Saturday, 8 March 2008

Round the World Five - Day 3 (Sat, 8 Mar)

Itinerary: Saturday 8th March. Transfer by the Tour Operator, VSOE, to Yangon airport for the morning domestic flight by Air Mandalay or Yangon Airways to Bagan using an ATR72 or ATR42 aircraft. On arrival, transfer to the vessel 'Road To Mandalay' berthed on the Ayeyarwady River. State Cabin booked. At Bagan over 2,000 temples and pagodas are scattered over an awe-inspiring plain beside the river. After lunch, join the guide and visit the inside of some of the more significant pagodas. ate afternoon your guide takes you to watch the sun setting over a field of glowing pagodas. Dinner and local entertainment on board.

The local currency is the 'Kyat' but Foreign Exchange Certificates and US Dollars are widely used.

Somewhat worryingly, the brochure also states "visitors may find that in local situations Western standards are not always embraced". I'm happy to report that, on my trip, I never discovered what this means.

So, Saturday morning at the Strand I got up about five and tried the internet. What do you know? This time, it's working - a little slow, perhaps, but working. I'd ordered room service breakfast but, because I was still on the net, they served it in the Business Centre! All the staff on duty rallied round when the guide turned up with the car at 06:15, as arranged, and I was sorry to say goodbye.

We made good time to the domestic air terminal (which is next to the international terminal) and I was handed over to more tour company staff who gave me a boarding pass and seated me in the departure hall. One flight was called in Burmese only, and the hall mostly emptied, leaving mainly the obvious tourists. Before long, a young man called our Air Mandalay flight, in English only, and we shuffled onto a waiting 'bus for a very short ride across the apron to our waiting aircraft - a French-registered ATP42 (or 72). This is a fairly modern turboprop suitable for simple airfields - high wing with two large propellers and a noisy auxiliary power unit in the tail so that no ground power is required. Access is via built-in steps which lower from the tail. My seat, 5A, has a close-up view of the left prop, so I especially hope that the prop doesn't detach in flight! (It didn't). After a short taxi, take-off power is selected and I watch the pitch angle of the propeller blades go to 'coarse', producing the characterestic rasping sound as the blades 'chop' the air and haul us off the ground. Once airborne, 'fine pitch' is selected and the noise subsides as we head north, retracing the path of my arrival yesterday, which already seems a long time ago. We're soon above the clouds and the crew serve a snack. I have a fish-filled croissant and a cup of tea.

After 75 minutes, we land at Nuang U. Here, we're allowed to walk across the apron (ours is the only aircraft on the ground) and are met in the arrival hall by our guide, San. There are two 'buses, he explains, one for English speakers, one for German speakers. We first make a number of photo stops at some of the temples for which Bagan is famous and climb up inside the Pya-That-Kyi temple for a better view of the area. Stretched across a few tens of square miles are over two thousand temples. Some have been restored, some are still in use, most are partially ruined after surviving 800 years or longer subject to the rigours of weather and earthquake. Nothing prepares you for the sheer impact of this World Heritage site.

Then, we drove to our home for a few days - the Motor Vessel 'The Road to Mandalay'. On a bend in the river the British called the Irrawaddy, there's a village on the eastern bank near Old Bagan and about 50 feet above the river. Steep steps lead down the bank to a narrow, shelving sand beach. Nearby, a new zig-zag path has been provided leading to a tiny landing stage with a gangplank to our vessel. We're welcomed aboard and quickly shown to our cabins, where our luggage is waiting. There's time to explore the boat before the excellent buffet lunch in the well-appointed dining room. The capacity is around 100 passengers but we only have around 30 this trip so with 70 crew we're assured of good service, which we certainly get.

Picture of the on-board facilities.

However, there's sobering experience during lunch, as I watch various village women come to the water's edge to do their washing in a daily ritual repeated since childhood. Flat 'washing stones' have been placed at the water's edge. Each item to be washed is laid out on the stones, soaped and watered with a cupped hand dipped in the river. Rolled into a sausage, the item is beaten violently against the stone before an extensive rinsing and, once rolled again, hand wringing. Each movement has an almost balletic quality which appears unconscious - perhaps the elegance of minimum effort for maximum result? Now it's time for personal ablutions. The arms are vigorously soaped and scrubbed with the free hand. Next, the face receives the same treatment. The lady moves into deeper water so that only the head is exposed. The one-piece wrap-around can now be loosened so that the rest of the body can be cleaned in modesty underwater. With the wrap-around restored, she can emerge from the deep water and put on the fresh, dry clothes brought in a thin plastic bag. The original wrap-around is now dropped into the water and the lady kneels near the washing stone to wash it. There's another unconscious action when kneeling, drawing the skirt down to ensure the knees are covered - bare knees are considered indecent. The thin plastic bag is now rinsed in the river before being filled with the clean, damp washing. Watching this ritual, which will be repeated thousands of times in a lifetime, sets me wondering about different lifestyles.

After lunch, we go on another coach tour. Old Bagan was a Royal Palace, walled and moated. A few years ago, the present villagers were unceremoniously uprooted and relocated in New Bagan, a few miles south so as to allow a proper archaeological survey. The Palace was built of wood which, like the houses of the period, have been lost, but the temples, being of brick, survive. The brick was originally covered in elaborately-decorated stucco but, in most cases, restoration is being carried out in brick only. Near Old Bagan we visit the famous Ananda Temple and, after a drive, the Gubyaukyl Temple where there are old frescoes quite well preserved.

An unexpected hit during the afternoon tour was a visit to a lacquerware factory where the larger-than-life moustachioed owner makes a splendid presentation on the process followed by a tour to study each stage close-up.

Pictures of lacquerware manufacture.

We briefly stop to see the village of Pwar-Saw which is full of wooden houses with woven bamboo walls. We walk around a farmyard with oxen and bullock carts - this is no tourist museum, but the reality of life for many country people. Some children play football (the Burmese are obsessed by football) whilst others watch satellite television.

Finally, we visit a 'Sunset Temple' - the 13th century Ta-Yoke-Pyay temple - to watch the sun go down. It's rather hazy, so there are no spectacular colours today, but it's still a great place to be.

In the evening, dinner is served in the dining room. There are two menus - 'A Taste of Asia' or European, with a selection of dishes in each. And so to bed, tired but happy.

Pictures of Bagan.