Then it was hit by a huge earthquake which cracked and sealed its fate. Also the large working bell in the world and other mind blowing sights. A multitude of friendly faces selling all sorts of stuff.

Some of the merchandise and more faces….

A selection of the boats and ships (including our loyal Kanee Pandawt at various moorings) that we have encountered on our journey. This huge river is very shallow except in the rainy season when it floods and water levels rise – in some places by 20 meters). The sandbanks and islands, visible in the photos and a Google Maps screenshot, become submerged and are constantly emerging in different locations which makes navigation quite a challenge !!

Monks (in dark red robes) and Nuns (in pink) and foreing (in saffron) are everywhere. All with shaved heads which makes it a tad tricky to work out monks from nuns, apart from the colour of their robes !! Many clutching their cell phones which have just arrived in Myanmar……….

Needless to say more Pagodas, Stupas and Buddhas everywhere…

And should you want to buy a Buddha they come in all shapes and sizes !! Also hand pounded gold leaf that covers them all……….

Dogs everywhere but all healthy and fed and taken care because they are Buddhists.. A neutering programme wouldn’t go amiss !! But all seem content …….

The cruising part of this adventure is coming to an end and we are moored on a sandbank in the middle of this extraordinary river while the crew are setting up all the deck furniture for a beach barbecue. So will post this now and more photos and stuff will follow tomorrow……….

Yandabo (Pots !!) and The Kids Are Alright !!

A walking tour of Yandabo this morning. Famous for the place where some treaty was signed between Burmese & Brits. Needless to say it didn’t last !!

Now Yandabo is famous for making terracotta pots. Lots of mind numbing discussion about why they don’t make them with flat bottoms !! Had to walk away !!

Lots of friendly smiling faces including the 92 year old cheroot smoking Matriarch who stole the show !

The Kids Are Alright !!

Latest Selection from The Gang at Posh Pets. I clearly don’t have to worry about them then !!

Mister Max !!

Bagan or Pagan when Myanmar was Burma.

Bagan is one of many of the ancient capitals of Burma.   Boasting literally 1000s of temples and pagodas spread over a vast area on both sides of the Irrawaddy.    Denied World Heritage Status until July 2019 due to some of the restoration techniques used, and the fact that “The Generals” keep building bigger and better monuments to ensnare preferential treatment, for them selves, in the next life.    Both are strict no-nos in the bureaucratic world of UNESCO !!

Two days here.  The first was largely wasted due a tip to visit a lacquer factory and attempts to be coerced into buying very expensive (beautiful – agreed) lacquer-ware.   I resisted as am still trying to work out where to put the lacquer-ware that I bought back from Cambodia.   De-cluttering and all that !!

So lots of impressive ruined temples etc amid a sea of smiling, happy people.     Amazing considering !!    The power  of Buddhism I guess !?!?!

I will combine photos from both days so excuse the odd sunset that may appear in the middle !

Back to the boat for lunch and a very entertaining Elephant dance (No elephant but 2 strapping kids pretending to be one!)

So lots of impressive ruined temples etc amid a sea of smiling, happy people.     Amazing considering !!    The power  of Buddhism I guess !?!?!

Please note the “No Kicking Buddha” rule amongst others ! I will combine photos from both days so excuse the odd sunset that may appear in the middle !

More to follow……..

More Shore Visits and a Tour of the Ship

Another mooring alongside a “muddy bank” with huge tree roots as anchorages.   Decidedly low-tech but effective and seemingly the “norm”.     Another slightly larger (30+ cabins) German cruise ship sharing our muddy mooring this morning, took everyone somewhat by surprise.    How dare they intrude on our river??     Fortunately they were heading downstream and we are heading up so hopefully the last that we see of them !!!

Three more villages with Markets, and the usual gold stuff and colonial remnants etc.     Minhla has two reasonably well-preserved forts flanking the river.   Built by the Italians on behalf of Royal Myanmar, in an attempt to keep the Brits out of Northern Myanmar.   Clearly not very effective as the Brits with the help of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company’s fleet of ships (built in Scotland) soon sailed past during the 3rd Anglo Burmese War,   seized Mandalay in 1885 and for the next 50 years or so ruled Myanmar in its entirety until the Japs appeared in WW2 and the IFC was forced to scuttle its entire fleet of 600 ships and barges as an “Act of Denial) to keep them out of the hands of the Japanese.     Pandaw have managed to resurrect the brand with some of the original IFC ships and many new builds based on the original low-draft, teak and bronze, designs.     Many horrendous bureaucratic and other obstacles had to be overcome (very well documented in The Pandaw Story by Paul Strachan (an extremely determined Scot) ) who restarted Pandaw and now runs his fleet of excellent ships throughout SE Asia and more recently on the Ganges and other Indian rivers.   More of all that later.    A selection of Photos (in no particular order) showing the markets and yes (afraid so) Stupas, Buddhas and Pagodas and the spectacular sunsets every evening.    

