Early train from Mandalay to Hsipaw

Caught the 131 Up train from Mandalay to Lashio through Shan State. It leaves at 4:00 AM, entailing a 3:00 AM departure from the hotel and an 8- or 10-block walk through the quiet, deserted streets of Mandalay to the train station. (Mandalay, unlike Rangoon, is a problem for arranging transport. Except for motorcycle taxis, for which we are now too old and wise.)

We would think twice before doing this in Ottawa, where at this hour, trigger-happy gangstas and opioid-addled sociopaths roam the streets with impunity.
It’s very safe here – people are quite gentle. Even the souvenir vendors lack aggression. We flagged down a passing car that was prepared to drive us to the train station for a few thousand Kyat.

Departure. Slumber. After a few switchbacks in early morning mist, we are in higher country.

Amber waves of grain, purple mountain majesties…

I’ve discovered the joys of downloading music to my IPhone (a hand-me-down from Maria after she upgraded).

Listening to “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands” in the Burmese Highlands

Originally bound for Pyin Oo Lwin, we decided to go further to cross the Gokteik viaduct, once the world’s highest railway bridge (over a century ago).

Approaching the gorge.

I remember this from Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar and its reprise, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, both of which reward reading or re-reading.

“♫ What did you do there? I got high! ♫”

Along the way, people are harvesting grain. It looks like a Van Gogh or Gauguin painting: groups of people using hand scythes to cut the stalks, laying down arm-bundle-sized stooks, and piling them into haystacks.

Not a John Deere in sight.

A big tip o’ the Tilley hat to this site for its invaluable info about taking trains here. There is virtually no posted information available at stations in English (although the staff behind the wickets are very helpful), the schedules listed on official websites are incorrect, and there are lots of recondite details that would be time-consuming to uncover, such as the location of the advance ticket counter in Rangoon.

Class consciousness

We usually carry a supply of drinks and snacks. In case of emergencies, there’s always something to buy on the platform.

Prêt à manger

After a journey of 11 hours and 230 kilometres, we arrive in Hsipaw.

In Mandalay

This place has been through many changes since being immortalized in Rudyard Kipling’s poem.

“Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst”

Walked to the Royal Palace – a long, long walk – which is surrounded by an enormous walled-in area.

Royal palace fort and moat, with Mandalay Hill in the background.

The entire area is now some sort of military base. Foreigners must register – with a machine gun-toting guard – before entering, and then only in a straight line to the Royal Palace, everywhere else signposted as  a ‘Restricted Area’.

It has a sort of inauthentic appearance.

Potemkin village?

…turns out that during the Japanese occupation in WWII, the Japanese were using these grounds as a supply depot – which the Allies levelled in bombing raids. So the ‘Royal Palace’ is a replica that was built in the 90’s. I thank Wikipedia for that bit of information.

Next day, was wise enough to rent a bicycle. Traffic at first is really chaotic, but you soon adapt to local conditions.

Came across a gold-beating shop, where they produce gold foil to adorn temples.

Just beat it!

…where we saw the same German tour group that was on our boat from Pagan! Small world.

On to Mandalay Hill, with its giant lions at the bottom of the stairway.

If I’m lion, I’m dyin’…

Mandalay Hill, with its trash-strewn hillside and permanent squatter settlement –  is less than impressive, compared to some of the places we’ve been lately, but you get a view of Mandalay  and a fresh breeze.

The road to Mandalay


“On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flying fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder out of China ‘cross the Bay!”

Rudyard Kipling, excerpted from Mandalay

I’ve often puzzled over this. Mandalay is on a river, so there are no flying fishes as far as I know, nor is there a Bay. And China is a thousand kilometres away. Mr. Kipling must’ve been taking some poetic license, because he only spent about three days total in Burma. Still, the metre is good.

