It is somewhat of a relief to leave bustling Mandalay behind. It has not quite lived up to it's exotic sounding name of Kipling mystique. Instead of an Orient full of tropical splendour, we find a grimy, congested place full of camera-ready tourists in search of the said delights. Mandalay Hill at Chinese New Year is not a place of calm!
So today we set off in search of what the guide books promises as the 'enchantingly beautiful parts of the wider Mandalay area.' A small noisy wooden boat packed with a mixed bag of tourists takes us across the romantically sounding Ayeyarwady (the Irrawady of old) river straight into a hustle of exuberant pony and cart drivers. They've not got the memo that our adult kids are traveling with their parents AND a tour guide. Assuming them to be part of the 'gappy' university brigade, they are hustled elsewhere and initially find themselves on the wrong horse and carriage. Our tour guide rushes off to retrieve them and eventually they are reunited into the specially reserved, no-need-to-haggle horses, and we set off at a cracking pace.
Somehow, in the middle of all this whilst waiting for the kids to catch up, we (ie me) manage to express a vague interest in a brass gong. The young seller with a lovely grin, peddles like the clappets after us, like Lance Armstrong winning the Tour de France. His air of 'Got'cha' certainty means he easily keeps up with our trotting, sometimes cantering ponies, his jade necklaces clinking on the handlebars.
"Very dangerous" our guide tells us as the driver manoeuvres past a tour bus reversing down the sandy lane, wheels perilously close to a river's edge. Great! Here we are thinking we are just going on a nice little trot around the villages. But maybe she is talking about the flip flopped lad, with his longyi traditional outfit flapping in the wind, he's oblivious to his attire so close to his open spokes "I give you good price" he beams!
We grind to an abrupt halt next to a funeral, the body clearly visible in a glass topped case, villagers sitting respectfully on plastic chairs... "Yes, very dangerous" we agree.
We also agree no need to stop at the first stupa, 'same as you've seen in Bagan' our Tour Guide suggests. It's amazing how on day one we would have disagreed, but by now we are slightly templed-out. We stop at the Ba- Ga-Yan Teak wood monastery, carefully avoiding the protruding nails in the floors, the kids try to get their arms wrapped round the enormous beams. Our son at 6 ft 2 inches tall, is the closest, but even his fingers can not touch.
Our Daughter ask the guide how much to tip as their driver speaks enough English to tell them he has three kids and needs a big tip. Our tour guide is horrified "so rude" she says. She says she will report the driver to the department of tourism for being unprofessional. She suggests 1000 to 2000 Kyats (1-2 USD) is enough. Later in a mix up of family communications, when they give him 1000 Ks and the rest of us offer 2000 Ks the driver is cross. It was our only experience on the whole trip of pushy locals.
Back in the cart, we race through the banana fields, the wooden carriage creeks and groans and the ponies rise to the challenge. We love being at last on our own, 'gong - boy' having ditched us for more promising interest way back. At the next stop the kids say we must switch, as our pony is sweating and it is unfair as we have four adults with the tour guide and the driver.
We debate whether taking a pony and cart is cruel to the animals, but unlike in Bagan, these horses look in better condition. We decide these ponies provide an income to the families and are therefore looked after, who knows.
'Apart from' we tease my daughter 'the one whose driver you have now had reported to the authorities who will lose his license, and not be able to afford any food for your horse!'
Linking with Saturdays Critters - Thanks to Eileen