A quick tour of the Ship’s working areas – Galley, “bridge” engine room etc.     All very functional with a few omissions (GPS not commissioned yet !!, no depth finder so bamboo poles come in handy and all onboard navigations lights do not have light bulbs !!   Otherwise “safe as houses”  !!  

The “galley’ has Immaculate kitchen and prep areas.    Compact of course but they manage to produce amazing array of food 3 times a day !!

Tales from the River …

The next few days are starting to “blur” somewhat with daily visits to towns and villages, along the riverbank, including Danubyu, Myanaung, Prome and Thayet Myo.  

These excursions provide some much-needed exercise.    Only problem with these small ships is there is no “promenade deck” worth speaking of for stretching of legs and strolling around!!

Excursions also gives Pandaw a chance to subject us all to a bone rattling selection of ground transportation including (so far…) trishaws, horse drawn wagons and a variety of muddy banks to clamber up and down.   This lark is not for the “mobility impaired” but the crew are fantastic at supporting everyone to and from the ship, and the mooring sites, and various locations etc !! So, it’s a daily combination of Temples, Pagodas, Stupas and needless to say Buddhas.  

Had our first experience with a “slithery” person yesterday outside one of the temples.     A very young (but still about 80cm long) cobra.    Needless to say, I was not alone in taking evasive action.   Especially when one of our guides insisted in prodding it into showing its “hood” etc.

Today (Thayet Myo) even a golf club (very George Orwell & Burmese Days !!) claiming to be twinned with, and have a reciprocal arrangement with, Royal Saint Andrew’s in Scotland.   I wondered if St Andrews know anything about it and what they would do if a Burmese chap turned up with a bag of golf clubs demanding his rights to a free round of golf !!  

All of this accompanied by very friendly (if not somewhat bemused) locals. tourists and “westerners” are a rarity in this part of the world as some of their facial expressions shows!

Mooring is a daily challenge. A couple of days ago we awoke to find ourselves stuck on a sandbank, so much engine revving before we got going again.   A common problem on this hugely wide, but quite shallow river, as the sandbanks have a habit of shifting overnight especially during the rainy season and soon thereafter (which is where we are now) when huge amounts of silt and sand comes down from the Himalayas.

Last night we had to struggle with a variety of hazards as the Captain tried to navigate us into a suitable overnight mooring.    This included fishing nets, bamboo rafts and a few rocks.   The river is very shallow just to add to the challenge.   Depth finding is pretty lo-tech and seems to involve, not very long, bamboo poles with red and white stripes.    To put it into context, the draft of these ships is around 1.5 meters and we still manage to run aground on the ever shifting sand/silt bars and banks !     Needless to say there are no navigation markers or even accurate charts for the Irrawaddy as it changes shape every year during and after the dramatic level changes during and after the rainy season (May through October) !

Our long-suffering Captain finally found a secure mooring site below a monastery who promptly turned on an all night stream of Buddhist (I guess !?!) rap & disco music, which forced us to move on in search of a more peaceful and sleep inducing location.

The river is vast, with a constant succession of overladen (and barely afloat) gravel barges chugging noisily past.      Vast arrays of ancient dredgers come and go.    Sucking up the silt and gravel, sieving out the not insignificant amounts of gold that are washed down from the mountains each year during the rainy season.   All that gold leaf has to come from somewhere!!  At one point yesterday, we sailed through a fleet of hundreds of small dredgers all belching out black diesel fumes that at times almost obscured the riverbank.     Like a scene from a Mad Max movie!!    Then as soon as this “horror show” appeared it disappeared behind us and we were back into clear waters and fresh air again.   Very bizarre, not to mention surreal! But that’s Myanmar for you ……     Soon back to sandy shorelines and cliffs smothered in carved Buddhas – large and small.   Small communities and fascinated children come down to watch us glide by,,,,,,,,,,

All of these towns have a smattering of colonial buildings left over from the “glory days” of the British Empire, with bustling street markets etc. Various remnants of good old British engineering strewn all over the place.

