FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Reflections from Mandalay

Posted in Mandalay, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 12, 2017

After our relatively short stay in Myanmar it was time to head home on a routing via Bangkok and Abu Dhabi that involved three changes of plane – starting with a short flight on Bangkok Airways into Bangkok. The contrast between the relatively deserted Mandalay International Airport and the perpetually busy Suvarnabhumi Airport was quite something! A couple of hours in the lounge gave me plenty of time to relax and reflect on our trip.

Our Bangkok Airways Airbus A320 arrives at Mandalay International Airport

I was pleased to have been able to get to see Bagan and Mingun on this visit, the places I most wanted to check out after getting my first taste of Myanmar in January. I haven’t exhausted the long list of places that look interesting (including big sights such as Inle Lake, Mrauk U and Pindaya Caves) but I’m more than satisfied with what I’ve seen on my two trips to the country.

On this trip I saw a different side to life in Myanmar than on my first trip, which was mostly off the tourist trail. Visiting the most touristy places in the country, such as Bagan and Mingun, I saw just how much the local economy has become heavily dependent on this trade. That applies to everyone from the ox cart drivers on the shore to the small stallholders selling cold drinks on the street.

Once again I was overwhelmed by the warm welcome wherever we went and the many kind folk that we met along the way, including helpful taxi drivers, generous monks and cheeky street sellers. I hope that charm is not lost as the tourist industry develops here as it makes a refreshing change from other places that I have been.

Arriving at Bangkok

For us the adventure was almost over. Thankfully, our trip home was pretty uneventful and we reached London a little earlier than expected. The only minor blip came when we discovered that we should have visited a transfer counter at Bangkok so that the ground staff could confirm the transfer of our baggage to the second of the three flights (even though our baggage had been checked all the way through to London at Mandalay). In the end they held us at the gate whilst they checked this.

Although we live in London it still took us a good three hours to make the trek from the door of the plane to our front door, but not long afterwards we were back out and heading round to join the family for a traditional Sunday roast!

Sagaing, Amarapura and the U Bein Bridge

Posted in Mandalay, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 10, 2017

The afternoon took us to Sagaing Hill, a spiritual site that is home to thousands of pagodas and monasteries. It was also the royal capital for all of three years in the mid-eighteenth century!

The ridge is a spectacular sight from the moment that you cross the Irrawaddy River and first catch sight of the gilded domes and Buddhas among the greenery. It’s no less spectacular once you reach the top of the hill and look down. In addition to the major monasteries here there are lots of smaller shrines that our guide told us were constructed in thanks for the shelter provided by the hill during the war.

The view from the terraces of Soon U Ponya Shin Paya

On our tour we took in the sights of Soon U Ponya Shin Paya (including the terrific view from the terraces over the Irrawaddy); the U Min Thonze temple, a curved cave temple built into the rockface housing 45 Buddhas; the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy; and the Htu Pa Yon Pagoda. All are splendid in different ways.

I thought the recent history of the Htu Pa Yon Pagoda was fascinating. The startlingly white pagoda is quite striking for its relatively unusual styling, which is mire common in Sri Lanka. However, it used to look rather different.

The original Htu Pa Yon Pagoda was constructed in 1444 by King Narapati but what we see today is a recent creation – the 15th century pagoda was encased in a steel frame and the new pagoda was built over the top. This is not uncommon in Myanmar – indeed, one of the effects of the 2016 earthquake in Bagan was to reveal a beautiful 11th century stupa hidden within a much later brick structure.

After leaving Sagaing behind we headed on to the Kyaw Aung San Dar monastery in Amarapura, which is remarkable in a different way. Upon entering the monastery your eyes are immediately drawn to a gigantic seated Buddha paired with an equally large reclining Buddha, but step inside the main pagoda and you find yourself in an amazing space decorated with over 2000 Buddhas. Quite astonishing!

Kyaw Aung San Dar monastery in Amarapura

We ended the day at Amarapura’s most famous sight and one of the most heavily photographed sights in the entire country – the U Bein Bridge. At just over 1km in length this teak bridge is the longest of its type in the world, sitting a good few metres proud of the Irrawaddy when I visited but often right up to the level of the walkway during the wet season.

The U Bein bridge was built using the teak columns left behind when the royal palace was shifted from Amarapura to Mandalay in the mid-nineteenth century. It’s a pretty impressive sight but recent studies have shown significant levels of decay among the pillars and a three year long restoration programme is set to begin in 2018. It looked as though some surveying of the bridge was taking place during our visit, though it was hard to tell if this was for ad-hoc repairs or preparations for the major renovations.

One of the pleasures of a visit to the U Bein Bridge was a sunset viewing by boat which turned out to be too tempting a photographic prospect to resist. The boats makes a simple loop from the landing point on the western shore, sailing under the bridge twice and then back to their starting point. The spectacle was gorgeous and helped distract us from the mid-journey repairs performed by our boatman and the layer of water that had formed inside our boat!

Sunset at Amarapura

The other more modest delight was a wonderfully improvised bicycle enhancements that I came across on the bridge. I suspect it is not the most comfortable of rides!

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Inwa – remains of a royal city

Posted in Mandalay, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 10, 2017

Our final day in Mandalay gave us the opportunity to take a look at three former royal capitals – Inwa, Amarapura and Sagaing – on a wonderful tour organised by LM Travel. The first stop of the day was Inwa (Ava) which had been the capital between 1365 and 1842 with some interruptions. Situated at the meeting point of the Irrawaddy and Myitnge rivers you can see why this easily defended location appealed for over 300 years.

Reflections of the Shwezigon Pagoda at Inwa

It was natural disaster that brought about the end – an earthquake in the early hours of March 23rd 1839 which was said to have destroyed every brick building in the city and left not a single pagoda standing. It was of sufficient force to be felt across the entire country as reports from Rangoon and Bhamo testified.

One eyewitness to the quake, Mr Spears, described the sight of the riverbanks rent apart by its force, leaving chasms between 5 to 20 feet and clear signs of soil liquefaction. Strong after-shocks were felt frequently in the following days and even when these subsided there was still at least one a day six months on. The continuing impact of earthquakes on Inwa were enough to persuade King Tharrawaddy of the need to move the capital to Amarapura.

Approaching the landing stage at Inwa

A shortish drive from Mandalay brought us to a spot on the banks of the Myitnge river where we could board the small ferry to Inwa (or Ava as the British referred to it). The ferry was a marvelous diesel powered contraption with propellers on a pole that could be lowered or raised from the water. For a former royal capital the wooden landing stage was very modest indeed.

On our arrival we switched to a horse cart, the primary mode of transport here, and set off on the traditional circuit of sights. Not the most comfortable of experiences for passengers, or horse I suspect, especially where road detours forced a run down and up a steep dip or when we had to travel along heavily rutted tracks through farmland. However, it’s balanced by the knowledge that a traditional method of transport hasn’t yet vanished here…

Horse cart is the primary mode of transport at Inwa

The traditional circuit covers four sights – the Bagaya Kyaung, a teak monastery from the final years of Inwa’s time as a royal capital; the brick stupas, monastery buildings and exposed Buddhas of Yedanasini Pagoda; the ‘leaning’ Nan Myin Tower; and the stucco marvel that is the Maha Aungmye Bonzan Kyaung. There are other sights in Inwa that you probably won’t get to see on the most rigid of horse cart tours, including the Shwedigon Pagoda and Nogatataphu Pagoda, though I was delighted by a quick photo stop to to capture the former.

One small regret about my visit to Inwa is that the well-worn circuit of four key sights around the city omits some rather unusual and fascinating structures (the Wingaba Monastery, Myint Mo Taung Pagoda, Lawka Dawtha Man Aung Pagoda and the Kyaung Lain Monastery) that I only read about after my visit. These are only just a little beyond the Bagaya Monastery, though not covered in any of the guide books I traveled out with. It’s a good reminder to do my homework before traveling, even when taking a guided tour!

Maha Aungmye Bonzan Kyaung

The highlight of the circuit was undoubtedly the Maha Aungmye Bonzan Kyaung, a stunning brick and stucco monastery that stuns even in its crumbling state. The building was commissioned in 1818 by Queen Me Nu, wife of King Bagyidaw, and was intended to replicate the styling of the teak monasteries that had gone before. It’s well worth stepping below the main platform to see just astonishingly thick the foundation pillars are – these must have helped it weather the great earthquake of 1839 with less damage than might otherwise have been the case.

Inwa is such an agricultural backwater today that it is quite mind-boggling to think that this was once a royal capital – probably testament to the level of destruction wrought by the earthquake. The buildings that survive are rather magnificent and well worth seeing.

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Marvels of Mingun

Posted in Mandalay, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 10, 2017

One of the sights I most wanted to see on our trip was the Mingun Pahtodawgyi, a massive unfinished pagoda commissioned by King Bodawpaya in 1790 but abandoned on his death in 1819. The pagoda was intended as an unmissable statement by the empire building king, which would have been visible for over 100km in its final state. However, his desire to finish it was said to have diminished after the circulation of a prophecy claiming that the dynasty would die out upon its completion! It would have been the largest pagoda in the world.

The Mingun Pahtodawgyi

Our taxi driver walked us to the small tourist ferry office and left us to wait inside for an english speaking official to turn up. The tickets cost 5,000 kyat per person and oddly required one of our passport numbers, but not both! Once the process was complete we were given a handwritten paper chit and left to wait outside with about 20 other passengers for someone to show us our boat. While we waited, we watched as coach after coach arrived and disgorged their tourists to their respective boats. Mingun was not going going to be quiet today!

Mayan Chan Jetty is a quite extraordinary place at this time of morning with a vast number of boats tied up alongside each other. I couldn’t see anything resembling a proper landing stage – most boats were boarded from the beach and then pushed off using poles to get clear The crews seemed well practiced in this and only once did we see a poor crewman fall in (he quickly swam back to be hauled aboard by his colleagues).

Boats tied up at Mayan Chan Jetty

Soon enough it was time to board our boat (Sam 3) which involved walking up a single plank of wood with two people holding up a pole to act as a hand rail! The upper deck of the ship was equipped with bamboo loungers shaded by a large awning which was a superbly relaxing way to while away the hour long journey, accompanied by a light breeze. Along the way it was interesting to see the small villages and traffic along the river (no sign of the endangered irrawaddy dolphins though). Ahead of us you could see a long trail of tourist boats all heading to Mingun.

On our arrival an ox-taxi pulled up alongside, one of around 15-20 still operating in Mingun. It’s a sight that might not last much longer as business is not great – the ox drivers have seen the local passenger market switch to Tuk-Tuks, leaving them dependent on picking up tourists from the boats. It’s not unheard of for the drivers to wait all day without getting any trade.

Ox taxi in Mingun

The base of the monumental Mingun Pahtodawgyi is astonishing, even in its unfinished state, and the cracks caused by the earthquakes of 1839 and 2012 just add to its already dramatic appearance. The earthquake of 2012 made it too dangerous to climb to the top of the monument (the steps up are blocked off by a metal gate) but it is still impressive to take the walk around the base.

The Pondaw Pagoda near the start of the tourist circuit shows how the Mingun Pagoda would have looked if it had been completed. Even with this help it s still a little hard to get your head around just how tall it would have been – at 490 feet it would have been taller than all but a handful of the highest skyscrapers in London.

How the Mingun Pagoda would have looked had it been completed

As impressive as the Mingun Pahtodawgyi is, Mingun has much more to offer and we continued wandering along the hot and dusty streets to see the great bell of Mingun (a whopping 90 tonnes) that was commissioned by the king in 1808 for his monumental pagoda. The two other pagodas here, the Settawya Pagoda (1811) and Hsinbyume Pagoda (1816), are delightful too and quite different to anything we had seen elsewhere. The only disappointment is the small temple set into the base of the Mingun Pahtodawgyi which looks puny in comparison.

On our walk back to make our return ferry, scheduled for 12.30pm, we stopped off at the remains of the two massive lion-like creatures (leogryphs) that once guarded the landing stage and main entrance to Mingun. Today, only the haunches remain (the heads having ended up in the river after the earthquake of 1839) but their massive size (95 feet) shows that nothing here was in any way average!

All that remains of one of the colossal stone chinthes at Mingun

After completing the circuit we headed back to the ferry, nervously braving the single plank without the benefit of a handrail and then relaxing on the lower deck. The return journey only took 45 minutes and our taxi driver turned up shortly after our arrival in Mandalay.

I thoroughly enjoyed my half day trip to Mingun. If the Mingun Pagoda had been completed it would undoubtedly have been one of the greatest wonders of the world and perhaps this place would have become a major tourist destination much sooner. As it is, I’m glad that Mingun retains its village charm.

Practicalities

Every morning a walk-up ferry operated by the Tourists Transportation Association leaves Mayan Chan Jetty, at the end of 26th street, in Mandalay at 9am for the one hour long journey upriver to Mingun. Tickets cost 5000 kyat per person and you need to have a Passport (although there were two of us they only seemed to want one Passport number – it looked as though the details were entered in a register of some sort). A paper ticket was issued, handwritten with the details of our return ferry time (now 12.30pm rather than 1pm).

Our boat had left a little late, around 9.15am and arrived at Mingun at 10.15am which gave us just over 2 hours to complete the tourist circuit. If I were to visit again, I would seriously consider a private boat as our time in Mingun didn’t really feel enough to take a good look at everything properly. It might also be nice to have an early boat to avoid the busiest crowds for photographic purposes, though we only felt slightly frustrated by crowds at the Mingun Bell.

