The World’s Biggest Book

Though it sounds so romantic, the actual road to Mandalay not much chop, I am afraid.

We have moored at the closest point we can reach before Mandalay. Unfortunately, the river is so low at this time, that the captain cannot navigate between the rocky patch just before the end of our journey. They spent a lot of time showing us the satellite images of the stretch, perhaps worried that we don’t believe them.

So, this morning’s itinerary comprises a bus trip – on the road to Mandalay. It’s a two-hour trip on bumpy roads, with suicidal motorcycles and the odd cow getting in our way. When the road opens up we are on a four-lane highway with two toll stops. Our bus driver overtakes the two stroke trucks in the overtaking lane, and is in turn, overtaken in the spare lane on the other side of the road. And on the verge is another car overtaking on the gravel. Driving in Myanmar… Not for the faint-hearted.

At one point we hit a traffic jam and seek out the source: a herd of about 300 head of cattle is traversing the intersection, overtaking the cars and veering off to the right.

Our sights today include the ‘World’s Biggest Book”. And before you conjure up visions of some ginormous tome that needs six people to turn the pages…. This is a huge monastery with slate tablets inscribed in Sanskrit. Each slate is housed in a small white-washed temple, and there are thousands of them built in a square around the central temple.

We also get to see gold leaf being made – by hand of course. Young men spend all day hammering out a metronome rhythm bashing the gold until it is a micron thick. Then it gets stuck onto a Buddha in a temple. They get paid good wages for Mandalay, presumably so they don’t get tempted to pocket some of the leaves: must be some fake Buddhists around.

Our next stop is a temple carved entirely out of teak and adorned with thousands of representations of daily life. I can only consume it one carving at a time, the whole is too overwhelming to take in.

By this time, a lot of people are tired of taking off their shoes, so they sit outside and don’t come in: they miss the gold inlaid decorations in the cool dark interior.

Our lunch is at the Mandalay Hill Hotel – so glad we aren’t staying here – it’s a giant hotel too much like all the others around the world. But I am grateful for the toilets, and the buffet lunch is tasty. I’ve had so much food over the last week, I will need to go off to a monastery and beg for my food for the next month.

In the afternoon….

We squeeze in an extra stop at a bronze casting workshop, but the heat from the brick furnace in the middle of the compound is too intense to tolerate for long. So off onto the bus again and the two-hour ride back to the boat. By the time I am back, I am so exhausted I can’t even keep my eyes open for the Mandalay Cultural Group who are aboard for our amusement after dinner.

Princess Panhwar Rhythm

Hubby and I are so exhausted by the bus trips that we made the last two days, we decide to stay put, rather than another 3-hour return trip to another monastery and a silver shop ready to part us from our money. Seen one pagoda or silver smith, and you’ve got the picture…

So, we settle into the rhythm of our Princess; rise at 7 am for croissants and coffee on the sun lounge where we can watch the rhythms of the locals washing their clothes, their children and their teeth.

We are left wondering how their clothes are deemed ‘clean’ considering the colour and constitution of the river water, where unidentified ‘bits’ float past and the mud swirls up from the muddy banks. Watching a youngster brush his teeth and wash his mouth out, brings out the worried microbiologist in me. I must trust that their constitutions are used to it, and at least he’s brushing his teeth. Me – I’d be in bed for a month with some noxious infection.

20180303-IMG_8528-29The Princess invites us to breakfast on the ‘main’ deck – closest to the water. We are treated to a smorgasbord of choices: fresh fruit, toast or croissants, local soup with noodles or omelettes. Our favourite waiters are Linn and Ko Ko, who serve us on the starboard side (right hand if you are facing the front, for you landlubbers), greeting us with cheeky grins and fresh coffee as soon as we sit down.

Once we are stuffed to the gills with food, we waddle up two flights of stairs back to the sun deck to put our feet up and rest them. I disappear into the air-conditioned lounge (or “longe” as our tour guide says) to sort and edit photos, read one of the books left behind by other passengers, and treat myself to a barista café latte. The book repository is surprisingly good – I manage to find a novel that suits my tastes, not just bodice ripper romances. Every now and then, I dash about with my camera as something catches my eye – a floating bamboo raft, a flock of birds, kids splashing in the shallows.

