Avalon Waterways – Myanmar – Part VII (Mingun to Mandalay)

We awoke on Avalon Waterways’ Avalon Myanmar in Mingun, Myanmar after overnighting here.  The sun was a red fireball contrasting against the early morning quiet of the river.  I could not really capture its intensity in a photo, but it was memorable.
Sunrise – Mingun, Myanmar
Irrawaddy River Sunrise – Mingun, Myanmar
And then things started happening telling me that we were no longer in remote, rural, northern Myanmar but within driving distance to one of Myanmar’s biggest cities:  Mandalay.  Long before it was time to disembark women were arriving asking us to visit their shops.  Shops?  And there was yet another local oxcart, but this one has a bit of advertising humor.
No Bull!  There are taxis in Mingun, Myanmar
And then it hit me:  About 50 yards after we left the ship there were dozens of souvenir shops lining the path with young girls identifying each one of us that she would stay with and work over as we toured the area.  But it got worse (at least for me):  Tour busses and cars jammed the area near the Unfinished Temple (or more commonly referred to as the Unfinished Pagoda – but as Myo, our very knowledgeable guide pointed out, it has an entrance which makes it a temple and not a pagoda)

Unfinished Temple – Mingun,Myanmar
Unfinished Temple – Mingun, Myanmar

 and the roadway to what purports to be the world’s largest working bell

World’s Largest Functioning Bell
Mingun, Myanmar

and then one of the beautiful structure I have seen in Myanmar:  The White Pagoda.

The White Pagoda – Mingun, Myanmar

Perspective of how large The White Pagoda is
 It was a peaceful walk up the stairs of this totally white structure which, once near the top, provided a beautiful view of the Irrawaddy River and countryside.

Irrawaddy River, Myanmar as seen from
The White Pagoda
The Unfinished Temple as seen from The White Pagoda

 I must pause and reiterate that just because I do not like being faced with dozens of souvenir and local art shops for others it was their, err umm, Nirvana.  After a week visiting more remote areas where tourists are the oddity and shopping pretty much non-existent, today was the first of a few days where “retail therapy” was front and center.  The energy level and increased for some, but also the view of why each person was in Myanmar seemed to change a bit too.

Put another way, there are those that are more focused on collecting experiences and others are more focused on collecting things.  This is a topic that is regularly discussed in luxury travel conferences as the younger demographic is generally transitioning from “things” to “experiences”.   The key, which Avalon Waterways seems to do well, is balance the desires of the experiential and acquisitional traveler.
After running the gauntlet of souvenir shops (and making a small purchase I promised “my girl” if she stopped working me over, reboarding the tranquil Avalon Myanmar was more than welcome for me; though others took more time enjoying browsing the various shops and returning with jewelry, art, longyi, etc.
We then made the short cruise to Mandalay; leaving the tying up at rural riverbanks to tying up to another river cruise ship next to a very busy road.   Culture shock!!!!

The Road to (actually in) Mandalay

Having sailed from the rural north down to Mandalay left me truly appreciating that if one was to take a river cruise from or to Mandalay you would not be seeing what most of Myanmar is truly like.  While I am sure a more luxurious ship than the Avalon Myanmar – which is beautiful and quite luxurious in and of itself; especially for Myanmar (more on this in another article) – is possible, what is missed is the reason you probably travel to Myanmar:  To experience as much of Myanmar as possible.

I should note that there are no fancy docking facilities.  We were, for the first time, as is typical on European river cruises, required to walk though the other vessel, but then across a barge, then across a gangway that was propped up by an oil drum (not to worry – it was quite sturdy), then up a dirt path to a series of high concrete steps.  The Avalon Myanmar staff was, as always, there to assist everyone that needed or wanted assistance.  Time and time again they were able to safely get all of the guests off and then back on the ship.
We then were “On the Road to Mandalay” (sorry, I had to say that).  I should note that the evening before Avalon Myanmar placed a copy of the Rudyard Kipling poem in our suites; another thoughtful touch.
Our journey was to Amarapura, one of the numerous former capitals of Myanmar.  During our air-conditioned bus ride Myo and Mark gave us a bit of a history lesson of the area.  Added to the itinerary was a stop at a Longyi shop (the traditional men’s skirts and women’s dresses). 
U Bein Bridge
Amarapura, Myanmar

Our actual destination was, however, the U Bein Bridge, a .75 mile all teak bridge built in 1849 that crosses the manmade Taungthaman Lake (reservoir). The original teak was taken from an old royal palace. 

This is a very popular tourist spot for locals and the place was packed; especially since schools are out for three months, so family vacations are in peak swing.  Walking on this bridge, which has no rails, was more of a theme park experience for me – shuffling through crowds walking the same and opposing directions.  After walking about a third of it we turned around and then headed to a fleet of small sampans waiting for us.

