BURMA DIARY

October 14-16

    A 2 PM flight from JFK to Seoul. Nice new Airbus plane with lots of seat room and a fancy duty-free shop in the tail. Watched four movies and slept a bit.

    I Transfer in Seoul to a 747 to Bangkok. sitting next to a Korean Fratboy who crushes his beer can when empty. More crap movies then we land at Suvarnabhumi Airport. Change $40 to Thai Baht and eat a curry.  Since my flight to Burma isn’t til the next morning, I scope out the benches in basement floor for sleeping.  Padded and four seater, so not too bad. Ear plugs and buff over eyes and get some sleep in 30 minute increments. Lots of others doing the same. I wake up from my bench hotel sleep at 4 AM.  Had a lousy breakfast at Subway but got to use the Wi-Fi. I still have to transfer, so I caught the shuttle bus for Don Muang airport at six.  first wiff of  that wonderful Southeast Asian mildew scent. Total deluge on the hour bus ride.  I Read about some bombings in Burma -some in Mandalay and Sagaing where I’l be going.  Some worry- should I avoid holiday crowds at temples? Will find info when I get there. Early lunch at Surupon Foods- All transvestite staff! A good price- 219 Baht noodle, drink and Soup set (about 7 bucks)



The flight to Mandalay was quick. I land to scorching heat, and take the Air Asia  Shuttlebus to town. On the ride to town, the difference to Thailand is startling. A sandy, thorny landscape and bony people pushing bikes. So glad I'm here. Really! The Hotel royal power ($45) is high-rise. My room is on the 10th floor with a good view over the Palace moat. Got the bike and put it together and rode to MCAC/ dreamland art studio to meet Sophia, Suu Myint Thein etc.  Kind of funny place but they are lovely. After giving our books and magazines we went to big barbecue place in a nice car with their cousin driving- Spoke perfect english (went to business college in Buffalo, New York). Rode back in dark and managed call to Kathy with Viber! I Konked out at 11 o'clock.




October 17
Woke up at six and had decent breakfast at hotel. More work on bike and it's all good to go. big tires, so smooth ride. Rode to Palace in early morning- magical! Gonna love it here. 10,000 Kyat for combo ticket (five days, other Mandalay sites). Palace better than expected. Bad reconstruction after World War II flattened it but peaceful birds in trees, slow biking with little traffic. Lots of soldiers-It’s their headquarters. For one hour I'm alone in Palace, no tourists or  Burmese.





























Continued on to Kuthodaw Paya- 729 pavilions with marble slabs inscribed with the Pali Tripitaka.  Met Mrs Cherry begging by the entrance and drew her. She is Anglo Burmese, was an English teacher, very lovely. It's getting very hot. Getting heat rash on my face. On to Shwesandaw monastery- 19th-century wood, totally carved, top to bottom. Great! Then on to Atumash Kayoing- not so great 1996 restoration of one of Mindon's buildings. Too hot- retreat to hotel after chicken curry for less than one dollar. Drew counter lady. Feeling tired, so downtime. 

Later, went to Dreamland to do lecture- had a translator who did a good job. About 30 people including a monk and Suu Mint Thein’s teacher from State School for Fine Arts. It seemed to go well, I guess. After,  another big barbecue dinner with lots of artists and beer. Rode home and fell asleep.


October 18

Got up at 4:30 and rode to Maha Muni Temple in the dark.This temple was thriving with people it has a famous Buddha that was taken from Rakhaine State and is now being covered with gold leaf -by men only. Beautiful place. Back to hotel for breakfast and on to meet Australians for trip to Elephant festival. We went with the driver, “Fatty” to Kyaukse, one hour south of Mandalay. First went to a temple newly excavated, a Bagan era temple with amazing stucco work and some bad modern restoration. it was covered with a later stupa, fell into disrepair and cleared only in 2009. We then drove to the centre of Kyaukse and found the stage for the elephant dance competition. About 80 teams from surrounding villages compete and the winner gets to take the offering to the temple on the hill the next day, a big honor , and bragging rights. The elephant is a bamboo and papier-mâché figure with two guys being the legs underneath. There is a whole group of musicians and attendance on stage, and when one is done the next team pulled up in a truck with massive speakers blaring music. it's a massive crowd, crushing in on all sides and scorching hot.  A vendor is selling ice cream, and  tinkles little bells to attract customers. After a few teams go on we try to walk to town to get lunch.  It's nearly impossible with all the people and scooters, and elephant team trucks. Getting claustrophobic and over-heated in this crush. By 2 o'clock we call it a  day and head back to Mandalay, but festival traffic is crazy. When back in town I go on a search for a bike shop for a water bottle cage. Finally success! A quick shower in hotel and rush off to Mandalay Hill getting there a bit late for the sunset. I rush up the endless steps mostly in the dark and reach the top in 30 minutes. A nice view and conversation with Sunny, a young guy studying for his tour guide license. We talk politics and walk down and he says Aung San Suu Kyi has lost popularity because she's paid to rebuild mosques after riots angering her Buddhist core. Also encounter an annoying monk doesn't speak much English but disparages Muslims and Hindus, then hits me up for a donation. I give him a lousy 200 chat he does not look happy. Then on to Kyaukdawgyi Temple where a festival is on- mostly lots of vendors. I'm wound down, so head hotel to sleep. 


