Having visited the Shwe Yaunghwe Kyaung Monastery we made our way towards the train station located at Shwenyaung. Our train was due to leave at 8 but from what Zar Zar had told us – could be a bit later kind of depends on how many passengers. Sounded somewhat like the lovely GWR back at home!
To buy a ticket for the train ordinarily you need to turn up on the day of travel and for this particular train be at the station at like 7am. We were all rather glad that Zar Zar knew the station manager and arranged to have the tickets saved for us for this trip and that she would pay for them on arrival at the station. I’m not even sure that I saw a ticket office as we walked through the station and boarded the train. The journey was going to take around 3 1/2 hours, I loved the vagueness and explanation that it depended entirely on how much produce needed to be loaded on at one of the stops as to whether we would be much longer or not. (Produce from the local area was loaded on to this train whose final destination was one of the big cities and so it would be sold there). Our seats were all in the Upper Class category, for which we were very thankful. This meant that we each had our own allocated seat which, interestingly, could be swiveled and set in either a forward or backward facing direction for the journey.the springs in many of them were busted and even the fixings to the floor were loose on some so some of us had a more eventful journey than others. I was glad that I had taken my neck support for the plane with me to help reduce some of the jolts on my neck. One of the group was opposite a guy who was making the full journey from start to finish in Yangon which was something absurd like a possible 26 hours (I’ll need to double check that with Zar Zar though. He was certainly not very Burmese looking and it felt more like we were in Mexico with his leather jacket and numerous bags. He was noting but polite none the less and helped Sue to open the window by her which was closed meaning she wouldn’t see the view. Our bags were on route to Kalaw by the coach which would meet us the other end. To some the train journey seemed pointless as the bus was going that way and in a shorter time but I enjoyed the experience, certainly very different to train travel in the UK!!
The ‘air-con’ did make us all giggle a bit as it would have done very little to keep anyone cool and certainly didn’t look like it had been turned on in donkeys years!!
We thankfully did manage to leave on time, much to everyone’s surprise and delight and with a backwards facing window seat I was in a prime position to be able to snap away as we passed through rural Myanmar slowly climbing upwards to our final destination of the hill station of Kalaw. https://youtu.be/LKceRAVjaAk
The scenery was beautiful and I found it fascinating watching the colour of the earth change as we passed through the countryside. It was revolting the amount of rubbish that was lying on or near the tracks it must be said, mainly looked like plastic waste – another apt reminder of the urgent need to reduce single use non bio-degradable plastics.
Our first stop was not one that we could disembark at and as a result I didn’t get the name of it. There were several ladies selling treats at the windows of local delicacies. This lady was selling a sort of sweet biscuit/pancake thing made of rice flour and sugar cane which were clearly then deep fried in palm oil I think. Rather sickly sweet but also delicious (not sure if they didn’t upset my tummie a little or maybe it was just the oil content in them) and I had a couple to keep me going along the way. The Mexican man got LOADS of different things which Zar Zar asked to show us which he was apparently taking to his family and friends in his final destination.
This gave me the ideal opportunity to walk up and down the carriage to stretch my legs but also to have a nose at the ‘economy’ travel. This was exactly what Simon Reeve has travelled in on his recent travel documentary that I watched on iPlayer not long before coming out. Hard wooden benches with wooden backs and no seat allocation so I guess when full you would just have to hope that if I’m a group, you would be able to get seats next to if not near each other. I was glad of the rickety old seats I must say.
As we got under way again and just a little bit further down the track we saw a mother and calf that must have literally just been born as after looking for a while we all realised that there were still entrails of the afterbirth coming from the cow and that she was cleaning the new born calf.
We got off in Aung Ban while the goods were loaded on and were able to visit the facilities in the station, with my tummie going mental I was pretty desperate. They were HANDS DOWN the worst loos I visited on the entire trip. A hole in the ground, already slopping with liquid. Trousers around my knees, wipes and tissues to the ready did nothing to prepare me for the stench or the vileness of the amenity. I think I need to add a mini air-freshener to the loo bag I take on trips like this as well as a peg to put on my nose to stop me from retching from the stink. But, if you gotta go, you gotta go!!