And the road we’re taking is actually the Irrawaddy River. Awoke at the crack of pre-dawn (3:45 AM) to take a boat – the good ship Nmai Hka – from Pagan to Mandalay, an eleven-hour trip (the slow boat takes two days.) After snoozing for a couple of hours on board, turns out this is a good way to go. A fairly modern boat, uncrowded and comfortable. Just us, a handful of Burmese, and a German tour group.

Forgot to mention a Zen moment: heading up the muddy river, comfortable seated in the shade, and listening to the Beatles on my IPhone. Can life get any better than this?

Some riverside scenes along the way:

Of course, no journey is without its crisis. We had mechanical problems midway, so we self-beached on a sandbar while the crew went overboard and fixed something that was fouling the screws. (That’s nautical talk for ‘plugging up the propellers’.)

Maria follows events with great interest.

Eventually, our delay was so long that the boat company ordered a bus to meet us at a town a few hours away from Mandalay, where we left our crippled vessel.

I disembark from our doomed ship.

Luckily, there were people around to unload the tour groups’ substantial luggage.

So we enjoyed the last few hours of travel to Mandalay in a comfy bus.



In Pagan


Pagan was yet another kingdom that had its moment in the sun, at one time covering much of Southeast Asia before subsiding back into ruins. Pagan is special because there are thousands of temples and pagodas spread across a broad plain. It’s overwhelming – they range from the simplest pile of crumbling bricks to enormous pyramids of stucco, gold, and faith.

Pagan rituals

They say the best time for viewing is dawn or dusk. We’re more middle-of-the-day kind of people.
We rented an e-bike for a couple of days. They’re more like e-scooters. Perfect for temple-visiting: the sites are too spread out for easy cycle visiting. The paths between them are often sandy. And, as usual, the heat is intense.

Get your motor runnin’…

Many of the temples have murals or script still visible.

Maria follows the script.

We went up the ‘Pagan viewing tower’, which is located in a stunning resort in the middle of the archaeological area that is, er, out of our present budget, but offers a great panorama of the surrounding temple-rich plain. And it’s a lot more economical than the hot-air balloon rides available for $US 300 per person.

‘Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.’

Must squeeze in a few more temple pics…

Note the scale of the puny human.

Just one more…

We ate a few times at the Sanon restaurant, a training restaurant set up and developed by a handful of independent Australians to train ‘at-risk youth’, then place them in the hospitality business and monitor their progress afterwards. The originator of this project was a genial Aussie that was on the same train as we were. We shared a taxi into town.

Night train to Pagan


Arrived here after a not-too-ghastly 17-hour journey with Myanamar Railways. Burmese trains are in the same condition as Indian trains. (For those who have been on Indian trains, you’ll know what I mean. For those who have not – well, there’s some scope for imagination.)

Enjoying the view from our ‘train à petite vitesse’.

The train ride was actually enjoyable. Lots of pleasant scenery, pagodas atop hills, farmers with their oxcarts.

After the sun went down, clouds of fireflies appeared.

The long day wanes…

Arriving at last in Pagan.

“Pardon me, boy – is that the Chanmyathazi choo-choo?”

Before leaving Rangoon, we went to the Bogyoke Market. Had visions of leaving with an enormous star sapphire ring – lots of gems for sale in this market – but cooler heads prevailed.

Material girls

Maria bought a bracelet for less than a buck.

We also took the Circular Train in Rangoon, a 3-hour route that travels 36 kilometers around the city and nearby countryside. A good way to get down with the locals, and a bargain at 20 cents.

Take the “A” train…

Of course the little girl at bottom right is not a local. We’ve noticed many young couples – mostly Europeans – travelling with their surprisingly young children and taking everything in stride. This was a Dutch couple with their daughter, who built up a charming rapport with an old burgundy-clad monk in the seat opposite. Like most places, people here love kids.

Went to the Botataung pagoda, with its nifty gold maze and its Buddha hair relics.

…and a tooth as well.

Maria had a go at gaining some merit.

Time to chime.

The End of Strife

Rangoon, Burma/Yangon, Myanmar

That’s the meaning of Rangoon/Yangon. Kind of ironic, given recent history.

