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Day 5 – Polonnaruwa and Elephant Safari

22 Mar

Pancakes and syrup started off a day exploring the ancient city of Polonnaruwa, which reached its height of glory in the 12th century, when it was a thriving commercial and religious centre. The city still maintains many of its spectacular buildings and monuments, with arguably the most impressive being the Quadrangle. This sacred precinct originally housed the tooth relic. It contains a superbly decorated circular shrine which is one of the most ornate buildings in the country.

We start off looking at some bricks that rose to three stories.  The other 4 storeys that were part of this building were made of wood. Together, this was the King’s Palace – Parakramabahu the Great (1153 -1186) to be exact.  We witnessed workers carefully removing the concrete that had been applied in the 1980’s to help preserve it and to help obtain UNESCO recognition.  Thankfully there were also some small remaining pieces of decoration.  And a toilet.

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We avoided joining a saffron clothed monk lecturing white clad school children, but did wonder how 100+ pairs of similarly sized black shoes were going to be identifiable after entering the shrines.  Female teachers or chaperones are obviously a must as well.  Not quite sure who invited Beyonce.

The prince’s pond, outwith the walls, also proved some photogenic shots of the aforementioned.

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Doing our best to avoid the tat sellers, we visited the quadrangle – with all sorts of buildings.  Mostly temples though, so it was hardly worth dressing this morning.

“The Temple of the Tooth”, previously contained this ancient relic, which was the symbol of power for the Sri Lankan kings.  The ”Circular Relic House” contained another good moonstone example, and also provided some shade.  We also saw a 7 tier pagoda, of Thai design, and a large stone “book”.  Too many others to mention!

Tried to get a selfie with a monkey, but it wasn’t playing ball!  Another monkey stole a pen from a school child, but our guide Sunil came to the rescue.

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With some chilled refreshments inside, I managed one more dagoba, this one containing several “image houses” around the main stupa.  One of these contained a collection of very young pups.  Cute overload.

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We drove on briefly, past the ancient commercial hub and walked to the Galvihara – four colossal figures hewn out of solid granite.  The reclining buddha is 14 meters long.  A standing buddha had its arms crossed in a “sympathy” pose.  The other two were sitting meditating buddhas, one surrounded by paintings, or what’s left of them.

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When stopping for lunch, a large group of monks passed by, each carrying a shelter and walking on the side of the road on conveniently placed banana leaves.  The locals had arranged this, when they realised that the Thai monks were undertaking a long route march.  I’m sure a bus would have been quicker.

Managed to skip the rice and curry buffet lunch in favour of a chicken sandwich.

Kaudulla National Park was next on the itinerary – in search of elephants.  Several national parks were potential sightings, but as we loaded up 4 to each jeep and drove off, it became clear that this was the one.  We start off tamely with a grey heron, a sea eagle and an abandoned wasp byke.

Arriving into an open plain by a lake, 4 elephants were immediately in front of us, totally unphased by our presence.  Suddenly, our jeep sped off with the rest, and in front of us was an amazing spectacle of 40-50 elephants heading our way.  Young and old, male and female – all searching for the best grass to eat, and water to drink.  They played in the water, looked after their young – some barely a week old – and shook the dirt off the grass they uprooted before using their trunks to stuff it in their mouth.

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In the distance a huge, lone male with the biggest tusks appeared and headed towards the group.  Egrets scattered everywhere.  Our own jeep herd constantly repositioned itself to keep ahead of the main elephant herd, providing the best photo opportunities.  Elephants were meters from the jeeps, and some had to reverse quickly if they came too close.  The photographers who had loaded up with telephoto lenses, quickly tried to change to wide angle lenses!

As the huge male, crossed some water, it shot a huge plume into the air.  Reaching the main herd, it tickled a female’s back leg with its trunk, resulting in a bigger piddle than expected.

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We repositioned again, to witness three elephants swimming and also some painted storks and lapwings.  Eventually it got to the stage where there were no more pictures possible, and we simply managed to enjoy being so close to such large creatures.

Driving back to the bus, we avoided many bridge building projects on narrow roads.  An ice cream van was a welcome sight as we dejeeped, and it got a brisk business.  King coconut juice was the other option.