October 19 

Headed out at 5 AM in the dark for Armarapura. Found the U Bein Bridge at dawn but it's a bit cloudy. Rode across this ancient teak bridge, bumping along, surprising monks. At opposite end of the lake, I stop at a funhouse-like monastery and get some breakfast. Tea, samosas, and Mohinga soup. Ride back over the bridge and meander onto the main road to the Irrawaddy River bridges.  I find the little road to the Inwa ferry. A little boat takes me across the creek and it starts raining. At the Inwa end all the roads are mud pits because of the horse carts that take people around. A little miserable at first, but the rain lets up, and I resign myself to the mud. I go to the brick and stucco Bonzene Monastery where a little girl pesters me to buy a bracelet. “If no buy, I no be happy”. Sorry, kid...

I ride through lovely fields to various temples and end up at the far end of Inwa at the teak Bagaya monastery. Lovely and peaceful. The mud is atrocious, with occasional paved roads. Feeling pretty hard core. When I get back off the return ferry I attempt to wash and wipe the mud off everything in the river. I head over the old British Ava bridge to Sagaing. I find the Shwe Pyae Sone Hotel ($25 a night)- nice place. I decide to take it easy in the afternoon, work on watercolors, read. Non existent wifi, though. I wash some clothes and then head to a Chinese “beer station” for dinner. I share a table with a couple of dudes- almost no English. Food is not bad, and they buy me a beer. I draw one of the guys. They leave and after I pay, they catch up to me a block away:  “Go temple festival, okay?” “OK” I say, a little drunk. We triple up on their motor scooter and tear off. I realize we’re going to the Kyaungmudaw Pagoda- famous for looking like a big tit, rising from the hills. It's a mad scrum to get in and park the scooter, with thousands doing the same. We walk in with the throngs- it's a huge gilded boob-like temple. we do a circumambulation, they pray and I check out all the young guys with loads of hair gel and punky stick-up hairdos.  It’s a big see-and-be-seen scene. nAfter about an hour and a half we head out, zooming and beeping on the scooter back to the hotel. 


October 20 

Pouring rain! I sleep in a bit but after breakfast I put on a rain poncho and bike up to the base of Sagaing Hill. I find a staircase up. At the first Temple, Soon U Ponya Shin Paya there are nice views over the hills dotted with pagodas all over the leafy hills. 

The rain lets up. I walk on the road on top of the hills to Umin Thounzeh where a line of 45 identical Buddhas line a curving hall. All these living temples have LED lights behind the Buddha’s heads and mirror mosaic walls, columns, and ceilings. Lovely misty views over the Ayeyarwady River I walk down and search for  the Tilawakaguru Cave. I finally find it, but it’s all locked up and not a soul around. I wander around and get sent to the Buddha Cultural Museum a mile away where they keep the key. A guy scooters me back over and unlocks the gate: It's an amazing bunch of ceiling and wall murals-totally awesome seeing alone it by flashlight. Back to the hotel and I'm invited by the staff boys to share their lunch -really good home-made food. I get all equipped and head off for the 14 mile ride to Mingun along the river. The road is nice and I weave the little villages with the kids yelling “bye bye” instead of hello. This is what I love about riding here. it's very up-and-down for the last 5 miles, crossing dry riverbeds in the centre of the villages. When I get to Mingun there is a Pwe dancer on a mobile truck in front of the massive brick block-like Paya. It's so huge, and big cracks fisure it from a 1838 earthquake. It’s totally massive. A bit farther up is the big Mingun bell and futher still is the white washed tiered Hsinbyume pagoda based on the mythical Mount Meru. Riding back to town during sunset is lovely, though the motorbike, car, and “Chinese buffalo (tractors powered by something like a lawn motor engine)” emissions are giving me ashma again after being “cured” for the last several years. I buy another inhaler ($3.50) in town, get a beef curry and beer and turn in. Total: 30 miles RT to Mingun