I have to admit a bias for Burma over Myanmar. Burma has fewer syllables, and Myanmar sounds like a disease of the jaw.

Arrived here by air from Chiang Mai and noticed a change from Thailand – more packs of stray dogs, no street signs, and a general urban shabbiness and lack of trash collection that comes with decades of living in a socialist paradise hermit republic.

Then this morning we went to the Shwedagon pagoda. The centrepiece is a 99-metre gold foil-covered wonder of the world. After weeks of seeing dozens of temples, they pale in comparison to this place.

Shwedagon pagoda

It’s approached up this grand staircase.

Which is guarded by these marvelous crocodiles.

 Once there, it’s like being in New York City for the first time: the most jaded cosmopolitan is transformed into a slack-jawed gaping yokel.

Dreaming spires

We spent hours walking around.

An innocent abroad? The pilgrim’s progress? Or just another pasty gringo?

By the way, that’s an improvised longyi I’m wearing, made out of a travel towel, because shorts are not permitted while visiting the pagoda. A longyi (sounds like loan-gee) is a piece of material worn by both men and women here.

Burmese nurses in distinctive red longyis

Some more shots of Shwedagon.

And another.

You are here.

Strange fact: In Thailand, they drive on the left, like the British, even though they have never been a British colony. Yet here, which was a colony, they drive on the right, like in North America, but the steering wheel is on the right side, like left-driving countries. Just one of the mysteries of the orient.

In a Rangoon cab.

On the way to Shwedagon, we came across a charming custom. This woman has a cage full of birds. For a thousand Kyat – less than a Canadian dollar – you can set one free.

The bird lady

So I liberated this little guy, thereby gaining great merit.

Fly free, little one.

I should’ve ransomed the whole cage.


New City

Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai means “New City” and was so named because it became the new capital of Lan Na when it was founded in 1296, according to Wikipedia. (La Na was another one of the many kingdoms that preceded the present Thai kingdom in olden times, apparently.)

Left Sukhothai in an interesting stretch tuk-tuk to New Sukhoti.

Note the garland of marigolds hanging from the driver’s mirror:

Here, flowers are more for offerings than for home decoration. People offer up things to temples, trees, bridges. We later saw a woman creating these in a Chiang Mai market.

That’s ice underneath!

Came across a wonderful teakwood wat…

Wat Phan Tao

…with a skillfully-carved stone gate…

“Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way…”

…and some delightful kite-like things hanging inside.

Note the Chinese astrological beasties.

Chiang Mai is a walled city. Its claim to fame seems to be markets. There’s an awful lot of commerce going on.

Warorot market – Do you have this in orange?

I bought an umbrella, for the sun. This is something Maria just had to try in the Night Market: fish therapy.

That tickles!

The idea is, the minnows ever-so-gently nibble away at the dead skin cells of your feet. Very refreshing (so I’m told).

The Dawn of Happiness


That’s what Sukhothai means, BTW: Dawn of Happiness. We’re looking for new themes to use as titles – the English meanings of place names is as good as any.

Travelled by train from Ayotthaya to  Phitsanulok, then from Phitsanulok to Sukhothai yesterday .

Staying at the Old City Guesthouse. It looks like a Disney Thai village. Except I’m sure that a room at Disney Thai World would cost more than $CAD22.00.

It's a Small World After All - Dawn of Happiness
It’s a Small World After All.

Out of several former capitals we’ve been to, this is our favourite. Sites are located in a cool, green, park-like setting. You can see a few wats and feel culturally enriched enough to go seek a cold drink in a shady place.

Wat Tra Phang Thong - Dawn of Happiness
Wat Tra Phang Thong
Wat Si Sawat - Dawn of Happiness
Wat Si Sawat

Inside one of the towers at Si Siwat, looking up. The sharp-eyed can see 3 bats. (Or 3 Thai Baht).

Wat Mahathat

It’s hot work, biking around these temples.