The Mingun tourist circuit

A board near the point where our boat tied up helpfully shows the circuit to see all the sights and you can buy the Sagaing-Mingun archaeological site tickets from a stall nearby (most folk seemed to have walked in the other direction, so it didn’t seem the most foolproof of arrangements!). On the day we visited the ticket was only checked at the stone leogryphs.

As we worked our way to the farthest point on the circuit, the Hsinbyume Pagoda, we found that the minutes had been ticking down rather more quickly than we would have liked, but it’s worth making sure you have time to do this place justice. It’s a rather unusual pagoda, painted entirely white, which represents the spiritual centre of the Buddhist universe, Mount Meru.

Over the years the sights of Mingun have received varying degrees of restoration. Hsinbyume Pagoda was first restored as early as 1874 by King Mindon, following the damage caused by the earthquake of 1839, and the cone received attention as recently as 2013. There are some restoration works scheduled this year, but we didn’t see any evidence of this on our visit.

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Four days in Mandalay

Posted in Mandalay, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 10, 2017

Mandalay is often omitted from itineraries cramming the sights of Myanmar into a week or two. It’s no wonder when you have such marvels as Bagan, Inle Lake, the Golden Rock, Bago and Yangon to cover, let alone some of the more remote sights such as Mrauk U. However, there is plenty to see in Mandalay and the surrounding area.

The remains of the former royal capitals of Amarapura and Inwa, plus the unfinished pagoda of Mingun, make for terrific outings that more than match the spectacular sights to be found in other parts of the country. First, though there are the sights of Mandalay City itself…

Kuthodaw Pagoda

I’ll start by saying that I found a visit to the top of Mandalay Hill for sunset to be one of the least satisfying sights of our stay, though I am well aware that for many it is the absolute highlight of a stay. I made the long walk up the hillside within a few hours of arriving on our long-haul journey, so perhaps that played a part. On the other hand, I really enjoyed our visits to the religious sights around the hill such as the Kuthodaw Pagoda (often described as the world’s biggest book on account of its 729 engraved marvel slabs covering the Buddhist scriptures, each one neatly housed in its own stupa) and the equally photogenic Sandamuni Pagoda just down the road.

Another highlight among the sites located around Mandalay Hill is the Shwenandaw Kyaung (Golden Monastery), a teak building that was originally part of the palace complex at Amarapura before being moved with the imperial capital to Mandalay as the royal apartments of King Mindon (in which he died in 1878). The re-location of this intricately carved building on the grounds of ‘bad luck’ in 1883 turned out to be anything but as it is one of the few buildings from the palace to have survived the bombing from both sides in World War 2.

Exquisite detail at the Shwenandaw Kyaung

I hadn’t particularly expected to make a visit to Mandalay Palace, a 1990s reconstruction of the 19th century palace complex, but ended up there after our plans went a little awry.

The original palace was constructed in 1858, followed by the completion of city walls and moat in 1859. In its time it was a magnificent sight, with a combination of intricately carved gilded teak and glass mosaic that was said to be unique. The last monarch to sit in the throne here, King Thibaw, was sent into exile by the British in November 1885 following his defeat in the Third Anglo-Burmese War. Under British rule the palace became Fort Dufferin and was adapted to fit this purpose, with features including a garrison church, government buildings, the Upper Burma Club and military barracks.

The first efforts at restoration started in 1901 when the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, saw the dilapidated state of the palace on an official visit and decreed that it should be preserved for future generations. Lord Curzon oversaw the removal of the buildings added under British rule, arranged for the restoration of the palace buildings and the re-building of seven missing pavilions on the walls. Sadly, all these efforts were undone by the incendiary bombs dropped by Japanese forces on the night of April 3rd 1942. The resulting firestorm destroyed most of the palace and what little survived took another battering during the allied liberation of the city. It’s a wonder that any buildings survived.

The poorly reconstructed Mandalay Palace

Today, the vast 1,000 acre complex is a military zone and off-limits to foreigners (including army garrison, prison, sports grounds and even a golf course) with the exception of the reconstructed palace complex at its centre. A handful of interesting survivors can also be seen on the fringes, just off the road from the eastern gate, including the original Clock Tower and Relic Tower.

The restoration generated a wave of condemnation as it was mostly built using forced labour – every family in the city was compelled to provide free labour for at least three days a month during the project (one 50 year old shop-owner described being forced to work in 35 degree heat to dredge the 6 mile long, 11 foot deep moat around the palace).

It’s not the best reconstruction that you will ever see, with concrete and corrugated iron roofing in place of teak, but it does give a vague sense of what this would have been like – especially if you climb to the top of the watchtower. There is some hope that this might change, as King Thibaw’s descendants would like to restore Mandalay Palace to its former glory.

There are some fascinating and grim stories to be told about the history of Mandalay Palace, including the large-scale massacres of the royal family ordered to protect King Thibaw’s position and the mystery of the disappearance of the most precious of the royal family’s jewels. It could make for a compelling tourist centrepiece with full restoration and the right presentation, but not as it stands today.

Mandalay Palace: A walled city within the city

Another sight to have undergone reconstruction is the Atumashi Kyaung, the largest religious building constructed by King Mindon (1808-1878) in Mandalay. The monastery built over a period of 18 years, from the laying of the foundation stones on 22nd May 1859 to its completion on 29th November 1877, but under British rule was converted into military barracks and burned down in 1890.

The reconstructed monastery re-opened in 1996 and is a bit of an oddity, housing a tiny Buddha where once a huge Buddha with a precious royal diamond once stood (another jewel to have mysteriously disappeared under British rule). Thankfully, the original stairways, archways and balustrade with their beautiful stucco carvings have survived and these more than made up for the poorly reconstructed structure built on top.

Stucco carving at Atumashi Monastery

Other sights we visited in Mandalay included the Kyauktawgyi Temple, the Mahamuni Temple (the most important Buddhist sight in the city) and Shwe In Bin Kyaung (a lovely teak monastery from the 1890s). However, the most interesting sights are those nearby at Inwa, Amarapura and Mingun of which more in the next couple of posts…

Practicalities

Our trip to Myanmar started and finished at Mandalay International Airport, giving us more time in the city than I might otherwise have planned – approximately four days – and left us all too familiar with the hour long drive between airport and city centre. In our time in the city we stayed in two hotels, the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel and the Link 78 Mandalay Boutique Hotel. Taxis were easily obtained and absolutely essential to get between most places (getting around on foot was quite a bit trickier than I imagined).

The first of our two hotels was the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel which was superbly located for all the sights around Mandalay Hill but a long way from anything else. The hotel is a few minutes walk from the entrance to Mandalay Hill and within 15 minutes walk of the various religious sights that surround the base of the hill (Shwenandaw Monastery, Atumashi Monastery, Kuthodaw Pagoda, Sandamuni Pagoda and Kyauktawgyi Temple). Mandalay Palace is roughly 25 minutes away on foot.

Our second hotel, the Link 78 Mandalay Boutique Hotel, was a wonderful oasis of calm amidst the bustling streets of downtown Mandalay at the end of our trip. It’s a smart, stylish place just a short walk from the central railway station (the top floor restaurant looks down on the station). Service was very efficient and incredibly helpful. The only downside to our stay was that some taxi drivers were incredibly confused by the similarity in names to The Hotel 78, Mandalay, and got very angry when we explained that this wasn’t the hotel we wanted!

A five day Mandalay Combination ticket (10,000 kyat) is required to visit Atumashi Kyaung, Mandalay Palace, Shwenandaw Kyaung and Kuthodaw Pagoda. We picked ours up at the Shwenandaw Kyaung. It was checked everywhere except for the Kuthodaw Pagoda.

Mandalay Palace doesn’t tend to feature highly in recommendations and hardly encourages visits with its awkward arrangements for access. Firstly, only one of the four entrances is open to visitors – the eastern gate, roughly half way between downtown Mandalay and Mandalay Hill. Next, you have to surrender your passport at the military guardhouse immediately in front of the gate (they give you a numbered ticket to wear around your neck and then write this number on a sticker that they attach to your passport). Finally, you have a 15-20 minute walk from the gate to the palace complex with signs along the way warning against entering the restricted military zones on either side.

The Shwe In Bin Kyaung monastery is rather underrated but that worked in my favour. It clearly isn’t ever overflowing with tourists but I was one of only two visitors on the afternoon that I visited. One of the monastery guardians kindly took it upon himself to lead me round, pointing out sights that I might easily have missed such as the workshops where restoration work was taking place. There is no charge for admission. To keep things simple I arranged for a taxi to take me to the monastery, wait a short while, then take me back to my hotel.

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Wanders in Bagan

Posted in Bagan, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 8, 2017

The simple pleasure of a wander across the plains of Bagan, taking one dirt track after another as your eye gets drawn to interesting temples, pagodas and stupas is that it doesn’t stop. There is always another temple or pagoda just that little bit further ahead of you. How can you resist walking a little more, then more again!? It all makes for wonderfully relaxing walks with no-end of delights for the photographer – enough to slow me right down from my usual hurtle through life!

No shortage of pagodas in Bagan…

I tried not to be too ambitious with my walks, for example starting with an early morning taxi to Taung Guni for a walk after sunrise one morning, taking in Dhammayangyi Temple on a leisurely wander back to the Bagan Thande hotel in time for a late breakfast. On another occasion I took a taxi to Sulamani Temple and began my wanders from there, enjoying the sight of a flock of goats being herded down the dirt road, before finding a good spot for sunset.

The sights of Bagan took quite a hit when an earthquake of 6.8-magnitude struck on 24th August 2016. The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture reckon that the earthquake affected a total of 449 temples out of 3,252 across the plain. Restoration started with the 36 pagodas at highest risk of collapse, followed by the 53 temples which need urgent repairs.

Pagoda undergoing restoration in Bagan

In most places the sight of a major attraction under scaffolding would be a disappointment, but here the use of traditional techniques makes the sight of pagodas under repair a fascinating spectacle in its own right. Only a few are covered by unsightly tarpaulins or incongruous modern caps – such as Sulamani Temple and Thatbyinnyu Temple.

Now that the rubble has been cleared away it is easy to forget the destructive power of the last quake as you wander. In many cases the damage is not immediately apparent, though the complete closure of temples such as Myauk Guni hints at the lingering danger from unstable brickwork and the like. The earthquake may yet have done some good with the opportunity to restore these pagodas and temples more accurately than in the past, led by experts from UNESCO.

Traditional bamboo scaffolding

Our four nights in Bagan seemed a sensible length of stay and we just about managed to avoid becoming templed out, though I will admit that my enthusiasm for stepping in and out of temples was slipping on my last afternoon of wandering. I don’t know how the balloon pilots cope with months here with very little other than temples to see!

Almost by chance I stumbled across the perfect spot to end the trip – a raised viewing platform ten minutes walk away from Sulamani Temple which offered a lovely view of the setting sun on a horizon filled with temples. I think it may be the site referred to in newspaper reports as Oh Htein Kone though the lack of signage makes it a little hard to be certain (the entrance includes a noticeboard describing the ‘pottery hill’ of Otein Taung).

After enjoying a gloriously red sunset I made my way off the plain in the fading light, returning to my hotel for a last meal under the acacia trees before packing in readiness for our return to Mandalay on an early morning flight.

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Ballooning across the Bagan plains

Posted in Bagan, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 8, 2017

The idea of flying in a balloon terrified and thrilled me in equal measure but ultimately the opportunity to see such an incredible archaeological spectacle from the air overcame my doubts. I booked a place, months and months ahead of the trip, hoping that I wouldn’t regret my decision!

On the morning of the flight I headed down to my hotel reception ready for a 5.20am pick up and was soon on my way to the launch site in one of the beautiful vintage teak buses that Balloons over Bagan have restored. After reaching the launch site, near to the Bagan Golf Club, we were able to relax a little with some coffee as we watched the small weather balloons being sent up to assess the wind direction.

Preparing for flight

Flights start in early October each year and the number of balloons gradually builds up over the month. Last year they managed to get balloons up on 24 days in October but the weather this year has been terrible and they have only been able to fly on 5 days. Flights are usually booked up long before the start of the season so it’s pretty tough if flights are cancelled as there’s little chance of re-booking for another day. Thankfully, the wind was blowing perfectly for the optimal flight path and the skies were clear.

One of the things that impressed me most about Balloons over Bagan was their utter professionalism and strong focus on safety, overcoming my initial doubts about ever stepping into a balloon basket! Before the inflating of the balloons began we were taken through our safety briefing by our pilot, a balloonist with decades of experience and in his sixth season at Bagan. The thorough briefing gave us all the essentials, including the landing position that we would need to adopt.

It had never occurred to me just how skilled a balloon pilot has to be in a setting like this. To start with pilots have to be qualified with a British commercial balloon licence and on top of being capable of piloting their balloons they have to be able to fly in a large group, cope with the company’s rigorous procedures, handle communications with other balloons/air traffic control and look after their passengers (everything from pointing out the sights to taking pictures of the group with a go-pro strapped to the balloon). Our pilot made all this multi-tasking look effortless but its not surprising to hear that some very good balloonists haven’t been able to handle all of that.