Keeping track of day and time here is also a tad tricky as they have 8 days a week, including 2 days on Wednesday.   Don’t even ask !! As I haven’t quite managed to figure it out yet !!    We seem to have managed to make it through to Thursday again so not quite sure what happened yesterday with Wednesday and 2 days in one…

Internet just reappeared so will post this while the going is good. I think that it is Saturday but who knows !!

Kipling, Bago and Yangon (Rangoon)

Excerpt from The Road To Mandalay….

That will be the Moulmein Pagoda from where I watched the sunset the other day. Also the Flotilla (Irrawaddy Flotilla Company) now resurrected as Pandaw. Kipling got his rivers confused as it was not the Irrawaddy that he was gazing out on, and he never actually made it to Mandalay. That’s poetic licence for you !! Great poem though ! Must read the whole thing one day !!

Bago

Left Hpa-an bright (well maybe not that bright !!) and early for a 4 hour drive to Bago which was the formal capital of the Mon kingdom, around the 15th century, when its trade links with Sri Lanka and India, filled its coffers with gold, silk, spices and slaves.    Needless to say this meant that they could build an impressive array of oversized Buddhas, pagodas, monasteries, stupas and the like.

These girls weren’t going to let me escape without a group photo ! One of the issues of being a “giant” in a land of small perfectly formed people !!

Massive seated and relining Buddhas all claiming to be the largest of their kind in Myanmar if not the World ! Not to mention his very large feet !!

Then a 3 hour drive to Yangon for an overnight in the Sule Shangri-La Hotel before boarding the RV Kanee Pandaw for the two week trip up the Irrawaddy.

Yangon and Sule Pagoda

RV Kanee Pandaw

The latest addition to their fleet, and its maiden voyage, so am prepared for Pandaw adventures – planned and otherwise !!

Twante Canal

I had forgotten the pleasures of Pandaw, which (after the Mekong cruise, in February, through Cambodia & Vietnam) is why I am here !!   Very comfortable and civilised.     Only 23 passengers including about 10 US, 10 Aussies & Kiwis and a few token Brits (all Pandaw fans !).    A few solo travellers like myself.     Clearly some who haven’t done their homework and seem surprised by the climate – (yes it’s hot and humid, but it’s the tropics for Gods sake !)   Even though the Burmese refer to this time of year as the “cold season”.     As with all things Pandaw (who are excellent in all respects) anybody expecting a Viking style, or bigger/worse, cruising experience, should either get over it, or disembark now !! An introduction to our Crew and we are off !!

Headed out of Yangon along the Twante Canal which links the Yangon River to the Irrawaddy though its all part of the same Irrawaddy Delta.    We get to the Irrawaddy itself sometime later this afternoon (Tuesday I Think !!).    Keeping track of time and date here is tricky as they have 8 days a week including 2 Wednesdays!     You work it out…………… A couple of village/market excursions so far (Twante & Maubin).  Always a good way to get to know, the locals and experience their way of life…..

First Impressions, Mawlamyine (Moulmein) and Hpa-an

First Impressions………..

First impressions of Burma/Myanmar are that it is a tad confused – not to mention confusing !  It has been controlled by a series of brutally corrupt military dictators for many decades.   Finally they got democracy (and the ghastly Aung San Suu Kyi as State Counsellor/think Prime Minister), whose father created the modern “democratic Myanmar and was promptly assassinated for his troubles !). She, for some obscure and misguided reason, won the Nobel Peace prize, before appealing to the Western world to impose sanctions against Myanmar and virtually ban (or certainly discourage) any form of Tourism. She is now better known for orchestrating and condoning the Genocide of the Rohingya Muslims in the north of this country.   

While neighbouring Cambodia and Vietnam were deluged with foreign aid which enabled them to bounce back and “rebuild”, she persuaded the rest of the world to ignore, and impose sanctions against, Myanmar, in a vain attempt to put the military dictators “out of business”. It didn’t succeed and the entire country was crippled economically and will take many generations to recover. A saint?  I think not !!!!

So the basic tourism infrastructure, not to mention work ethic, is virtually non-existent the main upside of which is that the country is not yet overrun by hoards of Chinese and other tourists and (my bete noir) their dreaded selfie sticks !!!.

Burma/Myanmar is Buddhism on Steroids and the main driving force of the huge majority of the population, who are neither corrupt nor brutal. Isolated Civil Wars continue to be fought between the numerous ethnic tribes, factions and the military government. Needless to say, tourists are kept well away from such areas! The vast proportion of the economy and population is dedicated to, and involved in, building and maintaining an extraordinary number of Buddhist Statues, Shrines, Stupas and Pagodas. Some of which are staggering, gold & bejewelled, both in size, scale and number. Much more of them later………………….. The people seem happy though as I guess that they have never known any different !!

