Myanmar’s borders have only been opened to tourists since about 2010 and we weren’t sure how difficult it was to get a visa and a little unsure about lots of things we had read about money matters…yes it is true that US dollars need to be in pristine condition and not pre 2006 or with numbers that start with AB or CB but the local Kyat is certainly not in pristine condition and not accepted/worth anything out of Myanmar.

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Anyway we went to the Burmese embassy in Chiang Mai and it was fairly straight forward to get a visa (need 3 days for processing) and then went to the bank to get some US dollars and checked that they were ok. Can’t get Kyats but figure we could get some at the airport. Bruce started work at 5 am and then finished at 2:29 on a Tuesday and we had the taxi waiting downstairs at 3pm.

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As we were driven in the bus across the Chiang Mai airport tarmac to the plane I have to admit I was a little surprised to see that the plane was propeller rather than jet engine. I was feeling a little nervous about the flight (don’t like take-off and landing very much!) but the inside was lovely and besides a tiny bit of turbulence coming into Mandalay the 1.5 hour flight was pretty uneventful. There were lovely views as we flew over the mountainous landscape and over rice fields as we came in to land.

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What is it about immigration officials they always seem grumpy, both in Chiang Mai and Myanmar…..must think we were doing a visa run or something. The money exchange at the Mandalay airport was closed so we couldn’t get any kyats.

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The usual taxi scrum as we walked out of Mandalay airport but not too pushy. We chose to go in a shared mini van for the one hour drive into Mandalay city. You share the cost and get a bit of a tour which is sort of nice if you have plenty of time.

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We passed lots of shacks made of bamboo and thatched roofs along the road side, people herding goats, horses and cows. We later found out that there was a fair bit of flooding and that farmers had moved into these as temporary housing. The first impressions was that the people are much poorer than in Thailand. It reminded us of our visit to Timor Leste. The traffic was fascinating with plenty of cars and maybe less motorbikes than Thailand but also lots of trucks and buses loaded up with goods and people and trucks with the motor exposed at the front.

After driving around town dropping off passengers at various places we got to our hotel just before sunset. Lovely welcome at the hotel with fresh towels, cool drinks and names written up on a welcome board! I have to say although we are usually independent travelers, I’m pleased that I organised a private tour while in Myanmar. We could relax, enjoy and not worry about how to get to everything.

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The hotel changed enough US dollars to kyats so we could go out to dinner. We walked to at a little local place recommended by the hotel which I also saw on Trip Advisor. Sit at tables sort of out on the street and watch the activity. It was very busy with locals.  You choose the curry you want and it gets served with a few side dishes and a sour soup…we were to have many more meals like this in the next 5 days. Food and a bottle of Myanmar beer cost 6000kp which is a bit less than 6 dollars. Back home for some rest!

Day One-Amarapura-Inwa (Ava) and the Township of Sagaing

The next morning we were picked up by our guide (Winny) a young local lady. She had excellent English and turned out to be very knowledgeable about the history of places. The driver (Ko) was also good.  We were very spoilt. It was nice to get back into the aircon car after each attraction and be handed a chilled bottle of water. It was interesting to learn about each place we visited but also to hear about the history of the country..’before time’ as Winny often said which refered to ‘before British rule’. She talked fairly openly about the way the country’s development has been held back by the power being in the hands of a few, but seemed to be more positive about the future. Everywhere we went most people were very friendly and acknowledged us with a smile or a friendly nod.

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Winny herself was also interesting as she was bought up in an orphanage. After studying and working as a receptionist in a hotel, she is now a guide and also establishing a little laundry business all at the age of about 26. A very motivated and hardworking young lady.

We spent a very full day visiting lots of attractions outside of Mandalay city. We went to Amarapura to see the Upein bridge which is the longest teak bridge in the world built with 1086 teak posts and over 160 years old.

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Then on to the Mahagandaryon monastery where over 1500 monks live. We were lucky to be there when the monks lined up for lunch…a huge operation to feed that many monks everyday.

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We took some great pictures some of which I would like to paint and also got to visit the kitchens where huge vats of rice were cooked on open fires..all by volunteers and paid for by donors from all over the world. When we were there a bus load of donors visiting from Thailand (I think) pulled up!

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We dropped into a silk weaving shop and watched the intricate work being done.

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There were a couple of workers at the looms who were happy to have their photos taken especially when we attempted to say hello in the local language (Mingalaba).

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After some joking around we went next door and bought ourselves a traditional skirt/sarong thing, worn by both the men and the women. They are called longi for the women and basu for the men. I now wished I had bought two as they are very comfy!

On the way to the river we walked through some stalls and bought some local sunscreen which you see everyone wear. It is made from the bark of a tree and called thanaka paste – nice foundation colour so I bought some.

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We also came across a game of Chinlone which is played throughout Myanmar with great passion.

There were other interesting everyday market sights which were worthy of more photographs!

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We took a short boat ride along the Myitnge river to Inwa (Ava) where we did a little tour in the back of a horse and cart. Apparently the people of this area use the horse and cart to get around and many now show tourists around the sites for a bit of extra money.

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The area had recently been flooded which apparently happens once a year so the horses had a bit of work to do getting through boggy tracks.

We visited a couple of amazing monasteries built in the 1800’s and a leaning tower. (Nanmyint)

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Baragayar Monastery was built with 176 teak pillars. It looks like it has been burnt but the teak is black because it has been painted over with crude oil to preserve it. The monastery is used as a school to teach novices in the mornings. There was a small group on the day we visited.

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Maenu-Stucco monastery was also amazing.

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There were a few fairly persistent young ladies trying to sell trinkets. They had their spiel well-rehearsed..where you from, very nice country, you’re very pretty, buy something, maybe later (they will remember if you say later!) you think about it etc etc I will be happy, now I am sad…

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I bought a few little things but that probably encouraged a few others. Everyone has to make a living somehow and it’s better than a few people that you see begging. I’ve seen a few tourists just pretend that the sellers don’t exist and keep walking on which seems a bit rude..anyway everyone enjoyed a bit of a banter and I bought a very practical but apparently unattractive hat!

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After about an hour in the horse and cart we took the boat back and then crossed the Irrawaddy river (Myanmars longest river) by car and went onto the township of Sagaing to visit some more pagodas. Bruce is pagodaed out! But it’s so interesting and the photo opportunities are endless!

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Umin Thounzeh Pagoda which houses 45 buddha images in a cave type temple.

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Swanooponyashin Pagoda (I think..all starting to merge into one!)

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What a wonderful full on day!

We had a quick shower and back out for dinner but we couldn’t find the place where we wanted to have dinner and ended up at restaurant 82. A bit flash and enjoyed a very western meal of salmon and chicken breast with a glass of local wine. (Aythaya) Both the red and the white were lovely and nicer than any we have had in Chiang Mai. Shame I didn’t take a photo of the label. We found out that they grow wine in the Inle district of Myanmar. The meal was Aussie priced so very expensive for Myanmar but very nice and we enjoyed the peace and quiet, away from all the hustle and bustle of the streets.

Early to bed for a 6:15 am pick up for our full day boat trip up the Irrawaddy river to Bagan.