Thinganyone Temple (1244)

The very experienced local crews set about inflating the balloons and beckoned us over when it was our time to clamber aboard using the footholds in the basket. There was no graceful way to do this but I got myself in somehow. In no time at all our balloon started rising – ever so gently – giving us a great viewpoint over the field of balloons, all at different stages of readiness. I was really surprised that my fear of heights never kicked in at any point during our one hour long flight. I loved every second of it.

I don’t know how much the route has altered in recent years due to government restrictions. Although we didn’t fly over the centre of the monument zone we certainly had a terrific view over the pagodas on the Bagan plains and flew directly over some smaller temples at a height of around 400m. All the while our pilot explained the basics of balloon flight and kept up an impressive commentary, pointing out sights that we might easily have missed from blue winged rollers to brickworks. The balloon turned all the time, giving us all opportunities to photograph the sights we were passing.

Our flight took us from the launch site near the Bagan Nyaung U Golf Club on a route over Thinganyone Temple, Sinbyushin Monastic Complex, Pyathetgyi, West Pwazaw village, Thitsarwadi and Thuntekan village before landing in a field just beyond the new hotel zone. The preferred option of a landing spot on the sand banks will become available in a few weeks when the waters of the Irrawaddy River drop.

Dhammayazika Pagoda (1196)

As we came in to land we were asked to put our cameras away and adopt the landing position (seated, head back against the basket and holding the two hand grips tight). One hard bump and a smaller follow-up got us safely onto the ground. Our pilot kept the balloon inflated to help the ground crews find us at our improvised landing spot.

Once we were able to clamber out the crews set up some tables for a terrific breakfast that included fried eggs with cubes of bacon served up in a small pan, a selection of cold meats and cheese, fresh croissants, bread with a passion fruit marmalade, some really terrific tamarind juice and champagne. Quite a way to celebrate a quite amazing morning in the air! The food was all produced by Sharky’s restaurant.

One of the side-benefits of overshooting our target field was that we were not swamped by sellers. One talented local artist, Ruby, found us and presented his beautiful sand paintings of the balloons and temples. The last thing I was planning when I set out in the morning was to buy a painting but in the euphoria of our return to earth I bought one as a memento of a special day.

Balloons over the Bagan plains

All that was left now was for us to board the bus ready for the drive back to our hotels. Along the way we heard a little bit more about the investment that Balloons over Bagan makes in the local community, such as the provision of electricity for Tha Htay Gun village. I reached my hotel at 8.30 and found it hard to believe that there was still a full day ahead of us ready for sightseeing!

Practicalities

Around 20 or so balloons take off each morning, weather permitting, operated by three balloon companies: Balloons over Bagan, Golden Eagle Ballooning and Oriental Ballooning.

I kept an eye on the Balloons over Bagan website and booked my flight when I saw availability for the dates of our stay starting to drop, approximately 8 months ahead of our trip. A couple I spoke to on the morning of our flight said that they had struggled to get seats 6 months ahead and had to go on a stand-by list.

My flight was booked in one of the smaller 8 person balloons flown by Balloons over Bagan, the company that first brought balloons here and the largest of the operations today.

One of the beautiful vintage buses operated by Balloons over Bagan

A smaller balloon is reckoned to be a better option for photographers, but if that hadn’t been a consideration I could have gone for one of the standard 16-person balloons offered by Balloons over Bagan at $340 per person. Not cheap at $450 but if you are going to do something like this, once in a lifetime, I figured you might as well do it properly. I didn’t regret my choice!

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Seven highlights of the Bagan Archaeological Zone

Posted in Bagan, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 8, 2017

It is quite impossible to see all of the 2000+ temples in Bagan on a single visit, which means making some hard decisions about what you are going to make a beeline for. Even if you come up with a reasonable plan it is likely that you will still end up leaving out temples that would be major tourist attractions in their own right if they were located anywhere else.

A shady spot at Ananda Temple

I didn’t have a well defined plan, but it roughly worked out as half a day on the temples in/around Nyaung U, a day for the temples of Old Bagan, a day wandering the plain and a half day for the temples in/around Myinkaba Village. I would have liked to get out to Dhammayazika but that was a little too remote and didn’t easily fit with the general drift.

On a three day trip 20 temples seemed a reasonable target and we came pretty close. It was enough to feel satisfied that you have experienced a little of the place without becoming thoroughly templed out. I saw a good deal more on my wanders but I wouldn’t dare pin a number onto that. I started to count them one morning but after spotting 50 temples in the space of twenty minutes walking I decided that this was going to become a pretty irritating game to play…

Any list of temples in Bagan is going to be pretty subjective, but these are seven highlights and some of the quirkier sights that we saw along the way.

1. Ananda Temple

The sheer beauty of the Ananda Temple has drawn many comparisons with Westminster Abbey, which was constructed in the same year (1090). The temple was built by King Kyanzittha, ruler of the Pagan Empire from 1084 to 1112, in remembrance of Ananda, a disciple of Buddha. It’s a stunning sight, inside and out, which deserves plenty of time and attention to fully appreciate its exquisite detail.

The temple is the second largest in Bagan with a shimmering spire that rises 52 metres that draws the eye whenever you catch a glimpse of it (complete with niches containing statues of Buddha). However, the gilding is a relatively recent alteration – added in 1990 to commemorate its 900th anniversary. At ground level there are plenty more detailed artworks to admire, including a remarkable sequence of green-glazed terracotta tiles telling Jataka stories and stone chinthes guarding each corner. Stepping inside opens up a new degree of wonderment.

Ananda Temple (1090)

Upon entering the temple you find yourself walking towards one of four giant Buddhas that tower over everyone, two originals and two replacements added after a fire in the 17th century. The floor plan resembles a Greek cross with four entrances. From any of these you can follow the inner or outer corridors which are lined with over a thousand niches. Most, but not all, of these contain images of Buddha. The effect is extraordinary.

A stone chinthe at Ananda Temple

The Ananda Temple suffered considerable damage in the earthquake of 1975 which was then compounded by a ‘catastrophic’ restoration programme that saw its beautiful murals limewashed. In some ways it was a less damaging restoration than has been seen at other sites where liberal use of concrete and over enthusiastic re-construction to inauthentic designs appalled historians.

Thankfully, a six year programme of structural conservation and chemical preservation work by the Archaeological Survey of India (funded by the Indian Government at a cost of $3.2m) is reversing much of this damage. A quick glance at photographs taken before and after the chemical treatment started shows the difference this care and attention has already made to the external appearance, with all works expected to be complete by 2018.


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2. Mahabodhi Temple

The unusual design of the Mahabodhi Temple catches your eye from the first moment that you glimpse its pyramidal tower from the upper terrace of the Shwegugyi Temple and it is no less impressive seen close-up. The sight of hundreds of niches filled with small statues of a seated Buddha is quite unlike anything else in Bagan. The very modest prayer hall can’t live up to the exterior but there are some interesting brick ruins to one side of the temple.

Mahabodhi Temple

The temple here is a rather inexact copy of one of the most significant sites for pilgrims, the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya in Bihar State, India, where Buddha is said to have reached enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. The original temple in India dates to the 6th century whilst the copy was constructed by King Nantaungmya (also known as Htilominlo) in the 13th century. King Nantaungmya also built the Htilominlo Temple, one of the great temples of Bagan.

3. Thandawgya

The Thandawgya image (dating to 1284) is a real surprise, tucked in a modest looking temple under a couple of trees between Shwegugyi and Thatbyinnyu. Indeed, it is sufficiently low key that I didn’t see anyone step inside in the entire time that we were in the neighbourhood which is a pity. If I’m honest, I was drawn to the small brick walled compound by the two stone lions guarding the site rather than any thought of what might lay inside!

Thandawgya image

Stepping into the small brick temple you find yourself face to face with a six metre tall Buddha built with green sandstone blocks. It’s striking appearance is not how it would originally have been seen – it’s just that the plaster has long since worn away (an undated picture in my copy of the Pictorial Guide to Bagan shows a black and white photograph of the statue in the ruins of the small temple, effectively in the open). The Buddha was constructed by King Narathihapate, the last king of the Pagan empire, before he fled to Lower Burma in the wake of the Mongol invasion.

4. Dhammayangyi Temple

The Dhammayangyi Temple is a brute of a building, the largest on the plains of Bagan with six terraces. It follows the same plan as the Ananda Temple but here the inner ambulatory has been filled with rubble and bricked up, possibly to improve the stability of the structure.

Dhammayangyi Temple

I don’t think anyone could claim that this place is pretty, even if the masonry is said to be superb, but there is something rather fascinating about the gloomy interior and it’s not hard to see why so many believe that it is haunted. As we stepped inside the vast outer corridor we didn’t have long to wait before we could hear bats squeaking above us, occasionally swooping down for a flight along the length of the passage.

The story of its construction sounds pretty chilling. King Narathu is said to have hoped that it would help atone for the murder of his bride, brother and father. However, Narathu had a rather strange way of going about this act of contrition – chopping off the hands of any masons who failed to meet his high standards (it was curtains for any mason who spaced the bricks far enough apart to allow a needle to pass between them). In the end Narathu was to meet his end two years after taking the throne, supposedly killed by assassins sent by his bride’s family.

5. Shwegugyi Temple

Shwegugyi Temple was built by King Alaungsithu in 1140, little knowing that in 1163 it would be the spot that his
inpatient son (Narathu) would smother him to death to speed up his accession to the throne. It’s a rather lovely temple with ornate wooden doors and a large Buddha.

Shwegugyi Temple

This is also one of the only temples in Old Bagan where the upper terrace is still open, reached via a small staircase, affording a terrific view of the ancient library and temples that surround it.

6. Thatbyinnyu Temple

Thatbyinnyu Temple was built in 1144 by King Alangsithu and is the tallest temple (61m) in Bagan. However, my reason for including this temple on my list of favourites is the very handsome guardian at the entrance!

Guardian of Thatbyinnyu Temple

The temple was one of the worst affected by the earthquake in August 2016 and is in a group of 36 religious buildings prioritised for repair. Restoration of the temple is expected to begin in 2018 following funding of US$1 million from the Chinese government.

7. Shwezigon Pagoda

The Shwezigon Pagoda in Nyaung U feels much more like the temples I had seen in Yangon earlier in the year with a gilded stupa (encasing an earlier pagoda) surrounded by small shrines (from the convention to a revolving good luck cone). The earliest part of the temple was constructed by King Anawrahta, founder of the Pagan Empire, around the mid 11th century and the work was finished by his son, King Kyansittha, in 1102.

Shwezigon Pagoda

Other stops on our three day trip included Bulethi, Bupaya Pagoda, Gawdawpalin Temple, Gubyaukgyi Temple, Htilominlo, Kyanzittha Umin, Manuha Temple, Mingalazedi Pagoda, Nagayon Temple, Nathlaung Kyaung, Pahtothamya Temple, Pitakat Tait, Schwesandaw Pagoda and Sulamani Temple. Even then, I’m probably missing a few.

The pleasure of a trip to Bagan is all the small stupas, pagodas and temples that you come across along the way to the big sights. Even the occasional wrong turn gave us some splendid sights that we wpouldn’t otherwise have seen, such as a cluster of five stupas in a field near the lacquerware museum or a rather unusually named pagoda I hoped we wouldn’t need help from…

Nuclear Catastrophe Overcome Pagoda

I don’t know what Bagan is like at the peak of high season but it never felt crowded at any spot we went, with the exception of my first attempt at a Bagan sunrise at Bulethi and the Shwezigon Pagoda. The visitor numbers may be rising but they still have quite a way to go before they match some of the world’s top tourist destinations.

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Three days in Bagan

Posted in Bagan, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 8, 2017

On the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy river, spread across a 40 square mile site in the plains of Bagan, the astonishing remains of over 2,500 temples can be found. It is hard to comprehend that this dusty and largely rural spot was once the cosmopolitan capital of an empire or that at its peak, around the 11-13th centuries, you would have found around 14,000 stupas, temples and monasteries here.

A forest of temples

The reputation of Bagan as a city of learning attracted scholars from across Asia and its population grew to somewhere between 50,000 and 200,000. Marco Polo considered it to be ‘a very great and noble city’, marveling at gold and silver towers that shone most brilliantly when lit up by the sun. Not so long after Marco Polo’s visit the city was abandoned, around 1287, in the wake of the Mongol invasion of the Pagan empire. Over time the city was reduced to a modest village among the ruins, surviving until the demands of the tourist industry prompted the re-location of the population to New Bagan.

The infrastructure might not immediately suggest it but twenty first century Bagan is once again thriving with good hotels, restaurants and plenty of transport options to support a steady influx of tourists. More change is undoubtedly coming, with new international flight connections mooted to link Bagan to Siem Reap and work on a long-stalled new hotel zone underway again. Bagan was the most tourist-friendly place I have seen in Myanmar by a long chalk.

At the moment it is still relatively easy to get lost among the temples and find yourself alone but that will change if the visitors continue to grow at their incredible rates. In 2010 Myanmar was visited by just under 800,000 tourists but by 2015 that had grown to nearly 5 million. It’s not hard to see the appeal – my breath was taken away by my first sight of the forest of temples. I wondered why I had ever worried that the reality might prove a disappointment!

