Monday, September 29, 2008

Day 5 - January 10, 2008 - Mandalay, Myanmar

Day 5 - January 10, 2008 - Mandalay, Myanmar

Ancient Cities of Mandalay

Up at 7:05 and downstairs for b-fast @ 7:35.

Hopped in the arranged Blue Mazda Taxi (at 19,000 Kyat for the whole day) just after 8:00 AM for a trip to three of the nearby ancient cities: Sagaing, Inwa, and Amarapura.

The ride out of Mandalay was cool. We sat in the almost open bed of the small pickup. Lots of commuters. Monks on there alms collecting missions hanging out of the back of larger pickups.

Followed the railroad tracks for awhile before making our first stop across the Irrawaddy River from Sagaing Hill. Then across the so-called New Ava Bridge (circa 2005/06) to Sagaing Hill.

The stairs were covered but the climb was a lot shorter than yesterday's ascent of Mandalay Hill. A bit hazy but some views from the tiled top. Attendance: light. We were not asked to show the combo ticket so no stamp. ;-(

Then 10km north to Khaungmudaw Paya with its spectacular, blinding white, breast-shaped stupa. There were a good number of tourists and pilgrims and vendors, and some shady spots were one could relax and admire the splendid symmetrical stupa. Sun-Ling commented that it was a "middle class" stupa; school kids on field trips and women buying thanaka.

Over to Hsinmyashin Paya (Temple of Many Elephants) with its famous elephant motif. Slow; several workers eating lunch and a couple of meditaters. So a quick stroll around and on to nearby Sagaing Market for lunch.

Tried two places. The first was too expensive, the second too meaty. So we picked up some snacks from a Chinese grocery (no Chinese spoken; family run business, the son spoke some English) and a bakery. Spent about 1200 Kyat total.

Back in the blue taxi, we headed back across the Irrawaddy River, this time on the Old Ava Bridge which is one lane for vehicles in each direction with a center "lane" for trains. Super cool!Of course a train went by just after I put my camera away so I barely got a photo. But I did shoot some video (see below).

Turned down the junction road to Inwa Ferry. It's 1000 Kyat each for a return ticket. The ticker seller whistled and the ferry with its surly captain and a shifty mate came over from the opposite bank. Back and forth. Back and forth. Guess that might make me surly and shifty.

At Inwa (Ava) Island landing, there were about 30 to 40 horse carts waiting to take tourist around. 4000 Kyat was the going rate for a three-stop tour: old teak monastery, the watch tower, and the new masonry monastery. Tried to bargain down but no deal. Good for them!

Very cool to take the horse cart over the bumpy and dusty dirt roads in the manner of a Jane Austen novel. When passing through a village, the local kids would run along waving "bye-bye".

Ate our snacks at the old teak, ship-like, Bagaya Kyaung Monastery. It's still in use as a school for very young children; not restored, and nifty.

Back in the horse cart, I switched to the front seat as sitting in back was making me queasy. Passed through one of old city gates on our way to the Watch Tower (Nan Myint) - Inwa (Ava), MyanmarWatch Tower. Good view back to Sagaing Hill, Old Ava bridge, and the Khaungmudaw breast. At the tower, Sun-Ling bought a painting - one of the few souvenirs we would buy on the entire 5-month trip - for 4000 Kyat. It's now installed at our home.

Third Stop is the Maha Aung Mye Bonzan Monastery. Masonry. Yellow. So-so. Back to ferry. Across. On to Amarapura.

I get lucky with the train: On the way to Amarapura we got stopped at a RR crossing and I jumped out in time to catch some video of the rolling, narrow gauge passenger train come through. I even got a wave.

Then to the Chinese Temple, a Guan Yin Temple much like any other Chinese Temple in Asia. Sun-Ling is 99% sure that it is now a nunnery or has lots of nuns who were cooking and eating while we were there... and ignored us.

Then onto a nearby temple - not not catch the name - to see the large seated outdoor Buddha, a reclining Buddha, adn a large owl. The younger monks were playing a vigorous game of football;"no photos" they said, while the older monks are playing cards and drinking tea.

