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ON THE ROAD TO MANDALAY

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Burma is a hidden country. Sandwiched between India and Thailand, it is essentially the drainage basin of the Irawaddy River, rising in the glaciers at the southeast corner of the Tibetan Plateau and flowing south for 1,350 miles to the Bay of Bengal.

Out of a welter of tribal regions and warring principalities, it emerged into history only about a thousand years ago with the Pagan Empire.  It established Buddhism throughout what is now Burma, and constructed over 10,000 Buddhist temples during the 10th-13th centuries.  2,200 remain in the plains of Pagan today, one of the world’s most wondrous sights — as you can see by the picture above.

The Mongol invasions of the late 1200s wiped Pagan out. Various kingdoms warred, rose, and fell for the next 500 years until the Brits arrived, who in a series of Anglo-Burmese Wars from 1824-1885 colonized and created Burma as a Province of British India.  The capital was Rangoon, built by the Brits into a flourishing city known as The Garden City of the Orient, and way upriver on the Irawaddy was the city they were all lyrical about – Mandalay.

It was Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) who made Burma the ultimate of the romantically exotic with his poem Mandalay in 1890. 

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"
        Come you back to Mandalay,
        Where the old Flotilla lay:
        Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?
        On the road to Mandalay,
        Where the flyin’-fishes play,
        An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

Set to song as On The Road To Mandalay in 1907, the sheet music sold over a million copies.  Its recording by famous baritone Peter Dawson made it immensely popular (the link is Dawson’s 1931 audio rendition with various photos added).  So much so that Frank Sinatra performed it in 1976 (although he clearly didn’t understand the poem’s poignancy).

Ironically, there never was a Bob Hope-Bing Crosby "Road" movie to Mandalay.  It was the original title for their very first in the series in 1940, but changed to The Road to Singapore.

Burma remained the ultimate hidden lure of the East until World War II when the Japanese invaded.  It took the Brits, Americans, and Burmese killing 170,000 Japanese soldiers to get rid of them.  In 1947, Burmese leader Aung San negotiated the independence of the British colony as The Union of Burma. 

The "Union," however, was a fantasy as tribal rebellions broke out among the Shan, Karen, Karenni, Wa, and Kachin.  A 1962 military coup led by General Ne Win imposing a ruthless socialist dictatorship made the rebellions far worse, while driving Burmese into medieval impoverishment and isolating the country from the world.

A Shan warlord named Khun Sa gained control of the Burma-Thai-Laos border area and set up the world’s largest heroin operation protected by his own army – creating the famous "Golden Triangle."

In the 1980s as a private operative for the Reagan Doctrine, I clandestinely crossed from Thailand into Burma on more than one occasion with Karenni and Karen guerrillas.

The military dictatorship doubled down on totalitarianism in 1988, even changing the country’s name to "Myanmar," Rangoon to "Yangon," and moving the capital to an empty plain called Nay Pyi Taw.  This was in response to massive demonstrations in Rangoon demanding democracy led by Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi.  In 1991 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and promptly placed under house arrest by the military junta.

Burma sank into further isolation from the world, becoming a despised Pariah State.  After almost 20 years of constant pressure from countries all over the world (except of course from China and Russia), Aung San Suu Kyi was released from imprisonment on November 13, 2010.

In March 2011, the military junta transitioned to a "disciplined democracy," and began allowing steadily increasing political liberalization.  A majority of political prisoners have been set free, there is substantial freedom of the press, free market businesses have begun to flourish, and in the elections of 2012, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party NLD (National League for Democracy) won 43 of the 45 available seats.  She herself is now the leader of the opposition in Burma’s Parliament.

Cease-fires and peace talks ended the Shan, Kachin and other tribal rebellions in 2013.  Burma is far from being a free country, but the military has been progressively relaxing its grip to the point where it is no longer a pariah state, and is being welcomed back into the community of nations.  Hardly anyone calls it "Myanmar," though – for most of the world, it remains Burma.

As Burma and its people emerge from the darkness, it is a land still caught in a time warp.  Visitors are welcome now, with hotels, restaurants, and other facilities newly-built.  You could not ask for a more interesting time to visit a more interesting country than Burma at this moment. 