Myauk Guni Temple

Our three day stay in Bagan began with a mid-evening flight into Nyaung-U, arriving around 9pm. It wasn’t meant to start that way, but the flight we booked with Mann Yadanarpon was re-timed by three hours just one week before our trip. I think it is pretty safe to say that it was the last flight of the day as they switched off the lights and locked the doors behind us as we stepped out to the taxi rank!

We spent one night in Nyaung U (at the Hotel Zfreeti) and then transferred to Old Bagan for three nights (at the Bagan Thande Hotel). The location of the Bagan Thande proved hard to beat with the river on one side and the temples of Old Bagan just a few minutes walk away. In the evenings it was a delight to sit for a meal under the acacia trees of the Bagan Thande as the light faded, occasionally catching sight of an owl or two (let’s not dwell on the bugs that occasionally dropped onto the table or into our food!).

The location of our hotel made it easy to head out to the sights of Old Bagan on foot but for the sights further afield I eventually settled on cheap one way taxi rides. I would find a good starting point, such as Nagayon Temple, then slowly make my way back towards the hotel visiting pagodas along the way. I know that I could have opted for an e-bike but I preferred to take things at a slower pace and absolutely loved the freedom to wander unencumbered.

Typically, I would sit out the hottest hours in our air conditioned hotel room or take a dip in the pool. The break also really helped avoid temple overload!

Practical information

I spent quite a while researching the options before we made our trip and really appreciated the wealth of information shared by other visitors. I thought I would share our experiences in case it helps anyone else ruminating over the same questions that bogged us down for a while!

Stupas in Bagan

1. Which domestic airline? I thought it would be simple to book a domestic flight but it turned out that tickets aren’t usually sold as far in advance as international flights and even when they were theoretically available many of the websites didn’t work. I had intended to book with an airline with a good safety record and the largest fleet size (admittedly none of the airlines seemed to have huge fleets) but in the end the choice came down to the first airline flying the right route that I could actually book!

We flew to/from Bagan with Mann Yadanarpon, a small airline that began operations three years ago and which currently operates with a fleet of two ATR 72-600 aircraft. The whole operation seemed to be very efficient but far from the automated process we are most familiar with, starting with the wheeling away of our baggage from the check-in counters at Mandalay with handwritten tags attached! Everyone we encountered from the airline seemed friendly and helpful, which is not always a given.

Mann Yadanarpon ATR 72-600 at Mandalay

At check-in domestic passengers are given stickers showing their destination – a terrific visual cue that allows staff to easily spot passengers queuing for the wrong flight or not getting off at the right airport (some flights make a number of hops before reaching their final destination).

Ultimately, I was happy with my choice or airline. The landings were a tad bumpy but we didn’t see anything that gave us particular cause for concern.

2. How reliable are flight times? The flight time between Mandalay and Nyaung-U is just half an hour, if it is a direct flight, so you are barely up before you are on your way back down. Our direct flights were roughly 15-20 minutes late departing in each direction.

I had booked my flights direct with the airline rather than through an agent. This worked out fine, but I would caution that our flights were re-timed in both directions and we only got notification of one set of changes. Our return flight was moved forward by half an hour without us knowing which could have been a tad problematic. Thankfully I’m super cautious. Although we were at the airport way too early for the expected departure time it turned out to be spot-on for our re-timed flight!

The view from Taung Guni

3. What cafes/shops are available at Nyaung U airport? The terminal building at Nyaung U is fairly basic but includes a cafe and a few gift shops. An enterprising stall holder at the entrance was selling postage stamps for a modest mark up. A counter here sells the obligatory Bagan Archaeological Zone passes (25,000 kyat per person for five days) and we were steered there as soon as we arrived. I was relieved to see that there was a small queue of taxis on the night we arrived.

Some things you take for granted elsewhere, like departure boards, were not in evidence here. Everything at the airport seems to follow a manual process – even entry to the airside waiting hall for our return flight involved finding our names on a list and crossing them off. This thoroughness is quite re-assuring too – in each direction handwritten baggage tags stapled to our ticket were checked against those attached to the cases.

4. Can you walk around Bagan? Getting around Bagan proved simple enough, on foot and by car. I arranged taxis through my hotel without difficulty and none of the drivers seemed phased to be asked to drop tourists off in the middle of nowhere before the sun had risen! I took a copy of the downloadable map from Design Printing Services with me for a rough approximation of where to find the temples on my list and some satellite images to help fill in the detail. It’s never too hard to navigate when you have giant temples on the horizon…

I have to say that most people I encountered in Bagan were riding around on eBikes, in larger coach parties or taking taxis. However, I liked the slower pace of a nice long walk and it definitely is possible. I wouldn’t have liked to be walking around for long in fading light though – the traffic coming off the plain is pretty relentless in the immediate aftermath of sunset. They even have traffic police directing the steady queue of bikes, cars and coaches off the dirt tracks back onto the main road.

5. Where’s best to stay? I was torn between the options of Nyaung U, Old Bagan and New Bagan. Each had its appeal but ultimately the ease of walking to/from Old Bagan and onto the plain swung the decision in favour of Old Bagan. There are a few good restaurant options within easy reach of Old Bagan but many more at Nyaung U.

None of the hotels are particularly cheap. Our stay at the Zfreeti cost us $85 for one night whilst a room with a river view at the Bagan Thande set us back $200 a night. I would have to say that it was worth stumping up for a hotel amongst the sights of Old Bagan – it made all the sightseeing so much easier. Having said that, boats chug up and down the river at all hours and not at all quietly (a sort of super-charged tractor sound). It might not have been the quiet haven that we imagined but we did get used to it quite quickly. The river is also a good deal further away, and lower, than in the promotional shots.

In the longer term the option of staying in Old Bagan is likely to disappear if the government commits to removing the Bagan Thande and some of the other hotel resorts from the Bagan Archaeological zone following the UNESCO recommendation.

6. Do you need anti-malarials? I found so much conflicting advice about whether anti-malarials were needed in Bagan. At the time we travelled the British National Health Service fit for travel website suggested that Bagan would be low risk for most travellers (with some exceptions relating to medical conditions etc) but highlighted the recent peak in dengue cases in Myanmar. Travelling in the dry season should have significantly reduced the level of risk, but to give ourselves the best chance of avoiding such perils we covered ourselves in insect repellent and wore clothing sprayed with permethrin. Ultimately, it’a decision that only you can make so don’t take my word for it. It’s much better to seek advice from the health professionals who know their stuff rather than rely on advice from travellers!

7. What essentials do you need for Bagan? The absolute essential for a trip to Bagan is a powerful torch. The interiors of some of the pagodas are pretty gloomy and it would have been quite impossible to see any of the murals without a decent torch (with the exception of Gubyaukgyi temple, where it looked as though you might have been able to hire a rather unwieldy lamp for a wander round). I also found it immensely helpful for navigating round the temples before sunrise. As there is no street lighting in Old Bagan a torch was also a necessity for even the shortest walk beyond the hotel grounds at night – as much to alert traffic to your presence as to see your way. I took a LED torch rated at 280 lumens with a reach of 220 metres and that was just perfect.

Sunrise in Bagan

8. Can you still climb the temples? I had read that climbing the temples was to be banned this season so didn’t really know what to expect, but it turned out that there were at least a handful that were open to climb and there were also some perfectly decent viewing mounds that offered quite lovely views in their own right.

My favourite temple was Taung Guni, which proved a good spot for sunrise and sunset with a viewing platform that could be reached by interior staircase (good torch required). I also tried Bulethi and its near neighbour at sunrise, with narrow terraces accessed from steep steps on the exterior, but these were a little too crowded for my liking. Officials checked the Bagan Archaeological Zone pass at both locations.

I kept an eye on the local press for developments, real time updates from Twitter and comments on Tripadvisor forums/reviews to see what was happening. It was still pretty confusing but it gave me a clearer idea of what was definitely closed and some ideas of what could be open.

9. Is it still worth taking a balloon flight over Bagan? I wasn’t sure whether the expense of a balloon flight would be worthwhile as many accounts suggested that the experience doesn’t compare to what used to be on offer. I don’t know about that, but I can say that a flight over the temples in a balloon was the undisputed highlight of the trip.

I was also really impressed by the safety standards in place at Balloons over Bagan and thought that it was as safe a balloon ride as you could hope for, accepting that there is always a degree of risk. I suffer terribly from a fear of heights but this didn’t kick in at all. It was a lovely experience from start to finish and the views are extraordinary – I’m guessing that they have been more spectacular still in the past, but I was perfectly happy with what I got to see.

Bago to London

Posted in Myanmar, Yangon by folkestonejack on January 18, 2017

The journey home from Bago began with a car to the airport – a smooth ride that took just one hour and forty minutes, with no sight of the traffic that slowed our outward journey a week or so back.

Stepping inside terminal 2 at Yangon we found the place almost completely deserted, so it was easy enough to get checked in quite quickly (it turned out my attempts to check in last night using the mobile app had been successful, though it failed for others in the group). A glance at the departures board suggests most international flights now depart from the year-old Terminal 1.

Farewell to Yangon...

Farewell to Yangon…

My flight (Thai Airways TG302) boarded on time and was waiting at the end of the runway a good 5-10 minutes before the scheduled departure time. The clear skies afforded some great views of Yangon, Myanmar and Bangkok along the way with our plane (once again a relatively lightly loaded A330) landing early and ready to disembark ten minutes ahead of our timetabled arrival. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Bangkok airport was much cooler than the last time I was here.

I’m fairly easily pleased when it comes to airplane food but if it helps anyone, the food served up on the flight was quite simple fare – a hot ‘chicken rico rico’ roll, a small cake, water and coffee. All quite edible.

Flying over Myanmar

Flying over Myanmar

As I had seven and a half hours to kill before my next flight I took the opportunity to book a few hours in the quiet haven of a Louis Tavern CIP Lounge which was worth every penny. I really appreciated a bit of space to unwind and chill before beginning the next leg. The light snacks on offer in the lounge looked fairly uninviting, but the drinks were quite decent.

...and hello Bangkok

…and hello Bangkok

The second flight of the day (Thai Airways TG910) had a scheduled departure time of 0.15am but this was delayed until around 1am to comply with the curfew at Heathrow Airport. As it was explained to us, if we departed on time we would have arrived at Heathrow too early due to the good flying conditions. In the end we still had to circle London twice before landing and reached the ground twelve minutes early at 6.08am.

Although the flight out had been packed the A380 for the return trip was more lightly loaded, offering a little more space to stretch out. Unusually, I even managed to sleep for six hours which is a vast improvement on the hour I usually manage on long haul flights! Food was quite decent too – a beef stew and banoffee pie on departure and a traditional cooked breakfast before arrival (no rival to the french toast with apples and sultanas served for breakfast on the outbound flight).

The temperature change on arrival was a bit of a shocker – downgrading from 35 degrees in Yangon to -3 degrees in London with just a light jumper to keep me warm on the slightly awkward journey home by tube and train during the rush hour. Still, it’s good to be home again.

Back in Bago

Posted in Bago, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 17, 2017

Although our steam photo charter finished last night there was still time this morning to make a quick visit to Bago depot to see our trio of steam locomotives in the shed. The line-up included our loco from yesterday, YD964, which presumably made it back in the early hours of morning. Who could resist a few last photographs before we had to get back to the hotel, finish packing and head to the airport?

Tour completed - YC629 and YD964 in front of Bago shed

Tour completed – YC629 and YD964 in front of Bago shed

Overall, this has been by far the smoothest and most successful organised tour that I have been on using chartered steam. This is testament to the meticulous planning and preparation of our tour organiser, Bernd Seiler of FarRail tours, who has been pursuing the dream of reviving steam in Burma at great effort for a decade. On top of that, I have to applaud our wonderful tour guide and a legion of railway workers for making the dream possible every day.

The tour has been a delight and offered up so many astonishing photographic opportunities, but more than that it has opened my eyes to an incredible country and the friendliest folk. I’m sure I will be back before too long to get better acquainted with the parts of the country that I haven’t seen yet.

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Chasing water buffalo

Posted in Kyaikhto, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 16, 2017

The leisurely lunch stop at Hnin Pale was timed perfectly for the crossing of regular passenger trains in both directions – one an express towards Mawlamyine and the other a mixed passenger towards Bago (comprised of a diesel locomotive, three passenger coaches, one tank wagon, two open wagons, one box car and one combined brake van/passenger coach).

Mixed passenger train no. 86  arrives at Hnin Pale

Mixed passenger train no. 86 arrives at Hnin Pale

Our stationary train complicated the normal arrangements and necessitated a little train shuffle – the mixed passenger had to line up behind our train whilst the southbound express took the platform and only once that had passed through could the mixed passenger reverse and take the platform itself.

The mixed passenger really is a lovely train, with some rather remarkable coaches that have been converted from freight cars. However, it was so lightly loaded that I thought it was a train of empties at first. A handful of passengers does not make a successful railway.

A passenger coach fashioned from a freight car

A passenger coach fashioned from a freight car

As terrific as our steam tour has been I have to keep reminding myself to appreciate the railway system as it stands today and the mixed passenger is a good example of that. It is probably something that will disappear within the next decade – someone joked that we will be back in a decade to try and re-create such trains!

Our afternoon’s work began with our departure from Hnin Pale at 2.27pm. We made our first stop at a level crossing only a short distance from our starting point to try and make a shot with some water buffalo being herded through a water channel running parallel with the railway. It was a moment that captured the utter madness and enjoyability of these trips with the kind assistance of a herdsman who was most willing to get his charges into the right spot for the runpast (around 3pm).