Then on to the famous U Bein Teak Bridge. The world's longest teak bridge with lots of local color - monks, local visitors and tourists - but also loads of touts and vendors, boats for rent, blind musicians, owls and hawks to pose with, and restaurants. Bought some cold bean noodle soup - 500Kyat - too much.

There was a local guy on the bridge with a bike who was posing for 2 tourists (or professional photographers) who were down on the bank; and some tour groups were out on Taungthaman Lake in boats to watch the sun set.

The sun sank lower, the lake turned yellow, then orange, and things quieted down as we reached the far end of the bridge. Took a ton of photos.

Back to the truck, and back to the hotel in heavy rush hour traffic. I almost bounced out of the back of the pickup at one point. Crazy!

Hot shower and then out for Chinese noodles and fried rice at a small joint across from the Hospital @ 1600 Kyat total.

Back to the hotel and packed for tomorrow's trip to Pyin U Lwin Hill Station.

SLHOTD: Horse cart ride and Khaungmudaw Paya.
JHOTD: RR crossing video.

The morning commute as seen from the back of our pickup truck taxi.
On The Road to Sagaing - Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

The dazzling Khaungmudaw Paya.
Kaunghmudaw Paya - Sagaing, Myanmar

Horse carting around Inwa.
Inwa (Ava), Myanmar (Burma)

School's in session at the Bagaya Kyaung (Monastery).
Bagaya Monastery and School - Inwa (Ava) Myanmar (Burma)

The ferry, the shifty mate, and the Old Ava Bridge in the background.
The Inwa Ferry to the Ancient City of Ava

The U Bein Bridge at Amarapura.
U Bein Bridge - Amarapura, Myanmar (Burma)

Sunset from the bridge.
Sunset - Amarapura,  Myanmar (Burma)

Crossing the Old Ava Bridge.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Day 4 - January 9, 2008 - Mandalay, Myanmar

Day 4 - January 9, 2008 - Mandalay, Myanmar

"A very productive day even though we were licking our wounds after last evening's accident."

Up at 7:10 and downstairs at 7:45 following some "treatment". Good B-fast. Briefly talked to a young guy from Alabama - a perfect Southern Gentleman - and his German wife.

Decided on plan for next three days
  • Today: Mandalay Hill, Palace and surrounding sites by trishaw
  • Tomorrow: Three Ancient Cities by blue Mazda taxi at 19,000 Kyat total
  • DAT: Shared taxi to Pyin Oo Lwin
Made arrangements for the transportation at the front desk while also buying 2 bottles of H2O for 500 Kyat and paid 1400 Kyat (about $1.25 US) for 6 pieces of laundry.

Out the door at 9:15 and hired two trishaws (bicycle rickshaw; that is, a bicycle with a side-car) to take us to Mandalay Hill for 3000 Kyat total. It's a nice coolish ride through light AM rush hour traffic to Mandalay Hill going east along 27th following the corners of the Palace Moat.

Arrived a M-Hill about 10 and began the ascent from the SW stairs - the main entrance - leaving our shoes at the bottom for 100 K each.

The entire path up is covered. Makes for good walking year round - rain, shine, cold, heat. And there are benches on the sides of the slopes. Nice. There were vendors selling food that was cooked and packaged and some operating "almost restaurants" with a table or two, chairs, and free tea - full service. ;-). Dogs and cats lay in the sun. A few craftsmen hawking figurines.

There were many shrines and temples on the way up. The guidebooks describe them all. I won't. Sun-Ling liked the big Buddha that points down to the city - not a standard mudra (hand position).

After a leisurely stroll we made it to the top about 11:30, hung out at the top for 30 minutes, enjoyed the 360 view, tried to take a self-portrait, and tended to Sun-Ling's bleeding shin. I sacrificed my bandanna as bandage. Effective for awhile.

There were lots of locals making the trek up, but not jam packed as the sacred hills and mountains in China. Not even close. Families, school girls, families with a monk, guys, girls, and western tourists. One western guy was speaking Burmese - with only a small amount of help from his pocket dictionary - with the locals. Impressive. Wow!