October 21

 I’m Up at 5:30 AM and on the road at 6 o'clock. Weather looks good, partly cloudy. 5 miles out of Sagaing I stop at the Kuthodaw Paya again but it's almost empty after the festival and lit up by the sunrise. Back on the bike:this will be a long day. Soon the traffic gets a bit lighter, and I'm using a buff over my face and this seems to help with the fumes. It’s mostly flat terrain, farmland, very green and a rather good road. This is what I've been waiting for, and my body feels good. I think I can do this. It’s villages all along the road with occasional stretches of nothing. Oxcarts go by on dirt tracks parallel to the paved road. At every village there is a “Buddha toll booth” where a young girls shake metal bowls to ask donations for the local temples. They blast music and have an MC exhorting the passerby to give. I'm trying to drink a lot of water but the heat is not brutal -partly cloudy, thank god. Noodle or tea breaks every 10 miles or so. I make it to Chaung U town by about 12:30 (50 miles so far). It's getting quite hot, so I find a restaurant for lunch. The kid working there is sweet and speaks a bit of English. They fix me up a huge plate of noodles topped with a fried egg and extra side dishes- I can’t even come near finishing it, and just hang and rest for an hour to let some of the heat pass. I'm not feeling too tired even after 50+ miles. I ride on and find the turn off for the Thanboday Paya, a smaller road. I grab a quick sweet tea pick-me-up opposite the temple and head in. It’s a crazy Disney-like riot of color, some colonial architecture (by Aw Boon Har of Tiger Balm Gardens fame) and a multi spired main temple, the point being, how many tiny Buddhas can fit on and in one building. It looks like several hundred thousand. It seems a donation scheme -you too can pay for one of the figures to be placed somewhere in the temple. There is an English style clock tower (though the Brits would never dare paint it lime green) and an Ali Baba-ish tower you can climb for the view. It's getting late in the day and I still need to head fartherup this small road to the Bodhitatung. As I ride, I'm feeling the past 60 miles. I pull up, lock the bike, and look up at the worlds tallest standing Buddha. It is f-ing huge and there is an equally large reclining Buddha in front of it. I enter this from the back side, what can only be called the location of the Buddha anus. It's kind of dreary inside, dusty tableaux of moral stories. Up more steps to the standing Buddha, and inside the first few floors have great “punishments of Hell” paintings. I'm feeling the time, so I rush back down. I want to try and make Monywa by dark and there are also some scary thunderclouds in the distance. As I roll off,  I realize what a hill climb I had to get up here -no wonder I was bonking. I'm moving fast but the light is fading. I reach Monywa just as it gets dark and I find the Shwe Tung Tarn hotel. I rode 82 miles today-totally epic! Legs feel fine too. At the hotel it turns out they don't have my reservation- I insist, and they say “wait 30 minutes”- okay by me. They finally lead me up to the fourth floor to a weird triple bed room where you have to jump the beds to get to the back ones,but it's a room. ($15) This place is quite a dump, very dingy. Tomorrow I can move to a better bungalow room. Dinner at the equally dingy attached Chinese restaurant, but it's quite tasty and the Myanmar beer hits the spot. 


October 22 

I didn't rush out at the crack of dawn today. Wandered the town and over to the Chindwin riverbank and  sussed out the ferry across for tomorrow- a whopping $2.50 (well it's $.20 for locals). Got huge lunch at a place nearby- about 15 dishes with vegetables besides the chicken curry I ordered. Back at the hotel it becomes clear there is no bungalow for me: they move me to a double room, still skanky. Kind of hate this place. A bit of rain but it looks good enough for an excursion ride. I head south, and upon leaving town find a little road towards A Myint village. Rolling through lovely farmland. The guidebook said it was a good road but halfway through it turns to crap. Still asphalted but all it does is hold the big rocks in place. I’ve got 15 more miles of this and my hands are sore from absorbing all the shocks. Finally I find the town- very sleepy, but an amazing collection of ruined temples and stupas and nobody around but goats and their herders. Some beautiful murals in some buildings and a nice wooden monastery. Anywhere else this would be a major attraction but here I'm alone for 1 1/2 hours exploring. I head back on the brutal road and get in town at dark. A quick Chinese dinner and beer and a successful Viber call home! 35 Miles today.


