The smell of new paint greeted us at Yangon (Rangoon) airport. We seemed to be about 50% of the foreigners, and were through immigration quickly. Our bags were out equally quickly. The downside was that Helen's had been both damaged and broken into. We did get back my metal letter opener (a present from Martini) that had been confiscated in Singapore.
We were hustled into a right-hand drive taxi that proceeded to drive on the right-hand side of the road! The driver rang Air Mandalay on his handphone, and found out that the office was closed. He stopped by the roadside for Helen to change US$200 @ 1200 kyat/dollar - she had already changed $100 @ only 450 kyat/dollar at the airport.
The Kandawagyi Palace Hotel was fabulous. It is a magnificent, wooden building on the edge of a lake. We paid 1000 kyat each to walk halfway around the lake on the board walk. Many locals, with almost all of the men wearing longyis (sarongs), were out for a stroll before dusk. As we found during the trip, many women, and a few men, had some sort of yellow paste on their cheeks and forehead - it is scrapings from local wood, mixed with water, and is supposed to protect the skin from evening, including the sun and insects. After perusing the guide book over a drink, in the lobby bar, we caught a taxi to the Green Elephant restaurant. It was in a lovely two-storey pavilion. We ate our delicious curries at a table in the garden, which is probably the driveway during the day.
The next morning, we were up an out just after dawn. We walked a kilometre, or so, to the Shwedgon Paya, a magnificent Buddhist stupa and temple. Barefooted, we walked up all the steps to the temple proper. We wandered around, marvelling at the statues, temple buildings and stupas. Eventually, three men, in uniform and with a ticket book, approached us and wanted to charge us US$10. I pretended to have not enough, so they "chipped" us about our walking clothes and suggested that we come back with the money.
The walk back through some of the narrow streets was very interesting, with people eating breakfast at makeshift eateries on the footpath, as people do throughout Asia. It was difficult to remember not to walk out into traffic on the "wrong" side of the road. Breakfast was quite good, and the setting reminded us of the old Empire, about which Rudyard Kipling wrote.
A taxi dropped us at the Boigyoke Aung San market. A lot of stalls were yet to open, and those that were were mainly selling jade and other stones and jewelry, or cloth. We had a wander around and Helen lashed out 3000 kyat (< US$3) on a longyi to have made into a dress. It was very hot, but we strolled through the downtown area to The Strand Hotel. It is the same vintage as Raffles and the Majapahit, and restored much better than the latter. We returned to the hotel and read for a while beside the lake. It was very peaceful.
We checked out and headed for the airport. We paid 5000 kyat to travel in Yangon's dirtiest taxi. The Air Mandalay counter was very sparse - the old telephone sat on a pile of three car wheels in the corner. However, the service was at least as good as we have had from an airline. Our tickets were hand-written, and confirmation and a flight change were done by phone, quickly and in a very helpful manner. Unfortunately, the plane was delayed for more than an hour and a half. The arrival of 33% of Air Mandalay's fleet had us on another plane and safely to Mandalay.
The authorities, in their wisdom, have built the new airport 40km from Mandalay. We shared an old taxi with two German blokes, who had travelled extensively throughout Asia. The road varied between "okay" and "nearly impassable", and went through collections of wooden shacks that looked as though they may have greeted the British several hundred years ago. When we entered the city, one of our fellow travellers pointed out the "genset" outside every shop.
The Mandalay Hill Resort was sensational. We showered and headed into town in the back of a small, covered utility with a "taxi" sign on its cabin. It took us along a dimly-lit street, and then we walked down an unlit alley to the Maria Min vegetarian restaurant. It was very quaint, with plain, wooden furniture and wooden shutters out onto the alley. The food was tasty, plentiful and very cheap. The racket from a neighbouring genset was a small distraction. Our "taxi" returned us to the hotel, where we had a drink and listened to the house band perform some MOR in reasonable English.