On arrival in Kalaw our coach was awaiting us. As we got on the coach I saw a sign for a hotel called Morning Glory which made me giggle and reminded me of my time in Vietnam!
On arrival in Kalaw we headed straight to the Shwe Oo Min Paya caves which has around 9,000 Buddha images in there from a number of different patrons all hidden in every nook and cranny of the caves. It was like we’d kind of come across an unknown shrine with the amount of them in there it was frankly most bizarre!! We only made it into the main cave & didn’t head up to the upper cave which apparently has a blank space for even more Buddhas to be put in the fullness of time. Outside of the caves were a number of bright golden pagodas and more Buddha icons in niches across a man made wall. There was the usual bell to announce of your three good deeds which, of course, I got a Kodak moment of! I do find some of the Buddha images to be somewhat kitch (I think that would be the best word to use) with flashing neon lights surrounding several of the images and gaudy looking cloths that had been draped over some of them as well. I am sure that this is because I don’t quite get the reasoning behind (for the lights mainly) the cloths I can see, are all from anyone and everyone and so could be all that the locals could afford at the time? The Buddha images were again in a number of their different traditional poses which gives more meaning to each of them and the majority of them were seated with only a couple were standing or in a lying down position.
If you have one experience in Myanmar – please, please let it be this – Green Hill Valley Elephant Care Centre. I went ‘off piste’ from the group having Googled prior to my adventure when back in the UK, then reviewing where it was again when I was staying on Inle Lake, I suddenly realised it was actually not far from where we were in Kalaw. Kalaw was where we had half a day of trekking planned and not many sites or pagodas to see and so I investigated and also asked our guide to help me book a trip out to visit the elephants. Frankly the remote idea of walking, let alone trekking, in what was 36-38 degree heat when already sweating like a beast really didn’t appeal – been there and done that in China thank you and yes, thinking about it I suppose I have actually got the t-shirt too! I was as high as an absolute kite the night before once it was all booked and I realised that dream was going to turn into reality. (With a somewhat dodgy tummy though so was hitting the Imodium like they were mint sweets) I was so excited I could hardly sleep. Only time I ever remember being anywhere near as excited was in the count down to picking up Honey to take her home (for the record I was EVEN MORE excited then).
I was collected from the hotel we were in (Dream Villa) and there were two other couples already in the mini bus but neither spoke to me when I got in – bode well (thankfully they turned out to be lovely couples – clearly not morning people though!)! The Green Hill Valley Elephant Care Park was a good 45 min drive into the mountains down some hellish roads for Dad and Caroline. Hair pins, chicanes narrow, sheer drops & steep! Apparently Top Gear have done a special in Myanmar and it really wouldn’t surprise me if this was the road that they did it on!! There was lots of work being completed on the road which was actually built initially years ago apparently but they are widening it at present. The drivers are fairly patient in general, letting each other past and so on, but you couldn’t really go that fast on here owing to the numerous blind corners & bends and I hate to think what it would be like driving it at night with no road markings or indeed any lighting. Several trucks were stopped at the side of the road along the route being sprayed with water which I can only assume was to cool the engines and breaks which would be having heavy usage on this road! The views were stunning though but I was very thankful I no longer suffer from travel sickness like I did as a youngster.
On arrival at the park we were greeted by the friendly staff with a damp cloth and a very refreshing lime juice, shown where the mozzie spray was and put into groups – there were others that had arrived at the same time but my group was the five of us from the bus in. Managed to leave my Chilly’s water bottle on the bus which was most infuriating but we were given one each in the introduction, helping to reduce non-essential plastic and in line with their ethos and mission of giving back to the country. We were given an introduction to the park and a run down of the day ahead and left our stuff in the lockers at the main reception. I had made a good decision in relying on my iPhone only for photos I think.