October 23

Lousy sleep- cigarette smoke smell in my room giving me asthma. After breakfast I check out another hotel, the Chindwin: they will have a room at 9 o'clock. For $35 it's much better, clean and includes a towel. I wash some clothes, and head to the jetty. I pay the foreign price, $2.50, which gets me a private boat across the river. The road on the other side is reasonably smooth, passing farmland and on the left, the controversial Letpadung copper mine. Protesters of the land grab here have been beaten and imprisoned for the past two years. After a turn off, a very small road leads off into peaceful hills. When I stop for a rest I realize how completely silent it is here- the first time without noise in more than a week. I reach the Hpo Win Daung caves: it's a series of hand dug caves and niches, with endless Buddhas set in the rocky cliffs. This is wonderful, and aside from a few Burmese tourists I'm alone for hours. At one point I meet some kids yelling to and feeding the many monkeys living here. I get on my bike and ride just a little bit further to the Shwe Ba Duang caves. This is the more recent site, kind of like a Tiger Balm Gardens meets Petra. It's cut down in the rock with temples and buildings along the recessed streets. A nice ride back. At the ferry launch I come across the end of a fight: three guys all drenched from landing in the water as they fought. Steely looks, but the action is over. Going to relax in my nice hotel room, have a coffee and catch up on my sketchbook. 


October 24 

After breakfast I set off just before seven. The noise and fumes of traffic is starting to get to me, but after retracing my steps to Chaung U, I turn off south, and there is a fair bit less. Nice road through lush paddy fields. At one point the road is a levy over a huge flooded shallow reservoir. It's partly cloudy which is nice to keep the sun off, though it's still quite hot. I cross the large lower Chindwin river bridge- there are wide sandbars in the middle of the river. After 40 miles its lunchtime at one of the roadside bus rest stops. The usual fried noodles, safest bet, as it’s cooked fresh. I enter a village with lots of ruined, old looking temples- I must be near Pakhangyi. I ask about the monastery I've read about, and after a little run-around I find it. It was the largest in Burma at one point, with huge teak columns : it's okay, but a guy pops up wants a whopping five dollars for entrance fee. Another 5 miles on, I see some action at a temple and I hear it, too. I pull in, and it's a big crowd watching a pwe in a paper mache temporary temple. There appears to be a decorated coffin on stage and big picture is of a very old monk, so this must be his funeral. They are doing a slapstick routine on stage, and talking into a microphone at full volume but the whole crowd is looking at me! Just then the clouds open up and a torrential downpour hits. Everybody tries to shelter under the temporary temple but it doesn't have much of a roof and starts disintegrating. I'm separated from my bike and afraid everything in the bags I getting wet. The rain eases off and I'm all wet, so I might as well ride. The road gets very narrow with potholes and puddles and I start a very long climb up.  After I top the rise, I descend into Pakokku. I find the Ma Yatanar guesthouse and it's super basic in an ancient riverfront house. I'm shown my room and it's kind of disappointing- pretty grubby and dark. oh well, it’s only $8. I wash up with the scoop over their head method and do a bit of reading. I order dinner and it's supposed to be great cooking here, but it’s just a basic egg fried rice. I get I wonder if the matriarch here has passed on? Turns out she’s just away. After dinner, I trek to an Internet place but it's so slow I can get on line at all. Some reading and bed by 8:30. Bored....


October 25 

I had the runs and a bad night for asthma so I’m going to cut the Pakokku stay short and head to Bagan for some “luxury”. Not too much to see in this town, I think. I take a quick walk around the local market and have noodles for $.20. I pack up and head out of town. The bridge across the Ayeyarwady is so long it takes 30 minutes to cross. Then, a good road to Nyaung U for 14 miles. I shop around for a room and pick the New Park Hotel ($35 for a night). Good aircon and I get some washing done. Taking it easy. I visit a few temples in the afternoon including the Shwewzagon, nice in the afternoon light.  I’m not up for much more. I have a surprisingly good pizza and beer for dinner at San Kabar. I go to the local pharmacy to see if any steroid Advair meds are available but only the Ventolin. This asthma is a nagging problem. Some worry that I should run back to Mandalay and see if a private hospital could help? Maybe even change my ticket and head home early? I feel more like this at night when I’m coughing and can’t sleep and miss my family, but then by light of day while seeing amazing things I think otherwise... 


