The road to (well, around) Mandalay

Trip Start Nov 06, 2012
Trip End Feb 01, 2013

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Flag of Myanmar  , Mandalay,
Monday, January 14, 2013

Our journey to Mandalay meant another internal flight, which was an experience in itself. The flight turnaround times here are about 15 minutes between landing and take off and a rather energetic young woman with a walkie-talkie was telling passengers to “hurry, hurry, hurry”. We were slightly concerned that she was going to fall out of the airport bus onto the tarmac as the bus, as soon as it was loaded with the passengers travelling from Bagan to Mandalay, sped off, with her loosely holding on to one of the handrails. She was however clearly used to this - and very good at her job. We were all on board, strapped in and ready to go in less than the allocated time. And in less than 25 minutes, we were in Mandalay.

We spent our first day in Mandalay exploring the sights of the city. Mandalay is famous for stone carving, made from marble mined about 26km north of the city, word carving (mainly from teak) and gold leaf making. We found the gold leaf making process fascinating. The gold leaf sold in temples up and down the country comes from Mandalay (more expensive as it’s hand made), Thailand (cheaper) or China, the stuff from China being really cheap, but that’s because it turns out that it’s not gold leaf at all and is “fake”.

To ensure that we didn’t forget that we were still in Myanmar, we saw a few more buddha images and monasteries. We visited two monasteries, Shwe In Bin Kyuang and Shwenandew Kyaung, both made of teak and both of which were beautiful. The latter was originally built as a royal apartment for King Mindon and only became a monastery after his death. It was also originally gilded in gold - well, we are in Myanmar! Seriously, everything is gold in this country...

We paid a visit to one of Myanmar’s most famous buddha images, housed in the Mahamuni Paya. So much gold leaf has been applied to this buddha image that it is covered in a knobbly layer of thick gold. It wouldn’t look out of place on a “fat girls and feeders” documentary (other than the gold that is). As at the Golden Rock, ladies (yes, that included V), are not permitted to approach the buddha image and apply gold leaf. V had to watch from a distance, helped by the numerous TV screens broadcasting the buddha image around the complex, as A got up close and personal with mr lumpy. In the same complex, we saw some very impressive statues, which several centuries ago were taken from the Khmer at Angkor Wat. While not in brilliant condition, they are still very striking and made entirely of solid bronze, so whoever carried them here must have been very mighty indeed.

We also took in Kyauktawgyi Paya, which is home to a 900 tonne buddha image carved from a single block of marble. Not the most beautiful buddha image we have seen (and we’ve seen a few), but impressive as a feat of sculpture.

On our way to Mandalay Hill for sunset, we stopped off at Kuthodaw Paya to get a sense of scale of the world’s biggest book. We’re both avid readers, but couldn’t understand a word of it as it is, of course, written in Myanmar. The book is the 15 books of the Tripitaka, etched onto 729 individual marble slabs, each of which is housed in a separate stupa. Our guide told us that it took a team of monks six months to read every single one of them in a continuous public address. 

For sunset, we walked to the top of Mandalay Hill to get a view over the city, which is situated on a very flat plain. At the top of the hill, there was the usual temple complete with buddha images and, of course, MCAs, jostling for position to capture the perfect sunset snap. Now that A was feeling better after the poisoning from the Golden Rock chicken, we ended our day with an awesome curry dinner. A was over the moon at being able to eat again and V was delighted to be able to eat something other than the hotel food she’d been ordering from room service while in Bagan.

While our day in Mandalay had been interesting, it’s fair to say that neither of us were particularly struck by the city and the reason for us visiting was so that we could use it as a base for some trips around the region. Added to this, it turns out that A spent most of the day feeling repulsed by our guide’s “reptilian feet” and so it’s not clear how much of any of it he took in...

We explored Sagaing, Inwa and Amarapura on a short trip from Mandalay. Luckily for A’s concentration levels, we had a different guide. Our trip to Sagaing, home to over 700 monasteries and nunneries and over 15,000 monks and nuns, took us across the Ayeyarwady.

We visited a nunnery, where we wandered around to the chorus of a small group of nuns and watched other small groups of nuns make offerings before sitting down to their lunch. The nunnery is home to a bamboo buddha image, which is fairly unusual and was interesting to see. One thing that struck us was how clean our feet were after this visit and that the monks could learn a thing or two from the nuns. Top tip if you visit Myanmar - pick out nunneries and not monasteries and your feet will be a lot cleaner than ours.

From there we went to Soon U Ponya Shin Paya, which is one of Sagaing’s most important temples. Either side of the main buddha image, there was a statue of a frog and a rabbit: the frog representing the shape of the rock the stupa was built on (the rock on which Sagaing is built resembles a frog from across the Ayeyarwady) and the rabbit representing a previous incarnation of Buddha.

For stunning views across the Ayeyarwady, we visited Umin Thounzeh, which means 30 caves. This complex had, surprise, surprise, a cave built into the rock, with 30 entrances leading onto 45 buddha images inside. After exploring this, we spent some time taking in the far-reaching views from the terrace above the cave. 

We stopped for a quick tea break with our guide, where we tried some cho paw kya, very strong black tea with condensed milk. Our short break turned into an education on gambling in Myanmar. We’d already worked out that, while illegal, almost everybody still does it. What we hadn’t realised was just how complicated the system is. Our guide gave us an explanation, using his own current bets on the FA cup, as to how it worked. A gave him a tip on Leeds to win against to Birmingham, with Becchio to score at least one. We’re not sure if he took that insider tip on board and, to be honest, we don’t yet know the result ourselves.