Lunch is served from 12.30; barely minutes after my stomach has digested breakfast. Four courses are set before us at the door, delicious visions to tempt our palates, and widen our expanding girths. Appetiser, soup, salad, main course and dessert; all beautifully presented and dangerously delicious. Our journey includes free beer or wine with lunch and dinner, and our daily selection is a good choice of French white and red wines, different each meal.IMG_2060.JPG

Thank God for those stairs and the often-steep climb up the river bank to our daily sightseeing appointments – I am climbing up and down so many times each day it’s the only thing keeping me from a coronary.

Our travelling companions, who are late back from their trip up to Sagaing hill, are greeted on shore by the daily retinue of staff lining the path to the gangplank; on hand to make sure no-one goes A over T on the way down. Arriving on deck, each one gets a spritz of hand sanitiser, hands back their cabin card in exchange for their keys, accept a cooling (orange) wet towel that smells of some exotic flower, and traipse to their cabins, removing their shoes and slipping into the slippers provided. I am assured by the other photographers that the panoramic view from the top was again obscured by the haze of smoke. And silver gewgaws I definitely didn’t need.

Since it’s our last day before we disembark (not de-ship, as some might say) our afternoon is spent gathering our worldly goods from where they are scattered about the cabin. I have several items that really shouldn’t travel back home with me: a pair of white shorts that had a damaging encounter with an orange towelette given to me as I returned to the boat after one of our excursions; two cakes of thanaka, (the tree paste that the locals spread over their cheeks as sunblock and all-round beauty product) and a pack of local chewing gum that hasn’t made the cut. I wave them in the direction of the ladies washing on shore, and after their enthusiastic nods, fling the offerings down at them, managing not to hit anyone in the head. The little gap-toothed girl splashing about in the shallows is particularly pleased about the chewing gum. There: I hope I’m giving them something that is of value to them, and trust that the lady can pound out the wicked stains on the rocks of the river and have the shorts clean enough again.

By 6 we are invited to a farewell by the crew on the sun deck. The furniture is all arranged in a circle and we seat ourselves as they serve fruit punch and canapes. Then our ship manager, Goran (from Jamaica – no just a joke, it’s Serbia), re-introduces us to the entire crew, from our prosperous captain down to the boys that wade through the water each day to moor the boat and lay out the gang plank for us. Like I do at times, I feel compelled to do a public thank you (exhibitionist that I am). Not only have they all been genuine in their affection towards us, but my observation of the crew when they are not on show has shown me a real ‘family’ feeling between them. When we aren’t around, the boys get on the banks of the river and play football, not required to come to attention when we arrive back after our excursions. That, to me, is the best commendation to the way the Princess Panhwar is run. Rather than shunning me for my egotism, many of my fellow travellers take the time to thank me for my little speech. Well, I just had to, didn’t I?

The crew then sing us a farewell song in Burmese, and after all that we stagger down the stairs back to the dining room for yet another four-course meal, with Ko Ko and Linn having saved us a seat. I only manage appetiser and dessert.. Probably should have left the dessert, but hey – I am on holidays, and I’ll have plenty of time to let out my clothes when I get back home.

The next morning, after our breakfast we say our last farewells, hugging those crew members that feel comfortable with it. The captain takes me in a big bear hug, probably because I asked to be piped aboard on my first day and kept up the saluting. And then it’s one more hike up the river bank and we trade our travelling room for travelling to a room on shore.

Monks and the curious Art of Naming

Being a devoutly Buddhist country, monks are a dime a dozen, but one does have to be careful about “fake” monks. These are the ones that walk about with their begging bowls asking for money. Monks never beg; people donate. I am assuming these fake monks make a tidy business out of the devoutness of the Burmese who will give generously to any wandering monk. Similar things happen in India with fake saddhus. The real ones have renounced worldly pleasures and wander about relying on the comfort of strangers. Fake ones pose for you and then demand royalties for their image. Tut Tut.


I guess it’s easier to become a fake monk than a fake saddhu. just shave your head and wrap yourself in maroon and saffron and buy a silver bowl. The chap to the left has had to put a lot of effort into it!

REAL monks would never ask for money; in fact, they never beg. As they do their morning rounds with their bowls, the houses they visit immediately donate whatever they have cooked up. In fact, the villagers prepare meals with the monks in mind so there is enough to go around.

Contrary to common belief, the monks are not vegetarians. As was explained, it makes sense: since they rely on donated food for their meals they could hardly say no to a donation of chicken curry with rice. The monks eat what they get. Well, I just learned something new.

Many families send their children to the monasteries for at least a few years. Partly due to their devotion, partly because the children get an education, and sometimes because the parents are too poor to afford to keep them. Our guide Ye Minh told us about his introduction to the monastic school when he was a little boy. He wanted to go because whenever his family visited on special days he would get yummy food to eat and the monks were always kind and gentle. So, he was very excited to be sent to be a novitiate at the age of six.