Being in Burma today is like stepping in to the pages of National Geographic of decades ago.  Meeting Burmese today is having the extraordinary experience of seeing people preserving ancient traditions yet blossoming with the prospect of peace and freedom.

That’s why I’d like to invite you to come with me On The Road To Mandalay. 

This February I will be taking a small adventurous group to explore this hidden ultimate of the allure of the Orient.   We’ll see sights that are stupefying, and people that are astonishing.  Ever hear of the Giraffe Women?  We’ll meet them.   We’ll see a Burma Kipling would recognize and a Burma stepping into the future. 

I hope you’ll be with me.  Here is what we’ll experience – and the pictures are real.

HIDDEN BURMA
On The Road To Mandalay with Jack Wheeler
Saturday February 14 to Wednesday February 25, 2015
$6850
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Saturday, February 14

Arrive Rangoon (the Burmese government can call it "Yangon" all they want – we’ll keep it Rangoon).  There are flights to RGN International Airport from every major city in SE Asia and even directly from Tokyo.  Transfer to the new 5-star Sule Shangri-La Hotel. 

Day at leisure.  At day’s end, we visit Rangoon’s landmark, Shwedagon Pagoda at sunset.  336 feet high, plated with over 20,000 solid gold bars, the tip encrusted with thousands of diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, it is the holiest spot in Burma and one of the great sights in all Asia.

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We have our Welcome Dinner at the #1 rated Green Gallery restaurant.

Sunday, February 15

Early birds are welcome to witness a glorious 6:30am sunrise at Shwedagon.  After a Shangri-La breakfast, we drive to the capital of the Mon people, Bago, with its gigantic reclining Buddha and where monks worship Buddhist spirits called Nats.

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We then continue to the Temple of the Golden Rock, where, the legend goes, a strand of the Buddha’s hair under the base prevents the "gravity-defying rock" from tumbling off the mountain top.  It is covered in gold leaves pasted on by devotees.

Pilgrims come from all over Asia to worship at the sacred rock throughout the year.  We stay at the Mountain Top Hotel just above the shrine so we can easily witness both sunset tonight and sunrise on Golden Rock tomorrow morning.

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Monday, February 16

We return to Rangoon and the Shangri-La in time for lunch, then a special treat.  Rangoon has a cultural core that no other Southeast Asian city has, with over 180 magnificent historical and colonial buildings.  The Yangon Heritage Trust is dedicated to preserving and renovating them as many are tragically decaying.  We will get a special visit to many of them, such as the massively magnificent yet crumbling 120 year-old Secretariat and the restored High Court.
 
We’ll follow this with a visit to the Bogyoke handicraft market, the beautifully maintained Musmeah Yeshua synagogue (Burma’s only, built in 1885), and a more intimate look at Shwedagon.   We have dinner at Rangoon’s landmark, the Karaweik Royal Barge on Kandawgyi (Royal) Lake, while enjoying a memorable Burmese culture show.  The Karaweik is a gigantic mythical bird, and the entire structure is gilded in gold.
 

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Tuesday, February 17

We’ve had our introduction, now get ready for truly stunning.  This morning we fly north to Heho in Shan State and drive to the Pindaya Caves.  For centuries, Buddhist pilgrims have venerated these caves by placing gilded statues and images of the Buddha along the cave walls and in the crevices.  There are now over 8,000 golden Buddhas.
 
You climb to the caves in a series of covered steps… And enter a cavern world that is simply unbelievable…

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Back in the sunlight, we have a delightful drive through the unspoiled villages of the Shan, Palaung, and Danu peoples, and up into jungle mountains to visit the Elephant Sanctuary in Green Hill Valley.  This is real, not some touristy circus act in the forest like in Thailand.
 
This is where retired logging elephants are taken care of instead of just left to die.  They are not here for entertainment.  You can participate in their feeding and washing, learn about them, and yes, go for a ride on their backs through the teak and bamboo forest festooned with wild orchids.
 
We end the day in the pine forests of Kalaw, where the British built a charming hill station 100 years ago.  We stay at the beautiful Amara Mountain Resort.

Wednesday, February 18

This is a day you’ll show pictures of to everyone you know.  After a full English breakfast at the Amara we drive south through villages of the Pa-O people to the town of Loikaw.  We’ll drop off our bags and have lunch at the Hotel Loikaw, then head off into a remote valley to the road’s end.  After about 40 minutes’ walk, we come to a series of villages collectively called Pan Pat.
 