October 26

Slept good, not much asthma, so feeling okay on that, but really got the runs so I take some Imodium. Very excited to see Bagan- This was the only place I will have been when I spent a week in Burma in 1987. I feel sure I’ll be a bit disappointed, as it was the most magical place I think I’ve ever been then. I know there’s been a fair bit of bad restoration, and certainly will be a lot more tourists than back then. I bike back on the road I came in on, up a long hill and find the dirt road turn off for the cave temple Kayak Ku Umin. The key lady appears and lets me in. Great paintings and tunnels leading back into the hill. Super quiet and airless- could monks have lived in here? Seems like a tough gig. I ride on to some little visited temples to the east of Nyaung U. I find the unlocked stairs up to the roof and get a nice view scrambling up those guano smelling staircases that in 1987 was the best part of Bagan (then called Pagan). Really makes the Indiana Jones-like experience complete. Glad to see it still possible. When I get back to check out they say they do have a room for two more nights. “Thanks” I say-I have a reservation elsewhere. But when I get to the New Wave hotel it's not as nice and not much cheaper so I race back to New Park and claim the offered room. Weather is iffy but I set off to hit temples on the way to old Bagan. At Htilominlo temple, still awesome, though too many trinket sellers, I'm shocked to see two Padung Women sitting on the ground. At first I think it's a statue but then she moves! These are the women with stretched necks covered with brass rings- very freaky.... makes me uncomfortable to gawk. On to several other temples. Oh, oh, stomach problems! I find a hiding place under a bush and let go. Good thing I brought some TP. I visit the lovely Ananda and Maha bodhi temples- I am within the old city walls now. This is the area I stayed in 1987. Soon after that, the government forcibly removed all the villagers to make old Bagan pristine. I go to the Bupaya, then a lump on the riverbank, now a newly gilded gourd with the modern bits of a pilgrimage site. Fresh paint and LEDs blinking. It’s supposed to be a third century Pyu pagoda. It starts to rain so I grab a cup of tea- tourist price: $.50! I ride back in the rain. I watch some TV in the hotel: cricket match, India/Australia and We Bought a Zoo movie.  Good Thai food and beer for dinner. 


October 27 

Heavy rain all day long- total downpour. Ate breakfast, read, painted, napped, power cut, ate lunch, read, painted.... At about 3:30 it let up and I decided to try some temples. Made it to a few, mostly deserted. Up dusty ground stairs to roof. On one I found used condoms! and I'm worried about not wearing flip-flops in sacred spaces?. Muddy dirt tracks and one flooded wash crossing the paved road- rolling through 6 inches of moving water for 10 yards. Somewhere along the way I've lost my lock and cable which was on the back rack- I retrace my steps but can’t find it. No biggie- it feels very safe and little theft in Myanmar in general, but I buy a cheepie, because it’s not my bike! Back in the hotel the power is back. Eating dinner at Weatherspoons- tea leaf salad, beef curry and beer. 



October 28

Woke up to more rain, but not heavy. I enquired about staying one more night but they are full, so I go around the corner and find out and not-as-good room for the same price, but they're very nice. Once I'm settled, the rain clears a bit so I set off. I take the paved Anawatra road to Old Bagan and start hitting temples south of that. Several have amazing murals and several have good climbs to the roof. At one point as I'm on a dirt path I skid to a stop- big black snake lying across the path! He slithers off- hope that's my only snake experience. Some of these temples, up on the roof, rather quiet, alone and the rich green fields and trees...... just wonderful. At some temples, folks attach themselves to you tell you where the stairs are, when the temple is from, etc. Then, ultimately, they unroll their sand paintings.... kind of tacky images on sand covered fabric. They usually leave you alone if you’re firm. I get to  New Bagan, have a snack and a rest, then on to some of the southern plain temples. Dhammayazika is under a bamboo scaffolding, but I ride around the back and into the little path that will take me to Dhammayangyi  in 2 to 3 miles. All is well at first, some beautiful empty temples and some puddles easily avoided. At one point a farmer waves and says “no” indicating the road through. I push on and soon find out why - this area has plateaued and all of that standing water plus motorbikes coming through has churned it into a mighty mud pit. I squish through, sometimes riding, sometimes pushing. At the edges of the “road” there are thorn bushes, so if you try and get to the unchurned edges you get stuck a bit. It's probably about a mile of this in intermittent sketches- kind of fun, but I'm a filthy mess, caked with mud. I get to Dhammayangyi and, like all temples, they have a water tank on the side, so I bucket my legs clean. This temple is one of my favorites from outside, but inside it's a big plain and oppressive. Supposed to be haunted, and there’s mysterious bricked up passages to the interior. The vendors are out too. As I start to leave, something is wrong with my bike- hard to control. I realize I'm getting a flat on the front- what to do....? I'm pretty far from the hotel where I left my pump and patch (idiot!). I try to see if there are some bike rental places in Old Bagan which is closer. First on the way as Ananda Temple, where a shop owner sees my dilemma -he brings an old pump, but it breaks apart in my hands and of no use! I feel like I'm not losing any more air so I decide to strike for the hotel, keeping my weight on the back. I squish back to the hotel slowly in the growing dark. I replace the tube. No word from the Belgian lady who I was going to share trekking with. Dinner and bed. Still a lot of asthma, so thinking that trekking is not a good idea- Smokey shacks to sleep in, and I'll wake everybody. Maybe change tickets and leave early?


