Piet, a good friend from Amsterdam, came here for a week’s visit in April. I was thrilled to be seeing someone from back home and it was a great moment when from behind the glass arrivals barrier I first spotted his familiar face as he negotiated his way through the airport formalities. It wasn’t hard to find him; he towered at least a head above the other people around him.
Sitting in the taxi on the way home, I heard all the latest news from Amsterdam and was overwhelmed with messages of love and good wishes from friends. That felt very good. As soon as we arrived, knowing that Piet is always in for adventure even after a 20-hour plane journey, I suggested we set off right away to experience Thingjan, the Myanmar water festival leading up to New Year. Piet agreed, thinking that a sprinkling of water might help to keep him awake. And so we set off on bikes for the moat: a 2 x 2 kilometer square canal of water around the Royal Palace, the closest thing which Mandalay has to a centre. But neither of us could really have imagined the scene that awaited us there. There were stages on each side of the moat and many thousands of people dancing and cheering and all the while being sprayed with vast fountains of water pumped from the moat.
It was like a pop festival with sprinklers:
The streets around the moat were filled with vans of people driving around and cheering and dancing and getting soaked:
Piet was soon drawn into the festivities:
and seemed to be very much at home:
The next day I showed Piet some of my favourite sights in Mandalay, starting with the Golden Buddha, Mandalay’s most holy object, which has acquired monstrous proportions due to a continual plastering of gold leaf by devout Buddhists:
Piet was given something ‘decent’ to wear:
And cycling around all day, wherever we went we were soaked with water. It was still Thingjan and as soon as we entered a street there would be a row of kids gleefully filling their buckets and aiming their hoses, thrilled at the chance to soak two foreigners. It was a continuous cycle of wet and dry all day long, with not just a gentle sprinkling but whole bucketfuls poured over our heads. Piet got off the bike after one such ‘direct hit’ and reprimanded the soakers. They seemed to understand and gave him just a little sprinkling as he left. But we kept on reminding ourselves in true Buddhist fashion that all that water brings good luck, both to the one who throws it and the one who receives it.
The next day was New Years’ day and the water-throwing was finally over; it had lasted five days during which everything was closed, movement was impossible and sensible people stayed inside. We decided to go for a bike ride and visit a monastery about 15 kms out of town. As we set off Piet noticed he had a puncture but luckily there was a roadside bike-repairer nearby.
Leaving Mandalay we found ourselves cycling along a shady avenue of rain trees between pastoral scenes of bullocks and paddy fields.
We stopped to admire this barn:
There was also a canal where people were enjoying the water. Note the cows grazing on the rubbish tip behind:
Eventually we arrived, hot and thirsty, at our destination amid throngs of other pilgrims. It turned out the place was packed with families. We hadn’t realised that visiting a monastery is what people traditionally do on New Year’s Day. But with typical Myanmar courtesy, we were given a meal in the monastery hall, after which we dutifully climbed the long, narrow stairway to the pagoda at the top of the hill, squeezing our way past the other pilgrims and sitting down from time to time sat down to catch our breath. It was hot and the staircase was steep.
The pagoda at the top had the familiar stupas and altars, and was filled with picnicking families but there was also an extraordinary sight: a kilometers long procession of larger-than-life, red-robed monks descending from the top of the mountain to a temple below:
Here is Piet, dwarfed by the monks:
and here they are descending the mountain:
We also met some ‘live’ monks!
After a few days in hot and dusty Mandalay it was time to set off for some fresh air in the mountains. We took a taxi to Pyin Oo Lwin, the ‘hill-station’ used by the British to escape the summer heat of Mandalay. The temperature was indeed much more pleasant there and we visited the botanical gardens, which were very reminiscent of Kew, on which they were modelled. There was a similar holiday crowd too:
Although we were the ‘tourists’, we were sometimes also the ‘attraction’, Piet in particular. These were not the only women who asked if he would agree to be photographed with them.
However even Piet was dwarfed by the giant bamboo:
And so was I:
Later we went to a night market where we saw people making the Myanmar version of ‘poffertjes’, a savoury snack with peanuts:
and admired the illuminated clock-tower, a Pyin Oo Lwin landmark, which reminded me of a similar one I used to pass on the bus to Crouch End:
Next morning out hotel took us to the train station, where we saw a typical Pyin Oo Lwin carriage, which as you can see is still being used for daily transport. It looked pretty Victorian to me:
There we got on the train to Hsipaw, a town in the Shan hills about 70 kms away. The journey took around 7 hours and our carriage, which you can see below, rocked dramatically from side to side as it rattled and shook its way to our destination.
Luckily there was plenty of food available during the journey:
and many stations, both small and not so small:
The main attraction of the journey however was the Gokteik viaduct, built in 1901:
and still in use today. The train slows to a walking pace so as not put undue strain on the aging structure and I found it a somewhat nerve-racking experience
especially when you looked down:
I was relieved when we reached the other side:
We arrived in Hsipaw and were met by a taxi from our hotel; they had found out we were on the train and come to meet us. Hsipaw is a delightful town, full of huge trees:
One of its attractions is the ‘Shan Palace’, the former residence of the last Prince of Hsipaw, who was ‘disappeared’ by the military government in 1962 and has never been seen since. I had imagined something out of the Arabian nights but it looked more like a run-down version of an English country house. Note the tractor. There was a long story about it but I’ve forgotten it now.
A relative of the lost last Prince sat us down and explained the family history to us, together with some South American tourists who arrived at the same time. And we mused together on the sad fate of people who oppose regimes and international football. Later, walking round the grounds we saw one of those extraordinarily beautiful sunsets you have here.
The next day we set off on a boat trip to see some of the surrounding country. Hsipaw is famous for its trekking but it was pretty hot so a boat seemed a more pleasant option.
We stopped off to visit a monastery and Piet was once again in demand for a photo shoot, this time from an old lady who lived by herself in a shack near the river:
We also trekked through a field of pineapples:
before arriving at a monastery where the Buddha was hosting two cats:
Another attraction at Hsipaw was ‘Little Bagan’. This is an area with temples similar to the more famous ones in Bagan, but without the accompanying crowds and tourist paraphernalia. In fact, nobody seemed the slightest bit interested in these historical monuments at all, they were just part of the landscape:
We felt that this added to their charm. After a few very pleasant days, during which we also engaged in a thorough exploration of local bars and restaurants together with Hilary, a fellow VSO volunteer who happened to be in Hsipaw at the same time, we returned to Mandalay. The return journey in a shared taxi was hair-raising in a different way. We skidded around an endless succession of hairpin bends, descending and ascending the same gorge over which the viaduct had taken us in the train. The long columns of articulated lorries making the same journey (it’s the main road to China) had more trouble negotiating their way, often getting stuck, and I reflected on how handy it would be to have a bridge.
On Piet’s last night in Mandalay we went to a show of political comedy and traditional dance by the Moustache brothers. The brothers gained international fame when they were arrested after a performance for Aung San Suu Kyi during her house arrest. Piet made this guy very happy with a bottle of his favourite wine which we bought for him from Pyin Oo Lwin:
And then it was time for Piet to leave. Great that someone from home has been here and knows what it’s really like.