Our overnight stay was in Dambulla, that we had passed through the previous day.  Basic hotel, but fully functional.  It boasted several restaurants nearby and we choose a pizza place with fantastic lime juice.  Too much pizza though!  There was still time to relax with a cocktail – Arrack, passion fruit juice, lime juice and soda.  So good you had to try it twice!

Not a bad night.  Bit warm though.

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Day 4 – Rock Carved Buddha, Dambulla Caves, Polonnaruwa

21 Mar

Following toast, jam & cakes, we drove for 90 minutes, passing women harvesting rice crops.  We stopped briefly for a few of the group to give a small child a packet of sweets.  I dropped off the forwarding address for the dentist bill.

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First real stop of the day was to the Avukana Ancient Rock Temple – a 12m high Buddha that had been carved from the surrounding rock / cliff.  A new modern roof protects the 5th Century sculpture in its jungle setting.  Not quite sure why.  It is the latest in a long line of roofs.  Although we found it interesting, the monkey frog in the pond was also an appeal, not unfortunately listed in the guide books.  Yes, a frog that looks like a monkey.  It really does.  The statue had a huge wasp nest hanging from its right elbow, giving it a somewhat more striking presence.

Moving on, we also had time to find the cotton that comes from the fruit of the capoc tree, eating some small sweet bananas and some typical Sri Lankan “Hawaiian” biscuits (coconut flavour, of course).  We had a short walk along the side of a large reservoir – stopping for monkeys and plants that react to your touch by closing up, and then reopening.

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We reached the cave temples at the small town of Dambulla and faced some gruelling steps in the heat of the day.  The white clad school kids were all looking fresh as we handed over our shoes to a wild haired man and then trudged to the jobsworth entry attendant.

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We squeezed into the first of five caves to find a reclining buddha.  The second cave contained 57 statues in various poses.  One of these included a cobra hooded Buddha, which was supposed to have protected him when meditating in heavy rain.  These are ~2100 years old.  The third cave had 56 statues, including one of the last king of Sri Lanka.  He stood a respectful pace behind the buddha statues, but looked scary.  Atmospheric lighting and heavily painted rock ceilings made these caves unmissable.  Cave 4 contained an annoying high pitched ant deterrent, so we didn’t linger long time in the smaller caves 4 and 5.

Making friends with more monkeys on the way down, we then headed for a village tour.  Jumping on tuk-tuks, we headed off into the jungle.  Well, most people did, but there weren’t enough tuk-tuks,  so I settled on taking pictures of bullocks, with their owners initials carved into them, until one turned up.  The driver asked if I wanted to take the wheel, and I changed into the front seat.  As I drive an automatic, lurching was the best this could be described.  A clutch was foreign to me, especially on handlebars.  The accelerator seemed to go the incorrect way too.  But I managed a few bits of straight road before handing back to the driver.  Never did get the lesson on where the brakes were.

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Joining the rest of the group at the village hut, we were shown a coconut preparation demonstration.  Taking the outer layer off, cutting it open with a machete (drinking the juice), and extracting the shredded coconut from the inside with a special hand tool.  The two women also demonstrated the grinding of chillies using a large stone.  This was then combined with ground onions and lemon juice to make a coconut sambol.  This was added to the other lunch ingredients – rice and curry! – which we then had to eat off a banana leaf using only our hands.  Much harder than you might imagine.  The secret is to get the correct combination of sauce and rice, to form it into balls and throw it at your mouth.  Water buffalo curd and honey rounded off the meal – thankfully in plastic bowls with a spoon!

What followed was a masterclass in processing food.  Any members of the group who tried to copy, just ended up looking foolish!  Firstly it was pounding the raw rice to separate the shell from the rice.  This was then wafted in the wind (winnowed) to separate the two.  Red millet was ground.  This was slightly easier.  Lastly, we had a demonstration of leaf / frond weaving.  These were used as roofing on the huts.

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After this, we headed to the small lake, where what can only be described as tables lashed to 2 canoes were awaiting us.  One poor local man tried desperately to point us in the correct direction as we slowly burnt to a crisp on the water, with no escape possible.  I was at the front, which meant that the non swimmer was furthest from the supposedly available life jackets.

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Deboating, we then headed for the bullock carts awaiting us.  Tuk tuks and motorbikes were able to overtake, but cars had a huge problem on the narrow roads.  We arrived back and emptied the fridge of the nearby shop of all his cold drinks – which resulted in my drinking Mountain Dew Neon, a high sugar, high caffeine product!