For the chosen child, there is a huge ceremony at the local pagoda, the children are decked out in glittering finery, made up to look like little dolls, boys and girls alike, until you can’t tell what sex the child is. They must be carried at all times, and have gold parasols to shade them from the scorching syn. The family accompanies them on a tour of the pagoda, and the kids are treated to sweets and generally treated like royalty. It’s a big thing becoming a monk.

So Ye Minh thought this was fantastic, and really looked forward to having his life in plush comfort at the monastery. When he was finally alone, he got a rude shock. Only two paltry meals a day, hard pallets to sleep on, and nothing but meditating and hard labour. The head monks proved to be hard disciplinarians, and within a day he wanted to leave. He got his moment when the head monk’s attention was diverted and so he scarpered back home, crying that he didn’t want to stay there anymore. His parents were mortified that he would spurn such an honour and told him they had spent so much money on getting him in, he was going to have to stay at least six months.

The little nuns have it worse, there is such reverence for the monks, it is not the same for the women: second class for them. The monasteries play a similar role to churches in the west in years past, acting as orphanages or schools for poor kids. Sometimes the children are sent to preserve them from trafficking or simply because their parents are too poor to afford them.

20180308-IMG_9203-51But don’t think the monks are stuck in the middle ages, no no, they are just as modern as anyone else in Myanmar, recording their tourist trips on their phone cameras, getting around in cars and motorcycles and as prone to selfies as any lay person.

In fact, some married men with families, when they’re over the family dramas, go and join a monastery to get away, visiting only from time to time. Well, it’s one way of getting peace I suppose.

As to children’s names: in Myanmar, the father doesn’t give his kids his name: in fact there is no such thing as a family name. Each child is given a name according to the day of the week they are born, chosen from a selection of names specific for that day.

Aung San Su Kyi is unusual because she has her own name, Su Kyi, but people also append her father’s name, Aung San because she is held in such high regard and her father was a hero.

Oo is the word for mister, so if we wanted to be formal, we could call our guides Oo Tun Tun, or Oo Ye Minh. For a woman, the word is Daw. I wonder if there is a man called La La, and then he would be Oo La La…. Oh dear, I couldn’t resist.

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone

Within a short time of leaving our floating palace, we realise just how spoilt we were…

Our Ayarwaddy River View hotel is well situated by the river, just across the road from a sand depository. IMG_2077There is a constant line of boats depositing the river sand they’ve dredged up, and an equally constant line of tractor-truck conversions carting it away to the countless building projects all around the place. The delightful terrace on the fifth floor with views across to Mandalay hill is covered in a not-so-fine layer of dust which quickly transfers onto us. Our meal selections are not cordon, let alone bleu, so we already miss our sumptuous four course choices from the last two weeks. The stateliness of the spiral staircase is a little bit marred by the stained and worn carpet lining the corridor floors, and the air conditioning in the corridors is provided by the hot, dusty, smoky air from outside.

And though I complained about the blat-blat of the little two stroke boats on the river, our moving room was well soundproofed. Not so our room at this hotel. We are treated to the same noise all through the night, as well as what sounds like The War of the Dogs outside on the street.

But hey, the room is spacious, the beds are firm, and the bathroom is clean. What more do we need for one night.

The next morning we have a driver, Oo Aung Thu, to take us up to Pyin Oo Lwin where hubby’s ex is helping to edit a Myanmar soap opera. It’s an initiative of Aung San Su Kyi, who wants to inform the populace about legal rights in the country, which of course aren’t written down anywhere. So she cleverly decided to educate people via an entertaining watchable soap, in order to have some way of defending themselves against corruption, illegal land grabs, drugs and the like. The latest in the series about a legal rights lawyer defending victims of trafficking, rape and corruption is being filmed in the town in the hills, and we are on the way to visit.

Our road is a mixture of appalling and fantastic.

Being the main highway to China, it is clogged with trucks laden with watermelons and the like making for the border. Sections are brand-new split highway, and others are just being built. The road rises to 1000 m in hair pin bends and is a confusion of cars motorbikes, buses, trucks and bicycles.

We only have one night up here, and rescue M for an evening of fluent English conversation, a change from the baby language she must use for her Burmese work colleagues. They call her mum, and she is very highly regarded.