We had taken up a vantage point on a ridge overlooking the water channel and from here Bernd shouted directions which our guides translated into Burmese for the herdsman to follow. The shot looked pretty amazing as it was but better was to follow after the runpast with the water buffalo stood in the foreground of our static train (better not to ask about the wisdom of lying down in front of water buffalo…). Simply amazing – probably the standout moment of the trip for me.

Water buffalo at Hnin Pale

Water buffalo at Hnin Pale

A little farther on, near Taungzun, we stopped for a shot of a river bridge that we reached by working our way carefully around the perimeter of a field of sweetcorn. We arrived at Taungzun itself shortly after this (4pm) and then stopped briefly at Mayangon (4.30-4.35pm) to allow a train bound for Mawlamyine to cross. Finally, we picked a spot at a bridge a short way out from Kyaikhto for our sunset stand – enjoying about five or six runpasts until the light was well and truly gone.

Our train reached Kyaikhto station at 6pm and before we boarded the buses there was time for some speeches to thank the railway crew for their superb efforts throughout the tour. I can honestly say that I have never seen a steam photo charter that has run quite as smoothly as this so they really deserved all the praise and applause. Of course it wasn’t the end of the day for the crew – they still had to get the train back to Bago whilst we had the luxury of sitting back in our buses for the two hour drive to our hotel in Bago.

The last light of the day

The last light of the day

It has been a superb day with terrific weather and superb photographic opportunities. It felt hotter than any of the days so far but running around trying to position ourselves in front of the moving bovine target probably didn’t help! Still, I wouldn’t change a thing. If we wore ourselves out a little bit more then that was fine with a quieter day ahead of us.

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Extreme gardening and floristry

Posted in Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 16, 2017

The last day of our photo charter began with an earlyish start by bus. leaving our hotel in Thaton under cover of darkness in the hope of catching the morning glint a little further down the line. Our train is heading back to the shed at Bago but we will only stay with the train whilst we have light. It doesn’t seem likely that we’ll make it as far as Mokpalin, let alone Bago.

Catching the glint at Theinzeik

Catching the glint at Theinzeik

As the sun rose we found ourselves at Theinzeik, roughly 17km from Thaton. The scene was a familiar one to veterans of Burmese steam, but the beautiful pool of water they remembered was much depleted and a line of previously submerged junk had now become visible on the side nearest to the village. Although this reduced the possibilities for a reflection shot, we still had enough water to play with and beautiful conditions to match.

Once our reflection had been captured we walked a little way down the line to capture a bit more of the rural scene and the semaphore signals here before finishing up at 8.45am in good time for a passenger express to overtake us (at 9.07am). All pretty straightforward stuff, despite the efforts of a mean looking beast to intimidate us. Breakfast arrived as we waited to set off again – bananas delivered by motorbike!

Heading north from Theinzeik

Heading north from Theinzeik

Our train departed at 9.29am. Once again I joined the box car at the rear of the train, which is not unusual for a FarRail tour and yet this is still the most remarkable that I’ve travelled in.

The box car doubles up as the kitchen for the crew – a chef and his mate have a drum stove at one end of the box car and boxes of kitchen equipment with which to rustle up a fitting meal. Today, this means that the smell of fish curry is wafting through the air over the photographers filling every available space in the middle of the car. At the other end, hanging out of the door, we have our smartly turned out and ever-smiling singing guard, who is never to be seen without his smart white railway uniform and cap. Freight class really is the way to travel!

One of the small shops at Hnin Pale station

One of the small shops at Hnin Pale station

The journey north took us to Donwun where we stopped briefly (10-10.14am) so that the diesel could be attached to the front of the train to try and help us make some distance. The next stop came at Hnin Pale (10.45am) where we took on water with the assistance of the local fire brigade and waited for a passenger service to pass (11.35am). With the passenger service out of the way we pushed back in the direction of Theinzeik for a shot of the box-girder bridge we had just passed over.

Major gardening was required to make this possibility. Thankfully, some locals came to our assistance with machetes – helping to return the scene to how it had appeared a decade earlier before the line had become overcrowded by bushes. For a finishing touch one of the lads arranged some purple flowers as additional foreground! Three runpasts here (12.00-12.30) made good use of that work and ensured that everyone got the shot.

The view after some extreme gardening

The view after some extreme gardening

We returned to Hnin Pale station at 12.50pm and enjoyed lunch from the station cafe – chicken curry with rice. The most remarkable thing about this was how they served it up on giant leaves sat on top of newspaper. It feels like the Burmese equivalent to fish and chips – very tasty too!

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The Zingyaik duck shoot

Posted in Myanmar, Thaton by folkestonejack on January 15, 2017

On our re-union with the other half of the tour group we began an afternoon of photography between Zingyaik and Yinnyein, but not before a snack lunch in the shelter of Zingyaik station on what must be the hottest day so far. It sounded as though the other group got some good shots at Mottama shed (including a rather surprising wartime armoured vehicle with a rotating turret that is still in use as a permanent way vehicle) and found plenty of interest in Mawlamyine.

Station sign at Zingyaik

Station sign at Zingyaik

The modest station at Zingyaik, located by a stone yard, was rather older than it seemed at first – the steel beams holding up the roof were stamped with Barrow Steel 1/1892. As with most stations the copious signage included a directive to ‘Warmly welcome and take care of tourists’ as well as a reminder that the public chewing and spitting out of betel nut chew was forbidden (probably to avoid the unsightly red blotches that you see everywhere here, rather than to break the national addiction to this carcinogenic narcotic).

After a leisurely start, we began our photography with a demonstration of how stone was traditionally loaded onto these trains, given that in the last days of real steam this was the most likely cargo to be transported. It was a slightly odd moment of hard labour for tourists! As the railways would not allow us to run with loaded trains the stone had to be removed before our departure at 1.33pm.

The stationary duck shot

The stationary duck shot

Only a short way up the line we stopped at a spot where a water channel with a duck farm runs parallel to the line and proceeded to have great fun trying to get our moving targets in the same shot as the approaching loco on a runpast. Ironically, some of the best shots came from the stationary loco after our tour leader, Bernd, called for some smoke. It looks good if you ignore the tell tale signs that the train isn’t actually moving!

The next stop up the line delivered perhaps the most haphazard bridge we have seen on this trip, featuring logs rather loosely tied together. After about two-thirds of the group had crossed it started to fall apart and the locals had to repair it before everyone could return!

A bridge beyond Zingyaik

A bridge beyond Zingyaik

At this point our train returned to Zingyaik (arriving at 2.45pm) where we waited 35 minutes for train 89 to Mawlamyine to cross before we could resume our journey up the line towards Yinnyein (setting off for the second time at 3.40pm). Once again we found ourselves crossing a bridge over the water channel into the fields – this time a bridge made of pipes – before a half hour session with four runpasts (4-4.35pm).

Finally, we made it to Yinnyein. As the pagoda by the river shot here is quite tight we split the group into two and each had the opportunity to try the shot from the optimum position. I joined the second attempt around 5.20pm. Unfortunately, the loco produced too much smoke and completely obscured the pagoda. Too much smoke is rarely a problem, but here it most definetly was!

Sunset at Yinnyein

Sunset at Yinnyein

After finishing the day with some sunset shots in the fields we boarded our buses at Yinnyein around 6.30pm and drove on to Thaton for the night. I welcomed the return to the local restaurant we had tried a few nights back and enjoyed the re-acquaintance with one of the most flavoursome dishes we have tried here (a dish of spiced pork, egg and onion was quite incredible). A good end to an enjoyable afternoon in the sun.

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The golden rock

Posted in Kyaiktiyo, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 14, 2017

Amongst Myanmar’s many remarkable pagodas, the pagoda at Mount Kyaiktiyo stands out as one of the most unusual. This 24 foot pagoda sits atop a golden rock which in turn is perched on a bolder at the peak of the mountain. The rock is said to be balanced on a single strand of the Buddha’s hair, though it can’t be that precarious to withstand the many pilgrims crossing the bridge to plaster on yet more gold leaf!

The golden rock

The golden rock

A visit to the golden rock is as much about the experience of the journey as the destination. Our tour bus had delivered us to the basecamp at Kinpun where we transferred to an open truck (un-reassuringly a sign hanging from the roof of the truck station revealed that the 2,000 kyat fare included life insurance!). For most locals this means being crammed into trucks that hold about 60 passengers (roughly 6-8 passengers per row, tightly packed on narrow benches). However, our group were lucky enough to get a truck to ourselves with the luxury of space.

I was surprised to find that the crazy, rough and fast ride up the mountain road didn’t induce my fear of heights in the way that the drive to the Eagle’s Nest had last year. I was certainly aware of the nasty hairpin turns and steep inclines, but maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough for the sheer drops along the way! Having said that, I was worried that the downward leg would be rather more exciting than the outward journey.

Fares include life insurance

Truck fares include life insurance

On reaching the truck stop at the top of the mountain we clambered out, paid our foreigner entrance fees and walked the short distance to our hotel for the night – Kyaik Hto Hotel. Aptly described as a so-so hotel by our tour leader the Kyaik Hto offered basic rooms in chalet style terracing on the mountainside. Comfortable enough for a night’s stay, though the thin walls and late night karaoke would later contribute to a challenging night of sleep.

The hotel is located directly off the main route up to the holy site, with a constant stream of pilgrims, monks and basket carriers passing at all hours of the day. The route here is also lined with tourist shops offering a variety of souvenirs, including mini golden rocks by the hundred.

At the entrance a small set of battered metal lockers offered space for western tourists to store their footwear, though I’d taken note of the suggestion to carry a shopping bag ready for this purpose. Indeed, I had half expected to see the incongruous sight of bags advertising other UK supermarkets on my wanders inside but no-one else seemed to have done this.

The Kyaik Hto Hotel

The Kyaik Hto Hotel

As our stay coincided with the weekend, holiday and full moon many more pilgrims than usual were making their way past the chinthe guardians and into holy grounds. Everywhere you looked, be it on the terraces, on the main square or in the unlikeliest corners families were settling down with makeshift beds for their night on the mountain top (something foreigners are forbidden from doing). Basically, any space that could be used for sleeping was filled – sometimes just leaving a narrow pathway to thread your way through.

There must have been a few thousand pilgrims and only a relatively small number of western tourists amongst them (I counted no more than 20 besides ourselves over the course of the evening). In our obsession with the impact of the tourist invasion of Myanmar it is easy to forget that the changes here have also opened up the country to its own people. More Burmese nationals are travelling around their own country than ever before, especially to holy sites like this.

Improvised tents on the mountain top

Improvised tents on the mountain top

Nevertheless, the number of foreign visitors is steadily increasing. In 2012 there were just 60,000 foreign visitors to the golden rock, but by 2014 that had doubled to 120,000. Although the final total for 2016 is not yet in it seems likely that it will have increased by a significant margin again (the total for the first half of the year is 70,459). To put this into context, the pagoda sees around 2 million visitors every year, whether local or international.

Our walk up the mountain pathway led us to the crowded upper terrace around the golden rock. There were other smaller temples, columns and shrines around the complex but the golden rock is the main focus. It was fascinating to watch pilgrims passing through an airport-style security gate and then cross the small bridge to paste on their patches of gold leaf to the rock. The sight only became more beautiful as the sun set with the added dimension of the hundreds of candles that had been lit on the lower terrace below.

After a short night of sleep I rose early and headed back to the rock at 5am. I was really surprised to see that most folk were already on the move and were not waiting for the sunrise. I’d really expected to still see everyone wrapped up the mountain top, fast asleep, but instead I found myself in the middle of the rush hour! The sunrise gave the rock a lovely glow but overall I think the spectacle was much better at sunset.

Time for a hair-raising truck ride down the mountain

Time for a hair-raising truck ride down the mountain

We set out from the hotel for our journey down the mountain at 8am. The tourist police helped us get an empty truck for our group which seemed to be given priority at the various checks along the route. It was quite apparent that there was a substantial queue of trucks waiting their turn to run in convoy down the mountain. Only a few of the trucks coming up were filled.

The extreme steepness at the top of the mountain was more apparent on the way down by truck and I was very thankful for their good brakes. Soon the excitement was at an end and we returned to the relative calm of our tour bus for the drive south to re-join the rest of our group.

Although it was not immediately apparent to us, changes have been slowly altering the golden rock experience for many years. Our tour guide said that when he first visited in his youth the mountain top had been sandy, making it a necessity to hire mats, but now the mountain top is entirely paved. However, much more substantial change is coming – a cable car system is being built here at a cost of $20 million US dollars and a number of large resort complexes are under construction around the mountain.

Work on the cable-car system is underway at Mount Kyaiktiyo

Work on the cable-car system is underway at Mount Kyaiktiyo

At the moment the most obvious signs of the contruction were the extensive base for the main station, the substantial supports for the columns up the mountain and the concrete columns for the mountain top station. Once complete, Sky Asia will operate 43 cable cars on the route carrying 8 passengers apiece for the expected 10 minute journey. Early reports suggested a March 2017 opening date but that didn’t seem very likely from what we could see.

