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We are here in Mandalay now. It’s early in the morning and I’m afraid I just woke Kathie up by dropping my mouse on the teak floor here. It’s almost time to get up, though. We’ll have a somewhat early breakfast and then meet our driver at 8 am to tour the Ancient cities outside of Mandalay. I’m not sure which one makes the most sense to go to first thing. For picture taking it’s always great to be there at sunrise (which we’ll miss) or sunset (where we cannot be all day long). While traveling, I have to take the pictures while I’m there and it’s not always the best time of day, however, I’d like to chose as well as I can for where we’ll be at sunset. That may be U Bien’s bridge, although it is one of those photographic landmarks that everyone takes pictures of (at sunset) and so there may be a better choice.

We left Bangkok yesterday very early in the morning and flew to Yangon and then to Mandalay. In Yangon we met our tour agent from Santa Maria tours, who gave Kathie all of the vouchers for our hotels and all of the airline tickets we’ll need while we’re here and Kathie gave him a bundle of brand new, crispy US dollars to pay what we still owed. We’d made a down payment earlier in the year with an electronic money transfer to their account in Bangkok.

While Kathie was doing that, I went to the money changer window and changed three hundred dollar bills to kyat. The rate yesterday was 780 kyat to the dollar, which is the best they can offer right now, but sadly the dollar continues to drop!! I walked away from the window with 234,000 kyat. Thankfully, they have 5000 kyat notes now so they didn’t all have to come to me in 1000 kyat notes. I’m not sure how I would have counted that.

Then we needed to walk from the international to domestic terminal. The last time we were here 2 years ago, there were throngs of young men willing to wheel your luggage over and guide the way, but this time we were on our own. We could have gotten a car for 2000 kyat, but thought it was close enough to walk. It was, but it was about a 10 minute walk in traffic. There is a sidewalk, but it’s about a foot off the ground. Kathie hoisted her luggage up onto the first one, but had a helluva time getting it down, so we both walked in the street after that. We finally made it and then sat in a dank terminal for about an hour waiting to board our plane.

The plane was an ATR 72/210, which is a small turbo prop plane made in Toulouse, France. It’s probably at least 20 years old and the interior shows it, it’s fairly beat up, but comfortable enough for such a short flight. It took an hour and 10 minutes from Yangon to Heho with a 10 minute stopover to drop off and pick up passengers and then another 25 minutes to Mandalay.

I know that people talk about seeing patchwork landscapes from the airplane, but flying into Heho (near Inle Lake), which was our plane’s first stop before Mandalay, the patchwork colors ranging from yellow/orange to green, was exceptionally beautiful. I took a few pictures, of course!

Once we got to Mandalay, a representative from Santa Maria met us and we were brought out to our taxi waiting for us. The drive from the airport to our hotel, Rupar Mandalar, took about an hour. From the airport to the main drag, it’s just a long straight road with barely any traffic. All along the road are banana sellers and we saw a few farmers with their oxen carts or herding a couple of white bony cows down the road.

Once we turned left from that road, the traffic increased, but we weren’t slowed down terribly. We made it to our hotel, the Rupar Mandalar in about an hour. Now that we’ve been here for a couple of days, we hear from everyone that this is the best hotel in Mandalay and I can see why. The rooms are completely built of teak wood as is all of the furniture. The dining chairs are very heavy to move away from the table to sit down, and quite comfortable. The food is prepared well, mostly Chinese dishes, but also Italian and Thai. The breakfasts are really wonderful, all of the juice is freshly squeezed and the buffet includes noodle dishes to traditional American breakfasts with someone cooking eggs to order and a very tasty Chinese noodle soup with beef and watercress.

The next day we had a driver arranged to take us around to the ancient cities, including Amarapura, Ava and Sagaing. We both enjoyed Sagaing the best. We ended the day taking pictures at sunset at U Bein’s Bridge. The sunset was one of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen and I think I got a few good shots from the 407 I took!

Yesterday we went on a day trip to the old colonial hill station Pyin U Lwin. We walked through a market and then went to a place called Pacific Curio where we each bought something, Kathie bought an old Naga weaving for her friend Bobbie and I bought a 150 year old reclining Buddha made with iron wood. The shop is owned by Soe Moe, who is renowned for finding tribal handicrafts. He was there with his son and grandson. He told me he taught 2nd grade for 18 years but then decided to do this and this shop in Pyin U Lwin is filled floor to ceiling with his purchases. Our driver said he also has a shop in Mandalay.

After lunch we spent about an hour and a half at the National Kandawgyi Gardens, which was established in 1915 (according to the Lonely Planet guide) by an English botanist named Alex Rogers. The sign says is was established in 1924. As it was Sunday, the park was filled with families from Mandalay enjoying the beautiful weather and scenery. Kathie and I spent most of our time there in the orchid garden, where I took pictures.

It’s a 1.5 hour drive to and from Pyin U Lwin (pronounced Pin oo lin) and we got back to the hotel before dark. Today we are going to spend a relaxing day at the hotel, probably going swimming in the large pool in the afternoon and catch up on reading before heading to Bagan early tomorrow morning.