The park was set up in 2011 by a family of three, the father being the vet and the other two to help run the business. They had 2 elephants and 6 staff and both numbers have grown in size and they now employ 48 staff and have 6 elephants. All of them are disabled or orphaned mainly left over from the working in the teak industry where they would more often than not be carrying the timber around in their trunks which can weigh anything up to one and a half tonnes. Some have been purchased from private owners when they have no further requirement for them and they offer to buy them instead of the owners killing them for the black market in medicine (apparently there’s some cure for a particular type of cancer in the elephant but I can’t remember which part but of course it is not proven), for their skin or the meat on their trunks. One is an orphan which they acquired at the age of 3 after his mother was killed by poachers and he was unable to survive in the wild on his own as they rely on the milk from their mothers until they are 3 or 4. The population of Asian elephants in the world is around 35,000 and, owing to poaching, one a week is lost to poachers in Myanmar alone, as a result, they are now classed as an endangered species. Not all Asian elephants have tusks though, it’s typically only the males and they can have short or long tusks and sometimes even only one, it entirely depends on their DNA, like we humans can have different coloured eyes for example.
Our specific guide for the day was called Keong Keong and he was to be my camera man for the day creating videos and capturing the special moments (so a HUGE thanks to him for his sterling work). We walked down from the main reception to the area where the elephants are fed and there were 4 of the magnificent beasts. Two were TOTALLY ready for food, putting their feet up on a ledge and moving around a lot in anticipation and excitement of food! They can eat anything up to 160kg of food a day and ready chopped were palm cane, pumpkin and wheat balls ready for us to feed them with. They can eat a whole host of fruit and vegetables, this was just what happened to be in the menu on that day. We were shown exactly how to feed them either by putting the food on their trunk which they would clasp and then bring up to their mouths but if you hold the food above your head they would raise their trunks high and you can put it straight into their mouths. A daunting thought at first but, I grabbed the bull by the horns and did both straight away with a selection of pumpkin. I got braver as the day went on and on a number of occasions inadvertently managed to get most of my hand sucked into the elephants mouths. They have MASSIVE strong, thick tongues which don’t really come right out as such and their teeth are, as you would imagine, humongous too. They have rows of teeth set in ridges as they don’t chew their food more grind it to then be able to swallow it. I enjoyed immensely the close contact with the animals. I loved talking to them and in a small way bonding with them. I adored the ones with more character the most I think as I kind of wound them up a little and talked back to their cheekiness and as a result had one that pushes me away to go and get more food. (Video somewhere later in the post of this) Wow, just WOW – unless I visit a similar park then I will never experience something like this again. I had SUCH a big grin on my face all day. I adored every second of my day. I wasn’t the only one though, some of the others could be seen as well just taking a step back to take a moment every so often to just take in what we were doing and the beautiful surroundings.
The characteristics of each of the different elephants was interesting to see, one would throw to one side the palm cane when you took that to her telling you that she’s far prefer the pumpkin thanks! She, we discovered, had a gunshot wound that was constantly weeping and clearly must have done some damage to the bone on her left shoulder. The one that we ended up in washing was stood next to this one. A female that had a hernia that was very clear to see on her tummie on her left hand side. We were told that it had been operated on but evidently was still causing her some grief. She couldn’t be walked out into the forest later in the day for exercise for fear of aggravating it and so for exercise she was just walked around the camp.
We met the vet for the centre and heard all sorts of fascinating facts. Most of the medicines were for cattle mainly, not prescribed for elephants (understandable really!!). It took a while to tune into his accent to understand a few of the things that he was saying. It was fascinating to see things like the nail file and clippers that they use on the elephants. The size of the needles – made my stomach totally turn knowing my dread of the hideous things. It was here that we were shown the medical record for each of the elephants that they have to keep an ongoing record of their health and well being. Now I’ve always referred to large pills that I have ever needed to swallow over the years as horse pills. This I need to change to elephant pills! I put my little finger on them to try and give you an idea of the actual size of them!! HUGE!!
Each of the elephants had a mahout that cares for them all day every day and they lived on site with their family in housing provided by the business with lighting and electricity which they would not have been able to afford if they were still living in the village that they came from. Each of them clearly have an amazingly special bond with their elephant who, despite poor eyesight as a species, would recognise them more for their sound and smell. A primary school has since been set up and run in the grounds of the centre for all of the workers children and there are currently 48 children enrolled. They are properly looking after the community and bringing employment and now education to many from the local area. It was lovely to be able to give back to this as the centre has absolutely no funding from any wildlife organisations, conservation programmes or indeed the local government. They rely solely on the donations of the visitors who come and visit the centre. Responsible tourism, knowing that every penny is being put back in to running the centre with the elephants being the priority.