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A morning in Thaton

Posted in Myanmar, Thaton by folkestonejack on January 14, 2017

A beautiful sunrise over Thaton seemed like a promising start to our expedition to the golden rock, but first there was time to enjoy a walk to Shwe Saw Yan Pagoda. The cluttered and dusty streets surrounding the pagoda make quite a contrast with the gleaming golden stupa and many beautiful temple buildings that surround it.

Sunrise over Thaton

Sunrise over Thaton

There are signs that the tourist dollar has now reached Thaton, with the opening of the first four star hotel a few weeks ago, but it hasn’t really made much difference at street level yet. Mind you, the modest town of today is probably equally far removed from the fast developing modern cities of South East Asia as it is from the thriving ocean port and city-state that Thaton was one thousand years ago!

In common with many other places that I have seen here the pavements outside the pagoda present an assortment of obstacles, crumbling concrete and the occasional hole. Inevitably, a pack of malnourished dogs was never very far away. Somehow, in spite of all this, the Burma that I love shines through and everyone I encountered along the way was incredibly friendly.

The street scene around the pagoda

The street scene around the pagoda

The first Shwe Saw Yan Pagoda is supposed to have been built around 5BC but all trace of that has long since disappeared and the only indication of its long hitory has come from the discovery of seven historic tablets on the site.

A wander around the complex showed that it has plenty to fascinate beyond the golden stupa at its centre. Amongst the side attractions are the inevitable chinthe gate guardians, an ornate temple at the centre of a colourful display of floor tiles, a white tiled dome stupa (and pigeon magnet) and a rather splendid diorama which I assume shows the many pagodas on the hills around Thaton (perhaps historically, rather than in the present?). A good view across the complex is also available from the upper terrace of the temple at the very back of the site.

One of the temples around the central stupa

One of the temples around the central stupa

Smaller pagodas are scattered throughout the town and I stopped off at one of these on my way back. The keyholder was pleased to have a visitor to show around and eagerly unlocked a room on the site filled with small statues of Buddha that he was keen to show me.

If I had a little more time it would have been interesting to climb the hillside to reach the pagoda of Mya Thapaint that was so marvelously depicted in the diorama. However, it was time for us to continue on our drive to the golden rock.

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Lineside temple-spotting in Thaton and Yinnyein

Posted in Myanmar, Thaton by folkestonejack on January 13, 2017

A beautiful morning tempted us out of our hotel for an early morning trip to capture sunrise at Thaton, starting with a runpast in the mist at 6.45am. After the sunrise we had to return our train to the station by 8am to avoid disrupting the regular services, heading back to the hotel for breakfast. A short lived but spectacular session, delivering more good pictures in an hour or so than on many a day.

A storming start at Thaton

A storming start at Thaton

Our drive back through Thaton highlighted the many beautiful sights in the city, including many delightful smaller stupas. I was tempted to walk back along the road to photograph one of the more unusual of these until it was pointed out that there was a prison on the other side of the road. Waving a camera around there might attract the wrong attention! As it was, our tour guides had been up all night answering questions from the police and explaining to the authorities what we were doing in the area.

With a few hours to kill I returned to my massive room, said hello to the geckos I was sharing with (I’m not sure which of us was more startled when I pulled back the curtains) and once again marvelled at the strange interior design (odd wooden furniture, garden trellis, ultra-fake wood vinyl, towels shaped like swans and a rusting external door into the bathroom!). Later, a few of us gathered in the hallway to watch an exciting drama about a man stealing rice from a monk and his pathway to redemption.

YD964 passes a lineside temple at Thaton

YD964 passes a lineside temple at Thaton

Our afternoon began with the departure of our train at 2.31pm, backing out towards Bago. The first runpasts (3 to 3.15pm) gave us a wonderful combination of a temple by the lineside, semaphore signals and a stupa on the hills beyond. The spectacle caught the attention of the locals and one couple sat down in the fields in front of me, sheltering under an umbrella to watch the second runpast.

After getting the shots we set off back towards Thaton, grabbing another shot with kids looking on in amazement at our train (it’s quite unlikely they would ever have seen a steam locomotive before, as even the short-lived attempt to run tourist trains a few years back ran only five times and in a completely different part of the country).

A local couple watch the steam spectacle

A local couple watch the steam spectacle

We reached Yinnyein just in time to get a shot of the train passing the stupa before the light came off the line (indeed, it was already a little in shadow) and then dashed back over the bridge for a shot with the river. I had been so tentative crossing the bridge in the first place but knowing that time was short didn’t want to be responsible for delaying the second run (as it was the train was still pushing back as I reached the other side).

I had no idea where I was going as I ran down the street but a local kindly pointed the way down an alley and into a riverside back garden with a tight view of the bridge (where the rest had gathered in two clusters). Two local children swung their feet off a small pier as they watched the unusual entertainment. At 5.29pm we re-boarded our train, headed a little farther down the line to try some silhouette shots and then returned to our buses at a nearby level crossing.

Catching the glint at Yinnyein

Catching the glint at Yinnyein

The group is splitting into two here – with one group heading back to Thaton ahead of a trip to the golden rock tomorrow whilst the other will be going to Mawlamyine to take a look around the depot at Mottama and see our loco turned ready for the return to Bago. I thought it was an almost impossible choice but opted for the golden rock to see a little more culture before it gets too much altered by the oncoming tourist onslaught! For the crew it will be a well earned rest day.

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The hay harvest and other rural scenes

Posted in Kyaikhto, Myanmar, Thaton by folkestonejack on January 12, 2017

The afternoon saw us take our time on the line beyond Kyaikhto, heading towards Thaton. After our departure at 1.42pm we headed through Mayangon (with a brief stop from 3.25 to 3.35pm to allow the diesel to be re-attached to the front of the train to speed our progress) and Taungzun (with a brief stop at 4.10pm to detach the diesel) before reaching Hnin Pale (5.20pm).

Gathering hay near Mayangon

Gathering hay near Mayangon

This stretch of countryside gave us some stunning views and equally marvellous runpasts. The most memorable would have to be the opportunity to capture an authentic rural scene with workers gathering hay near to Mayangon. However, once we clambered out of our boxcars we couldn’t help but notice two empty ox carts approaching and a plan soon came together for an enhanced version of this slice of real rural life! One of the approaching cart drivers was only too happy to complete our scene and soon began to receive bundles of hay scooped up by pitchfork…

Two runpasts with our carefully arranged cart and workers was followed by another timeless shot of YD964 approaching the cart crossing where our adventures began. The fact that we had to cross a bamboo bridge to reach the spot just added to the magic.

A little further on, at Taungzun, we headed for a lovely shot of YD964 crossing the river but then marvelled at the sight of a herd of water buffalo heading for the same spot. Unfortunately, the herd were only just slipping into the water by the time of the first runpast and were heading back for dry land before the loco could make a second run (the loco had some problems with the oil burner). Arghhh!

The scene before our runpast

The scene before our runpast

Thankfully, the herdsman was very amenable to persuading his charge to return to the water for a bonus swim. Sadly, the shot didn’t really come off as we might have hoped. The water buffalo seemed to be disturbed by the sound of the approaching loco and swam back towards the shore as it crossed the bridge. I guess the days of animals being used to the sound of steam have long gone here! It will have to join the album of shots that got away…

Anyway, it was great fun – if a little tense – trying to get the shot. We had to keep one eye on the herd and the other on the train, then move around to try and keep both in shot. whilst not getting in each others way. There was no chance for a third attempt as we were already delaying a train following us.

The herd of water buffalo head for the exit as our train crosses the river at Taungzun

The herd of water buffalo head for the exit as our train crosses the river at Taungzun

On our arrival at Hnin Pale we transferred to our buses for the 45 minute drive to Thaton, enjoying a tasty meal at a restaurant in the city centre before heading to our rather eclectic, colonial-ish styled hotel. It woulb be a struggle to say it was a welcoming place but apparently it was a vast improvement on the options that had been available the last time tours were run here!

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Winter fog in Mokpalin

Posted in Kyaikhto, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 12, 2017

The guide books might have promised wall to wall sunshine for this time of year but after two days of mixed weather we already had reason to doubt this. Now, waking up to thick fog, we started to wonder whether there was any hope of conditions returning to their seasonal norm. However, the ‘atmospheric’ conditions did offer an interesting variation for the start of our day’s photographic endeavours.

Two monks look on as YD964 hauls our train out of Mokpalin

Two monks look on as YD964 hauls our train out of Mokpalin

Three false departures got us underway with a little assistance from some passers by who were only to happy to provide a little local colour. It was rather lovely to see how much the locals got into the spirit of our little adjustments to the scene, with one chap transformed from bemused bystander into director of photography! Fortunately we were able to correct the instructions he gave his models on how to stand and where to look before our train passed through…

We boarded a box-car on our train and headed away from Mokpalin at 8.10am. The morning continued to offer some splendid vignettes of rural life, including a marvellous scene with an ox and cart, as well as the daily sight of monks lining up to receive their donations of rice. As ever, what you see in the picture is not always an absolutely accurate reflection of life – for example, you won’t see shots that show the many kids or farm workers wearing premier league football shirts.

An ox and cart driver looks on as our train heads towards Kyaikkathr

An ox and cart driver looks on as our train heads towards Kyaikkathr

Our train took us on to Kyaikkathr, where we tried a few runpasts around the station and the town sign a little farther on (9.45-10.05am) before continuing on to Boyagyi (10.40am) where we stopped for half an hour to allow an express to pass through. The express turned up on schedule (10.55am) hauled by DF2023 (a CKD7 diesel electric locomotive built by CNR Dalian Locomotive & Rolling Stock Co., China) and we continued on our way fifteen minutes later.

The stop at Boyagyi gave us a chance to buy refreshments from the small stalls surrounding the station but it also
offered up one of the unexpected highlights of the day when our casual wander brought us to the local pagoda. It was a magnificent construction for what appeared to be just a small village. Although I had long since stopped photographing every stupa that we passed (having realised that there are far too many of them and that this was as absurd as photographing every parish church on a drive in England!) I couldn’t resist taking a few snaps of this place.

The splendid pagoda in Boyagyi

The splendid pagoda in Boyagyi

One of the oddities of our itinerary saw us stay overnight in Kyaikhto (Thuwunna Bumi Mountain View Resort), take an early bus to Mokpalin and then complete the circle by returning to Kyaikhto by train at midday. A longish lunch stop was a necessity here as express trains were due in both directions, allowing us time enough to soak up the atmosphere and take a few extra shots.

The station was a bit smarter than most we have seen in these parts, probably reflecting its importance as a jumping off point for trips to the golden rock. Having said that, just a handful of tourists got off the train here and I only saw a handful of westerners on the train heading south. I suspect the full force of the tourist invasion has yet to hit Mon State, which is not so surprising as it is some way off the main tourist circuit of Yangon-Bagan-Mandalay.

A rather splendid health and safety poster at the station reminds ox and cart drivers to look out for trains

A rather splendid health and safety poster at the station reminds ox and cart drivers to look out for trains

It was fascinating to watch the scene at the station, from the locals sitting on the rails waiting for the arrival of the express to the hawkers on the platforms readying their wares for the arrival of the expresses. The first to arrive was the late running train 89 from Yangon to Mawlamyine, hauled by DF1332, whilst the second was train 90 running from Mawlamyine to Yangon.

Incredibly, the next scheduled express passenger train after these had passed would be the 11.17pm service to Dawei Port. Thankfully, our charter train would be on its way long before then!

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Across the Sittaung

Posted in Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 11, 2017

Our three stage journey on the line from Bago to Mottama began today, starting with the stretch to Mokpalin in neighbouring Mon State. It is highly appropriate that this line should see our steam photo-charter with YD964 as this is where the last real steam freights met their end in 2008.

Unfortunately, my notes and photographs can only offer a poor account of this leg as I was feeling quite sick by this point and my focus had switched to surviving the day!

YD964 emerges from the Sittaung bridge

YD964 emerges from the Sittaung bridge

The day started with a bus transfer from Bago to Waw, arriving a little after 8am. Our train continued from here to Abya and crossed the Sittaung river in early afternoon (1-1.15pm).

Today, there are two bridges crossing the river but the remains of a far older railway bridge are still visible further downstream. The original railway bridge, constructed in 1908, connected with the line from Bago at Abya. However, this bridge was blown up by allied forces in February 1942 in a failed attempt to hold back the Japanese advance to Rangoon. The episode is widely considered to be a disaster as it left more than half the forces stranded on the wrong side of the river. From a rail perspective, the result was to cut the line short, leaving passengers to cross the river by ferry until a new bridge was opened (at this point the stations on either side of the river were closed and the line cut shorter still, terminating at Nyaung Khashe).

The bridge our train crossed was a later replacement – a 716m steel truss bridge at Theinzayat constructed between 1957 and 1961. It carries a single railway track with lanes on either side for road traffic, but cannot support the weight of heavy trucks. Most road traffic now takes a new bridge (opened in 2008) located 4 miles down stream.

Our train continued on to a run through the market at Theinzayat (2.50pm) but the first attempt was not a glorious success, with locals running to the trackside as they heard the loco approach. I’m all for local colour, but when you can’t see the locomotive in the shot…

After a much welcomed repeat of the run through the market (3.30pm) and a few shots on the line beyond we continued on to Mokpalin, arriving just after 5pm.