Moulmein (aka Mawlamyine)

A day of HUGE Buddhas

First stop was a huge Sitting Buddha (claiming to be the largest in Myanmar though I suspect it has a few rivals.   Still under construction which is why it looks as though it has a beard which is in fact scaffolding !

A parade of statues/monks heading along the side of the road and off into the mountains. Then onto the largest reclining Buddha in the world.     MASSIVE – approx. 150 metres long and still under construction.      And as if that wasn’t OTT enough they are building a duplicate right next door which still has a way to go !!  Not sure why they need two , but as we proceed, you will rapidly see that there is no such thing as too many Buddhas !!!! Oh yes and a dead monk who raised the funds for it all.

Onto the infamous Death Railway and a rather sad museum and stretch of the original track with locomotive and “Disney” like simulation.     Many thousand allied troops perished as the construction of the railway was brutally enforced.     Mainly British and Australians fleeing north after the fall of Singapore etc.    The infamous Bridge on the River Kwai was part of this undertaking just across the Thai Border.    Needless to say not much remains as the Brits bombed and obliterated it as soon as it was finished as part of sending the Japs packing !!

Back into Moulmein for lunch and a tour of several rather sad “colonial” churches all in poor states of disrepair.   Catholic, Anglican, Jesuit etc.    All founded by European missionaries back in the “good old” colonial days of the 19th century when the Brits ruled the world – or at least thought that they did !!

A couple of monasteries and pagodas with “Stupas” everywhere, followed by an lengthy wait for a dramatic sunset that never really happened !    

Before we leave Moulmein a couple of Shots taken waiting for the sunset.   Health & Safety definitely not a concept here !!   Oh and a few very young monks.

Then back to the hotel for power cuts (frequent here !) and loud music outside.   Not helpful for a decent nights sleep and overcoming jet-lag but I soldiered on !!

Hpa-an – On the way and there

First stop a huge monastery; paid for and built by a wealthy self-made “tycoon” and much revered monk.

Another lengthy drive across the border into Kerem state and its rivers and massive limestone “outcrops”, each one, needless to say, capped with glittering stupas and monasteries and of course vast numbers of Buddha statues and images.

A couple of vast limestone caves with every inch covered in Buddha carvings, effigies and statues some dating way back to the 7th Century (whose 7th Century I am not sure !).   And I mean covered !!!  Each one of those “ripples” on the ceiling is an array of carved miniature Buddhas. Also one of many very large bees nests hanging from the roof of the cave….      A long stumble though the cave to an opening overlooking a beautiful small lake.    However, the non-negotiable bare foot policy and scorching walkways rendered it quite painful and necessitated a quick hop back into the comparative cool of the cave.    My guide (bless her and her asbestos feet) constantly trying to steer me away from damp patches on the floor when all I wanted to do was stand in the nearest puddle !!    Another similar but much larger cave on the horizon for tomorrow so more sizzling feet I feel sure !!

Next a pagoda (and stupa) atop a limestone pinnacle in the middle of a small lake. Stunning,  but how they built it is anyone’s guess !!    

Then onto a park with over 1500 sizeable identical statues of Buddha in a park at the foot of the sacred mountain.

Next back into Hpa-An for a visit to the monasteries , pagodas and stupas to watch the sunset across the Thanlwin River.      Tomorrow we get to view the sunset from a small boat on the river as literally millions of bats flock out of the cave for dinner of mosquitoes.

Finally had to resort to buying a Longyi (skirt) as visible knees and shorts are a strict no no and jeans way too hot  !!    So going native already…….

The park with the 1500 Buddhas share the same sacred mountain which my new (very nice bungalow style) hotel looks out onto, despite a few termites chomping their way through the woodwork).   Oh yes and lousy service but as mentioned earlier they are very new to this tourism lark and whilst staff are plentiful they seem to think that service involves huddling together in the corner, chatting & giggling and ignoring any/all clients and customers.

Hpa-an Day 2

This morning started with a visit to the local market which is exactly what it was !!  

Then onto Saddar Cave which is VAST and extremely impressive.   Once again the interior of the main cave is crammed with Buddha statues of all shapes and sizes and the inevitable stupas !.     A fifteen-minute walk through various chambers and walkways until you emerge on the far side of the mountain and a small but magical lake.    A 20-minute paddle through the rice paddies in a teak and bamboo “canoe” takes you back underneath and around the mountain where our trusty driver awaits.   