Bought some snacks and watched a couple of Chinese guys filming themselves making a speech about a hydro-electric project they were working on in Myanmar. They had a local guide/translator with them.

There is a $10 US fee to visit Mandalay Hill - good for 5 days - and surrounding sites but we were not asked to produce ours or buy one. We did have to pay a 300Kyat camera fee at the top.

The front of the Mandalay Archaeological Zone ticket is ho-hum, but the stamps one gets on the back are way cool.

Stopped on the way down at one of those "almost a restaurants" for 2 bowls of fried noodles + lemongrass soup + fresh tomatoes for 1000 Kyat.

Passed souvenir vendors on the way down selling thanaka wood and stones, T-shirts, and turtle boxes. At one stall, a TV was playing a music video of a Burmese Country and Western song. Unexpected.

Arrived at 6the bottom, retrieved our shoes, and headed on foot to the surrounding sites - all covered by the Mandalay Combo Ticket- in this order:
  1. Kyauktawgyi Paya
  2. Kuthodaw Paya
  3. Sandmuni Paya
  4. Atumashi Kyaung
  5. Shwe Nandaw Kyaung
  6. Mandalay Fort and Palace

Kyauktawgyi Paya

"Relaxing" says Sun-Ling. Cool and shady with 80 surrounding small stupas, each housing an arhat/lohan statue.

Kuthodaw Paya (Known for its 729 tablets of Buddhist scriptures)

On the walk over, two very cute and sharp young ladies about 10 or 12 years old tried to sell us some postcards.

"But I take my own photos."

"Not the same" said the sharper one in good English.

"I will be unhappy if you do not buy my postcards" she continued her spiel.

"You should be in school" I said.

"My family is poor. My mother and father are poor". She rolled her eyes when she said "father" making me think that she meant her father was nuts.

We did not buy any postcards.

Most children in Mandalay seemed to be in school as we often saw them in their uniforms - green longyi and white shirts - headed home for lunch carrying a one strap bag over their shoulders. And as we walked around town we heard young kids in school reciting - shouting - their lessons.

Another aside. Several young business women have asked us "What do you WANT?" which, with the emphasis on "WANT" seems unfriendly to the American ear, but that's just the way it comes out. ;-)

Back to the Kuthodaw Paya. We finally had to hand over the $10 dollars for the combo ticket and we were harassed a bit by the shoe keeper and postcard sellers.

Sandmuni Paya (with more tablets)
A small boy says "Money".

Atumashi Kyaung (Newly built and skippable.)

Shwe Nandaw Kyaung

Another teak temple/monastery/ship. Very cool. Shared the site with a group of French tourists (or maybe Swiss).

Mandalay Fort and Palace

Walked across the moat bridge, had our papers checked, walked down to the oval past Army Band practice to the reconstructed Mandalay Palace. We were both surprised to see houses, small gardens, vendors, and trishaw drivers. We guessed it's the families of soldiers - later confirmed by LP. It was approaching 5:00 PM closing time so we walked up the Watch Tower for some cool views, checked out the reconstructed Glass Palace, had a brief rest and caught 2 trishaws (3000 Kyat) in the rush hour traffic to Nepali Restaurant @ 81st and 26th/27th where we each had a Thali: rice + chapati + curries + soup +beans + refills for 3000Kyat total.

Changed another $100 at Seven Diamond Travel @ 1250 to 1.

Back to RCH. Shower.

SLOTHD: All the small white stupas
JHOTD: Trishaw ride

The Palace Moat with Mandalay Hill in the background.
Palace Moat - Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

Buddha pointing to Mandalay
Standing Buddha - Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

The two of us atop Mandalay Hill.
Week Two - Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

Preparing our lunch.
Burmese Kitchen - Mandalay, Burma

Kyauktawgyi Paya - Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

Stupas - Sandamani Paya - Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

The reconstructed Mandalay Palace.
Old Royal Palace - Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

Trishaw driver.
Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

The trishaw ride

Friday, September 26, 2008

Day 3 - January 8, 2008 - Mandalay, Myanmar

Day 3 - January 8, 2008 - Mandalay, Myanmar

"A busy day - best day in Mandalay so far."