Pyin Oo Lwin is obviously a prosperous town, the roundabouts are beautifully planted with marigolds, and the houses still reflect the old colonial grandeur. For cocktails we go to the Kandawgyi Hill Hotel and sit on the terrace looking at the sunset between the trees. Dinner is at the Feel restaurant on the shores of the little lake (there is another lake – the big one.) The food is great, and the local red wine is very pleasant once it’s breathed a bit.

More temples, a bad princess and a bridge

Our day begins like all the others – the blat blat of two stroke powered boats arriving at the crack of dawn to sell and shop. Today we have a stroll around the town of Myinmu, visiting the market to see wares on sale. Up another dusty road, being beeped at by trucks and motorcycles as we learn what people do for breakfast, how to make and chew betel nuts, and gawk at fly laden fish and meat laid out in the open air as the women wave fans about sporadically to unsettle the flies. Occasionally I stop to take a photo:  lovely aubergines and indeterminate red stuff that is sitting next to the dried fish. I’m not game to ask.

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We tourists are in the way, waddling about after our guide and obstructing the narrow corridors for the people who are trying to get about their daily life with laden baskets on their heads. They are all very good-natured and when I get separated from the others, a woman points to the direction I have to take. I then trip over an umbrella base and the women sitting around me burst into raucous laughter; they all think my big feet are hilarious. I have provided the entertainment for the day. Someone will have a great dinner party story.

I go everywhere with my new parasol, now looking like a very sickly pale Burmese woman with big feet. I am met with broad smiles and chuckles, and one man finds me so fetching he must take a photo on his camera phone.

Our lunch is served before my breakfast is digested, because we have another bus trip to see a few more destinations; temples, temples and a bridge. Oh, and a stop to see the local weaving factory and visit their show room to buy things.

We take the bus for 1 ½ hours, then onto a local ferry, then a horse cart to Innwa, which used to be the imperial capital in the 1800’s. We visit the Maha Aung Mye Bon Zan temple first; entirely built of teak by Princess Manu, who seems to be the Burmese version of a wicked Cinderella.

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At the ripe old age of 12 she came of age, and as usual, she went to bathe in the river. A very confused eagle stole her longyi and dropped it on the palace roof of the King’s main wife. When the king saw it, it was obviously an omen, and he didn’t rest until he found Manu. Stricken by her beauty, he insisted on marrying her (as one does). However, Manu proves the adage that beauty is only skin-deep, and there wasn’t any happy ever after for her with the king. Being an ambitious little minx, she wanted to install her brother on the throne and rule. So she drugged the king until he became gaga, then assumed rule and became the meanest queen they had ever had. The only good thing she did was to build this particular teak temple all for her childhood sweetheart. Broken-hearted, he had become a monk after she ditched him, and he wouldn’t even look at her.

Eventually, the people tired of her, so there was the inevitable coup, and she was sentenced to death. One last time to see her sweetheart monk and make him look at her, but all he said was “Manu, in life you get what you deserve.” She agreed, having done so many bad deeds, and sought deliverance from her sins by dying. They drowned her like a kitten: tied her into a bag with a big rock and threw her into the river. Her spirit now haunts a memorial shrine, so beware of being a bad queen.

Our next stop didn’t have anywhere near as interesting a story but offered a great picture. The Bargaya monastery is now abandoned, but still displays the grandeur of the time, with window cavities opening onto a cool dark interior.


And on the way we passed the “Leaning Tower of Innla” as well as a fiew rice paddies being planted

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Our last stop was the bridge at Amarapura city: the longest teak bridge in the world, constructed from wood recycled from an abandoned palace. It’s a draw card for Burmese as well as international tourists so we dodge and weave our way through the crowds and up onto the bridge. There are no hand rails, so we are advised to walk in the middle, but that is easier said than done – there are so many people going to and for, a well as the obligatory stalls selling cheap tat, so navigating even a short distance is hazardous; a six-metre drop awaits a slip.


Our day is not quite finished, and we are escorted onto small row-boats, which take us across the (currently) small expanse of river and face the sunset behind the bridge. Very photogenic, but most especially the reflections of the boats in the river and the gazillion tourists wielding their cameras for the occasion. Some of them have glasses of champagne in hand, with another boat bringing the guy with the top-up. We must have bought the cheap seats – no champers at sundown for us!

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And disco night awaits us this evening – I wonder how many will still be awake for that!

Balloons over Bagan

We are jangled out of our slumbers at 5.00 this morning: we are off to fill a balloon with hot air and drift over the temple studded plains of Bagan. It’s pitch black, and we stumble sleepily up to the top deck where I slurp coffee and stuff a croissant onto my barely awake taste buds.

