Sunday, 30 October 2011

Days 50 to 57: Bagan and Monywa


There's nothing like the sense of freedom or adventure as being on a run-down wooden river boat, sauntering down the lazy Ayeyarwady River in Burma, stopping at small rural villages with the locals gathered round for the highlight of their day - while surrounded by a bunch of very glum looking Westerners. That was the trip downstream to Bagan from Mandalay. Setting off at 5.30am on the Sunday morning past, Burness and I found ourselves on a plastic chair, penned in by a bunch of other Westerners in plastic chairs. On the other side of a central barrier were another group of older Westerners, who looked like a misplaced tour group. They looked a little cheerier - our group were significantly less so. One couple seemed to be recovering from a particularly wretched stomach infection, another couple found a corner to hide in and never budged or looked away from there, another couple blocked the only way in and out of "Westerner corner" and looked annoyed if we had to push past them to go to the toilet, another couple - they must have been Swiss - looked pleasant but lacked the ability at any kind of interesting interaction (and I tried), and finally, propped up in one corner was a solo traveller who thought he was Che Guevera. Wearing a kind of beret, with long hair and sunglasses, he never spoke a single word, and stayed the entire time in his plastic chair, pulling a kind of macho pose.

Fortunately, after about five hours, most of the locals had left the boat, freeing up space elsewhere, so Burness and I were able to relocate.

Bagan then, and most of my time there was tied up with looking at temples, which is surmised in my proper entry on Bagan as a Wonder. We stayed four nights there in total, giving us three full days. Day 1 was horse-cart day; day 2 was cycling day; and day 3 was cycling morning for me followed by a nice relaxing afternoon.

Bagan still exists as a town - two towns in fact, Old Bagan and New Bagan - but it was actually a small tourist town called Nyaung U where we stayed. There wasn't much to this town, but it did have a series of pretty good restaurants catering to tourists, and everything was a short walk from our hotel. Having being in cities for ages now, being in what was pretty much the countryside was a refreshing change.

Back to Mandalay for a day, then it was to another city, called Monywa (pronounced Mone-y'wa). After the Burmese capital, Yangon, the second biggest city, Mandalay, and the country's primary tourist draw, Bagan, Monywa was the first place out of the main tourist loop I've seen - and will be the only one, sadly. Our motives for going there were to visit the Laykyun Setkyar, the second tallest statue in the world, about 20km out of town. An entry on this will be forthcoming, and really, I have to say, there would be no other reason to visit Monywa (except, possibly, some nearby caves, which we didn't bother with as any driver's quotes on getting there were ridiculously expensive).

Monywa is a city that is probably more fun to live in than to visit. Certainly, if you're a dog, you'll be certain to have lots of company: mongrel dogs lounge about all over the place, brazenly assuming motorbikes will drive around them. The first hotel we stayed in - the Golden Arrow Hotel, please avoid - was the worst accommodation we've stayed in to date. Incredibly drab, utterly useless staff, and thoroughly dirty, it was deeply depressing. It was a little piece of Soviet Russia in south-east Asia. The breakfast, though, was incredible. We walked into the dining room to find one table laid out. Before we'd even sat down, the waitress - who never reappeared - handed us our plate of bread and eggs. Stone cold. We concluded that we were the only foreign guests in the hotel, and the breakfast had been prepared about an hour in advance, with the waitress poised that whole time to deliver them. The cost of this hotel? An appalling $25 - shocking by Burmese standards. We checked out and then into a better and cheaper hotel called the Shwe Taung Tarn Hotel (the Golden Arrow, I grant you, had the catchier name).

Near the Golden Arrow was what appeared to be the centre of town, around an attractive clocktower, and at night the area turned into a bustling market. We took a walk, before getting bored at looking at stall after stall of plastic tat. I'm not much of a shopper.

And back to Mandalay again, where we have one more night before heading to Yangon, and then saying goodbye to Burma.

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