Back across the river and then short boat hop across to the former capital of Inwa. We rode around by horse and cart and went through the most beautiful field ever (we can’t even believe we’re describing a field as beautiful but it was!) - it was a patchwork of different crops with a single muddy track, the horizon and foreground dotted with palm trees, ancient crumbling stupas and with some remnants of the old city walls to the right hand side and an old teak monastery just beyond. Really very pretty. The countryside everywhere around us was stunning and it’s not everyday you get to see a saffron-robe clad monk wandering through banana trees. 

We wandered around the Bagaya Kyaung, which was the same type of teak structure as in Mandalay. What was different about this place was the small school in one corner of the eastern room, complete with novice monks and other young children, seemingly teaching themselves as the teacher sat at the front of the class, reading the paper (probably checking on the Premier League results...). 

We also checked out the Maha Aungmye Bonzan, another monastry, now unused and which has suffered in the most recent earthquake, meaning that some parts weren’t safe to visit. Nothing really stands out from this visit and so we were keen to hop back on to our horse and cart and take in our last bit of Inwa scenery before heading to Amarapura.

Another former capital, Amarapura is famous for U-Bein’s Bridge, billed as the world’s longest teak footbridge. Some of the rotting teak posts have, rather thankfully (for safety reasons, not for architectural finesse), been replaced by concrete and so we’re not so sure whether that claim still stands. The bridge stretches across Lake Taungthaman, curving gracefully across the shallow water and what are, in the dry season at least, vegetable gardens.

In addition to the tourists who had flocked there for sunset, the bridge was teeming with locals and monks. We managed to get there some time before the crowds and were able to walk the length of the bridge and back, and explore the drier ground below, in relative peace, before finding somewhere to perch for sunset. While watching the changing colours as the sun sank in the sky, the usual chorus of camera clicks could be heard and a number of fishing boats, complete with MCA-toting tourists, were lined up in what had clearly been designated a “perfect sunset viewing spot”. While observing this, we realised that, if we had criminal tendencies or were in desperate need of an MCA, that the perfect time to steal one would be in the moments after someone had just taken a photo. Without exception, every MCA-bearer takes a photograph and then immediately reviews. An ideal opening then presents itself for the opportunistic thief to strike. A decided that these are “mugging moments” (or “MMs” for short) and then spent the rest of the sunset pointing them out to V, who was probably susceptible herself (although doubted that our tiny camera would be worthy loot). It was a stunning sunset and we managed to get some decent photos.

Mandalay was also a great base for a boat trip down the Ayeyarwady to Mingun. The scenery either side of the river was fairly unremarkable until the Mingun Paya came into view. This stupa ruin, had it been completed, would have been the world’s largest. King Bodawpaya stopped work on it after a fortune teller told him that it would bring bad luck. Some suspect that the fortune teller did this to give the locals, all of whom had been kept busy for years building it, some time off so they could go back to their usual trades. In any case, it’s an impressive pile of bricks, but shows extensive damage from the 1975 and recent earthquake.  

Mingun Paya, although not gold (huh?!), is surrounded with the usual tourist shops. Our guide joked that the locals have changed from fishing the river for food to “fishing tourists”!  One such local teenager selling postcards told us a story of how she was saving to pay for school. Her opening price for ten postcards (which we may beat home depending on the efficiency of the combined Myanmar-British postal services) was quite excessive and so the hard-nosed Yorkshireman in A surfaced and haggled her down to half price. A then showed his tender side by giving the young girl a small amount to keep for herself and not for her boss, which brought not only a wonderful beaming smile to her face but untold amounts of thanks! She was so touched that she sought us out before we got back on our boat to again say how grateful she was. Totally unnecessary for her to do but we were bowled over by it.

Inbetween A making V’s heart melt by being a little bit less tight than usual, we saw the Mingun Bell, the world’s second-largest bell and largest intact bell (apparently the Moscow one is cracked). We dutifully chimed this three times and A gave himself a bit of headache by crawling underneath it to stand inside while other tourists struck the bell from the outside. 

On the way back to our boat, avoiding all of the “cow-taxis” (yes, taxi carts pulled by cows), we saw the crumbling ruins of what were once two large lions and which would have served as the riverside entrance to the Mingun Paya. Barely any of these remain, but it wasn’t difficult to imagine how impressive they would have been and how grand an entrance they would have made approaching from the river.

On our boat trip back to Mandalay, there was a sudden rush of excited calls and movement from the captain. He killed the motor and rushed towards us shouting and pointing at shapes breaking the water. In front of us, making their way up river was a pod of the rare freshwater Ayeyarwady dolphins. They appeared so graceful and elegant as they broke the surface of the water, their smooth skin gleaming in the sunlight. Once they had disappeared from sight and our captain started up the engine once more, we realised that we were not the only ones who had stopped to marvel at this sight - all of the local fisherman and other river traffic had come to a complete standstill and all we could see was smiles and people pointing. We felt incredibly lucky to have seen these beautiful creatures, which are so rare, especially in this part of the river. 

While in Mandalay, we discovered two things in our hotel room. Firstly, all Myanmar TV programmes and movies must have at least three people on screen for any given shot (we found ourselves strangely gripped by the local news/ their equivalent of “Eastenders”, none of which we could understand). Secondly, A does not know how to work a shower. After telling V on the first morning that there was no hot water, A discovered on the second evening that turning the tap the other way released the hot water. V had not sought to check the shower herself, thinking her engineer husband (and the half an hour he’d spent in the bathroom on the first morning) competent enough to work a shower. Big mistake which had meant two days of cold showers.

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