July 10, 2012
Yesterday we visited sites within Mandalay and today we visited nearby towns around Mandalay. I really enjoyed getting out of the hustle and noise of Mandalay. I definitely had not been expecting karaoke music blasting from the bar next door in the evenings.
The only way we know of to see the sights surrounding Mandalay is to hire a taxi for the day. The local buses here are pick-up trucks with tons of people squished in the back and sometimes more sitting on top. They are not labeled and their routes are not too clear. The Lonely Planet guide book also mentioned that the pick-up truck buses do not get close enough to the sights we want to see. So a taxi it would be! There are motorbike taxis, but we wanted to ride in an actual vehicle.
We inquired at our hotel, Silver Swan, how much it would cost for a taxi to visit Sagaing, Inwa (Ava), and U Bein’s Bridge in Amarapura and they quoted us 50,000 Kyat. That is about USD $57! For comparison, it only cost us 26,000 Kyat (about USD $30) for the two of us for the air conditioned bus ride from Yangon to Mandalay, which was a 7.5 hour ride and quite a distance. We really wanted to visit the sites around Mandalay, but we did not want to pay over $50 for transportation. The guide book said a taxi for the day would be around 18,000 Kyat, so with inflation in the past year we expected 25,000-30,000 Kyat. It seems that many prices in Myanmar have actually doubled since publication of the latest Myanmar Lonely Planet travel guide. We decided to ask our trishaw driver from the day before how much his friend with a pick-up truck would charge for the day, and he said 30,000 Kyat. It was still expensive, but at least we would save about $20 compared to the hotel taxi price.
Before starting on our adventure for the day, George took a quick motorbike ride over to the bus agencies to check on tickets for a bus to Hsipaw tomorrow. Looks like we will be taking the afternoon bus tomorrow, in order to have air conditioning.
When our pick-up truck ride for the day pulled up across the street George started laughing, “That’s what we’re going in?” I thought, “What? It’s blue and cute.” It was like our Mini, except in pick-up truck form and 30 years older.
We quickly realized that one of the advantages of riding in the open-air back of the truck was that it was easier to smile and wave at the people we passed by than if we were in a regular white Toyota taxi. As soon as we got out of Mandalay and into the suburb area of Amarapura the children would wave and when we waved back they would break into a bright smile. By the end of the day we had smiled and waved so much it felt like we had been in a parade. One of the joys of visiting somewhere that has only recently gaining international tourism is how excited the locals are to see foreigners.
After crossing the Irrawaddy River, our first stop of the day was Sagaing Hill. We had just hiked to the top of Mandalay Hill the evening before, so our legs were still sore. At least this time we could wear our shoes until we got to the top of the hill.
There was an amazing view from the top! The landscape in Myanmar is dotted with white and gold stupas, whether in the cities or the vast farmland. It is amazing how many beautiful stupas there are. On the way up and down the hill we stopped and spoke with a Buddhist monk for a while. One of the most enjoyable aspects of our visit in Myanmar has been talking to the monks. Many of them are learning English and like to practice speaking English with foreign tourists. It is a nice way for us to learn about them while they also learn about us and the USA.
Our next stop of the day was Inwa (also known as Ava). Our driver took us most of the way to Inwa and then we switched to a boat for a few minute ferry ride across a small branch of the river. The ferry cost 1,000 Kyat per person round trip, instead of the 500 Kyat mentioned in the guide book. Once we reached the other side there were numerous horse drawn carts waiting for us. We started walking a bit and when one of the cart drivers offered to take us around to the sights for 5,000 Kyat we were pleasantly surprised. That was the first time that the actual price matched the price in the guide book. We set off on our ride down a bumpy road.
We visited three of the sites and skipped two other sites that require purchasing the $10 combo ticket. Many of the sites in and around Mandalay require a $10 combo entrance ticket, but we had already visited many of the sites without being asked to purchase a ticket, so we figured there was no need to purchase the ticket at the end of our sightseeing.
I enjoyed the slow clippedy clop ride in the horse cart. It was like a throw back to Little House on the Prairie times. The only annoyance in Inwa was all the people trying to sell “jade” necklaces and other souvenirs. Some of the kids just don’t know when to stop. While waiting for the ferry ride back across the river I talked to a couple of the girls for a while, evening though I did not want to buy their necklaces or bracelets.
After Inwa we headed back to the Amarapura area to see U Bien’s Bridge, which is the longest teak bridge in the world. We had wanted to make it there for sunrise but since we did not arrange transportation in time we ended up going for sunset instead. It was a nice view with the bridge stretching out over the flood plain of water. There were lots of university students and monks walking on the bridge, with a smattering of foreign tourists. We recognized many of the foreigner who we had seen at various sights over the past two days. It is nice that there are not too many foreigners here during this time of year. At some of the Buddhist sites we visited we were the only foreigners there. It has more of an authentic feeling that way.
We walked across the bridge and got a snack in the village and took a boat ride back. We have found that if you smile at the locals they will often burst into a huge smile in return. Many will initiate the exchange with a wave, and when you wave back they smile wide. So as we rode in the boat back across the water there was lots of smiling and waving at those sitting and walking across the bridge. Many of the college boys were also showing off and cooling off by jumping off the bridge into the water.
It was a full day and we smiled to ourselves as we got back into the mini blue pick-up truck and rode back into the bustle of downtown Mandalay.