Driving on, we arrived at “The Lake” hotel, Polonnaruwa.  This is a 7th century man-made lake.  The hotel greeted us with a fresh juice drink and a towel to clean ourselves.  Showering was more important than catching the last rays of sun over the lake from the viewing platform around the swimming pool.

The evening meal option was only really in the hotel.  A buffet was available – containing the standard rice and curry, but also much more.  This didn’t suit some of the group who were after the previously promised a la carte menu.

After a tense stand off, french fries appeared.

Other interesting notes from today – only 85% of Sri Lankan homes have access to electricity.  Hoping for 100% by 2025-30.

Also, “How many pecks can a woodpecker peck, if a woodpecker could peck wood?”  20 per second apparently.  That’s a possible 11,000 a day.

Bloody annoying though.

Day 3 – Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Buddhas & Steps

20 Mar

The morning walk to breakfast included meeting a host of local wildlife including a humongous bee, a palm squirrel, and a couple of owls.  Thankfully, none of these were on the breakfast menu, and I settled for toast and jam again.

Our resident bus cleaner offered us frangipane as we boarded our bus and Sunil, the guide, tried to entertain us with some terrible dad jokes.  I laughed.

First stop of the day was to a UNESCO World Heritage Site – the ancient capital of Anuradhapura.  It was originally founded in 500BC and is showing a few tell-tale signs of needing repair.  Well preserved ruins is the perfect oxymoron here.  We passed the incense and candle lighting outside the gates, as the place had previous burnt to the ground.

Inside, after shedding our shoes, and navigating the sand and roughly hewn cobbles, we found out about the 2200 year old bo-tree (where the original buddha became enlightened), buddhist auras, the lotus leaf which looks like a cobra and how long it takes for your feet to burn on any surface.

The offerings in the temple included various flowers, cakes and coins wrapped in cloth and tied to the railings.  A white band was available for a small fee, presumably to help the buyer achieve enlightenment.

As usual, I felt that the tourists with the cameras were somehow interfering too much in the otherwise peaceful atmosphere.   However, without the entrance fees, I doubt that they could afford the props that held the sacred bo tree up.

Reunited with our shoes, briefly, we headed to Lowamahapaya, which consisted of 1600 or so stone pillars which the monks were asked to count.  Presumably a purpose similar to asking Scouts to separate hundreds and thousands into unique colours.

Lots of dogs, some with very large appendices, lay in our path as we headed to several more temples, each with their own burning sand and stone floors.  Shoes on, shoes off.  Briefly, these included the Brazen Palace, once a nine storey residence for monks; the 4th century Smadhi Buddha masterpiece and the Ruwanmel Maha Saya Dagoba – a 90 metre-high dome-shaped shrine towering over the surrounding countryside.

Women chanting, flower laying blokes and painters and plasterers were hard at work up very tall pioneered ladders with lime in buckets.  The monks seemed to be of the clipboard carrying types.  Even the bricks awaiting use were piled into dagoba shapes.  (A dagoba is a Sri Lankan term for a temple, pagoda or stupa.)

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Lankaraya Stupa, Abhayagiri Stupa, a moonstone (look it up), snake charmer, monkey on a bicycle wearing shorts, discussions on mythical animals consisting of 7 real animals on a guardstone, monks dressed in saffron robes, reclining buddhas (are they dead or just sleeping – check the toes are aligned or not!) and twin ponds with more monkeys. After all that, we found a cool spot that sold iced drinks and emptied it of ginger beer.  Jetavana Stupa was then too much for most, as taking your hat off in the middle of the day was getting a bit dangerous, but I managed a quick clockwise circuit.  More monkeys ignored the do not climb signs and scampered up the front of it.

Lunch was a pleasant surprise – The Grand Heritance – which provided the standard all you can eat buffet option, fantastic lime sodas or a la carte sandwich and french fries options.

We travelled 8 miles to Mihintale, which was the site of a momentous meeting between the monk Mahinda and King Devanampiyatissa, introducing Buddhism to the country.  We saw the Alms hall, which had a phallic shaped trough where the monks would fill up with donated rice.  Then it was on to climb the “Great Stairway” – allegedy 1840 steps, but only 250 were used to get to a plateau with three options.  After removing shoes, we firstly climbed a very hot rock face with only a few feet places cut into the slipped polished rock surface.  Several up and downs took most of us to excellent views over the surrounding countryside.  Getting down again was even more of an adventure!

