Almost untouched country

Saturday, October 19, 2013
Mandalay, Mandalay Region, Myanmar
It's hard to believe that, without crossing an ocean, we were going to have another monster day of 9+ hours, but that’s exactly what lay ahead with our planned flight from Singapore to Mandalay, Myanmar. It was unclear if there was going to be avgas at any airports in southern Thailand, and because we had such great opportunity to exceedingly fill up in Singapore, we opted to fly straight through. There would also be no avgas in all of Myanmar, but we were fairly certain that we would get some in Chittagong, Bangladesh.

The evening before the long flight we bought some provisions so we’d have good snacks along the way . We were also one of only three planes out of the group of nine that would fly straight through. The others would refuel in Thailand. Funnily, even though we were slow, we had considerably more endurance and range than the others. On this day, this meant we’d more than likely get passed twice by many of the planes, once en route to Thailand, the next time after their refuel stop en route to Mandalay.

That’s exactly how the flight unfolded. We were in radio contact with others the entire way and had plenty to do to stay clear of the almost continuous cumulonimbus clouds. There were definitely storms brewing and often we had to ask for a slight divergence from our planned route. For almost the entire flight, surprisingly, we were able to stay clear of the many clouds. Only towards the end were there stratus layers we encountered, but they were turbulence-free.

Many of the planes did indeed pass us again, but we landed fifth! It was our best placement of the whole trip ;-) . Our reception at the new Mandalay airport – with its incredibly long runway (there was a 747 parked there) – was very warm. Customs and immigration was a breeze. Our taxi from the airport cost the equivalent of US$15 for a 45 minute ride. We knew we were in a different world from Singapore when our cabbie asked if we wanted to pay an additional $2 for air-conditioning!

The ride in showed further how different Myanmar was. Given its proximity to Thailand I assumed it would have the same feel. In large part it did, but here there just wasn’t the bustle, the infrastructure, or the wealth. It was all a bit undiscovered. I loved it! The highway, for instance, was new but there was barely anyone on it. There were the occasional mopeds and ox-driven carts, but for the most part we enjoyed it to ourselves through the flat countryside. What stood out as well were the many stupas. There were countless shrines along peppered amongst the rice patties and banana farms.

The closer we got to the city center of Mandaly, the busier it became . Even with the incessant honking and noise, it still made a fairly charmed impression. The center of town is a giant square palace complex at least a kilometer in length on each side.   All traffic seemed to revolve around this square and its moat. Our hotel was, predictably for this trip as it was organized, a sheltered enclave away from the mayhem.

After gloating about our 5th place performance on the 9-hour flight, we headed off to the Green Elephant restaurant. I can recommend it to anyone going to Myanmar. Sitting at tables in the grass with lots of candles, cheap beers, and good food, it was a nice getaway from the staple hotel fare. From there we went to the night market. Crazy! So many people, and so many mopeds trying to get through the mass of people. Everything from pots & pans to food to toy guns were being sold. It was a feast for the senses. We were met with so many warm smiles. We stood at least a head above everyone and you could clearly see for those that came from the countryside that we were some of the first white people they’d encountered . Sometimes the lighting would flicker as power was scarce but that only increased the sensation that we were in a different world. Seeing the foods they served – almost all unfamiliar – was also great. A couple stands, for instance, sold parts of pigs we’d normally discard: the snout, ears, heart, and what I can only guess were pig butts. Wow.

The following day I had lined up a bike tour through Grasshopper Tours. No more bus tours here! We were the only two on the tour and it was fantastic. Our guide, Nay Thway, took us back to the same market, but this time we sampled some of the food. From there it was off to a couple Buddhist temple complexes. We learned that one of the reasons the city was this teeming with activity is that it was the Thagyinyut festival, similar to Christian lent. It was fun biking on the roads and seeing the faces of those we passed. Because it was festival time there wasn’t as much traffic as the day before so the roads were also no problem . We left the city and in only a few minutes were biking on unpaved roads along rice patties and through small villages. It was classic Southeast Asia: farm workers in the pointed straw hats working fields, small kids half-dressed running around laughing, markets selling all kinds of food we’d want to thoroughly wash before eating, dogs everywhere, etc. It was really fun riding. A couple of places were mountain-bike only and it felt great to be in the saddle again.

Along the way we stopped at a typical tea café for drinks and snacks. This was the real deal and about as local as local got. Our guide ordered us some foods to sample, mainly sticky rice and pasta-based dishes. It was all very authentic and we loved it. Towards the end of the tour it started to drizzle which only added to the ambience. By the end though, we had to laugh at the dirt stain running up our shorts and in a line down the middle of our backs.

The tour was over at noon already so we had the rest of the day to relax some and sightsee more . We were leaving already the following morning – unlike the rest of the group – to get our beloved avgas in Chittagong, so I wanted to take advantage of the remainder of the day. After a brief swim I set out to walk up the Mandalay Hill temple complex. It was absolutely teeming with people on this holiday weekend. I don’t know how many hundreds of steps it was, but surely many. And all this had to be done barefoot. It wasn’t the most sanitary experience, but great to see how the locals used their temples. Unlike sterile western churches, here food was served up, picnics were being had along the way up the stairs, kids were playing, folks were taking naps, etc. The temples themselves were impressive, but not so impressive as the people watching. It topped off to me what was an extremely authentic day in largely still un-touristed Myanmar. I’d love to go back, and soon. You could see this place already transforming. For instance, there were ads for Hansaplast and, even worse, a Knorr stand in the market passing out free samples and leaflets on their products . Western companies were moving in en masse to take advantage of the newly opened market.

In the evening we had a briefing on how to fly in to Paro, Bhutan. This would be a highlight of the trip as it’s a fairly crazy VFR-only approach procedure and never before attempted by any general aviation pilots. It was an honor that Arnim had been given permission to teach us the approach and to certify us. We were given GPS coordinates that would essentially make a bread trail for us to follow. Still, we had to have good weather on our side and, once we had sight of the appropriate valley, drop down quickly in order to make the runway. This was going to be great!

Routing from Singapore to Mandalay:

KK B469 VPK W540 VKB M626 BGO WI MIA at 14,000’ and it took right at 9 hours.
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