When it came to our time to wash the elephant, none of us could really contain ourselves. We were given THE most unflattering trouser/short things which you sort of had to tie after tucking them each side and then fold the top over. I was wearing my tankini already under my clothes & was sweating like a beaut. From here we walked down to the river where we could already see the elephant walking down with her mahout. I want to make some suggestions for their website as to what to expect when you get there and clarification over the sort of things to wear so that those tourists interested have a clearer idea of what to wear etc.
Walking down to wash – https://youtu.be/15LVzctFYJY
Washing the elephants – https://youtu.be/GIGdOCpM1TY
Once we were down there the elephant was already in the water kind of kneeling down so that we would be able to reach the top of her head and onto her back without needing to climb on her ourselves. We were given some sort of bark/twigs type things which was to act as a loofah to try and get the dirt off her – we all joked that after a while it really looked like a handful of pulled pork! The elephant did a massive poo just as we were stating to wash her and in my very mature fashion I shouted ‘floater’!!
It was amazing and simply surreal to be in such close proximity to and be so up close and personal with the animal. We were told to clean behind her ears and I know in one of the videos I’m still talking to her like Honey – ‘itchies’ as I could tell that she was loving having them cleaned! You scrub the skin and then douse it in water – I was even brave enough to do her face and around her eyes, being extra cautious and gentle, all the while chatting away to her. At one point her trunk (where they feel most of their senses through) cake up right by me clearly checking out this babbling Brit giving her a scrub & I kind of held it for a little while. I guess we must have been in there (all of the group with the same elephant) about 20-30 mins giving her a good scrub. She only had to readjust her position once – elephant equivalent of a numb bum I guess! WHAT an experience. WHAT a memory.
We headed over to see one of the elephants after some more feeding (grab every opportunity when offered!) so that we could see how the vet gets to check the elephants feet and the mahout got the elephant to turn around and put his back foot up on one of the frames so that we could touch it’s nail and feel just how thick and big the bottom of their foot is. They used to have a cage made out of bamboo to check things like this out but understandably this severely distressed many of the elephants and so that is no longer used. Walking away from here we saw the clear bond between mahout and elephant as the mahout said something and the next thing you see the elephants trunk going to the mahout’s hand so it looked like they were walking hand in hand. It was divine.
Lunch was included so we headed back up to the main reception area where the dining area was passing the conservation/ nursery area where, in the right season, visitors are encouraged to plant a tree in the park as well to help with the conservation. I was quite gutted that this was not something that we were able to do owing to being out of season.
After lunch we went over to the area where they use some of the elephant poo to make paper. Passing through an area where they were planting young coffee plants which were also being fertilised by the elephant dung. The process for making the paper was similar to how we had seen on landing in He Ho but there was an extra process of needing to boil down the poo with water first so as to kill any bacteria or any other living things within the poo which would also help to take the initial poo smell away. You are left with a very fibrous sort of paste out of which the paper is then made. Here we also saw the skeleton of an old elephant that they had lost a while ago, interestingly Asian elephants have nothing similar to a collar bone in them?! There was also the skeleton of a young elephant that was found dead by its mother which the park have also for research purposes it would have been about three months old when it died.
We visited the small little shop where I purchased one of the wooden bells like the elephants wear around their necks, I asked which one was similar to the elephant that we washed as it looked like they had their names on inn Burmese & is noticed that they were all slightly different in shape. After seeing this sign outside the little hut, I’d made us all want to ensure that we got something & amusingly we all ended up going home with the totally unflattering shorts things that we wore to wash the elephants in!!