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Secondly, we climbed another 200 or so steps to another dagoba – painted white with a red stripe of material around it.  This is being shown, as it is a donation to the monks – to be cut up and used as robes.  I met a jolly North Korean monk in one of the shrines here.  The third climb of 100 steps was to a buddha statue with the best views of the other two.

Descending and returning to the hotel, we had time to freshen up before heading out to a group meal that consisted of rice and curry.  However, instead of the standard 4 bowls, this time we had lots to chose from!  Fish, chicken, coconut sambol, herbs, banana leaf (the best!), chillied lotus, radish curry, leafy salad, lime chutney, poppadums, and lots more!

A great end to a great day!

Day 2 – Fish Market, Toddy Tappers & Safari

19 Mar

Started the day with breakfast, unsurprisingly.  Toast & Jam.  Result.

The group all assembled on time, and our bags were marked, so that they would magically appear in our next hotels room.  The bus driver, Genie, whisked us off for a whistle stop tour of Negombo, including the temple and fish market from the previous day.  This time however, the fish market had much more activity.  Fish were being landed, sorted, gutted, salted and then dried on the sand.  The crows, dogs and egrets were all too well aware that the fish were too salty for their taste.  I gained a lot of information from a local fisherman who asked for a donation for his time.  Unfortunately, I still wasn’t quite used to the currency and ended up tipping him a small fortune for 10 minutes of his time.  However, I can now tell you the difference between ( and mostly identify) cuttle fish from coral fish, bamboo shark from …. sardines.  The 2004 tsunami wiped away a lot of the infrastructure and affected the livelihood of these fisherman.  My guide lives and sleeps in the fish market – a concrete structure that smells of fish and is covered in bird poo.  Wild mangy dogs are his companions.

Back on the bus, we moved on, finding out about the local culture from our guide.  Although 70% of the population are Buddhist, most people are happy to have “god insurance” with 2 religions under their belt.  The Tamil Tigers, previously of the insurgent / terrorist type, now have no problems.  It was clear that everyone was welcome, and they meant it!

Our next stop was to a “toddy tapper”.  We skipped past the “Japanese Elephant” aka JCB to witness the highly skilled climbers perched high up in coconut trees, expertly trimming the coconut branches on a daily basis to extract the natural “toddy” juice that would normally form in the coconut.  A sample was provided – it tasted slightly burnt, but was otherwise pleasant.  It is normally then distilled into Arrack.  One tree produces 2-3 glasses of toddy per day.  Vandals can cut through the high ropes connecting the trees so that workers fall.  Doesn’t sound very sporting.  99% of the workers are male.  No monkeys are used for this highly paid job.

We drove on, past a house displaying white flags, which are a sign of a death in the family.  Sunil also handed out some sweet bananas and raided a field to show a fully grown rice plant.

A brief toilet stop at a hindu temple (Murugan) proved interesting, as they had security guards insisting on the females of the group covering their legs and shoulders.  Despite the fact they weren’t actually planning on entering the temple.  The Intrepid tour company bus also started a parking war with our bus.  Our driver sources some jammy doughnuts, but the smell of poo when I followed where he came from was enough to put me off exploring any further.

Ayubowan – A wish for a long and healthy life – was just one of the many Sinhala words that we didn’t remember.  However, the Portugese have a lasting legacy here in the shape of “wine shops”, which no longer sell wine, but do sell other alcohol products.  Other Sri Lankan claims to fame, including having the first female prime minister of the world.  Exciting mounted when Sunil announced an elephant crossing the road.  Unfortunately, he was only showing the road warning sign.

Lunch at a roadside stop consisted of rice and curry in buffet format.  Chips and sandwiches were also available, but not for me on this occasion.  Ginger beer was the only cold drink available and so was ordered by everyone!

Moving on, the road turned single track as one family had decided to dry their rice on the tarmac.  Chillies and chocolate were also out for drying in the safety of their own land.  At a local school, a collection of motorbikes and tuk tuks were waiting to collect the children.  Our guide informed us that EVEN woman can ride motorbikes now.