Here we will find the Kayan tribe, whose women practice a unique tradition of beautification.  Starting at age five, girls have a few brass coils placed around their necks, adding to them progressively as they grow until they are wearing as many as two dozen – becoming what the world knows them as Giraffe women.  (The Shan people call them "Padaung" meaning "long-necked," but they call themselves Kayan.)
 
We are not here to gawk.  We are here to make friends, treat them respectfully, and learn about their traditions.  It will be an intensely memorable experience to meet these ladies.

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We return to Loikaw by early evening.
 
Thursday, February 19

We begin the day to see the Taung Kwe Zedi – the Stupas of the Cleft Rock – where Buddhist monks congregate to meditate and pray in the early morning light.  It’s a stunning sight on either side of the crag:

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We’ll climb to the top of course.

After a short drive, we come to the southern end of Burma’s legendary Inle Lake.  We board our boat to traverse the lake in its entirety.  We’ll stop at the mysterious Indein Pagodas many centuries old and abandoned long ago.

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We visit the Phaung Daw Oo monastery and have a lakeside lunch at nearby Mr. Toe’s restaurant.

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Inle is famous for its extraordinary calm serenity, the homes on stilts of the Intha people, and the unique leg-rowing fishermen.  We get our introduction to it all as we pass by on our way to the idyllic Inle Princess Resort, raved about by Condé Nast.  Our balcony here overlooking the lake will be an oasis of tranquility as we watch the sunset.

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Friday, February 20

This is a day of iconic photography as we immerse ourselves in the peaceful beauty of Inle.  We’ll spend time with the Intha fishermen as they row their canoes with a leg wrapped around the paddle leaving both hands free to fish with their conical nets.

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We’ll visit Intha stilt villages, their floating gardens, and floating markets. 

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We’ll canoe in to the floating village of In Paw Khon where the Intha ladies weave lotus scarves – scarves hand-woven from the stem fibers of lotus flowers (the link has photos and videos of the process).  A small scarf is woven from the silk of 4,000 lotus stems, a shawl from 10,000  Here is the only place in the world to weave textiles from lotus silk.
  
We are then treated to a leisurely gourmet lunch in a private floating restaurant we’ve reserved just for ourselves.  Then  we’ll make our way back slowly to the Inle Princess as the sun lowers for scenes like this…
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It will have been an iconic day.
 
Saturday, February 21

We’re off to see another Hidden Burma mind-blow.  We drive this morning to a former British hill station up in the Shan Hills called Taung Gyi, where we have lunch at a local restaurant.  Then we venture down the Hopong Valley to a mysterious site sacred to the Pa-O people called Kekku.

Many centuries ago, thousands of stone temples and towers decorated with stucco statues were built here by no one knows who.  Many are crumbling, smothered by creeper vines and banyan roots.  Others have been repaired, and one section has recently been gilded.  This is an unknown remote place where the only people will be local Pa-O and monks coming for veneration.  Prepare to be astonished.

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We return via Taung Gyi to the market town of Nyaung Shwe just north of the lake, where we stay at the Lotus Spa Resort with its private hot springs.  Here you can unwind and pamper yourself at the end of the day.
 
Sunday, February 22

This morning we have a short flight to Burma’s, and one of the world’s, greatest wonder – Ancient Pagan (now called Bagan).  There are over 2,200 massive temples here remaining spread over 40 square miles.  It frankly leaves Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Borobodur in Java in the dust.  There is nothing that matches it on the planet.
 
Our first stop is Shwezigon, completed in 1102 and thoroughly re-gilded as it is thought to contain a tooth of the Buddha…

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Next is Pagan’s largest structure, the 900 year-old Ananda Temple, the "Westminster Abbey of Burma," with its huge Golden Buddhas inside…

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For the Burmese today, these are not ancient relics but sacred spots of meditation and reverence – such as here at Nan Paya temple…

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We’ll find the vastness and profusion overwhelming, with way too much to grasp in one day.  We’ll enjoy a spectacular sunset on the temples, then we retire to luxuriate at the exquisite Areindar Hotel.

