Mediocre to Majestic Mandalay

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Tuesday, February 15, 2005

I arose early this morning to enjoy a cup of joe at the ad hoc coffee hangout around the corner. It's not that I don't enjoy the complimentary breakfast at my charming five dollars a night guest house but sipping a strong thick cup of coffee on child-height stools under a dusty old tree with the locals is more exciting. Later I enjoyed my free breakfast back at my hotel while I awaited the arival of my roommate from New York, Cameron whom I'll be traveling with for the next two and a half weeks. I was sitting at the outdoor table talking with some of the other travelers when she pulled up after over 24 hours of traveling. "Welcome to Mandalay, Memsahib!" I yelled. Not only was I happy to see her and to have a travel partner for a while I was almost as excited to finally be able to leave charm-free, polluted, chaotic Mandalay and move on.

Our first stop of the day was the money changer at a nearby hotel where forty US dollars gets you in return a stack of Kyats (pronouced "chyats") roughly a inch thick. Next we trailed down bumpy roads in a back-to-back trishaw to the ferry office to book passage for Bagan tomorrow. We were told right away that everything was fully sold out for the next several days. The man with red bettlenut-stained teeth across the desk suggested in a proper colonial accent that we try for stand-by and arrive at the ferry dock in the morning an hour before the 6 a.m. departure. Staying in Mandalay even for another day was not an option so we opted to try our chances. Every traveller I've met said that Mandalay was the worst of Myanmar and that the other environs were far more apealing. I hope that they're right and longed already for another adventure. It's not that I dislike Mandalay but with the exception of the people I've found very little that's actually appealing. Today however would change that.

I've grown jaded to the wonders of Asia's temples, wats, pagodas and stupas but to be fair an exceptional structure can still generate excitement. Such is the case with the famous Mahamouni Paya [temple]. Our trishaw driver dropped us off several yards before the gate that lead to the main paya, which was surrounded by several minor payas within the complex. From a tower a military serviceman beat a drum and clanged a gong intermitingly. Broadcast throughout blared the mystical chanting drones of the monks while inbetween breaths the thousands of tinkling chimes that adorned the main stupa sounded an overlapping chorus of dainty tings. It's was the aural sensation that accompannied the stunning visuals that made this temple viewing a highlight of my journey thus far.

The famous and much-revered gold-covered bronze Mahamouni Buddha is said to have been cast in the First Century and some claim that it was actually modeled after the Buddha himself. The faithful believe that the Mahamouni Buddha is the most true to form rendering of the Buddha and that it is also the very first statue in his image. It is a holy site for millions of Burmese and most make it at least a full-day pilgramage and will eat, sleep and shop within the tremendous compound. Once while jocking for just the right shot of the Buddha I was squating and angling my lense upward when a woman and her child offered me some of their lunch. I gestured toward my stomach and smiled and wai'd shaking my head. It was touching to be offered food from someone who clearly had so very little to offer and it humbled me. Next to her a family laid their mat down as one would at a picnic and organized their little setup. Across the way families admired postcards of the paya and craftsmen carved and gilded statues. This is what I've come to call many of the vast Buddha temple complexes here in Myanmar, "Buddha Lands".

One of the most amazing aspects of the Mahamouni Buddha are the copious layers of gold leaf that are applied by those seeking to gain merit. They do this everyday, 23 hours a day and stop only at 4 a.m. when monks ritually bathe the imposing figure. The pounds of actual gold added over the years have obfuscated parts of the statue so much that after sitting and admiring it for perhaps five minutes I finally made out where the right hand was resting on the knee. There were photographs on display from the early 1900s to the present showing the build-up over the decades. We meandered around the paya for a while looking into the shops selling carved Buddhas, temple paraphanalia, tee-shirts and other souvenirs geared more to the locals than the tourists of whom we saw very few. The general atmosphere had a sort of reverantly religious yet carnival-like feeling and it was thrilling to be once again astonished by a paya.