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We arrived at Wilpattu National Park and transferred into 6 seater Toyota Landcruisers – open to the elements, but with a roof for shade.  We set off on the lookout for the “Big Three” – elephant, leopard and black sloth bear.  The 2 hour trip, turned into a 4 hour marathon, that was enthralling and yet disappointing at the same time.  I witnessed many different types of deer, monkeys, kingfishers, lizards, crocodiles, water buffalo, egrets, storks, cormorants, peacocks, turtles, dragonflies, jungle fowl, hornbills, bee-eaters, and various other unidentified birds.  As for the leopard, we did see tracks, but not the beast itself.  The black sloth bear was only to be found as a picture on the spare wheel cover.  A single male elephant was however spotted munching away behind some trees.  So distant that we weren’t sure if it was actually an elephant or not.  It definitely had a trunk, but could easily have been a Paul Daniels magic trick.

Returning to our own bus, we drove on to Anuradhapura, an ancient capital, for the night.  A hotel group meal followed with a very tasty Nasi Goreng being most welcome.  Most excellent hotel.

Day 1 – Arriving in Sri Lanka

18 Mar

Arriving in Sri Lanka via Dubai was uneventful, but proved once again that travelling with Emirates is a definite bonus.  Dubai had an Irish band who seemed to be celebrating an Irish 6 Nations win until the early hours.  Missing a flight due to the queue in McDonalds is probably not covered by travel insurance.  Thankfully, I didn’t.  Just.

At 8:30am, after 20 hours travelling, I was met by the Explore rep and bundled into a taxi with air conditioning that didn’t seem to mitigate the outside temperatures.  We drove for about 20 minutes to the nearby hotel in Negombo – a beach resort with a terrible beach that you weren’t able to swim in safely – if you could swim!  I mean, it was covered in sand, and had water and stuff…

The hotel was unable to provide a room, but I met a couple of others from the group, and the three of us took a tuk tuk (for 2) into town.  We wandered around the almost empty fish market, the prison, the site of an old fort and many fishermen either mending their nets or relaxing in their boats – all in the bright midday sun, whilst our sun tan lotion languished in our bags at the hotel.

Seeking shelter, we headed for the Lagoon view restaurant, only to be met with a gloomy room where we persuaded the owner to turn the fans on.  The coldest drink was quickly downed (through a straw, as the glasses weren’t to be trusted) and we exited towards a tuk tuk.  The driver was happy to take us to St. Mary’s church (roof fund required) and to a very colourful hindu temple (for Tamils), where a wedding was taking place.

Back at the hotel, after finding time to check-in, I wandered along the beach, found an ice cream seller, and witnessed crows keeping cool and eating coconuts as well as the locals bathing.  Avoiding the large sail boat owners wanting to take you for ride, was easy, although constantly required.

Walking through town, I saw some modern art, including children screaming at fences.  Hmmm. The group briefing introduced most of the group (17 – 1 to arrive later) and the guide – Sunil (Sunny).  His English is good, but his sentence construction left us all in doubt as to what he was actually saying.  Here’s hoping we all get there.  I’m sure it’ll be fine.

For the evening meal, a few of us went to a local restaurant (whilst the rest stayed in the hotel).  I had rice & curry.  This was actually, several dishes – chicken curry, dahl, pineapple, coconut sambol and a sweet chilli sauce.  Delicious.  All washed down with some local hooch – Arrack.  Very whisky like, and therefore firewater.  Not to be repeated.

A great introduction to Sri Lanka. First impressions – very friendly people, if a little on the hot side!

Day 12 – Mons, Monks & Monkeys

23 Mar

For some reason, my mind thought that 5:30am was a good time to wake up … two days in a row, does not make a pattern.  As the real start was due at 8:00am, this meant plenty of time for breakfast!  The made to order waffles and honey were fantastic, and went nicely with the bacon and toast.  I couldn’t get more un-Burmese than that!

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The view from OK Kyaung

We headed first to the temple of Ok Kyaung, which afforded spectacular views of a large number of other stupas and temples, after climbing only a short flight of stairs.  George’s “cousin” from yesterday was nowhere to be seen, but plenty of others had filled her spot.  I started a photo taking competition (starring me and some bricks) in which Karen, Albery and Ethna all took part.  Results will be announced later.

