So as I posted in FB, I got up at 4:30 a.m. to experience the sunrise at Shwedagon Paya. I took a cab to the north gate, took my shoes as (as is customary when you enter any temple or pagoda and then climbed a series of stairs at the north gate before taking an elevator to the top (yep really). It was absolutely silent as I entered the main level of Shwedagon. I paid 8,000 K (about $5) to enter, signed the tourist book (i was #1 for the day) and proceeded through the entryway. It was completely silent, except for some rhythmic chanting in the distance. There were no crowds, there were not tourists. Just me and a number of monks (young and old) starting their day with prayer at Shwedagon.
I wandered around for about 45 minutes as colours on the stupa changed from glinting gold from the illuminated light, to a pinky colour as the lights were turned off and the sun began to make its way over the horizon, to a pale gold as the sun reflected off the stupa. I wandered around in virtual silence, except for that ever present chanting. It was so much better than my visit on Sunday with the masses. If you go to Yangon. Go for the sunrise at Shwedagon. Incredibly special.
After the sun rose and the everyday folk and tourists started to arrive, it decided it was time to leave. I grabbed a taxi back to the hotel, packed, had some breakfast and then met my driver for the ride to the airport. I was off to eastern Myanmar and specifically Sittwe in Rahkine State. From there I would be taking a 5 hour boat ride to Mrauk U (pronounced Mraw Oooo) where I would be touring ancient temples and villages for 3 days.
The trip from Yangon to Sittwe required me to fly out of the domestic terminal, which I quickly learned was not the picture of security. When I checked in, a young women gave me a hand written boarding pass, but there was no checking of my ID. I simply handed the young woman my confirmation slip. Next, I passed through “security”. Yes, my carryon went through the security screening and there was a metal detector, but there was no concern for liquids and shoes were left on. In addition, it appeared that the baggage screening was “optional”. I saw a number of people simply walk around the screening and continue into the departure hall.
And about the departure hall. I don’t even know where to begin. There was screen showing each flight, the scheduled departure time and the destination, but that was it. When a flight was ready for boarding, someone would make an announcement in Burmese. If you did not speak Burmese you were out of luck. Although, periodically, I would see a guy walk around with a sign showing the flight that was boarding. (I presume this was done for the tourists.) Really the only way you knew if your flight was boarding was to keep watch for a bus with the name of your airline, which were periodically pulling up outside the departure doors for transport to the planes.
The hysterical part was that the Burmese didn’t even understand the announcements. Every time there was an announcement, there was a surge of people towards one of three boarding gates only to result in more than half of them turning around and returning to their seats.
It also appeared that departure times were purely an estimate. My flight, was only 30 minutes late in boarding, but I gathered that waits could go on for extended periods of time. All in all, it was terribly entertaining to me and a young Polish gal who was sitting beside me.
And the flight? The flight was actually very good. No bumps and clear skies as we circled the Bay of Bengal for our approach into Sittwe. We even were served a snack and tea. When I landed in Sittwe, I had to go through another immigration check. Although Rakhine State is in Myanmar, Rakhine State has areas where tourists are not permitted so I had to register where I was travelling. Once registered, my Mrauk U guide, Ko Soe and my Sittwe driver, Omer, took me to Hotel Memory to get checked.
In researching hotels in Sittwe, I quickly learned there were limited options and Hotel Memory, was at the top of the list. Turns out the hotel was off the main road in a little residential area. I was a little surprised, but it turned out to be simply perfect.
After checking in and dropping off my luggage, Ko Soe suggested we go to a restaurant on the Bay of Bengal for views and lunch. The open air restaurant was lovely, albeit incredibly hot with only a slight breeze. Nevertheless, after a delicious lunch of prawns and chilies with a glass of mango juice (never did get the second one I ordered), I was ready to explore Sittwe. I had been warned not to expect much, but it turned out to be a surprisingly enjoyable afternoon.