Sufferin’ Sukhothai! I need some hydration!

Sight or Insight of the Day

Saw an interesting thing in the Ram Khamhaeng museum today:  a group of ants bearing aloft the corpse of a spider, moving along the floor to who knows where?



Further north to Lopburi


Left Ayutthaya this morning by train for Lopburi. The train cost a more-than-reasonable 13 Baht (about 50 cents CAD, I believe).

Third Class on Thai Railways - Lopburi
Third Class on Thai Railways

This for a journey of slightly more than an hour, in relative fan-cooled, upholstered-seat comfort. Plenty of space for luggage. I’ll take it.

Lopburi was an important city during the (Western) dark-to-middle ages of about 500 AD to 1000 AD. It prospered by keeping its head low and playing nicely with the then-dominant Khmer empire centred on Angkor and the surrounding wannabe mini-imperialists, so there are a few ruins around.

Prang Kak - Lopburi
Prang Kak

It’s also infamous for its friggin’ monkeys.

These are more creepy than cute, like a small, furry version of Mara Salvatrucha. After visiting a fruit market, we were mugged by a gang on the sidewalk – the boldest member ran up and grabbed my flimsy plastic bag, spilling oranges everywhere and creating mayhem among the other gang members. We managed to salvage a few.

To the victor, the spoils - Lopburi
To the victor, the spoils.

There were even more lying in wait at Phra Prang Sam Yod, which is known for its similarity to Angkor originals.

Welcome to the Monkey House - Lopburi
Welcome to the Monkey House

Another view of Phra Prang Sam Yod in a less-monkeycentric shot.

Phra Prang Sam Yod - Lopburi
Phra Prang Sam Yod

Sight or Insight of the Day for Lopburi

A feel-good story – after reading about how ‘small and accessible’ Lopburi is, we  booked a room in a hotel, location-unseen. It turns out this hotel was waaaay far from the center of town and its sites. Like, a 250 Baht taxi ride away. (See above for what we paid in train fare.) In a thoroughly depressing suburban neighbourhood. When the employee of the hotel understood our plight, he not only cancelled our reservation at his hotel, he drove us back to the main road a few KMs away on his motorcycle (took two trips – one for Maria and her luggage, one for me and mine). He waited with us while he flagged down public transport that got us both back to the center of town for 20 Baht.

He then refused all offers of money. I guess this is Dharma’s wheel turning in reaction to my minor whinge about the rapaciousness of tuk-tuk drivers in a previous post.


Heading north to Ayutthaya


Took a train from BKK north to Ayutthaya.

All aboard! - Ayutthaya
All aboard!

This was the capital of an earlier Thai kingdom from the 14th century until 1767, when a rampaging Burmese army burnt it to the ground. Looking for a better neighbourhood, everyone moved south and founded Bangkok further down the river.

Left behind were scores – no, hundreds – of temple ruins.

Wat's up, Doc? - Ayutthaya
Wat’s up, Doc?

Most with unpronounceable names, like Wat Lokayasutharam or Wat Phutthaisawan or Wat Chaiwatthanaram.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet - Ayutthaya
Wat Phra Si Sanphet

It’s easy to rent a bike to visit these, especially as the alternative is going by tuk-tuk. It’s disheartening dealing with the constant petty larceny of tuk-tuk drivers; they always want to overcharge foreign visitors. You’d think in a Buddhist country, they’d be wary of reincarnating as something yucky, but they can’t seem to help themselves.

Arriving at our guest house in a tuk-tuk - Ayutthaya
Arriving at our guest house in a tuk-tuk

Sight or Insight of the Day in Ayutthaya

Hey, I saw an elephant in the back of a truck today! Maria had gone off to find a pharmacy, I was waiting by the side of the road when a couple of trucks go by with an elephant in the back of each, trunk extended and ears flapping in the breeze. Turns out there is a place in town offering elephant rides: the elephants commute into town every morning. That’s not something you see every day.