Only a couple of the staff are up to accompany us up the bank, and we wait in the dark at the top for our bus transportation. When it arrives, I cannot believe my eyes, it’s the oldest, most rattly vehicle I’ve ever ridden in, no windows and a padded bench along the sides. We lurch into motion, and the dusty cool air streams past me, cold enough that I need to wind my sarong around my neck. After what feels like a long ride, we stop in a field, and I check that my teeth are all present and accounted for.

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They’ve very kindly put up little stools and percolated coffee to help with the waking up process. We join our pilot, Jason, for our briefing. They demonstrate the emergency seating position: sitting down, both hands gripping the rope rings, and our heads against the padded top of the basket. And when he says sit down, we are to sit, not take just one more photo. Oh – and keep your hands off the controls and away from the burners. Yes sir, capitan, sir.

We step back again, and they wheel over the industrial fans to blow air into the balloon, and when the opening is expanded enough, the burners finish the job heating the air; the balloon rises slowly off the ground, pulling the basket into the upright position. I wait until as long as possible to climb in, selfishly taking the outside: I want the poll position, and I’m going to have it! There are four compartments of four people each in the basket, and we are in no danger of falling out, since the sides come up to my chest. We’ve been teamed with a very nice German couple who work for Lufthansa, he as a pilot, and she as a flight attendant. She smiles as she says it “so cliché!”. I guess Jason has sized us up so he can distribute our weight evenly, don’t want a listing basket.

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After a short while, the balloon lifts off the ground, and the crew disconnect the ropes tethering us to the bus, and we sail up over the golf course, to the roar of the propane burners heating the air above us. Before too long, I must remove my jacket – those things pump out some heat!

Sadly, the air is full of smoke so that when the sun makes its appearance it does little to cut the haze in the air, and the photography is atmospheric rather than crisp. None-the-less, we drift up and over the 2000-odd constructions below us as well as the farmers and their oxen ploughing the fields. Two dogs trot across a field, busy about their own business, and it’s a great vantage point to see life in action. When we float over the temples themselves, it’s a reminder of why drones are so popular: getting a bird’s eye view of the temples is special, and the beautiful symmetry of the buildings only becomes obvious from up here.

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Before too long, we are at the end of our journey, and our Canadian pilot puts us down in a field: brace position, and we bump a little and drag a little, but land on terra firma in one piece. He then tells us that he is Canadian champion for ballooning, which involves him in a harness only, having to put his balloon down on a tiny X in a field and then gain enough height quickly to clear the trees a short distance away. Or another challenge is a set of keys sitting on the top of a van, which he must swoop down and pick up; all in the shortest possible time. We were indeed in good hands.

Champagne, and a bit of banana cake or fruit celebrates our safe landing, and it’s back on the rickety bus for our return to the boat, still floating on our experience.

Dancing Elephants – but no worries

After our visit to another stupa, we take a different route to the boat, and stop for an elephant dance. Our guide is late – he was meant to make the introductions, but I cost him a few minutes with my photography requests:


Of course I am somewhat hesitant, having visions of the poor elephants chained in the sun and then having to perform for us ignoramuses. This is what happens in Thailand, and I deeply despise the practice. Unsuspecting foreigners don’t think about the fact that the elephants have been separated from their families, and taught they can’t get away by being chained to a stake until they give up the idea of escape. Then they have to stay on hard tarmac the whole day for some idiot to pay $5 to feed them some bananas. Don’t worry – this is as much about me as it is about all the other idiots out there. I, too, have made this mistake, but never again.

Anyway – don’t you worry dear reader – not an elephant in sight, apart from the large, embroidered one animated by a couple of strong chaps. It weighs a ton, and must be sweltering under all that embroidery, but they carry (pun intended) out their elephantine duties well.

An energetic performance for us, accompanied by the clang of the musicians sheltering in the shade of the tree. The tourists enjoy it immensely, as do all the visiting Burmese tourists who crowd around us with their children to enjoy the spectacle. I make room, it’s a bit difficult to see over the top of the well-fed foreigners when you only come up to their shoulders. The children pose for their portraits with fingers held up in the universal sign: V.

Even as infants, they are displaying a talent for fashion: many of them have hair dyed various shades from yellow to bright pink, with patterns shaved into their short hair. Wouldn’t look out of place in Sydney. And they’ve all got their camera phones so they can take selfies, or not.