First up was, of course, the afternoon market. Ko Soe was surprised I wanted to go to the market. And after the visit, I understood why. The market was incredibly dusty, noisy, busy and HOT. I must have drank 3 bottles of water during the walk through the market and I was absolutely drenched with sweat. It was as hot and humid as I have ever felt. (At least that time I was in Abu Simbel in Egypt when it was 50 C, there was no humidity. This was simply unbearable.)
And the chaos was something else. We had to bob and weave around a myriad of tuk tuks, motor scooters, carts, stalls and people. It was mayhem in only the way a local market can be. Somehow, though, it all works. We weaved our way through the crowds beginning at the fruit and vegetable market amid the cacophony of vendors yelling back and forth to customers and to each other.
After looking at a myriad of foreign looking fruits and vegetables and buying some tiny, tiny mandarin oranges and some dates, we moved on to the seafood market. Now the seafood market had actually wound down for the day, but there was still vendors selling dried fish. And as many markets I have been to, I have to say I saw something I had never seen. It its apparently customary in Myanmar dry fish in a very peculiar way. They take a whole fish, slice lines in the fish (like ribbons) from the base of the head to just before they tail, string the fish up, hand the fish up and let them dry. There were rows and rows of dried fish and drying fish. I found the method incredibly ingenious.
I also noticed these bags of what appeared to be chips hanging on wires. Turns out they were chips, made of dried fish that had been pound into a paste, rolled thin, cut and dried all over again. Ko su convinced me to buy a bag because “they are good with beer”. I figured maybe we could eat them on the boat trip.
After the market, we visited the Bhaddanta Wanita Museum (which was part of a monestery) and looked at a variety of “offerings” that had been donated to the museum. There was foreign bills and coins, statutes, transcripts, pictures and the odd gemstone. It did not appear the museum got a lot of visitors. Everything had a thick layer of dust and the humidity in the upstairs room was brutal.
We stayed at the museum a little longer than I liked because at this point I simply wanted some A/C, but never one to be rude to my host guide, I followed along.
We eventually got back in the car and moved on to the Richard Thu Monastery. This was a former colonial house owned by a fairly wealthy gentleman who donated the land and the buildings in order to achieve a higher life form in the next life. I certainly hope he got what he was aiming for because the house and grounds were quite something. Now, in Western terms, it would probably be seen as a fixer upper, but the buildings and grounds were huge and certainly worth a lot of money even in this part of the world.
We wandered around the monastery, met a couple of young children who were learning to be monks (I believe they are called nobees, but the spelling may be way off) and wandered around a shrine to Buddha. All in all, quite enjoyable.
We were going to head to the waterfront to catch the sun set over the Bay of Bengal, but were sidetracked when we passed a tree full of “fruit bats” or flying foxes. Because it was nearing dusk, the fruit bats were starting to awaken so it was quite a sight to see the tree virtually moving with fruit bats. It was really fascinating to watch.
Ko Soe finally advised that we needed to get to the waterfront if we were going to see the sunset, so we set off through the streets towards to the Bay of Bengal lookout point. Unfortunately, one of those bands from the cyclone that was churning towards India moved over the area as the sun was setting totally obscuring the sun. It was unfortunate, because the locals were all gathered to watch the sun set at the lookout point and the beach area. Barbecue stands were set up and a myriad of hawkers were selling water, juices and snacks. We even found some enterprising folks selling jewelry made of local stones. (Yes I was suckered into buying three for the grand total of less than $5.
After the disappointment of the sunset, we headed towards the main temple for a visit and as luck would have it, the power went out so we had to wander around with only a cell phone for light. Needless to say we spent less than ten minutes there before we left for my hotel.
I said goodnight to Ko Soe and Omer, got cleaned up and walked a block and a half in the dark to the local restaurant that Ko Soe recommended known a the “River View” restaurant. I ordered a Myanmar beer (which I am sure will make my brother happy to know his kidney is being “watered”) along with a spicy prawn and potato dish (yes a little weird, but very good), scarfed it down and walked back to the hotel, ready for bed. It was only 8:00 p.m., but I was done.