"No good deed goes unpunished."

Got going somewhat late, breakfast at 8:30, and decided to rent bikes for the day (1500 Kyat each). I got a big heavy clunker. Sun-Ling got a light hybrid. Perfect for her.

Rode over to the Chinese Consulate at 35th between 66th and 67th. The entrance is down a smaller unpaved road. As we got close I saw a Burmese soldier with a machine gun behind a bank of sandbags. Dismount! We walk by the soldier. He smiles.

A small sign says the consulate is OPEN: 8:30 - 11:30. We went in. The young lady behind the counter speaks English, Chinese, and Burmese. She is Mian Dian Ren - a local. The Chinese word for Myanmar is Mian Dian (緬甸).

After getting info, we decided not to get our China Visa in Mandalay. Too expensive we think... But it later turns out that the cost of a Chinese Tourist Visa went up from $100 to $130 dollars on Jan 20th. So....

Back on the bikes and we headed west on 35th street over the railroad bridge and on to the Irrawaddy River docks. A nice ride on a fairly good road. Most of the smaller roads are a maze of potholes or just poorly paved or a very narrow strip of pavement or all of the above.

Parked our bikes at the jetty and inquired about ferry schedules to Bagan. Our guidebooks said that there is a slow boat every day and a fast boat twice a week. At the fast boat ticket office they told us that the only goes to Bagan when they have a tour group going. Then independent travelers like us can hitch along for a price. The so-called slow boats goes everyday. No decision by us. We will check later with the front desk of our hotel. They seem to have reliable information.

The Irrawaddy River is slowish, greenish, and not inviting.

The jetty is quiet. No goods loading or unloading. No boats arriving or departing. Women are doing laundry and bathing.

Rode back towards town in a SE direction. Small school kids were going home for lunch. They shout "hello' or "hi" and run along with our bikes or wave furiously.

After some navigation we found ourselves by the famous Jade Market which is part workshop and part market. Not impressive.

Then on to the very impressive Shwe In Bin Kyaung, both Buddhist Temple and Monastery. It's a traditional temple built of teak and resembling a on old sailing ship as it stands on silts with broad wooden decks surrounding a wooden temple soaring to the sky like masts and sails. See my photos below.

Not much activity at the monastery grounds. I took a photo of the wooden dinner bell with a carved parrot towards the top. I learned last year that most Buddhist temples and monasteries have a wooden bell that is struck in times of emergency or to summon the monks for dinner. So I'm now trying to amass a collection of photos of these bells. Many of the ones in China are shaped like a fish.

Lunch! Stop at an outdoor place near the kyaung. There is a roof but no walls. It's during the lunch rush. Rice is cooked in big pans and scooped out by hand onto plates and then various curries are added. We have a rice plate with lentils, corn and veggies, plus lemongrass soup, plus hot sauce all round. Very tasty. In addition, an older man is walking around filling up a bottomless salad bowl at each table: carrots, turnips, cabbage, and parsley. All for 600 K - about 50 cents.

Observations on this restaurant:
-Turns out that this type of open-air restaurant is very common all over Burma.
- The toilet was very clean as were almost all the toilets in Burma.
- The patrons were eating with fork or spoon or chopsticks.

Biked around the block with a brief stop at a temple where a Chinese speaking monk tried to be helpful and show us around. He seemed a bit too pushy and we escaped with a "that's too much trouble for you". A couple of men were mediating there.

Then around the corner to the big Monastery south of Shwe In Bin. This was a real monastery. Monks were studying in 4 to 5 buildings. We saw at least one dormitory with shoes and bowls neatly stowed outside. However, as the monks studied, a gang of young women were hauling concrete around to fix the road. We wondered why the monks were not working on the monastery.

Finally we headed south, passing a small factory that makes stone Buddha images, to the most famous temple in all of Mandalay - the Mahamuni Paya.

We entered from the West Gate. A woman vendor motioned that either she would watch our shoes or that our shoes and bikes would be safe. So we left them at her stand. Then down the long dirty corridor to the main temple where the famous Mahamuni Buddha sits covered with 15 cm of gold leaf to the point that he is unrecognizable below the shoulders. Only men can enter the inner sanctum and apply gold leaf. Women sit outside.

