Travelling the Road to Mandalay with Jan Leeming
Broadcaster, actress and author Jan Leeming, joined a single traveller tour of Myanmar at the end of 2016, in her words it was a ‘real voyage of discovery’. Here is Jan’s account of her journey…
During my time spent in India filming the ‘Real Marigold Hotel’ for the BBC, my love of travelling slightly off the beaten track was rekindled and I began the search for a new adventure.
I made the decision to head further east to Myanmar, as a country just opening up to tourists I was eager to see it while there was still a sense of ‘exploration’ about going there.
Being on my own, it is never easy to head off on a long-haul trip where I don’t speak the language and not knowing anyone who lives there. So, I joined a group of like-minded travellers on an organised tour with Just You, the UK’s single traveller specialist.
Our group of 19 adventurers met up at Heathrow Airport and were whisked off to Myanmar’s former capital Yangon on board Malaysia Airlines’ state of the art Airbus A380, via Kuala Lumpur.
The group, with ages ranging from mid-40s to late-80s, was accompanied by a Just You Tour Manager who took care of everything, leaving my mind clear to take in all of the sights and experiences, and let me tell you they came by the bucket load every single day of our 12-day tour.
Myanmar really was a voyage of discovery, from having lunch with Buddhist nuns and stroking a python at the foot of a gold encrusted Buddha, to dinner on a sandbank in the middle of the Ayeyarwady River and a pedal-powered tour of eastern Mandalay.
On our first day in Yangon we set off for the Kyaukhtatgyi Pagoda to see an impressive 70 metre long reclining Buddha, followed by the Kandawgyi Park where we saw a stunning reproduction of the Royal Barge and caught sight of the Shwedagon Pagoda, which we would properly visit on our final day of the trip.
After a quick flight to Mandalay, we hit the ground running and were off to see the exceptional and revered Mahamuni Buddha, covered in a thick layer of gold applied daily by male devotees. The Buddha has been in place for over a hundred years and in that time has become so covered in gold that the features are no longer distinct.
In the afternoon, we had a thrilling Trishaw ride mostly along quiet country roads and lanes but occasionally holding our breath as we crossed the main highway. The final leg of the journey was actually along the highway jostling for position with all the cars, trucks and scooters, thankfully our trishaw drivers were very accustomed to the traffic and weaved in and out with great success
Our second day in Mandalay was a particular highlight for me, it began with a visit to the ‘Morning Market’ to purchase items of food to offer the Buddhist nuns at whose convent we were to take lunch.
On arrival at the convent we were taken on a tour and an explanation of the way of life, after a delicious lunch of spiced vegetables, we sat and spoke with the nuns. They were fascinating ladies and extremely well educated, one of the nuns had a degree in psychology and most spoke excellent English.
After our afternoon spent in the company of the Buddhist nuns, there was a real sense of being at peace with the world, a true feeling of spirituality.
Our day ended with boat trip on the Taungthamen Lake from where we watched awe-inspiring spectacle of silhouetted figures of robed monks crossing the famed U Bein Bridge, said to be one of the longest wooden bridges in the world.
Among the numerous culinary experiences during the tour was a boat trip to the middle of the Ayeyarwady River, where we enjoyed dinner on a sandbank. It was a wonderful evening, made even more romantic as we became enveloped in total darkness, broken up by the occasional fully lit Pagodas on the distant hills.
Our exploration continued with a picturesque journey to Inle Lake, home to a number of snail and fish species that are found nowhere else on earth. While out on the lake we watched the famed fishermen, who row their boats with one leg ‘wound’ around the oar.
The final day in Myanmar was spent in Yangon and a visit to the stunning Shwedagon Pagoda, standing at almost 100 metres high, it is over 2,500 years old and covered in an estimated half a ton of gold.
As the most sacred Buddhist pagoda in Myanmar, the Shwedagon Pagoda is believed to contain the relics of four great Buddhas. The umbrella crown is tipped with 5,448 diamonds, 2,317 rubies and topped off with a 76 carat diamond!
While surrounded by all these religious temples, I had to take part in one ritual which involved bathing the Buddha that represents the day of your birth. I poured water over Monday’s Buddha which I hope will bring me luck and good karma, time will tell.
I thoroughly enjoyed Myanmar, the culture, the religion and the delightful, charming and welcoming people