90 minutes later (we only had to go 5km !!) I realised that he was hopelessly lost and had to revert to MapsMe on my phone to navigate him back to the Main (and I use the term loosely) Road, rendering him so nervous that I could have walked faster than he drove.     Patience prevailed and we eventually got back into town for quick lunch.     3 hours to kill before we go and meet the bats so will try to post this which will amazingly bring us up to date.  

Just a rickety boat ride to see the bats to go today…………..If still visible after the sun goes down will include in the next post !

Tomorrow a 6hr drive back to Yangon for an overnight stay before embarking on the RV Kanee Pandaw (Only 14 cabins, home for the next two weeks) and meeting and getting to know my travelling companions as we cruise at a leisurely pace up the Irrawaddy (Ayerawaddy as its now known).   Always a bit of a lottery but Pandaw customers are renowned for their sense of adventure (especially in Myanmar) so we shall see…………..   

Getting to Myanmar

Delivered the “Kids” to Posh Pets (wonderful new kennels) at 11.00 and then headed back home for last minute packing, shutting up the house, and the drive to Malaga, for the flight to London.    Discovered just in time that the original BA flight time had been moved forward by 2 ½ hours and they had “forgotten” to tell me.     A bit of a rush but made it on board in plenty of time.    Landed at T5 Heathrow and checked into Sofitel which means not having to leave the terminal and experience the wonders of English weather etc (F^%ing Freezing !!).       Burger, Bed and Breakfast then off to catch the train to T2.   After 20 minutes of standing on a freezing platform staring at a very nice empty train, we were informed that “they” couldn’t find the driver, so duly shuffled across to another platform where “they” had found a driver, and did.     Comfortable 12 hr Thai Airlines flight to Bangkok and speedy transfer to the connection to Yangon (Rangoon in old money).    Only marred by a stroppy female security person (give them a uniform and they turn into monsters !), who decided that some of my “potions and lotions” could not travel on the plane and so were consigned to the trash despite my protestations and prescriptions!!     When she mentioned getting the Police involved, prudence took over and I backed down – fuming!! – and boarded the plane for Yangon.

Arrived in Yangon, as surprisingly did my luggage, and was met by my charming Tour Guide and Driver who were to be my companions for the next 4 days.    I seem to be the only participant of this first stage of the adventure as tourism is a very recent concept around here.   So will be solo until hooking up with the Pandaw ship in a few days’ time.

In at the Deep End

After a 3 hr drive south, we visited a Commonwealth War Cemetery where 27,000 Allied soldiers “lay at rest” – victims of the Japanese invasion of Burma in WW2.    Immaculately laid out and maintained and an early reminder of how much shit went down here before the Brits, Indians and Aussies got the upper hand and sent the Yellow Peril back to Japan to face the consequences (Hiroshima etc).

The bridge that the Brits blew up in WW2 to stop the advancing Japs.    Unfortunately, the British general who ordered its destruction failed to consider the 2 infantry regiments who were stranded on the wrong side and were duly slaughtered or captured and put to work on the “death railway”.    Hence the scale of the cemeteries etc !!

I have missed a major Festival Day by 24 hours, But still managed to stumble across the aftermath……

Another hour drive and then Lunch with some very colourful Mon (Ethnic bunch) people then transfer to a bone rattling truck full of tourists and pilgrims heading up into the mountains to see the Golden Rock Pagoda which is one of the holiest sites in Myanmar.     A hairy drive, though “fortunately” the length of my legs got me to sit up front with the driver, which made it even scarier due to a multitude of hairpin bends and his insistence on driving flat out all of the way!!!    How we survived, (especially) the journey back down, was a miracle.  As was the survival of numerous dogs and cats who (protected by Buddhism) insist on sleeping in the middle of the road!!

A 20 minute hike up the hill until I arrived at the Golden Rock – HUGE and precariously balanced on the edge of a major precipice.     Access to approach, or touch, the rock is a strictly male affair.   Pilgrims have been visiting for centuries and covering it with multi layered gold leaf to the point where some of the lower sections are now solid gold.    The Stupa (get used to that word !) on top, apparently contains a couple of strands on the Buddha’s hair.     Mind you as do many of the other Stupas around the country.   No wonder he is always depicted as bald!!

A stunning site however and well worth the detour !! Then more bone rattling and into Moulmein (aka Mawlamyaing) and apparently the only decent hotel in town.     Not great but served its purpose apart from its Wi-Fi which was virtually non-existent ! Buddha overkill tomorrow so will post this now while internet access continues !