The Road to Mandalay?
Well, more accurately, The Flight to Mandalay!
A very early start this morning as we leave the hotel (with breakfast boxes in hand) to drive to Yangon airport for our flight to Mandalay. Our luggage goes ahead and airport formalities are easy - we simply wait a few minutes for Richard and Dawn to sort out the check-in and then we're through to the departure lounge. We've not handled our main luggage at all, or needed to queue at the airline desk! Boarding cards consist of a coloured card and a sticker. The name on the boarding card doesn't have to be ours! Once in the departure lounge, your guess is as good as ours, as to when we start boarding and through which gate (or more accurately, which door!). Occasionally, an airline staff member shouts some instructions and waves a hand-held board showing a flight number. This must be the system. At the appropriate moment, Richard decides to get hold of the flight board and waves it enthusiastically. Our guests get up and move towards the exit door - success! Onto a bus, and eventually up a few steps into the rear of a modern ATR prop aircraft. Seats are 2 by 2, but there's not much headroom so as you get in, you have to mind your head.
The flight is good and we're soon arriving in Mandalay, to be met by staff from our privately chartered ship, RV ANANDA. We meet our new local guides, Richard heads off with the luggage direct to our ship, and Dawn heads off with guests on a mini-tour of Mandalay. Our first visit is to a gold beating workshop where men hand beat gold into gold leaf. Gold is put between pages of bamboo paper, bound in leather and hit with a large hammer! The gold is then split, bound and hammered again. Eventually it becomes so thin it is gold leaf, used to re-gild stupas and pagodas. Health and safety at work - not much! Next stop is the Shwenandaw Monastery – a very finely carved teak wooden monastery just outside the Mandalay Royal Palace. Both exterior and interior of the monastery are decorated with intricate wood carvings. It was originally part of the Royal Palace in Amarapura, but when the capital city was moved to Mandalay, the building was dismantled, transported and rebuilt. A local couple are having their pre-wedding photographs taken at the monastery and Dawn inadvertently photo-bombs the couple. Typical! After a short drive, we arrive at the Kuthodaw Pagoda, a Buddhist stupa surrounded by over 700 marble slabs inscribed with Buddhist texts - often referred to as the biggest book in the world. Kuthodaw lies at the foot of Mandalay Hill and was built during the reign of King Mindon. There is another wedding couple at the pagoda and guess what happens next.
Arriving at our ship, Richard and the crew are ready to welcome us. We settle in, enjoy a wonderful first lunch on board, and set sail for Sagaing. Located on the Irrawaddy River, around 20 kms to the southwest of Mandalay, Sagaing has numerous Buddhist monasteries and is an important religious and monastic centre. The pagodas and monasteries crowd the numerous hills along the ridge running parallel to the river. We visit a Monastery school where young monks and nuns are taught. A final visit is to a silversmiths’ workshop where we are treated to a demonstration of the way craftsmen carve intricate details on the silverware. The work is amazing and we are unable to prevent a few purchases being made!
Back on board we enjoy our first dinner cooked by Chef Sumet and his team. More about Chef Sumet another day!