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Stupa-fied at Payagyi

Posted in Bago, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 10, 2017

The one spot not to be missed on the line between Bago and Pyuntaza, where a huge stupa provides a stunning backdrop to the railway, eluded us yesterday. Our second train of the day, hauled by YC629, was a late addition to the itinerary that would give us a chance to rectify this.

Hometime distractions at Payagyi

Hometime distractions at Payagyi

After arriving at Payagyi at 3.25pm we enjoyed arrival and departure shots at the station before heading down the line for the classic shot. We seemed to have timed our visit for hometime at the local school so the track was lined by awe-struck school children who looked on in amazement as this steam giant headed towards them. As steam ended here in the spring of 2008 it is quite unlikely that any of them will ever have seen a steam locomotive in real life.

The classic shot had become a little obscured in the decade since the last railway tour here so a little bit of gardening was required to clear the view of the bridge. It was well worth the effort as it really captures the wonderful combination of the beautiful Burmese scenery with the railway legacy of the colonial era. Two runpasts gave us ample opportunity to give the shot our best efforts.

YC629 passes the stupa at Payagyi

YC629 passes the stupa at Payagyi

We re-boarded our train at 4.25pm for the ride to Bago, passing through Shwehle (4.50pm) en route to a box-girder bridge over the Bago river where we spent about half an hour (5-5.30pm) trying to make the most of the last light of the day. Our train reached Bago at 6.15pm.

It has been a thoroughly enjoyable day, despite the absence of blue skies, with everything running incredibly smoothly. Once again it was rounded off with a superb array of food at Royal Taste (Bago). Tommorrow we head away from Bago, beginning the three-leg journey towards Mottama.

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All the way to Waw

Posted in Bago, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 10, 2017

A forecast of light cloud prompted a slightly slower start today, with the group leaving the hotel at 7.30am for the short drive to Bago station.

Today’s plan would see us use two locomotives – the first, YD967, would be used on a re-creation of the old mixed passenger trains to Nyaungkhashe, but only as far as Waw (the line beyond Abya can no longer take a train). The second locomotive, YC629, would be used for a short run in the afternoon to help us get a shot that we missed yesterday, but more of that later!

YD967 approaches a quintessentially British bracket signal at Bago

YD967 approaches a quintessentially British bracket signal at Bago

Our photographic endeavours began with efforts to capture the movement of our two locos in the yard at Bago, including both false and real departures. As there is a 5mph speed limit out of the station these were relatively slow affairs, but still looked splendid against the marvellous colonial signalling infrastructure here.

In addition to our steam hauled trains we had the opportunity to watch some of the regular traffic, including a two carriage railcar RBE 2590 ‘College Town’ which is another import from Japan. A batch of these Kiha 48 class DMUs arrived from Hokkaido around 2012, having been made redundant by line electrification, and were re-modelled for use in Myanmar in 2013. Although there is plenty unchanged about the railways here, for now, you can certainly see the direction things are moving.

Around 9am we moved on to the next position – the bridge over the Bago river. Our comfortable tourist buses could only take us so far, necessitating a switch to a local truck-bus. I took the ladder to get a spot on the roof and was rewarded with a hairy and bumpy ride. Along the way we had to lift up low hanging telegraph wires so that we could pass underneath and got the occasional thrashing from branches overhanging the road. Once we got our feet back on the ground we only had a mildly terrifying bridge to cross standing between us and a superb viewpoint with local fishermen and bamboo floating in the water. I was glad it was worth the effort!

YD967 crosses a bridge over the Bago river

YD967 crosses a bridge over the Bago river

Our tourists buses took us on to Ka Li station where we had some fun with arrival, boarding and departure shots. No stone had been left unturned in the preparations for this trip, including the local passengers on our train who were being paid for their presence. So, the resulting shot of passengers waiting for their train to arrive is not quite what it seems but a good deal more fun. One of the ladies even insisted on a quick make-up session before we called the train for the shot!

We joined our local passengers for the onward journey, with a shot at another bridge before our arrival at Naung Pattaya at 12.30pm. An extended wait here, for a diesel hauled freight train to cross, gave an opportunity to take some shots of the local scenery and admire the neatly maintained equipment (such as the hand-operated lever at the points which was stamped McKenzie & Holland, BR Worcester, England 1909).

After the diesel freight (a stone train) passed through we turned our hand to a few more shots on the run to Waw. Our train arrived at the station at 2.40pm and we departed by bus soon after, with our local passengers, ready to transfer to our second train of the day.

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The Pyuntaza triangle

Posted in Myanmar, Pyuntaza by folkestonejack on January 9, 2017

The triangle at Pyuntaza had been re-instated prior to our visit, allowing us to turn the loco for a chimney first run back to Bago. After taking on water from a local pond, using a water pump, the loco ran light engine around the triangle and was backed onto the stock.

We joined the train for the return leg, departing from Pyuntaza at 3.15pm. Our steady progress back down the line towards Bago took us through Daik-u (3.55pm) and Shenlayse (4.20pm) before stopping around 5pm for a couple of runpasts in open countryside just before Paungdawthi. The second shot required us to cross a railway bridge that required a little concentration – the long planks laid over the sleepers were loose, worn away or missing altogether. For added excitement some of the gaps between sleepers were quite large. As you might have guessed this is never my favourite part, but the possibility of a good photograph usually triumphs over my irrational fears!

YC629 approaches a bridge between Daik-u and Paungdawthi

YC629 approaches a bridge between Daik-u and Paungdawthi

After re-boarding our train we made it into Paungdawthi itself (5pm), then on to Kadok (5.26pm) where we crossed with an express, before finally clambering out at the level crossing at Maing Ton (5.50pm) to return to our buses. In the process we got to try out the concrete lane we saw being laid earlier in the day!

On our arrival in Bago we headed to the upmarket Royal Taste restaurant for a tasty spread that included some impressive looking crayfish, though we didn’t quite know what to make of the proud claim that they only use London sunflower oil! The highlight turned out to be a dessert of coconut milk with green rice (perhaps bamboo rice) that didn’t look much at all but won the doubters round and gained a seal of almost universal approval. A good way to end a successful first day of our metre gauge steam adventure.

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A look inside Pyuntaza depot

Posted in Myanmar, Pyuntaza by folkestonejack on January 9, 2017

On our arrival at Pyuntaza we took the opportunity to explore the shed, grab some lunch and enjoy a refreshing beer.

YD962 stored in Pyuntaza shed

YD962 stored in Pyuntaza shed

The depot is currently home to nine stored locomotives and an assortment of extra tenders (including a rather forlorn tender for YD967, one of our three locomotives, which is clearly using a different tender for the charter trip). Besides the steam collection there was an eclectic mix of railcars, tank wagons and a lone carriage.

The most interesting sight in the shed was the rather battered D class 2-8-2 “MacArthur” loco 1032. It was one of 57 locos of this type sent from India to Burma in the aftermath of the Second World War. However, all is not as it seems and the stamps/plates suggest this survivor is probably a hybrid of D1032 and D1043.

ex-Japanese diesel railcar RBE2504 at Pyuntaza

ex-Japanese diesel railcar RBE2504 at Pyuntaza

Amongst the collections of red and cream railcars was RBE2504, a rather lovely Japanese railcar that was transferred to Myanmar Railways following the closure of the de-electrified stretches of the Mikawa Line (Aichi Prefecture) in 2004. Having originally seen use on the Moulmein-Ye Railway, the railcar now works the line between Pyuntaza and Madauk.

Steam locomotives stored in the shed: D1032, YC630, YD962, YD969, YD972 and YD973.
Steam locomotives stored outside: YB508, YD446 and YD974.
Railcars outside: LBRE7, LBRE50, LBRE60 and RBE2504.

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Steam to Pyuntaza

Posted in Bago, Myanmar, Pyuntaza by folkestonejack on January 9, 2017

The tour started in earnest today with a re-creation of a steam hauled passenger train over the main line from Bago to Pyuntaza. Our loco for this journey was YC629, one of ten 4-6-2 heavy passenger locos of this class built by the Vulcan Foundry in 1947 for the metre gauge railways of Burma. As a loco regularly assigned to trains on this stretch in the era of real steam it looked wonderfully authentic.

Our loco for the day - YC629

Our loco for the day – YC629

The appeal of running charters on the network here was easy to see when we took a little wander down the tracks at Bago. The signal boxes and semaphore signals all hark back to the colonial era and give the railway incredible character. Everything surrounding this infrastructure was also remarkably photogenic, even down to the pig that had been tethered to the buffer stops!

Nevertheless, the window for photographing the system as it stands today is narrowing – a contract to upgrade the signalling across the country has been signed and work is already underway.

Our steam passenger, hauled by YC629, at Kadok

Our steam passenger, hauled by YC629, at Kadok

Everywhere we stopped today we were met by friendly, though sometimes bemused, faces as the normality of life was disrupted by our steam charter. More often than not we were the subject of curiosity rather than our splendid loco, which may help to explain why the locals are sometimes looking in the ‘wrong’ direction in the photos we took!

To begin with we were following the tour in our buses, stopping either at photospots identified in advance of the trip or on the fly when a bit of local colour presented itself. Just such an opportunity arose early on when we spotted a 12 man road gang armed with spades smoothing freshly laid concrete on the Yangon-Mandalay Highway. Sadly, by the time our train appeared the work was finished and the road gang had already moved on to their next job…

The Yangon-Mandalay Highway undergoing road-widening works at Maing Ton as YC629 passes through

The Yangon-Mandalay Highway undergoing road-widening works at Maing Ton as YC629 passes through

The day was saved by a group of local women who kindly volunteered to step into the foreground for us and by one of our number who took on the role of traffic policeman – stopping lorries and motorbikes well short of the level crossing to keep the scene clear. The hidden effort that goes into some shots!

Around 10am our train reached Kadok and was pushed back into a siding to allow the express to overtake. In the meantime we had plenty of time to kill, but also plenty of local colour to photograph. Most memorably this included ox and cart trains that looked as though they belonged a century or two back.

The first part of the ox and cart train at Kadok

The first part of the ox and cart train at Kadok

Once the express to Mandalay had passed (at 10.48am) we had the opportunity to stage a false departure for our train and try some shots around the level crossing before continuing on to Pyuntaza by bus (arriving at 12 o’clock).

Although we have only a morning of photography in the bag I can already say that it really is rather magical to see steam restored to the metre gauge railways of Burma.

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Blessing in Bago

Posted in Bago, Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 8, 2017

A relatively relaxed transfer by bus took us to Bago in around two hours, having found ourselves ensnared by a little of the notorious Yangon traffic along the way. The ride provided a good opportunity to catch up with some familiar faces and to appreciate the shift from urban to rural Myanmar.

The route gave us a brief sight of Taukkyan Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery with its familiar cross of sacrifice and stone of remembrance. The cemetery contains 6,374 burials from the Second World War and the names of some 27,000 soldiers who have no known grave are inscribed on the Rangoon memorial.

The temple at the back of our hotel in Bago

The temple at the back of our hotel in Bago

Our destination, Bago, turned out to be a bustling but somewhat scruffy provincial town but in its time this was the capital of the Mon kingdom. We got a few glimpses of the golden legacy as we drove in to town. The sights of the Bago Archaeological Zone are the lure for many visitors but for others it is simply a convenient stopping point on the 8 hour plus drive to Mandalay.

Bago may not remain a sleepy backwater for long as plans for the construction of a major international airport are close to approval, taking advantage of an unconstrained site (Yangon airport has no more room to grow). Hanthawaddy International Airport has a projected opening date of 2022 and will eventually be able to cope with 30 million passengers a year.

However, our reason for being here was rather different. Until steam came to an end in 2008 the principal steam shed was at Bago (and will be again for our steam revival). After settling in to our accommodation we made our way to the station to see monks bless the three locomotives for our tour and accept our offerings. Quite apart from this, the station at Bago was a spectacle in itself with some marvellous platform stalls and a real sense of being at the centre of local life.

Standing in the shadow of giants

Standing in the shadow of giants

In no time at all the light faded and we made our way to a local restaurant for a taste of Burmese cuisine (including a surprisingly tasty dish of dried eel). It has been a good day, but I reminded myself that we have yet to see any of our three locos turn a wheel under their own steam!

Metre gauge steam in Myanmar

Posted in Myanmar by folkestonejack on January 8, 2017

A few year ago I came across some photographs of steam in Burma and sighed when I realised that this was yet another location where steam had died just before I began to appreciate the opportunities still available in the world. Amongst many fascinating shots the one that really stood out showed an oil burning steam loco crossing the bridge at Yinnyein with a golden stupa in the background.

Most of the time second chances don’t materialise, but when it was announced that FarRail Tours had persuaded the authorities to allow a steam tour in Burma it was imposible to resist. Better still, we would be visiting the very spot that had seduced me a decade ago!

Myanmar Railways

Myanmar Railways

The railway system in Burma was founded in the era of British India, a sprawling empire that stretched across the territory of six current countries with incredibly diverse terrain. Construction of the first line, from Rangoon (Yangon) to Prome (Pyay) began in 1874 and it opened to traffic in 1877. The success of the first line ensured the rapid development of further lines and the eventual consolidation of their operating companies into the Burma Railway Company.

At its imperial peak the system offered a total route mileage of just over 2,000 miles of metre gauge track, but a re-building programme in the post-independence era has since bettered that by a further 1,000 miles. Our tour will be taking in just a small portion of that network, with runs from Bago to Pyuntaza, Abya and Mottama.

