By Mick McDonald
The Road to Mandalay
Our 4th week on the Asian Overland saw us hit the “Road to Mandalay”, the very name conjures up images of wooden wheeled carts being pulled by Brahmans and steered by a family wearing bamboo hats along a track that winds its way through endless rice fields, and that’s exactly the scene that greeted us we wound our way north. We reached the incredible Bagan, a 25 square mile plain on the mighty Irrawaddy River in central Myanmar. Bagan is a maelstrom of temples with up to 4000 Buddhist temples from the 12th & 13th Century AD, its often referred to as Ankor Wat on steroids but minus the crowds.
A full day was spent exploring this amazingly impressive temple studded landscape that provided award winning photos at every turn. Its only here we saw a handful of tourists as they charged around from site to site on their rented Ebikes.
Leaving the UNESCO wonder that is Bagan, we stumbled across a truly remarkable parade, a parade that highlighted the amazing Buddhist culture of the Myanmar people. Most males are inducted into “Monkhood” at least twice in their life , however it is when a small child is entering the Buddhist monastery for the first time, to become a monk, that is the most auspicious and clearly the proudest moment for any Myanmar family, it’s a bit like getting holy communion for the first time for Catholics, except when was the last time you saw a first time communion receiver arrive on an elephant?
The parade bought half the city to a halt as up to 100 people dressed in their absolute finest attire preceded the young boys who were on their way to “Monkdom”. Some of the boys were on horseback, others on elephants, all were flanked by golden umbrella carriers whose role it was, is to protect the boys from the beating sun, a task made quite difficult for the umbrella carriers tasked with protecting the boys atop the elephants as they struggled to control the umbrella as it swayed madly atop a 20 foot pole threatening to become entangled in the powerlines at any given moment. The proud parents led the parade in a gilded horse and carriage that would make the queen mother blush! Our guide estimated that the parade would have cost the, obviously wealthy, Myanmar family 40 to 50 thousand US dollars.
Turning east we climbed out of the central Myanmar plains into the highlands via a series of impossible twisites on a narrow road as we dodged lumbering semis somehow making sharp and steep inclines as cars raced down the inside of the turning semis, cows wandered, dogs yelped, chickens crossed the road & motorcycles darted amongst the unfolding chaos, it was Myanmar’s version of the whacky races but somehow it all worked, not a road incident to be seen anywhere, someone so much as slows you down for a tenth of a second in our so called “developed nations”, and its “guns drawn at dawn”.
We eventually reached one of the most visited sights in all on Myanmar, 6 other tourists were at our hotel that evening! the incredible Inle Lake.
A full day cruising Inle on a long boat was organised. We entered a watery world that truly defies an appropriate description. Boarding the boat, we soon chugged out into the lake proper passing the famous leg rowing fishermen, a unique method of rowing their boats found only here, in Inle Lake. We visited the utterly amazing Indein, home to over 4000 pagodas, construction starting from the 12th Century AD, literally a forest of pagodas, most crumbling, some restored. Sarah practised her bargaining prowess beating down a 70-year-old guy for some awesome old Shan text on very old parchment. I teased Sarah endlessly that the old guy will only have potatoes tonight instead of rice!!
We continued exploring the lake passing amazing stilted villages with houses that seemed to defy gravity as they stood tall above the waterline threatening to tumble into the lake as we went by. It was an utterly remarkable sight watching the locals go about their daily lives in this corner of Myanmar , famous Long neck women weaving silk & water lily scarves, floating vegetable gardens, boats spluttering by loaded with all manner of products from the lake only leant to this amazing experience, one that will be remembered for a long time, we truly felt it was the Asia of old and has only be opened up to visitors in the last decade, few places like this remain on earth.
Leaving Inle we headed east on a road that had, until recently, been firmly closed to foreigners. The narrow rough road clung to the mountainsides in an endless series of switchbacks and steep inclines with zero protection against going over the edge, the scenery was staggering as we travelled though Shan country heading for the border. You know your visit is not a regular occurrence when the restaurant waiter asked if he can take a selfie with us!!
Myanmar had been an absolute revelation to us, it’s truly is one of those rarest of destinations left on this earth that has recently opened up to the rest of the world. It has an amazing culture but certainly is a little rough around the edges. The travelling is both good and bad, the sights are simply otherworldly, and the people not yet traumatised by mass tourism and all the negatives effects it can have.
We re-entered Thailand and the infamous Golden Triangle where we visited the fantastic and incredibly well put together, Opium Museum, a must see, before seeing out our first month having some beers with Adrian & Hera, who have done many of our rides and a few expats at the legendary Bikers Corner in the old town of Chiang Mai.
What a month and we are only a 3rd of the way in!!
For more information about the 90-day Asian Overland Expedition please follow the link below to our Expedition web page.