It's a very busy place. We only saw three other Western tourists but there many Burmese visitors and vendors. There were bells ringers, and gong bangers, and water pourers. Book sellers, food vendors, fortune tellers, and beggars line the walkways. There were several museums about Buddhism with artifacts, photos of temples, and maps. At one point in the 19th century, and maybe still today, Burma was known as the "Center of World Buddhism".

We returned to our bikes and headed north on 83rd street to 30th where we cut over to 80th and entered the second level of the train station with its confusing "car and bike" ramp over the tracks. We should have entered at ground level on 79th, but after a few minutes Sun-Ling found the ticket office. Inquires were made. Information was written down. No tickets were purchased.

Returned bikes to hotel and walked the 6 blocks or so to "Mann Chinese Restaurant" which had about 15 tables, most filled with men drinking Grand Royal Whiskey mixed with water and ice, and nibbling. Sun-Ling was the only woman in the joint. No Chinese was spoken, but no problem, we had veggie soup + veggie fried rice + veggie fried noddles + 2 x Dagon Extra Strong Beers; all for 6100 Kyat. And we sent a veggie fried rice out to a woman who was sitting on the sidewalk with an infant.

Normally we do not give handouts to beggars as most are professionals, but this young woman looked distressed, had an infant, and had not motioned to us nor bothered us at our table. When the waiter took the food out, the first thing she did was feed the infant, then herself. So probably a good deed. Your run-of-the-mill professional beggars don't need food.

Then, as no good deed goes unpunished, we stepped into a ditch in the darkness on the walk home and got fairly banged up, John on his left palm and right shin, Sun-Ling on the right shin. She would bleed a bit for several days and not heal completely for weeks. But it could have been worse - broken bones - so we felt lucky.

SLHOTD: bike ride
JHOTD: temple like a ship

Ferry moored at the docks.
Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

Shwe In Bin Monastery - the decks.
Shwe In Bin Kyaung (Monastery) - Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

Shwe In Bin Monastery - the masts and sails.
Shwe In Bin Kyaung (Monastery) - Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

Remnants of lunch.
Mandalay Restaurant - Myanmar (Burma)

Young women hauling concrete.
Ladies - Mandalay

Monk Dormitory with shoes and wash bowls and robes.
Monk Dormitory - Mandalay, Myanmar

A horsecar passes in front of the Gem Market.
Horsecart - Mandalay, Myanmar Burma

The Maha Muni (Great Sage) Buddha.
Mahamuni Buddha - Mandalay Myanmar

Wooden Drum with bird carving.
Shwe In Bin Kyaung (Monastery) - Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)a>

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Day 2 - January 7, 2008 - Mandalay, Myanmar

Day 2 - January 7, 2008 - Mandalay, Myanmar

Had a tasty included breakfast downstairs at 8:00 AM. Toast + bananas + 2 fried eggs + coffee + juice.

Set out on the Lonely Planet downtown walking tour. On the way we checked out 2 other hotels that turned out to be too expensive, without a good view or vibe.

Many monks were out collecting alms both on foot and on buses. It's scene we would see repeated all over the country each morning.

The Clock Tower was impressive but the famous Zegyo Market was closed (on Monday's) so we gave up on the rest of tour and returned to the hotel although we did buy an English textbook from book shop on the way back. Sun-Ling wants to learn the Myanmar letters and numbers.

Tried calling the Chinese Consulate to get info on Chinese visas but they did not answer. A digression. When I resigned from Intel, my Chinese Resident Visa was canceled and replaced with a 30-day, single entry, Tourist Visa which was duly canceled when we left Kunming. Thus to get back into China I would need another Tourist Visa. Sun-Ling's Chinese Resident Visa was not canceled but it was set to expire in Feb 08, so she needs another Tourist Visa when we enter China again in March.

Back the hotel and next door to Shwe Pyi Moe Cafe, a branch of the well known tea house, for lunch. Tea + fried eggs + nan and beans + spongy cold noodles for 850 Kytat (about 75 cents). Back to hotel for a nap.