Incredibly, main line steam survived in Burma until as late as April 2008. The abrupt end, ordered by the military government, was a shock to the many travellers who sought out real steam in the country. Most of the locomotives were removed from their respective sheds and gathered at Pyuntaza. That seemingly sad ending now has a happier outcome with the revival of steam operations for tourist trains and photo-charters.

On our tour we will see two classes of British-built steam locomotives, the 2-8-2 class YD and the 4-6-2 class YC. Both classes of locomotive, built at Vulcan Foundry between 1947 and 1949, were operational up to the end of steam.

Pagoda hopping in Yangon

Posted in Myanmar, Yangon by folkestonejack on January 7, 2017

My plan for the afternoon called for a westerly walk from the Karaweik Palace, taking in the Maha Wizaya Pagoda, Martyrs’ Mausoleum and People’s Park before ending up at the Shwedagon Pagoda in the last light of the day. As with all best laid plans it involved a few moments of headscratching, puzzled map reading and the occasional diversion, but in the end it proved a pretty marvellous way to link up some of the most interesting sights in the city.

Karaweik Palace at Kandawgyi Lake

My short taxi hop from downtown brought me to a spot on the edge of Kandawgyi Lake near to the entrance of the Karaweik Palace. From here I could join the boardwalk that runs along the perimeter of the lake with some terrific views. My guidebooks had suggested that the entry fee would be $2 here but there was no-one around to collect money from anyone.

A view of the Karaweik Palace from the delapidated boardwalk

A view of the Karaweik Palace from the delapidated boardwalk

The boardwalk was rather quaint in its semi-delapidated state with rotten planks, gaping holes, missing railings, haphazard repairs and patched up gaps. I also assumed that it was wise not to step on the lanks where a white cross had been painted! It was rather charming, if a little treacherous in places. As seductive as the views were, it was necessary to keep one eye on the way ahead to avoid calamity.

I managed to get halfway along the boardwalk before encountering a red flag. Looking ahead I could see workmen treating the boardwalk with preservative using spray guns. I turned back and took the road along the edge of the lake instead, though later saw plenty of locals ignoring the warning signs and carrying straight on through the workzone.

The views of the Karaweik Palace, shaped like a pair of mythical birds, were rather splendid. It may be a relatively recent addition to the city (1972-74) and it may be made of concrete but it is a strikingly different sight and very photogenic. It is supposed to replicate the royal barges that the Burmese kings used to traverse the Ayeyarwady River. Appropriately enough, Kandawgyi Lake means Royal Lake.

Maha Wizaya Pagoda
Open: 06:00-21:00
Entrance fee: Free

I got a little lost at the other end of my walk, distracted by the heavy traffic at the roundabout, but eventually crossed over to U Htaung Bo Road and made my way up to Maha Wizaya Pagoda. It is another relative newcomer, having been built as recently as 1980, but that doesn’t make it any less splendid. Don’t believe the reviewers that describe this as too plain or as a mere copy! It is also entirely free.

Maha Wizaya Pagoda

Maha Wizaya Pagoda

If I had not fully appreciated why pagoda visits are not recommended in the midday sun I soon learnt as I crossed the scorching tiled grounds in my bare feet, seeking out the occasional shadow for relief. However, the only way to get the best shots of the stupa were from the hottest spots. Arghh!

The really amazing part of this pagoda comes from stepping inside the hollow stupa and entering the magical central chamber which has been decorated to look like a forest with the sky above it. It was a wonderfully peaceful space, with hardly a soul around. Besides this, the outer passageway also has some marvellous scenes showing pagodas from across Myanmar along with some colourful wall paintings.

The forest-like interior of the Maha Wizaya Pagoda

The forest-like interior of the Maha Wizaya Pagoda

The pagoda was built to mark the occassion of the unification of the Theravāda Buddhist monastic orders in Myanmar and includes sacred relics donated by the Nepalese royal family.

Martyrs’ Mausoleum
Open: 08:00-17:00
Entrance fee: 3,000 kyat

After leaving the Maha Wizaya Pagoda I had a devil of a job crossing the busy roads to get acros to the southern entrance to the Shwedagon Pagoda. However, I resisted the temptation to go straight in and set off on a walk around the perimeter road (Ar Zar Ni Street) towards the Martyrs’ Mausoleum.

The Martyrs’ Mausoleum

The Martyrs’ Mausoleum

The Martyrs’ Mausoleum is a striking bright red monument that would not look out of place in the Soviet bloc. It is the last resting place of General Aung San and his cabinet ministers following their assassination at the Secretariat in 1947. As if this bloodshed was not enough, the original mausoleum was destroyed and 21 people were killed here in 1983 when North Korean agents tried to assassinate the then South Korean premier. It is such a tranquil spot today that it is hard to imagine the horror that unfolded here.

The mausoleum re-opened to the public in 2013 and is worth a short visit. Given the history, security is understandably tight here. On paying the entry fee I had to record my name and passport number at the security office before entering the grounds. There are some panels in Burmese on the walk up to the monument but other than that, all you can do is soak up the atmospheric site.

People’s Park
Open: 07:00-07:00
Entrance fee: 700 kyat

I continued my walk around the perimeter road and took a rather long-winded approach to the People’s Park (it would be easiest to enter through the gates at U Wisara Road, but I got a bit lost and somehow ended up cutting through Revolution Park before finding my way onto Dhammazedi Road/Pyay Road and used the gate there).

Elephant fountain in the People's Park

Elephant fountain in the People’s Park

I mainly came to the park to get a good picture of the Shwedagon Pagoda from outside and to see the much photographed elephant fountain. However, it was interesting to take a little wander amongst the locals enjoying the mix of amusements, rides and gardens of the park. There were also a few military jets scattered in the grounds, all looking rather unloved. I left the park through the large visitor entrance block on U Wisara Road (if you haven’t entered this way it takes a few moments to work out how to exit the park from this side!). Finally, I had made it to the highlight of any visit to Yangon – the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Shwedagon Pagoda
Pagoda open: 04:00 – 22:00 hrs
Visitor center open: 08:00 – 21:00 hrs
Entrance Fee: $8.00 or 8,000 kyat

The Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the most impressive Buddhist sites in the world and certainly the greatest temple in Myanmar. It is considered to be 2500 years old by the faithful, though archaeologists are inclined to knock between 1000 and 1500 years off this dating.

A view of the Shwedagon Pagoda from the People's Park

A view of the Shwedagon Pagoda from the People’s Park

I made the small mistake of entering the site using the Western staircase (albeit with the benefit of escalators) which is the most modern and probably least impressive. However, nothing could diminish the impact of stepping out onto the terrace and looking up at the stupa. This wow factor does not diminish as you wander the terrace and pick your way through the forest of spires, shrines and stupas that surround the main attraction.

The 325 foot high stupa at the centre of all this has certainly attracted its fair share of unwanted attention over the years, from greedy adventurers to occupying forces. In the list of historical acts of vandalism it is hard to beat the insanity of the British plan to use it as a gunpowder magazine in the 1820s which saw an exploratory tunnel dug into the stupa. In the light of this, its survival to the 21st century is a miracle.

Although I was dazzled by the sights and the onset of sunset I wasn’t able to stay quite as long as I had hoped with my stomach staging a rebellion at far too early a stage of the trip! Thankfully taxis were plentiful at the entrance and before too long I was back in the sanctuary of my hotel room.

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Morning wanders in downtown Yangon

Posted in Myanmar, Yangon by folkestonejack on January 7, 2017

A good night’s sleep set me up nicely for a day exploring the highlights of Yangon and the time to correct my first impressions of Myanmar, which had mostly revolved around the painfully slow flow of traffic around the city and the distressing sight of some of the many thousands of stray dogs.

I knew from the start that one day in Yangon would be hopelessly insufficient to do the place justice, but I was determined to see as much as I could in the time available. To help make the most of my time I made good use of the plentiful taxis across the city. On every occasion a fair price was offered, with the short hops I took costing between £1.50 and £4 each.

Yangon Central Station

DF1251 runs around at Yangon Central Station

The first taxi took me to the starting point for my day’s exploring – Yangon Central Railway Station. The somewhat tired building, constructed between 1947 and 1954, is a marvellous example of Burmese architectural style (incorporating tiered pyatthat roofs) that must have been quite a statement in the early days of independence. The bridge on Zoological Garden Road offered a great vantage point to watch a few of the 215 trains a day which pass through the station.

It is worth seeing now as there has been talk of moving the station out of the city centre altogether. On top of that there are plans in the offing for a massive complex of high-rise hotels, office blocks and retail space surrounding the station which could change the view considerably.

A trip on the Yangon Circular Railway, a journey of around 3 hours, is a popular option for many visitors but not one that I could fit into my tight schedule. After lingering for a little while I continued my walk to Sule Pagoda, which sits at the heart of the colonial quarter.

Sule Pagoda

Sule Pagoda was as much a mainstay of Colonial Rangoon as its more obvious neighbours (such as City Hall and the Supreme Court) having been fixed at the centre of the British road system in the mid-nineteenth century. To this day it is the point of measurement for all distances to the old capital.

Sule Pagoda

Sule Pagoda

The pagoda is located on a roundabout with a constant flow of traffic around it, including many colourful local buses with passengers hanging out of the doors. The eclectic appearance of the pagoda is completed by its encirclement by a diverse range of small stores.

Outside the entrance two women sat with bowls of sparrows and was rather surprised to be asked in good english whether I wanted to buy one (to release for good luck). I passed on the opportunity and made my way in (entry fee $3). Hopefully the sparrows didn’t have to wait too much longer to acquire their freedom (or, if unlucky, end up as a ready meal for the crows perched in wait!).

As is the custom I removed my shoes and socks before beginning a clockwise wander around the impressive golden stupa. I didn’t really know what to expect, but soon began to appreciate that any visit to a pagoda rewards curiosity and an attention to detail. I particularly liked the roundel featuring a rather startled looking white rabbit (symbolic of the moon). If ever there was an image of a rabbit trapped in the headlights this is surely it!

A startled rabbit at Sule Pagoda

A startled rabbit at Sule Pagoda

I retraced my steps from Sule Pagoda and walked over to Mahabandoola Gardens, a beautifully maintained park bounded by colonial buildings but with Burmese independence at its centre in the form of a 50 metre tall white obelisk. The independence monument was installed in 1948, where a marble vision of Queen Victoria once looked upon her far-flung outpost. From here I took a wander of the colonial landmarks, shaking off the persistent offers of postcard sellers and tour floggers.

Colonial Quarter

It had been quite apparent from the off that Yangon is a city in transformation, riding a wave of tourist dollars, but as a shiny new city emerges you can’t help but notice that the colonial foundations which should be one of its strongest assets are at real risk. It is heartbreaking to see these once magnificent buildings in such terrible disrepair with broken windows, crumbling plaster and trees growing through the brickwork.

The largest of these sites, the vast Secretariat, must be a real headache for developers. The red-brick complex set on a 16 acre site was the centre of the British administration and later became home to the first Burmese Parliament after independence. However, it is mostly remembered for one of the darkest moments in the history of the country – the assassination of Aung San (1915-47) which deprived the country of its unifying father figure at the moment he was needed most.

The Secretariat

The Secretariat

I was interested to read that the board of trustees have looked to Somerset House in London as a model for the redevelopment of the site, seeking to create an arts and cultural centre, combined with a museum to capture its history. It sounds like an appropriate use for the historic site, compared to many other colonial buildings in the city which have been earmarked for conversion into retail space or high end hotels. I hope the end result truly delivers the space back into the hands of the public in some form.

The Yangon Heritage Trust, founded in 2012, has been working tirelessly to highlight the risk to the overlooked architectural treasures of the city and their incredible potential. I made an unplanned stop to their modest exhibition on the first floor at 22/24 Pansodan Street and really wished I could have found the time to go on one of their walking tours. I hope their visions are realised and that they can succeed in creating Asia’s most liveable city.

As I headed away from the colonial city centre I realised that my progress was already a little slower than I had anticipated so, after a quick stop at St Mary’s Cathedral, took advantage of an inexpensive taxi to get me back on track for an afternoon focusing on palaces, parks and pagodas.

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Steam and pagodas

Posted in Myanmar, Yangon by folkestonejack on January 6, 2017

The new year has brought with it some fresh opportunities for travel, starting with a trip to Myanmar to see the re-creation of authentic looking steam hauled trains some nine years after the end of real steam. Along the way I hope to get the chance to see a few of the vast number of pagodas in the country, beginning with a full day of sightseeing in Yangon (Rangoon).

Yangon at sunrise

Shwedagon Pagoda

My outbound journey to Myanmar was reassuringly smooth. I travelled with Thai Airways on flight TG917 from London Heathrow, connecting with flight TG305 to Yangon at Bangkok. Although we left London 40 minutes behind schedule we arrived early in Bangkok, allowing a relaxed transfer that fell well within the two hour window. The total journey time came in at 14 hours and 20 minutes.

The heat and humidity of Bangkok was a shock, so I was relieved to find that Yangon was a little cooler when we landed around 7pm, roughly 10-15 minutes behind schedule. Disembarkation from the very lightly loaded A330 was very quick, but progress soon slowed. Time got eaten up first by migration/customs formalities (50 minutes) and then the painful crawl through the traffic jams of Yangon to get to my hotel (40 minutes). Sleep followed soon after…