In stark contrast to the frenetic experience on the bridge, Avalon Waterways arranged for only two people to be in each sampan as we were given a short “cruise” in the lake – which was very very low due to it being the dry season – watching some local boys fish with a seine net – with beer and fruit cocktails being offered from an Avalon Myanmar staffed sampan (nice touch)

Avalon Myanmar’s crew provided cold beer and fruit juice cocktails
while floating in sampans waiting for a beautiful sunset

while waiting for a beautiful sunset.

After returning to the Avalon Myanmar, Mark, our cruise director, took me out for some street food; an obviously non-touristic respite for me!

Mandalay, Myanmar Night Market

As we walked through this large night market I noticed a takoyaki stand (a Japanese dough ball filled with a piece of octopus and covered with dry fish flakes).  As I took a photograph one of the sellers came over to me and gave me one “No Charge” with a big smile.

Takoyaki – A suprise in Mandalay, Myanmar…
until you consider that the Japanese are the No. 3 tourists here

Mark and I then settled on a place that was packed with a number of woks and pots working feverishly to meet the demand of its dozens of dining customers.

Our night market “restaurant”
in Mandalay, Myanmar

As we took a seat a man came over and gave us, surprisingly, an English/Burmese menu…with a translation that was “close enough”.

First up was a spicy freshwater crab,

followed by a fantastic noodle soup (of course) and then

spicy “pork leg” which was actually pig feet…and the best of the three really delicious dishes.

Our host made sure we were well taken care of, giving us bowls for our crab shells, a finger bowl for our spicy fingers and even stirred our soup to be sure we got all of “the good stuff”.

For me this respite from the touristic day was perfect.  Ahhhhhh.
The next morning it was time to explore Mandalay; a city that is nothing like what I had imagined.  I had thought it would be filled with romantic Burmese sites (which it is) surrounded by beautiful parks and ancient buildings.  It is, instead, a rather usual southeast Asian city with many cheaply built buildings crowded together – again showing that Myanmar is not in short supply of inexpensive Chinese goods and fresh foods of all sorts.  As Myo and Mark explained, in somewhat differing perspectives (which is very interesting) is that this is the result of a fire in the late 1990’s when almost two-thirds of the city was destroyed in a massive fire.
As we traveled along, and consistent with the joy of shopping, there was a need to find an ATM to obtain more of Kyat, the local currency.  While I was surprised to see that ATM’s might work with Western banks, what we actually discovered is that finding an ATM that just plain works is enough of a challenge!  Of four people from the US and Australia, only two could get the ATM we eventually found to accept their card and dispense money.  So be sure to bring both your local currency (such as US dollars), which can be changed into Kyat, and your ATM card.
Our first stop was the King Galon gold leaf shop.  We saw the dying art of pounding thin pieces of gold wrapped in bamboo paper and deerskin into .0003 inch thin wafers of gold leaf.  The rhythmic sound of the hammers pounding for 30 minutes, 30 minutes and then 3 hours, timed with a slowly filling coconut shell in a bowl, was mesmerizing.

Pounding gold wafer thin

After a shopping opportunity…

It was then off to the Mahanumi Pagoda to see a very large Buddhi that was had so much gold leaf rubbed on it there are areas that are six inches deep.  The men were given the opportunity to place gold leaf on the Buddha so as to hopefully better our lives, but the women were not allowed to approach the Buddha…something that is not at all Buddhist in nature, but something that culturally exists.  Personally, while offensive, it is a (hopefully fading) reality, not dissimilar to the ancient customs of many including Jewish and Muslim religions that needs to be respected as a visitor.

It was then a quick stop at a woodcarving shop with more shopping opportunities before heading back to the Avalon Myanmar for lunch and a rest.
Late in the afternoon we visited the Shwenandaw Monastery to visit the only remnant of King Mindon’s Golden City; his bedroom and prayer room.  This structure was the only one to survive the bombings in World War II and was moved to its current location; now the subject of an extensive rehabilitation effort.  It’s intricate carvings on its exterior and it’s gold gilding on its interior was impressive and worth a visit.

It was then a short walk to what I thought would be a truly hokey experience:  Visiting the Worlds’ Largest Book.  How touristic, right?  Nope. I got that totally wrong.  This was truly fascinating and probably my first complaint:  I wanted to spend more time here!

The Kuthodaw Pagoda, created by King Mindon, covers a massive area with its highlight being 729 stone tablets encased in their own marble monuments.  These marble tablets, written on both sides, contain all the tenants and teachings of Theravadan Buddhism (the type practices in Myanmar) in way that they cannot be torn, burned or destroyed by time.

After returning to the Avalon Myanmar for a rest and dinner, it was time for a Traditional Myanmar Dance performance.  Usually Avalon Waterways puts on a great affair off the ship, but since the Water Festival is about to start (on April 12th) there simply were too many involved in preparing for the festival to allow for the normal experience.  However, and again noting usually these sorts of things aren’t high on my list of great experiences, this performance was fantastic.

After the group finished guests were brought up to the floor and, eventually, the guests were dancing with the crew as well.

Lots of fun and a great way to end the evening.