October 29 

Got up and hit some last temples- at the Winido Temple I meet the key keeper who lets me in and up to the roof where I draw the panorama. He watches me and we talk a bit- he is in charge of keeping this temple’s grounds up-cutting back the weeds, etc. Some very nice paintings in a side shrine. At an unusual Shiva temple with three joined shrines I buy some T-shirts from a lovely girl. Her friend keeps pushing some postcards, but not interested. Sad face. The mud is not too bad today and I escape being a total mess. Back to Nyaung U to check out and meet the Belgian, Patricia. I commit to dropping out of the trekking plan and she's okay about it. She just had a train ride from hell- It started four hours late then stopped three hours into the trip and sat still for 12 hours. She joined up with others to organize a taxi and got in at 3 AM, 15 hours behind schedule. We have lunch then I set off for Mount Popa. I know it will be 30 miles of all uphill but after a while I wonder if I will make it. At the halfway point at a fork in the road I wait for a pick up truck that I could pay to get me up the mountain. Nothing shows up. Made a mistake starting so late. I ride on slogging up hill after hill. I know that just before Popa there is a steep 2- 3 miles of switchbacks. Hardly any traffic. Then a dump truck goes by and I make myself clear with sign language- they stop and load my bike in the back. I hop up and were off. One of these travelling times when it turns miserable to wonderful in an instant! We wind up some severe switchbacks, and get to the crossroads of Popa village where I hop out. They wont accept even a token bit of money. I ride up another mile to the Zar Yatheingy hotel ($35). Nice, spread out bungalows over the hill. I start to head up to the shrine but it’s all uphill, I’m spent, so I turned back and take a shower. I go to dinner at a big tour bus pull-in joint next to the hotel- very good Chinese fish dish and meet Robert from DC who is biking for 70 days in Burma on a business visa he wrangled. Back home he drives a pedicab. we swap some ride info, etc as he's going the way I came. 


October 30 

I ride up to the Popa shrine- lady wants 500 kyat for parking bike! I just lock to an old chair and head up the stairs. The Popa shrine is dedicated to the 37 Nats: pre-Buddhist spirits who can cause trouble is not treated with respect- they like cash money and alcohol for offerings. Along the climb up the huge volcanic rock plug that has the shrine at the top, there are shrine stations. People come with flowers and money to be placed in the different statues hands. A major obstacle is the hundreds of wild monkeys crawling everywhere- not dangerous unless you're carrying food, but they pee and shit is all over the stairs. Remember, you have to go barefoot! Guys are trying to sweep and mop the stairs but it's a huge task so you're walking through monkey crap. The top of the Rock isn't quite as impressive as seeing it from below, but there are nice views. I’m early, so not many visitors or action. I walk down and bike off. I take a 30 minute walk into the jungle somewhere along the way. At the hotel, I pack up and start my wonderful downhill ride- the switchbacks are great. Hard to brake enough. Overall about 85% of the ride to Nyaung U is down hill, and I make it there in quick time. The only problem is that at one point I hear a >KUNG!< sound: I know I’ve broken a spoke. It’s on the rear gear side too-the worst place to replace it considering I don’t have a tool to take the flywheel off. The wheel is a bit out of true but no biggie, it’s ridable. I get my same room back at New Park hotel, do some washing and lunch and go to some temples. Weather is clear and sunny so there will be a good sunset. I climb up Shwesandaw temple, a large stupa with about five floors. It's a bit past 4 PM- this will become sunset-tourists-central soon. I paint a watercolor of looking towards the huge Dhammayangyi temple, but when I'm done I decided to split- too many Europeans huffing and puffing up the stairs. I go to a smaller temple nearby, head up the stairs and then am one of only about 10 tourists. We get a lovely sunset, lots of pictures taken by all. Riding the 3 miles back in the dark my eyes are assaulted by gnats as I ride. Dinner: Penne Bolaignaise....a bit tired of curries. 


 October 31 

Up at 4 AM with some asthma, but almost the time I needed to get up anyway. I pack up the bike and ride in the dark to the boat launch for the river trip back to Mandalay. As I board the captain insists on $25 extra for the bike! I don’t really have a choice.... I manage to grab one of the last wicker seats up under the canopy. We cast off at 5:30 in the dark. We get a nice sunrise and a very nice breakfast as it gets light. We chug on and I do some reading, some water coloring, some looking at the river go by. Its quite nice, though there’s not too much too see as the river is very wide. We get a fried rice lunch and the sun gets intense- and it's hard to find a combination of a seat, shade, and a breeze. Finally we can see the Sagaing Hills and the huge golden Kyaungmudaw temple shining in the distance. We go under the twin Sagaing bridges and the sunset lights up the crazy collection of hundreds of barges, boats, and steamers along the Mandalay waterfront. We pull in and as everybody is being pestered for taxis, I pull my bag on my bike and roll off. I head to the Royal guesthouse but  something looks different.... I ask about the reservation I placed before I left Mandalay and realize it was at the ET guest house, duh.  I ride there and sure enough they have my name. Nice place for $20, but Wi-Fi doesn't seem to work in the lobby. I walk a few blocks away and have some great barbecue (chicken, pork, bok choy, okra, eggs) and  a beer. Back in the room the Wi-Fi works!