I came away from the whole experience brimming with information and very aware that I’d actually remember very little the moment I got home! I wanted so much to think of ways to try and help support them. I have mentioned that I want to help with the copy on their current website and give them suggestions of other ideas to look into – such as taking donations via PayPal, perhaps giving people the option to sponsor the elephants, increase the amount of images on their Instagram page and so on, all things that I will liaise with them about upon my return. I’m keen to help and support now that I have such wonderful memories engrained in my mind for many years to come from my superb day here.
Despite the city being the largest in the country it is not actually the capital city. It was seen however, as the capital of British Burma after the Second Anglo Burmese War of 1852, being a port as well with connections to the Indian Ocean and the Ayeyarwady River (which goes deep into the heart of the country) the industrial hub for the country. After World War I the city also became a key location for the Independence movement in Burma (as it was then). The British were finally ousted during World War II and Japanese took occupation (when we sadly, in hindsight, did a lot of bombing across the country) until the allies retook occupation in 1945. During this period the city was known by the British as Rangoon but was returned to being called Yangon in 1989 under the military rule of the country.
There is a distinct lack of mopeds bombing around the city by which I was quite surprised. Remembering how much an average car cost in Vietnam, I had assumed that the prices would be similar but I will need to find out from our guide. (An average car starts from around $25,000) The downtown area of the city that we visited was mainly the colonial area along Pansodan Street with some wonderful colonial architecture and an esteemed decadence of a former time. As expected many of the buildings are in a severe state of disrepair yet striking none the less. The multicultural mix of the population stems from India, and China and there are also many Muslims in the country, many of them run the numerous sprawling street shops and food stalls on the streets of the city.
Our main highlight in Yangon and must not miss site was the fiercely impressive Shwedogan Pagoda. Known as THE greatest temple in Myanmar and one of the most majestic monuments dedicated to the Buddha, all Burmese endeavour to pilgrimage here at least once in their lifetime. Whilst it’s a temple the main stupa in the centre of the complex is actually more of a mound as one is unable to see inside. The centre of it is believed to have 8 strands of hair of the historical Buddha – Gautama – as well as a few other relics as well from his three predecessors (staff of Kakusandha, water bottle of Konagamana and a fragment of Kassapa‘s robe. All enshrined it’s not possible to view the relic itself, more the casing in which it is housed)
The original Shwedagon dates back to around 588BC according to local legend, which would make it possibly the oldest stupa in the world. It’s more likely to have been built between 6th to 10th centuries however. The height of the stupa was raised to 18m by the Mon king, Binnya U of Bago who ruled from 1348-84. Next, in the reign of Queen Shinsawbu from 1453-72, the height of the stupa was doubled to 40m, the old not destroyed but more built on top of again. It was at this time also that the terrace around the main stupa was laid out, the northern stairway to access the complex from street level was built and further land was acquired and slaves employed to look after the upkeep of the Pagoda and its growing complex. The Queen also started the tradition of gilding the main stupa by initially donating her own body weight in solid gold to do so.
During many of the conflicts in the country throughout the years, troops often looted from the Pagoda. In the 16th century the Portuguese carried off the 325 tonne Great Bell of King Dhammazedi with the intention of melting it down to make canons but that never happened as in transit it fell into the Bago river. The pagoda was also repeatedly rocked by earthquakes, the worst being in 1768 which caused the top of the stupa to collapse and the current stupa that you can see today was commissioned by King Hsinbyushin of the Konbaung dynasty in the late 18th century. The British seized it during the first Anglo Burmese War in 1824 and held it almost ransom so Buddhists could not visit it for two years when it was fortified and suffered a great amount of pillaging and of course vandalism. They also tried digging under the stupa to try and see if it could be used as a gunpowder magazine but did not succeed.
The pagoda became, during the 20th century, a key location for a lot of the political upheavals, using the location as a meeting point to plan protests and General Aung San addressed the masses from here in 1946 to demand independence from Britain. His daughter Aung San Suu Kyi spoke to a huge gathering in 1988 for the pro-democracy uprising. It was also the focal point of the 2007 Saffron Revoloution where as many as twenty thousand monks and nuns congregated and subsequently marched.
