Thursday, 26 August 2010

Back to Mandalay

Tuesday 24th August 2010

I wasn't expecting an Airbus for the Yangon flight but that's what was provided and we had a comfortable, if short flight. The business section is laid out in a spacious 2+2+2 layout. With a flight time of just over one hour, the friendly cabin staff had their work cut out to serve the simple but nicely-presented meal.

Immigration at Yangon did not take long and my checked bag arrived on the carousel in the baggage hall at the same time that I did. Passing through the Green Channel, I entered the Arrivals Hall to see Thet, one of the 'Road to Mandalay' guides, holding a board with my name on above his head, accompanied by a lady I'd not met before who apparently handles arrangements at the airport for 'RTM'. I was soon in the car for the fairly quick journey into Yangon.

It's peasant to arrive at a hotel and recognise the same members of staff - the Strand always seems like home-from-home to me.

This time, I was in room 202 with the same spacious facilities as other rooms and a view out to Strand Road. The hotel now has Wi-Fi which was indifferent in my room but fine just outside my room in the seating area overlooking the atrium. I ordered a simple meal from room service and, before I'd finished my e-mailing, the food arrived so I quickly pressed 'Send' and returned to my room. I'd discovered that Googlemail worked fine but blogging sites still seemed to be prohibited. I was tired from the journey and, as I needed to get up at 4.45 a.m. the next day, I did not delay long in climbing into the huge, comfortable bed.

Wednesday 25th August 2010

My alarm woke me on the 25th and, a few minutes later, the telephone rang with the morning call I'd booked as a back-up. Shortly afterwards, my cooked breakfast arrived allowing me to be ready and waiting in reception for my 5.30 a.m. pick-up. Another RTM Guide, Gigi, arrived and when we were joined by a German lady also booked on the trip we climbed into the people carrier for transfer to the Domestic Terminal for our flight to Mandalay.

The domestic terminal is still a fairly ramshackle affair but it seems to work and my large suitcase was whisked away to re-appear magically when I got to my cabin on the ship. I was issued with a sticky Yangon Airways label badge and a boarding pass for flight 'SPL'. About 6.30, a fairly large party arrived who had been at the Governor's Residence hotel. In the departure hall, announcements are only made in Burmese but a 'bell boy' tours the hall holding a board with the flight number on it so, when 'YANGON AIRWAYS SPL' was displayed we made our way onto the bus for transfer to the waiting aircraft - an ATR72-210 turbo-prop. The aircraft was almost full of 'RTM' passengers. Departure had been shown on our instructions as 7 o'clock but, in fact, we were airborne at 6.45 a.m. for the 80 minute flight to Mandalay.

Pictures on the flight to Mandalay are currently missing, sorry.

Mandalay International Airport's 18,000 foot runway (designated 17-35) is the longest in South East Asia so our aircraft had no trouble in landing and taking one of the high-speed turn-offs part way down the runway. A coach transferred us the short distance to the terminal building. Because there are no scheduled international departures, the large terminal was largely deserted and after X-raying our hand luggage on the way out (what's that about?) we quickly found our guide (I'm part of Mr. Win's English-speaking group) and our Bus, Number 3.

We took the dual-carriageway toll road towards Mandalay itself. It's the rainy season so we passed lots of fields inundated by river water but this annual flooding brings nutrients making the land very fertile. When we reached the river itself, we took the new road bridge across to Sagaing. A toll is now collected.

Painted Buddha image in a temple on the Sagaing Hills

Sagaing is regarded as the spiritual centre of Burma and the myriad green hills are dotted with stupas and monasteries in a variety of designs. We made a visit to the 2nd tallest hill, topped by a temple and a television transmitter. A narrow, steep, winding road struggles up the hill past numerous monasteries. Heavy rain during the night had caused a retaining wall to collapse at one point. A gang of volunteers was clearing the road of debris prior to making repairs, in this way gaining 'Merit' by their unselfish actions. The morning was dry and sunny so, after we had toured the temple complex, we had good views of the river and the flooded fields below and caught our first views of the 'Road to Mandalay' at her 'home berth' across the river.