A short hop to the Dhamma Ya Zi Ka Pagoda, which stood in front, saw us do the now traditional clockwise tour of the outside.  This one had a large golden dome, shrouded in bamboo scaffolding, and lots of smaller golden stupas sitting on strikingly red bricks.  Instead of having the traditional 4 Buddhas, this one had space for 5 – in preparation for the coming of the next Buddha – due in about 2,600 years time. (Every 5000 years – the last Buddha was born in 600BC).  Now that’s future planning!  Also around here were a camera crew and a French presenter practicing her English speech.  That doesn’t sound like a great combination.  And it wasn’t.  Inside, next to yet another Buddha shrine, was a glass object bejewelled with rubies and sapphires, which would normally shine at the very top of a pagoda.

We moved on to the local village of West Pwazaw and met with the former village chief who was obviously a wealthy farmer.  He employed 8 people and seemed to enjoy not having to do much himself!  They farmed sour plums and we witnessed how they crushed and separated the kernels which are then sold to the Chinese for £6/kilo for unknown reasons – they really don’t know what they do with them!  They also grow peanuts, sesame, beans, pumpkin, corn and cotton.  There was a demonstration of how to spin the cotton into yarn, and of course an opportunity to purchase the final product.  Despite the rest of the village owning enough cows to keep Tesco in beef burgers for months, this family only owned two cows – because they also owned a tractor!  With 5 children, 2 sons were still at home, two daughters are nurses (one still in the village) and the fifth was obviously not important (or I didn’t listen).   Lacquerware production was also on show.  It’s made from bamboo, horsehair and the sap of the lacquer tree.  I wondered why all the horses had short hair.  Funnily enough, it’s “lucky” to buy two, rather than one.

After being offered some rather tasteless tea (or maybe it was just my cold), we walked around the village – highlights included a man painting a wall without moving the bricks in his way, or indeed, finishing building the wall; a pen full of goats who wanted to like my hand – little do they know what I have in store for their friends on Saturday; a woman with the largest cigar on the planet; and a man who made bamboo cages that confuddle George – apparently they were rubbish bins.  We saw bamboo being split, some friendly cows and a cactus hedge.

Leaving the village behind, we attempted to document any remaining stupas that we’d not yet seen.  This started with the tallest (Thatbyinnyu Temple) and then Nanpaya Temple – with a very hot tiled floor outside, I was back to doing the Burmese Waltz across the ground in bare feet.  They should at least have a bucket of water on standby, if not a full first aid team. Inside were four columns with intricate Hindu inspired carvings and a missing Buddha on the raised middle platform.  This is different from most temples, in that they normally have four Buddhas facing every direction.

Outside the temple were some ogres and haspa (sp?) “curvings” (sic), as well as a good assortment of children trying to flog some postcards.  “Very nice, but I don’t need any” was a standard John2 response.  They’ve got to try refining their technique, as the bargaining reached $1million at one point.

In the next door temple, we had four large Buddhas, who looked like they had forgotten the dimensions of the building they were in.  As a result of their size, they look down on the visitors, apparently in reference to the sorrow of the king and queen that had them built.  Saving on the traders here, they had a large gold pot where you could just throw your money away.  Unfortunately, I was suckered in on the way out – another sand painting bought!

Back at the hotel, I had a chance to freshen up and eat (chicken and cheeseburger and fries) before heading off to Mount Popa with Tom and John.  We ducked the Explore version for a local taxi (saving $17 each!).  The journey took an hour, but it completed all possible methods of transport during this trip.  And it had working air con!

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Not the real Mount Popa

On arrival at Mount Popa we faced a 777 step covered climb – 1/3 in shoes, and 2/3 in bare feet.  The steps were full of local tourists and macaques (monkeys).  Fortunately the tourists had been toilet trained.  The macaques had not.  The monkeys were scavengers and would happily grab any food from your hand.   They also didn’t respect the Buddhas.  A team of cleaners managed to mostly keep the tiled steps clean and a group were feeding the monkeys at the bottom to try and encourage them to stay there, rather than pester tourists all the way up.  This didn’t work.  There were two sections of steep metal steps which had obviously been frequented by the monkeys more than the cleaners.  Razor wire was used to try to keep the monkeys away from key areas, but they didn’t seem bothered with it at all, using it to climb up and through.