For lunch I had our driver drop us off at a tea shop where I'd eaten yesterday. We sat on stools at wooden stables below which were the ubiquitous spitunes used for trash and the expunged red bettlenut juice. We ate Burmese versions of Indian breads with various curries of peanuts with white beans and spicy English peas with onions. The waiters wore tee-shirts advertising a condensed milk called "My Boy", which featured a smiling blond-haired Aryan youth with Burmese subtitled text. We had to have them. I inquired where we could possibly buy some but was told that they were uniforms and that it was impossible. Then the owner lady mumbled something to our waiter who told us to wait while we darted off for five minutes. In the meantime Cameron and I decided what would be a good price for the kitchy souvenirs -- $2.00? $3.00 maximum? When he returned he placed on the table two brand new ones packaged in plastic. I fumbled for my bag and asked the price. "No, no it's present" he smiled. We insisted to pay for them but he wouldn't accept payment and when I tried to slip money under our empty plates he refused. We were thrilled with our new souvenirs but more humbled by the generosity. With palms in prayer-like thanksgiving I uttered "thank you" in Burmese more times than I recall to everyone as we left.

After returning to the hotel to freshen up a bit we chartered a clown-like tuk-tuk to see the world's longest teak bridge in a town called Amarapura. The rides there and back were far more intersting than the actual rickety pedestrian bridge, which was nonethless of minor interest. The people along the way who saw us in the back of the tuk-tuk waved and shouted "hello" all along the way. A mother and her two children on a motorcycle followed us closely as the eldest child waved wide-eyed. A school girl was riding her bike across a dirt road waved and stared with such abandon that she ran into a another rider who was looking at us. They laughed as they harmlessly collided.

By the time we got back to the hotel the heels of cocktail hour were upon us and I couldn't let my nightly ritual go by the wayside and was eager to share it. We showered up and walked over to what has become my favourite evening restaurant and what I called "The Grill" since the signs were in Burmese and no English translation is available. Without a doubt The Grill at 82nd and 33rd has the best and most attentive service of any restaurant I've dined in during my journey. No sooner had we arrived than I pulled out my bottle of gin from my purse (I'd bought it there for 80 cents two nights prior) when a can of tonic and a can of Coke were placed on our table. Regardless of where I sat for the four nights I'd eaten there the same waiter took excellent care of me and my dining companions -- this could be that I was tiping him each time a whopping fifty cents a pop. We couldn't linger as long as we wanted since we had already bought tickets to see a marrionette show, which we didn't know was clear across town.

Our trishaw driver was waiting for us outside and with only five minutes to spare before curtain he huffed and grunted us toward the puppet show. We ended up being 25 minutes late for the one hour show, which if truth be told was just about the right ammount of time for an adult to watch even the most exotic of marrionettes in any country. The puppets themselves were exquisitly made with golden crowns and eleborate costumes that seemed to mirror traditional Burmese arcitexture and design. The plot lines were simple enough to follow in each pastiche, which more or less centered on being flung about from side to side and being thrown atop one another. The live band of reedy flute and drums and chimes and gongs was at once lullingly charming and alarmingly shrill. It was an experience to be sure and one that I'm very glad we have shared and one that I am thrilled to have put behind us. In all seriousness and without trying to take away from the rich heritage from which the marrioinette show stems I'd have rather watched the "Lonely Goatheard" scene from The Sound of Music on DVD any day of the week.

The dark trishaw ride back home gliding smoothly and cooly under the trees past the expansive palace moat was a relaxing end to a full day. Even under a bottom slice of a Burmese moon people called out greetings to us. Lovers sat silhoueted by the dim light of the palace walls on park benches as we passed by and would look up seemingly embarassed and smile. Upon delivering us to the door of our guesthouse our driver tried to organize the next day's adventures with us. While I was happy to say we were leaving before dawn on a ship bound for Bagan I was also happy to say that I'd be leaving Mandalay with a far better impression than I had when I had awaken this morning.

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