By Leigh Reinhold and Emma Thomas
Our plane dips below the clouds to reveal a glistening jewel of a land that time once forgot. With our first bird’s eye view of the Union of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, the feeling is instant: we’re landing in a world of the magical unknown.
Golden pagodas glimmer in the setting sun and the Ayeyarwady, that famous, winding river, appears strong and silver across the landscape, where sugarcane fires sporadically burn, and small farm holdings spread out forever like a green patchwork quilt.
We have planned a 20-day packed-full itinerary which includes a lavish cruise aboard Belmond’s stunning ship Road To Mandalay; a balloon ride over Inle Lake; a visit to Asia’s emerging new traveller’s beach destination; cooking lessons at The Hilton’s two wonderful properties in Myanmar and plenty of people, peace and paranormal pagodas.
If you know pop star Robbie Williams’s lament that he lost his way on the Road to Mandalay or recall poet Rudyard Kipling’s ode to this country of “palm trees and tinkling temple bells”, you’ll know an adventure awaits in the former Royal capital of Mandalay.
Where trishaws are a popular mode of transport and bullock carts move along the busy, sociable streets, reminiscent of wide Parisian thoroughfares.
A reminder, however, you’re still in an emerging city are the gutters splotched red with betel nut, a chewable leaf and popular mild narcotic, that was once a familiar sight in now gentrified Asian cities like Bangkok and Jakarta and is still widely used here.
On our long walks along these vibrant city sidewalks – with the odd stray dog joining us en route – pungent smells of garlic and lemongrass mix with the heat of the chillies and colour of the vegetables cooking over the open wood fires of street stalls.
The people, many wearing the traditional Thanaka face paint made from tree bark and said to have beautifying properties, line up for the national dishes of tea leaf salad or Mohinga curry; corn fritters or roti and tea, and settle into low plastic chairs metres from the bustling traffic.
We are met with smiles, laughter and curiosity – the Western face is still a surprise to many here, since this country only really became an adventurous tourist destination less than a decade ago.
In this sprawling city, population 1.4mill, everything goes on beneath the shadow of Mandalay Hill. Its fabulous Shweyattan Temple and the promising Sutaungpyei (wish-fulfilling) Pagoda sit atop it, a perfect spot for instagram-able sunset shots.
A deluxe room at the excellent Hilton Hotel (https://www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/myanmar/hilton-mandalay-MDLAYHI/index.html) provides an expansive view of the moat and fortress walls that surround the Royal Palace, the home of Royalty until 1855 when the British Empire moved in and sent the last king and queen into exile.
A fabulous buffet breakfast at The Hilton fortifies us for the 90-minute slow boat ride north to Mingun. The Ayeyarwady (aka Irrawaddy) River here is reminiscent of The Nile minus the sail powered feluccas and replaced with the typically Asian and noisy long-tail boats, ferrying passengers, rice and wood piled high.
Mingun is a must-see village where King Bodawpaya began construction in 1790 of the awe-inspiring Pahtodawgyi, planned as the grandest stupa in the world. But it was deliberately left unfinished after an astrologer told the king he would die if the monument was completed.
The Myanmarese (Burmese) are a superstitious lot and rely on fortune tellers for every big life decision. Many still fear the Nats, or spirits, that they believe can “influence terrestrial affairs”. The Nats rule supreme at Mount Popa, a popular high altitude retreat (https://www.popamountainresort.com) on top of an extinct volcano and near the ancient 9th century city of Bagan, which is (spookily) our next stop.
We could have taken a 12-hour boat ride down the Ayeyarwady from Mandalay to Bagan but we opted for our driver BooBoo to show us the countryside along the way of the 180km, 4hr journey.
A stop-off at a village that specialises in peanut oil, pressed on century old machinery, is a wonderful experience as we mix with the villagers – and the goats – and make friends through gestures and smiles.
In Old Bagan we checked in to The Bagan Hotel River View (http://www.kmahotels.com/bagan-hotel-river-view/) which indeed offered a spectacular sweep of river. In the expansive bougainvillea-filled grounds, an 11th century pagoda gives us shivers as we can literally feel the past lives of those who’d worshipped there before.
Bagan was the capital of the Pagan Kingdom from the 9th until the 13th century when Mogul warrior Kublai Kahn sent in his armies. It is a mystical place. More than 3800 stupas and temples, built of brick and sandstone, pop up like stalagmites in the dusty red landscape.
With towering statues of Buddha and intricate temple walls painted with frescoes, the 70sqkm site is worthy of its UNESCO world heritage status which can be best appreciated with a dawn hot air balloon ride (https://www.balloonsoverbagan.com).
If you have time, find a tuk tuk driver to give you the “insider tour” to bypass the hordes of Bagan tourists and to snag the best photos. Joseph was our go-to guy, and he taught us a few nifty smartphone camera tricks too. A horse and buggy ride amidst the stupas is also a must in the dust.
Leigh and Emma continue their journey through magnificent Myanmar in the next edition of The Starfish.