At the top, it was a bit confusing, as there was a collection of shrines, no open space, lots of plaques and lots of people.  We worked our way around, admiring the views from all sides and were asked to star in a few photos by a monk.  We then persuaded a monk to take part in the photos as well.  Fair’s fair.  Anyone can sponsor anything for any reason – a few restaurants had plaques – from Beijing and San Francisco!

As a side note, we didn’t actually climb Mount Popa, but the rocky outcrop, half its height, officially called Popa Taung Kalat.  But known to the casual tourist as Mount Popa.

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Monks slapping monkeys

Descending and using all the available wet wipes to clean the monkey pee and monkey poo off our feet, we rejoined the taxi driver for the trip back to the hotel in Bagan.  My Pringles and Haribo were cracked open and eagerly finished off by traveller Tom.  I may have helped a bit.  The road back had some roadworks, the men making the tar and the women carrying it to the road for it to be applied by hand by more men.  Time consuming work!  In the middle of nowhere, we also ran the gauntlet of some people, mostly young, begging along the road.  They did this by trying to run in front of the cars to get them to slow down.  We sped up.

After dressing for dinner (well everyone else did – I put clean socks on), we met in the hotel foyer and the group flag photo was done.  Hotel staff are better photo takers than I am!  Disappointed to find that I’d been sold a dirty flag though!  George seemed to have a problem knowing which way up it went!

For our final group meal, we headed to the Star Beam restaurant, and after the meal Graham led the group thanks with a speech he’d spent all afternoon preparing for.  George replied.  “Yes. Yes.”  I hadn’t appreciated this was his catchphrase until this moment.

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Cassandra then led us on an ice cream hunt ending, very easily, with a peach and guava variety.  Delice. An early night as we all have planes to catch tomorrow – some of the group are heading to the beach extension option, and the rest of us have a couple of days in Yangon before our flight home.

Still plenty to come from me …

Day 11 – Stupafied in Bagan & The Stairway to Heaven

22 Mar

Shock, horror! A 5:30am start meant that breakfast had to be postponed!  This was to facilitate the sunrise – an event that has been happening successfully without me missing breakfast for the whole of my life.  A truly landmark moment.

Our coach took us to the Shwesandaw Pagoda and in the dark we climbed the steep, deep steps to one of the terraces to witness the sunrise over the temples of Bagan.  And some balloons.   The mist cast an eerie scene as the gloom became brighter. It’s easier to show in pictures.

Back in the hotel, the ubiquitous chicken sausage was available!  Between that and the bacon and waffles with honey, I was reaching nirvana.  It was still only 7:00am!

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As the full group met for the official program, our first unexpected diversion occurred when we encountered a parade of novitiate kids sat in carts pulled by bullocks (that’s male cows).  All in the brightly coloured outfits, their scowls gave away the early morning and the fact that they weren’t used to so much attention from their parents, the locals, and us.  I felt quite sorry for them.  The truck carrying the live band, PA system and singer trudged along at the back.

Back in the bus we encountered another procession – this one involved a man in an unfeasibly large moustache (a Burmese Charlie Chaplin), together with some transgender folks – or drag queens, George wasn’t quite sure.  For this one, the PA system was being pushed around on a cart, with a cable attached to the generator that was being pushed close behind.  The star of the show however was undoubtedly the elephant that had been hired for the event.  Probably by someone that had more money than sense.  With 2 kids riding on top, and the bright red and yellow clothes gently swishing in the wind, it created quite a scene.  Also in the procession was an archer as well as small kids on big horses.  At the very back was a dancing elephant costume – at the back because they were trying to change over the dancers, and this proved rather difficult.

Back on the official tour, we tried to take in as many of the 2,200 stupas and temples in Old Bagan. Or so it felt.  We started just past Myin Ka Bar where we discovered that children enhance the temples built by the parents by building over the previous one, or putting a bigger Bhudda statue around the previous one.  Leaving this area, we met a female clothes vendor on a motorbike.  Some bought a few things, but most didn’t.  This was to prove a bad mistake.

At Ananda Temple, we witnessed the first of the major crowds.  This is one of the most spectacular temples, and therefore on everyone’s itinerary.  The bamboo scaffolding was out and workers were breaking all the H&S requirements.  But the outdoor restoration work going on was spectacular – cleaning the black mould off and returning it to a pinky white colour.