November 1

 Headed back to Maha Muni temple for another visit- this time I saw the Angkor Khmer bronzes that had been plundered by the Burmese from an incursion into Cambodia centuries ago. Their body parts have been rubbed through on the belief that if you rub it it will be cured in you. Spent an hour wandering the four entrance bazaars getting a few souvenirs. I rode  west and found myself in the thick of the jade market. Visited a few temples and two old wood monasteries, one with great carving, and one plainer and a bit tired but more active.

I draw the head monk who is very sweet. Getting hot again so I retreat to the hotel for Wi-Fi, a shower, and air con. I start working out a plan for the next few days- I won’t leave early- I'll head up to The Shan plateau town of Hsipaw but without the bike. I can take an early bus five hours for four dollars. I reserve a room at the Royal power hotel for when I get back and will drop off the bike there tomorrow. I visit with Sofia and Suu Mint Thein which is great and she helps me with a few arrangements, hotel in Hsipaw, etc. I ride back grab more of that great barbecue, beer and pack up. 


November 2 

Up early- throw bags on bike and drop by Hotel Royal Power. I leave the bike and a bag of stuff for when I return. I walk in the dark to the Duthawadi bus place- turns out that they shuttle us to the the big station. The bus is kind of ramshackle and half full of produce and boxes under the seat where our feet go. Still, it's not full, so I get a double seat with room for my legs to stretch out. No air con, but we’re heading up to the hills so not needed. We leave at six, a few other tourists and a handful of Burmese.As light is breaking we leave Mandalay behind and soon are climbing up the Shan Plateau. After an hour and a half we break in Pwin Oo Lwin- Tea and noodles and bathroom break. We drive up and up, the air getting cooler, the trees changing to some pines. Lots of flower farms among the rice paddies. Soon we approach the Gokteik gorge. We start descending in switchbacks, honking and waiting when one of the huge Chinese trucks needs space to make a turn. I catch a glimpse of the train viaduct which spans the gorge in Tinkertoy style. We cross the river bridge at the bottom and start  working up the other side. Once up top it's fairly flat and we make it to Hsipaw around 11:30. I check into the lovely Lily the Home guesthouse ($25) and ask about trekking for the next day- if they get a few more people it's on. After a shower and a quick nap I head out walking north. Hsipaw is fairly small, with a village feel. I walk through small streets with pleated bamboo houses, people saying hello (or rather “minglaba”). I find the nice old monastery with the bamboo and lacquered gold Buddha, and there are some nice ruined stupas with vegetation growing all over them, one even with a tree growing from a top. Then I walked to the old Shan palace, actually more like a Tudor mansion. Inside, the princess, Fern, shows me the old photos and gives a detailed narrative of her family's history and troubles; her husband was put in jail from 2005 until 2009, serving part of a 13 year sentence  for talking to foreigners. Only since August have they opened the gate to visitors again. She’s lovely, and her story is very affecting. On the walk home I see a bookseller that has a copy the story of Ferns sister in-law, an Austrian who married the Hsiapw Sabwa prince, only to see him arrested and killed by the dictatorship in 1962. Dinner at the Chinese restaurant “Mr food”. It looks like the trek is on- enough people have signed on- this should be fun. it's very beautiful here. 