Rejoining our bus, we descended to the plain and passed through one of the villages making water storage pots which I'd visited on an earlier trip to stop at a silversmiths' workshop to look at the beautiful embossed silver articles being made. I'd visited this on an earlier trip but I was very happy to have another opportunity to watch the craftsmen at work.

Pictures on our trip around Sagaing are here.

By now, it was after 11 o'clock to our ship was ready to receive us. The coaches parked in the 'RTM' compound and I got out, to be warmly greeted by the Captain who, after shaking hands with the other guests, accompanied me to the ship. My friend Doctor Hla Tun was there, together with a number of the hotel staff I knew from previous trips so it was a joyful reunion. I was fairly tired so, after a few minutes of conversation, I was shown to my room where I took a shower prior to the ship sailing.

I felt I was home again.

I went up to the top deck at 12.30 p.m., just as the ship was leaving the berth. The Captain manoevred the ship clear and crossed the river to the Sagaing side before heading upstream. This gave the passengers an excellent view of the Sagaing Hills with their Pagodas and Monasteries. The Captain and I talked for a while before I took buffet Lunch on the Top Deck.

We continued upstream past Mandalay Landing stage and the boats of every description tied up along the eastern bank of the river. There were a number of 'Pandaw' design vessels plus the new-build 'R.V. Paukan' which can be described as "Pandaw's Big Brother". The Captain was critical of her appearance and I had to admit that the proportions and styling of the vessel didn't seem quite right.

I'm sorry to report that the skyline of Mandalay City has been impaired by the ongoing construction of a high rise block of apartments - a philistine addition to a city which still retains at least some of the elegance of a former capital city.

As we continued north, the massive bulk of the Unfinished Pagoda at Mingun appeared on the western bank. The ship anchored midstream when we were level with the Unfinished Pagoda and a 'Fast Boat' appeared and moored alongside. A custom-made set of steps complete with handrails were installed on the side of the big ship to allow passengers to transfer to the Fast Boat.

The Fast Boats are passenger carrying ferries, steel-built and carrying passengers on two decks. At the rear is a massive diesel engine (it appeared to be a Nissan V10 on one which I later examined). At present, two of these boats are chartered by RTM to support the operation.

The World's Largest Uncracked Bell at Mingun

Passengers wishing to go ashore at Mingun were ferried to the landing stage in two trips. The afternoon heat was stifling. As a popular tourist destination, we encountered a number of buildings serving as Art Galleries selling oil paintings together with hordes of vendors who were very persuasive following us for some distance. There were also a number of bullock cart Taxis touting for business. We had a close look at the base of the Unfinished Pagoda (which I didn't climb on this occasion) and then moved onto the Mingun Bell. This 90-ton bell was intended for the Unfinished Pagoda. The earthquake of 1839 brought down this bell which lay on the ground until 1896 when Queen Victoria was pleased to have the bell re-hung on massive cast columns. After trying out the bell, we moved on to what is sometimes called the 'Wedding Cake Pagoda' because of its design and white paint finish. After climbing to the top, we retraced our steps to where members of the ships hotel staff has set up refreshments with iced water and soft drinks. Thus fortified, we walked back to the landing stage and the Fast Boat returned everybody to the ship in two trips.

At 7.00 p.m., we were invited for drinks on the top deck where Sammy Bottari, a charming young woman from Australia who is now Hotel Manager, introduced the Ship's Officers and Heads of Department. A dance group then demonstrated a traditional Burmese humorous dance routine before we all trooped to the dining room for the Welcome Dinner. After dinner, I was happy to retire to my cabin for the night, thoroughly exhausted.

Pictures of the Cruise to Mingun are here.

Pictures of our shore visit to Mingun are here.