On the road from Mandalay
“It’s a win-win situation;” joked motorbike rider Win Win as we shook hands on our deal, “you take picture of beautiful Burma and I buy medicine to make my mother well”.
And that’s pretty much how it turned out, apart from losing Win Win at critical moments of the trip. He had a maddening habit of forgetting when he was supposed to pick me up, leaving me fuming at times when I thought he had abandoned me altogether.
We were standing on the steps of the 79 Living Hotel in Mandalay, and after some friendly haggling, we agreed that I would give Win Win eighty US dollars and he would take me everywhere I wanted to go on his motorbike for the next three days. My hitlist included the ancient cities around Mandalay, the hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin to the east and the cave temples at Po Win Taung, way out west, and Win Win knew them all, so off we went.
Things started great, with stunning views of pagoda spires jutting from the lush green hills of Sagaing, which served as the capital of Upper Burma for brief periods in the 14th and 18th centuries. I climbed the steep steps to the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda on top of the highest hill and took in the sweeping view. I couldn’t help noticing a car park at the top, so Win Win could have driven me up, but I let it go as I’d appreciated the exercise.
I first lost Win Win at Mingun. He told me he’d pick me up at the Hsinbyume Pagoda after I’d looked over the enormous, incomplete Mingun Pagoda, which was abandoned in the late 18th century, and the Mingun Bell, but he didn’t turn up, nor did he answer his phone.
I sat on the steps at the entrance to the pagoda for nearly an hour, constantly beseeched by souvenir vendors and trying to squeeze into a tiny sliver of shade. When he finally appeared, he said he’d run into an old friend, and they had much to talk about.
On we went to Inwa (former capital of the Kingdom of Ava), where the only access was by a crowded ferry and I had to hire a horse-and-cart to get to the Bagaya Monastery. The monastery was indeed impressive for its beautiful carvings, though it was difficult to appreciate in the company of hundreds of other tourists.
The day’s highlight for me was the U-Bein Bridge at sunset, where I found the perfect spot on the shore of Taung Thaman Lake from which to photograph the silhouettes of people on the rickety teakwood bridge.
Back at the bike, I sat and waited for Win Win, who turned up chuckling a while later, having been distracted by a show with actors dressed as an elephant.
We rode up to Pyin Oo Lwin, located at an elevation of 1000 metres to the east of Mandalay. Established by the British as a hill station, it was formerly known as Maymyo, after Colonel May, who commanded the Bengal Regiment here in the late 19th century.
Our first stop in town was the former governor’s house, where Win Win looked as startled as I was on seeing the lifelike models of former dignitaries seated around the entrance; I almost expected them to stand up and welcome us. Everything about the place exuded an aura of colonialism, from the vintage cars in the driveway to the timbered turrets of the palatial manor and the black and white photos of the former Indian staff.
Next up was the National Kandawgyi Gardens, where the meandering pathways and artfully arranged flower beds, supposedly modelled on Kew Gardens in England, drew me into a daydream, and this time it was I who lost track of time and got ticked off by Win Win when I emerged. “You want to get back to Mandalay today or tomorrow?” he muttered.
Fortunately, we still had time for a look round the town centre with its noisy market, colourful horse-drawn carriages and clock tower. But come the appointed hour under the clock tower, there was no Win Win.
After half an hour I considered hiring a horse-drawn carriage to take me back to Mandalay and losing Win Win for good, but just then he raced up waving a face-mask at me. “I buy for you. Now no more dust.” I put on the mask with a shake of my head, but was glad I had it before we got back to Mandalay.
Win Win may have abandoned me at some time each day, but he was always punctual in the mornings, and at 6am we watched the sun rise as we crossed the Thanylin Bridge heading west to Monywa.
My objective was the caves at Po Win Taung, west of the Chindwin River, but first I wanted to stop at a couple of temples not far from the main road. One was the Maha Bodhi Ta Htaung, with a standing Buddha 129 metres tall (and 31 floors!), one of the tallest statues in the world and visible from many kilometres away. This temple, it seems, does things BIG, as there was also a 90-metre long reclining Buddha, undergoing cosmetic surgery at the time of our visit.
The other temple, Thanboddhay Paya, claims to have over half a million Buddha images; that may be true (I didn’t count them), but most of them were no bigger than my thumb. There also appeared to be an inordinate amount of stupas, both big and small—in the thousands, I’m sure.
After skirting an enormous and ugly copper mine, we eventually arrived at the Po Win Taung Caves, and I was relieved to find they didn’t disappoint. The caves are carved into the soft sandstone, and each contains Buddha images and well-crafted murals from the 14th-18th centuries, all of which looked delightful in the shafts of light coming through the doorways.
Nearby (just 1.5 furlongs, according to the sign), the Shwe Ba Taung caves were cut even deeper into the rock, but the elaborate facades of various chambers contained lonely-looking, recently made Buddha images with no murals for company.
Needless to say, when I emerged from the caves, Win Win was nowhere to be seen, but somehow it didn’t surprise me and I settled down to wait for him in the knowledge that he’d want his final pay-off. Half an hour later he appeared, reeking of rice wine, and I clambered on the back of the bike for a hair-raising, bum-bashing, four-hour ride at the end of a frustrating but rewarding exploration of the back roads around Mandalay.
NOTE: I wrote this story after a visit to Mandalay a few years ago and decided to post it here to offset the tedium of going nowhere during the Covid pandemic.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.