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Around Mandalay and Hpa-An (Our Last Week in Myanmar)

We enjoyed Mandalay a lot more than the Lonely Planet would have had us believe. Sure, it's a bit ugly and not exactly what we had pictured, but the downtown core was a pleasant alternative to some of the other popular tourist destinations in the country. The reality is that we probably liked the city so much because of the Indian food stand that set up right in front of our hotel every night and the ice cream parlour a few blocks further down.   Our favourite dinner spot, across the street from the ET Hotel in Mandalay

Despite multiple touts hanging around our hotel ready to take us on a motorbike tour around Mandalay, we opted to do the 60km loop on our own. This involved a fair bit of city riding, navigating crazy four-way intersections with no traffic lights, and an equal amount of ugly highway riding. The rest of our day, thankfully, was spent on the quiet countryside visiting two of Myanmar's former capital cities: Inwa and Amarapura.

We started the day in Mandalay, stopping at a gold-pounding workshop where we watched the traditional gold-leaf making process. Young sweaty men hammer away at sheets of gold, their shifts timed with coconut shell water-clocks (when the shell fills with water and sinks it marks the end of a shift). Women sit in a nearby room counting and packaging the sheets of gold leaf for distribution.   Gold pounders hard at work

  The finished product, sheets of gold leaf, are counted out and packaged for distribution to temples around the country

We then rode over to the Mahamuni Buddha Temple nearby (where much of the gold-leaf appears to be consumed). Over the years, male devotees have applied a layer of gold-leaf over 15cm thick to the Buddha image. Women can watch the gold-leaf application from an adjoining hall. We weren't motivated enough to wake up for the 4:30a.m. daily tooth-brushing and face washing ritual of the Buddha image.   Men applying gold leaf to the Mahamuni Buddha (note the bumpy areas where gold leaf is applied)

In the afternoon we made our way to Inwa, taking a small ferry across the Myitnge River. With no guidebook, we didn't know what we were supposed to see, so we started by following the horse-drawn carriages that whisk tourists from sight to sight. We abandoned this plan after riding to Inwa's most famous teak monastery in a cloud of dust and arriving with a huge group of tourists and touts. We set off on our own and enjoyed the car-free dirt roads, coming across a few crumbling pagodas and small teak monasteries before ending up at the impressive Maha Augmye Bonzan Monastery, constructed in untraditional brick and stucco (also known as the Brick Monastery).   Inwa is virtually car-free

  Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery (Brick Monastery) at Inwa

We ended the day in Amarapura, site of the U-Bein Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world at 1.2 kilometers. It is immensely popular with tourists and is at its most busy at dusk. We still thought it was wonderful.   Our bicycles under the U-Bein Bridge, Amarapura

Still hoping to cycle across Kayin State back into Thailand, we only stayed in Mandalay two nights before catching our third overnight bus, this one to Hpa-An. We had originally planned to partially cycle there from a city about 200km away, but with less than a week left on our visas we decided we were being too ambitious.

When we arrived in Hpa-An we found that the blue skies of a few weeks earlier had been replaced with a thick smog from the burning of surrounding fields. The area was not exactly at its best for visiting nor were the conditions ideal for cycling. Despite our disappointment with the weather, we cycled a 75km loop around the countryside after which we concluded we would be taking a bus over the mountain to Thailand.   On the way to Saddar Cave, outside Hpa-An

We started the day by riding to Saddar Cave. It took us 40km to get there, even though it's only 20km away, so I was grumpy. I was in a better mood once we got un-lost. The cave is immense and we had been warned of total darkness and floors covered in bat poop. Apparently it's seen an upgrade since the last guidebook write-up and there is now a string of light bulbs lining the several kilometre long path through the cave. It is slippery and shoes are prohibited but the cause of the slipperyness seemed to be condensation and not bat poop, so we were relieved. We didn't make it all the way to the end, we were pretty caved-out after about half an hour of slowly scrambling our way through.   Light shining in through the entrance of Saddar Cave

We spent the afternoon riding through small villages which would have been even more picturesque had the surrounding karst scenery not been obscured with smog. We stopped at the kitschy but fun Kawt-Ka-Thaung Cave amidst a sort of “Buddha theme park” complex, complete with statues, a swimming hole, restaurants and a maze. The highlight of the day was stumbling upon a rowdy procession making their way to a village temple. It was hard to miss, you could hear the music from miles away and traffic was backed up along the highway. We joined the crowd of onlookers as groups of costumed,skinnyjeans-clad young men, danced their way to the temple accompanied by trucks blaring techno music from their piles of speakers.
We were lucky to meet another traveller in Hpa-An who agreed to share a taxi with us to the Thai border. He had local contacts and organized everything, including finding a taxi with a roof rack. All we had to do was show up at his hotel on the morning of departure. The ride was slightly more comfortable than when we came in by bus, but it was still slow and the road incredibly busy. Amazingly we crossed three cyclists making their way over the mountain, against the one-way traffic. Tougher than us.

Back in Thailand we headed straight for the border market to our friend Yun's stall where we found his wife closing up for the day. We hadn't had access to internet for days, so we hadn't been able to warn anyone of our arrival. Despite our surprise appearance, we were once again warmly welcomed to her family's home in Mae Sot. Everyone was happy to hear of our adventures in Myanmar and we were equally happy to be back.

Stats for Mandalay and Hpa-An:

Days of cycling: 2
Days of rest: 3
Kilometres cycled: 132
Metres climbed: 638
Cycle-tourists crossed on the road: 5

Partially sponsored by Mountain Equipment Coop Expedition Support

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