Spent the afternoon strolling around our part of town on foot and doing some trip planning on the roof top terrace (only 26 days left on our 28 day visa).

Many of the houses in this section of town are older wooden structures on stilts.

Near the hospital that's close to our hotel, we saw several big piles of what looked like donated clothing from overseas. Some had been washed and were hanging on racks (for sale?), the rest were still in piles on the sidewalk. Hmm. Guess that's one way the clothes we donate to charity end up.

Other local color that I noted in my journal:
-broom salesman with inventory
-betel nut seller and cart
-ice cream seller and cart
-3 ducks chasing 2 boys

Spent 200 K on a tasty street-side snack and 300K on another bottle of water.

Inspected the bikes for hire at our hotel. They look OK.

Had dinner at a nearby "tea house". Rice + mushrooms + watercress w/tofu + cauliflower + soup for 1400 Kyat.

Beer! After our meal at the tea house we had 2 draft Spirulina beers at a beer house we passed on the way back to the hotel. The owner spoke some English and was very friendly. He brought us some free peanuts. We bought some grilled new potatoes and grilled quail eggs.

The drafts were a bit less than a pint, maybe 300 mls, and were 400 K each - not a bad price. The beer itself was golden brown, a tad weak, but still tasty.

A regular, an Indian guy with jet black hair, wearing a western styled leather jacket, about my age, came in and sat down. He ordered a pint of Grand Royal Whiskey. They brought him the pint, a medium empty glass and big glass of water, and he proceeded to make a succession of whiskey's and water. He was still at it when we left.

Last stop of the evening was our local Buddhist Temple. No shoes of course, but it was a very dirty walk up to the altar - dirty as in dirt - as one can bicycle in, drive a car in, and the whole town is quite dusty in the dry season. Many people are praying either in front of the Buddha Image or in the meditation room behind. There was also a room with fans and mosquito nets. I guessed that this was a "comfortable" meditation room but not sure. [To clarify the drive-in part. One can drive their car into the temple compound almost to the inner area, removing their shoes as they get out of the car.]

Back at the Royal City, the hot water, a combination of solar and gas powered, seems to be on the fritz. Arrggh. We finally get hot water after 10 PM.

The clock tower
Clock Tower - Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

Morning commuters
Morning Commute - Mandalay

Shwe Pyi Moe Cafe
Shwe Pyi Moe Cafe - Mandalay

Broom Seller
Mr Broom - Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

Typical House
Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

Snack Vender = Spicy + tasty!
Snack Vendor - Mandalay, Myanmar Burma

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Day 1 - January 6, 2008 - Mandalay, Myanmar

We are headed back to Myanmar (Burma) in November provided we get all the paperwork straight so, to get myself in the right frame of mind, I'm going to start typing up my journal from our January 2008 visit. It's going to be a quick job so please excuse typos and mangling of tenses.

Day 1 - January 6, 2008 - Kunming, China to Mandalay, Myanmar

Got up at 8:00 AM. Packed and headed over to McDonald's for usual b-fast: Egg-Mcuffin, waffles. 2 hash browns, and two cups of the "gourmet" coffee. All for 25 RMB (about $3.50 US).

Mailed book to to Melanie in Shanghai. Checked out.

10:10 AM. A very short - 15 minute, 17 RMB - ride to the airport. Kunming is fairly compact.

No hassles checking in or de-immigrating, although we "lost" our water bottle. Not allowed if containing water. Hmm.

Walked around a bit at the gate. Mostly souvenirs for sale.

It was announced that our China Eastern flight - MU2029 - was late so we would be served our meal at the gate. And it was a meal. At the gate. We lined up for our utensils, plates, and a tray, and received a meal with lots of meat, fish balls, cauliflower, and rice, and ate it right at the gate in those gate chairs. But not the meat or fish balls.

However, the flight was only 5 minutes late and we received another meal on the plane during the 2-hour flight. Strange. But I'm always ready to eat.

The plane was small - about 20 rows of 4 - and half full. I had a window with a magnificent view of The Hump. The Himalayas were awesome.