Monday, February 23

Of course, the ultimate way to experience Pagan/Bagan is to see it in the early morning light from above – with Balloons Over Bagan.  Floating silently above this wonderland is indeed one of those "experiences of a lifetime."  When we land, we have a champagne breakfast amongst the temples.

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We’ll visit a number of temples via the relaxing way, by horse cart, have lunch in Old Bagan town, visit the fascinating teakwood monastery of Nat Taung Kyaung.  This is where we hope to spend time having tea with the monks who live and study here – we’ll see what we can learn from them…

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We end the day at the "Sunset Pagoda" of Sulamani.  It’s the best place for a Pagan sunset, but we won’t want to miss the interior with its thousand year-old murals.  And how could you ever forget a sunset view like this?

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Tuesday, February 24

After all this time of being on the Road to Mandalay, we arrive there via a morning flight.  We quickly check in to our Hotel Yandanarbon, then across the Irawaddy River to the Sagaing Hills, considered the "living center" of Buddhism in Burma today.  The hills are dotted with monasteries, pagodas, and stupas.  Here’s one of the more dramatic…

 
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After lunch, we drive along the Irawaddy to see life along the river on our way back to Mandalay.  Once there, we pay our respects to the Mahamuni Buddha.   We’ve seen a lot of golden buddhas by now but this is different.  It is believed to be one of only three in the world (the other two are in India) existing that were made during the Buddha’s lifetime and is in his actual likeness.  This is the holiest object in Burma.

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We’ll also visit the Shwenandaw or Golden Palace Monastery made not of gold but of carved teak.  Built by a Burmese king in the 19th century, the intricacy of the carving is staggering.  We’ll make friends here…

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There will be time for shopping too.  The Mahar Aung Myay Gem Dealers Market is the best place for precious stones, the Amara Waddy the best place for tribal handicrafts, and the Yandarbon Market near our hotel has everything  — it has 3,000 stores!
 
We end the day on Mandalay Hill for the famous sunset. 

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And back to Yandarbon for our Farewell Dinner.

Wednesday, February 25

This is Departure Day and we must say goodbye.  There are flights from Mandalay direct to most major cities in Southeast Asia and onward.   Or you can join us on Hidden China III which starts on Feb 28.  There’s a daily direct flight from Mandalay to Kunming.

We’ll have had an incredible series of experiences, seen many wonders.  Yet what we’ll remember most is the warmth, the genuineness, the friendliness, and – especially – the smiles of the Burmese people.

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Yes, our best memories will be the smiles when we were On The Road to Mandalay.
 
HIDDEN BURMA DETAILS
 
Dates:  Saturday February 14 to Wednesday February 25, 2015
 
Cost per person: $6,850
 
Deposit, Payment, Cancellation and Refund

*Non-refundable deposit of $680 per person due November 10, 2014
*Balance in full – $6,170 – due by December 15, 2014.
*Refund of balance in full on the condition of a fully-paid acceptable replacement for you. Note: you may want to consider trip cancellation insurance.
 
Cost includes: All domestic flights: Rangoon-Heho-Bagan-Mandalay.  All ground transportation, transfers, tours and activities as specified in the itinerary with local English-speaking guides in private air-conditioned vehicles. Bottled water on the vehicles.

All meals (breakfast/lunch/dinner including bottled water) with group from dinner Saturday Feb 14 to breakfast Wednesday Feb 25.

All accommodation from the night of Saturday Feb 14 through the night of Tuesday Feb 24.

Cost does not include: International airfare to/from Burma; visa fees; single occupancy accommodation. Single supplement surcharge is $1,060 – what the Burmese charge us. Meals, services, and activities not with group or in itinerary; personal expenditures, such as laundry, camera fees, communications, gratuities, etc.; beer, wine, or alcoholic drinks.
 
Important caveat: Every effort will be made to adhere to the itinerary above. Due to the vagaries of travel in this region and of adventure travel in general, the itinerary may be altered in any way necessary. Participants are expected to accept this, and to maintain a cheerful attitude on an adventure such as this.
 
Contact:
Only 8 adventurers can join Jack on the road to Mandalay.  To be one of them, please contact us immediately.  Life is short – the time for a Great Adventure is now.  Phone: 202- 656-3008   Email: [email protected]

 
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