Inside there were four Buddhas – in four different poses – one for enlightenment, one preaching, one showing no fear and the other philosophy.  Also showing were many niches with images (in gold) depicting the life of Buddha.  These possibly included his first date, his first drunken night out and (genuinely) his first steps – being taught to walk by two people who were even smaller than him.

On existing the temple, our female clothes vendor was there again, and her English was pretty much perfect.  She had taken “maybe later” and run with it.  Several more people in the group thought they were getting a good bargain.  But she can’t keep following us all day.

We arrived at Shwe Zigon, the next temple on the list, to find her waiting.  She had either asked George where we were going next, or guessed.  Or she could be his cousin.

Unfortunately, the temple’s stupa was entirely covered in a shroud as they were reapplying the gold leaf and they need to protect it from the wind.  However, the rest of it more than made up for that.  Four sides of flaking gold leaf and red paint made an impressive sight.  On each of the shrines, food had been left, but I refrained from eating.  In a side shrine, a strange sight awaited – a statue with money stuffed everywhere and a cigarette in it’s mouth.  Weird.  Kids were selling their colouring in for 60p and a hermit was acting out of character.

The next stop was Htilominlo.  Guess who was there waiting for us.  Her name is Win, as in winner (her words).  By this time, most had admitted defeat and opened up their wallets and purses to her.  Albery was on his third t-shirt and first shirt.

Anyway, in the grounds of Htilominlo, sand painters were at work and we had a demonstration of how they produced their stunning painting – adding glue to cotton and then a layer of sand several times, before adding colour, or scratching away layers of sand.  The result was something that could be scrumpled up and return to normal instantly.  Of course I succumbed.

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Htilominlo

After wandering through and around the shrine I snuck out the back gate at Tom’s suggestion and climbed a nearby structure for a rooftop view.  Finding the stairs was a problem, as was standing up anywhere except the roof.

Amongst the stalls in the complex was a weaving demonstration by neck ringed women.  They didn’t look overly happy about it.

Moving on to a restaurant for lunch, Win was there to meet us once more.  I don’t know why as we were fast running out of money.  Karen was resisting however, and she must have sensed that eventually, it would happen.  Lunch for me was “Wet Thar Pone Yay Gyee Chet” – described as “Traditional Old Bagan style Braised Pork Curry with Soy Bean Paste”.  It was nice.  Ish.  The wasps however had more of a fancy to Cassandra and her lime juice.  The EFK (Epsom Fly Killer) sprung into action and succeeding in knocking more into the drinks than killing any.  This brought candles from the staff, to try and smoke them out.  The EFK’s napkins was close to catching fire, not only from the candle, but also from the speed of the wasps swotting moves.

Outside we saw some petrified wood – it looks like wood, but is actually stone.  Maybe it’s petrified because Win was still there looking for more customers.  Predictable, she followed us back to Ananda Temple where we boarded a horse and cart in pairs for trip through a village and around the countryside.  Industrial veg choppers, gold temples, and an impressive teak monastery.

We ended up on the terrace of South Guni temple to watch the sunset.  Several others were already there, and others were trying to climbing neighbouring temples, and seemed surprisingly upset when they were shouted at to get down, as only nominated temples are allowed to be climbed.  I’m not what’s worse – damage to the site or one less human.

Sunset was not as spectacular as sunrise and we passed the time chatting to some of the other travellers that were there.  On the way down, an enterprising old man had lit candles on the steep stairs.  With the low headroom and bare feet, death by candles is now on the list.  He also wanted paid for the privilege.

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This evening, we attended a meal with music and traditional dance.  I was mostly busy being the wine waiter for Gail, Ethna and Julia, but I didn’t miss much.  The hammock based xylophone player in particular was in my eyeline and he also seemed glad when the evening was over.  The standout moment of the meal was the serving of the rice.  A huge bamboo steamer was placed in the middle of the table, but when the lid was opened, only a single portion of rice was on the plate.  Everyone got the same treatment.  Except John of course, who had discovered that pasta dishes were available.

Back at the hotel, we had seven barmen to serve us our drinks on the rooftop terrace.  Not as fast at that might sound.  George joined us to compare tongue twisters, and a rum sour.

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I was welcomed back into my room by the local wildlife.

Overall, and despite some of the comments above, it was an excellent with a wide and varied collection of temples visited.

Only 2,195 to go …