The Mandalay Airport - code MDL - is about 45 kms from town. I'm always nervous when visiting a "one party" country for the first time, but we had no problems with immigration, checked bags, or customs. In fact, I tried to declare my $2100 US dollars as $2000 is the "undeclared" limit, but the woman behind the counter just laughed.

"Two thousand one hundred dollars. Don't worry.....RMB?....Don't worry....Camera. OK."

The whole experience was very laid back.

We met a woman, Unni, from Norway in the immigration line and shared a taxi, $6 each, to the Royal City Hotel. Unni had recently been to Romania and had way more than $2000 to declare. We pumped her for information on Turkey, Iran, and Syria. All highly recommended by Unni.

The ride was worth $6 says Sun-Ling. Lots of local color. Bullock carts piled high with hay. Overloaded buses. And as we reached the city we saw a funeral procession, two blocks long with 50 vehicles, for a famous Buddhist monk. First, older monks in sedans. Then younger monks in pickup trucks. Then several decorated floats, one with lots of flowers that carried the body. Then many buses full of the remaining mourners.

After an hour's ride we arrived at the Royal City Hotel: No. 130, 27th Street, Between 76th and 77th Street. A modest but very clean 7-story, narrow, hotel. We get a back corner room, #203, at $19 per night with breakfast included. Awesome.

The weather was sunny and dusty at 26 C.

The Royal City Hotel does not change money, but pointed us to the Unity Hotel, Central Hotel, and Seven Diamond Travel Agency, all across the railroad tracks in the central downtown district, about a 5 block walk.

We changed money at Seven Diamond Travel at 1250 kyat per dollar. Kyat is pronounced "jet" or "chat" depending on your tongue shaping abilities. Haha. We changed $100 and now have125, 1000-kyat bills. Yikes! That's a pile.

Walked back to the RCH. Bought a 1L H2O @ 300 Kyat (about 25 cents) on the way back. The route took us by the Mandalay Place Moat. John said knowingly, as he had read the Lonely Planet Myanmar, "That moat was rebuilt several years ago with slave labor." Sun-Ling quickly replied "All moats are built with slave labor." Good point...... The original moat was most likely built with forced labor also. But not to make light of the folks who were recently forced to work on the moat.

Also checked out ACME Internet Cafe - 1000K per hour.

About 4:30 we walked up to the roof top terrace. We could have ridden the elevator but there was no electricity. More on that later. Wow! Great views to Mandalay Palace and Mandalay Hill, and a mixture of Hindu Temples, Churches, Mosques, Clock towers, and Buddhist stupas, and modern buildings that make up the skyline. Wow!

Spent an hour watching the city as the sun went down. An odd kite or two, a little fire across the street, a small religious procession with triangle and gong, the neighborhood kids, some electricians up in a utility pole, and a multitude of clocks that struck 5PM more or less at the same time.

There are mosques but no call to prayers. Hmm. Later we find out that there are no broadcast call to prayers in any town we visit on this trip.

Then out for dinner at Marie-Min Vegetarian restaurant, recommended by LP and just down the street. We have 2 chapati, aubergine dip, tofu and watercress, potato curry, samosas, 1 L H2O - all for 7400 Kyat, about $5 - on the 2nd floor balcony.

The restaurant has an antique shop on the 1st floor with an additional 2 floors across the street. Lots of boxes, puppets, and Buddhist figures. The eggshell lacquer box - $22 - caught Sun-Ling's eye but no deal.

Then on to ACME Internet Cafe where we spent 1500K to surf the Internet for 45 minutes each. Even though we had read that it was nearly impossible to get to websites outside Myanmar, I was able to reach Facebook, Gmail, and Flickr. Sun-Ling got to Hotmail and Yahoo mail - all through Firefox with a proxy of some sort. It was very slow but I did get several gmails out and one short blog post to meckleyearth.

Back to the hotel. A quick trip to the rooftop. The electricity in Mandalay appears to be sporadic. We heard many generators. The city is NOT lit up at night.

SLHOTD: Funeral procession
JHOTD: Clearing Immigration and Customs.