November 3 

A nice noodle breakfast, and the trek group of six assembles to meet our guide, Saw Myint, who is a Gurkha (though he uses his “Burmese” name). His great grandfather was brought her from Nepal by the Brits in WW2. Later, drawing him out a bit, he describes some of the struggles for non-Burmese- Like the inflated bribes one must pay for an ID card, just to be an official person. We set off in a tuk tuk to the trailhead, and we’re quickly on a footpath/motorbike trail leading through Shan villages. At their entrances there is always a wood gate with a knife mounted up top and a wood phallus-like pole in a nat shrine to assure the land’s fertility. We start going up some steep slopes and the sun is getting hot. Our group consists of myself, a Scot, a Slovenian, two Germans and a Dutch girl. We see small hydropower rigs in the streams to give some electricity in addition to small solar panels. After leaving the Shan settlements in the valleys behind there is a long stretch of climbing, occasionally seeing guys on motorbikes heavily loaded with hundreds of pounds of bags of tea leaves sliding down the trail. We find one guy who has fallen over and needs our help to right his bike as it’s so heavy. The cultivation changes from rice and cornfields in the flatter areas to tea bushes on the steep slopes. Around 11 we get to the hilltop Palung village of Pankham. If the Burmese sometimes look down on the Shan, this is who the Shan look down on- The Palung choose to live up on the high ridges (“uncivilized”), and are without any political clout in this system ( though that can certainly be said of most everybody here). We go to the general store for our lunch and while waiting, a Shan State Army soldier wonders in with a machine gun to get a beer. Our guide says “no photos” but otherwise there’s no tension. After a nice Palung vegetarian lunch we circle through the village we see lots of SSA soldiers and their commander- they have bivouacked here for a day or two before heading back to the forest before the Burmese Army is to tipped off. I guess we crossed a very grey line of control without knowing it. There is some sporadic fighting in this wider area sometimes- ceasefires come and go- but we’re not in any real danger. The Palung are kind of caught in the middle- this isn’t really their fight. We climb even higher for a few more hours until we reach Hteng Seng, the Palung village where we will sleep. It's quite lovely; all the houses have little gardens and the focus of the village is picking tea for a cash crop. At dusk it’s brought to the village, steamed and ground up on an ingenious rotating bucket over a grooved wood bed, and either dried or some is packed in a huge plastic lined basket and sealed for a few months to ferment for tea leaf salad. It’s clearly poor and basic here, but doesn’t look desperate. Myself and Garrett, the Scot, take a walk up to the monastery where we find a few eight-year-old novice monks. We take some pictures, and in a moment they have commandeered our cameras to take silly photos of each other. It's a total riot- lots of fun and they got some very good shots for me! We go back to our HQ and have a very delicious vegetarian dinner including pumpkin curry, fried tofu skins and tea leaf salad. Everything is local to the village, except the rice which they get with the Shan. We have a few beers and turn in at 8 o'clock as everything is quiet.


November 4 

We wake up to a call clear day, though I need my jacket for the first time in Burma as it’s quite chilly up here. Noodles soup breakfast and we start walking. Past more tea plantations covered in dew and the biggest spider webs I’ve ever seen, until we head up a ridge into heavy forest with large ferns. Because of the dew the small dirt footpath is very slippery when on a downhill. I fall a few times and my knee is hurting a little on descents. After only a little over an hour when over the pass, we reach a Shan village which looks much more modern than the Palung- concrete houses and a rough paved road. We start down on this road and it's rather monotonous- three hours through cornfields and blazing sun. At the lowest village, Saw Myint calls for a tuk tuk-pick up. We keep walking to meet him but he's a bit late so we make it to the main Lashio Road where he finds us. Altogether we probably walked 22 miles in the two days. I grab a quick lunch back in Hsipaw, wash up and relax in my room- a single with fan and shared bathroom ($8). Later, I get dinner at a kind of fancy place built over the river. Back at the hotel I have some rum and cokes with the two Germans and the Slovenian from our hike. 


November 5 

Someone shouting outside my window woke me up at 4 AM so I thought I'd get up and see the hill tribe market down by the river. I walked around- mostly women with interesting hairdressers selling produce or peanuts by candlelight. Quite serene and moody. I didn't feel I could take flash pictures, so just some with ambient light.  Stayed 20 minutes, then back to bed. I got up at 6:30, had breakfast and waited for the van to Mandalay. Half an hour late- rubber time. It picked up some more people then onto Kyaukme, where it took about an hour meandering through small streets, dropping off and picking up passengers. Then finally on the road. About four hours later we stop in the same rest stop that I was in on the way up for lunch. We took forever dropping off people in Mandalay and I was the last stop. The bus was better and quicker. Back at the Royal Power Hotel. I set off for the gold shop Sofia recommended- they have some nice small gold globe hearings. I go change some money and find a bike shop to take care of the broken spoke- they give me the spoke, insist on taking no money for it, and lead me across the street to a curbside repair guy who fixes and trues the wheel while I wait. Just have to listen to a random drunk guy try and talk to me. Total cost: 200 Kyat or $.20. 

Love these people- very helpful and very honest. I go back to the gold store and buy the earrings. As I'm talking to the owner I show him my sketchbook and suddenly get a nice discount on the gold! Back at the hotel I wash and fix up the bike with the hotel parking guys helping rinse and buff. All in tiptop shape. I wash up, write a few emails and start to pack up and finish off my sketchbook with tickets and stickers. Dinner HAS to be barbecue again, so  I walk up to the place I've been for the third time- delicious! Back at the hotel Sophia and her Dad drop by with some going away presents- a book in a Shan bag. Fall asleep watching “Objective Burma” on TV.

 

This is an account of a trip to Burma/Myanmar from Oct 14- Nov 7 2013. Most of the trip was on a bicycle.

TOM BURCKHARDT