The site has four entrances from street level, we entered through the Southern stairwell which has a lift (which literally only goes up two floors!). As for all pagodas and religious sites, no socks or shoes are allowed and legs and shoulders must be covered. Shawls are available to borrow if you come wearing a vest top though. There is a little man in the lift who seems to sit there all day just pushing the buttons to go up and down up and down from street level to the entrance to the pagoda.
On our arrival into the complex we passed by the tree which derives from a cutting of the original tree Banyan (or Bodhi) tree that the Buddha found enlightenment under from all those centuries ago. The stupa complex is full of smaller shrines all of which have been added over the years. The main stupa itself was sadly covered in bamboo scaffold when we visited so the magnificence of it was a little dampened. None the less it was still a fairly impressive site as the gold shone through the bamboo pretty well. Standing at an impressive 99 metres high it was covered with the bamboo owing to it being in the process of being reguilded with literal tiles of gold. Buddhist followers see it as part of their religion to donate to Buddha and to pay for a new gold tile is a part of this and the cost sound $900 for roughly a 30cm x 30cm square. There was a title ceremony that was happening to one side where people were having their photos taken with their gold tiles before placing them in a sort of chariot which would then travel up the wires to part way up the main stupa itself where I guess they would be almost used immediately to replace the existing. Apparently the main stupa needs this work completed every 5 years or so as the gold becomes weathered and not so shiny.
We were explained by our guide about how Buddhist followers want to give clothing to the Buddha and often donate the robes to the monks however if every one did this to the Buddha statues then there would be piles and piles of clothes and so, instead, gold leaf squares can be purchased and these can be rubbed onto specific buddhas in the pagodas as their way of donating the clothing. We watched as Zar Zar put a piece on though so we could see what Buddhists actually do themselves. Buddhists also bang a large bell three times to tell people that they have done the good deeds, which we watched several people do. You don’t then have to say them or anything though, I guess you are meant to think of them in your head as you are doing do?
There were also several stations in the complex that are linked to the planets as, unlike the Chinese who take meaning from the year that you are born and it is linked to an animal, the Burmese take the days of the week and so the idea is that you visit the day on which you were born (Friday for me) and wash the Buddha at that ‘post’ and give donations of flowers and prayers. There is also an animal linked to each of the days – mine is a Guinea Pig. The rest of the days of the weeks animals are as follows (Wednesday is a little different though as it is split into morning or evening): Monday is a Tiger, Tuesday a Lion, Wednesday am is an Elephant WITH tusks, Wednesday pm is Elephant WITHOUT tusks, Thursday A Rat or mouse, Friday a Guinea Pig, Saturday a Dragon and Sunday is a Garuda Bird.
The Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda is another show stopper of a sight to visit in Yangon and a fairly impressive site, tho hard to take in the size from the photos. It’s a humungous reclining Buddha lying almost 66 meters long. A fairly feminine face that’s 7.3 meters long, despite all depictions of Buddha being male with amazing 33cm long eyelashes, a nose of 2.7 meters and 50cm high eyes with blue eyeshadow. He has a little bindi, a diamond encrusted crown pink fingernails and golden robes that are decorated with glass mosaics and golden markings. The soles of the feet are red with lots of different markings on them. Surrounding the drama of the giant Buddha are lots of individual Buddha images all in the various positions that he is depicted in. The building of this Buddha first began in around 1959 but wasn’t in fact completed until 1974 and it replaced a previous giant seated Buddha that was on the same site which was demolished in 1957. The name of the pagoda means six storey pagoda which is in reference to the original Buddha on the site, the current one now in place is only around 3 or 4 storeys high.
Our first meal out was our introduction to Burmese food where we were explained by our guide to the background of the style, there are a lot of curries which are heavily influenced by India to its left and there is also a Chinese influence with the country being located to the right of Myanmar. Essentially a lot of noodles and rice, morning glory, ladies fingers and everything else in between. The Myanmar beer, at 5%, was pretty much the order of the day and we all enjoyed the added ‘fun’ of the on bottle promotion where you had to peel back the plastic on the underneath of the bottle top to see if you had won a free beer or money. I was lucky on either my first or second (I can’t remember which) and won a free drink, a positive start to the holiday!!
Hotel stayed in – Panda Hotel
Restaurant ate in – Doreen