The Hump
The Hump - Kunming to Mandalay

Royal City Hotel - Room #203
Royal City Hotel - Mandalay, Myanmar Burma

Mandalay Palace Moat
Mandalay Palace Moat - Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

Electricians up a pole
Power Company Guys - Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

Watching the fire across the street
View - Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)

Mandalay at night Mandalay At Night

The Procession

DD.965 - Amarapura, Myanmar

DD.965 - Amarapura, Myanmar, originally uploaded by meckleychina.

As our blue Mazda truck-taxi stopped at a RR crossing, I jumped out of the back to get the shot of the narrow gauge train lumbering through. Some of the passenger cars are really rolling back and forth. Take a look.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Into the Jaws of Ike (UPDATED)

A few years ago, the Chinese Embassies and Consulates in the United States stopped accepting visa applications by mail. You must now appear in person or use a visa service. So you may have guessed by now that there is Chinese Consulate in Houston, Texas and we sent our applications and passports to a visa service there earlier this week... Oh my... I'll keep you posted. Our fingers are crossed.

UPDATE: Made contact with the visa service. They went back to work on Monday the 22nd and they have our passports and forms. Woohoo!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Brother Daniel

Daniel S. Meckley

My younger brother Daniel passed away last week. He was 46. We will miss him.

Daniel and I almost share a birth date. His was born on September 20th and I on September 21st. One of my earliest memories is crossing the street in downtown Newport News, Virginia with my Grandmother,Great Aunt, and little brother Jim, on our way to the old Riverside Hospital to pick up my Mom and new baby brother Daniel.

Growing up, our birthdays would often be celebrated on the same day. We each had our own cake and presents but not own "day". No matter. It was fun and special to share a day. And as we moved into our twenties and thirties, the shared celebration was a good excuse to get together at Mom and Dad's for dinner and cake even though I had moved to North Carolina.

There were no September birthday get-togethers for the last 5 years or so. My wife and I were living in Florida and then China - too far to travel. Daniel, wife Cathy, and dog Chewy moved to Richmond. However, now that we were back in the States, we had planned to meet at the Outer Banks this month to renew the birthday ritual. In fact, I talked about it with him on the phone the day before he died.

Now, we won't have that birthday celebration and it will be a tough weekend of September 20/21.

Recently Daniel had not been well and was on oxygen and using a cane. In fact, he had medical problems all his life. As a family we learned two great lessons from this. One, parents' love can be spread equally among their children even though sometimes their attentions are not. Two, Daniel - kind, and generous to a fault - never complained about his illnesses; not because he was stoic, but because he accepted his lot in life. "You get what you get" said the Pastor at his funeral.

There are plenty of good memories. I'll relate just one here.

Daniel always had a way with the ladies. When we were kids, I called the neighborhood moms Mrs. Harvey and Mrs. Register. He called them Billie Joe and Myrtle and drank coffee with them.

And finally to quote my niece.

R.I.P. Uncle Daniel
Say hi to the Chewster for me.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

Just finished reading Paul Theroux's latest book Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. I've read all of Theroux's travel books at least once and I enjoy them immensely. Not only do we experience exotic places as if we were there, but we also get spot on observations about travel and travelers, a review of the works of other writer's who experienced those same places, and often a bit of literary criticism or history of the English novel.

In the past 15 years, I've traveled to some of the places I read about in Theroux's books - India, Istanbul, Morocco, China - and others are on my list. However, with Ghost Train, I found myself in the new and interesting position of having already been to some of the places that he visits for the first time like Jodpur, Angkor Wat, Phnom Penh, and Hanoi.

I could ramble on about this book and Theroux but I'll instead leave you with the first two sentences of Ghost Train. Enjoy.

You think of travelers as bold, but our guilty secret is that travel is one of the laziest ways on earth of passing the time. Travel is not merely the business of being bone-idle, but also and elaborate bumming evasion, allowing you to call attention to ourselves with our conspicuous absence while we intrude upon other people's privacy - being actively offensive as fugitive freeloaders.

Playa del Carmen, Mexico

From Aguascalientes, there is a very convenient direct flight to Cancun.  Since the wedding is at a private beach south of Playa del Carmen,...