Ancient Cities of Mandalay

Trip Start Dec 28, 2011
Trip End Jan 19, 2012

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Where I stayed
ET Hotel

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Sunday, January 8, 2012

Batman & Joker
Today's motorbike trip out of Mandalay included these ancient cities Amarapura, Sagaing and Inwa. I had the pleasure of having Joker from ET hotel as my driver and guide. I thought he was joking about his name but it turned out that his real name is in fact spelt Jol Kar. I introduced myself as Batman and Jol Kar had to pause for a split second before realising that it was a joke.

U Bein Bridge
We started the morning with a visit to Mahamuni Paya, said to be Mandalay's most famous for its 6 inches thick layer of gold leaves on the centrepiece Mahamuni buddha image. Next we visited Amarapura's U Bein Bridge - an incredibly long teak footbridge that stretches across the Taungthaman Lake, easily the highlight of this ancient cities circuit. Good thing that I had visited U Bein Bridge in the morning when the crowds were considerably less. When I returned for sunset later in the day, the bridge was completely packed with locals and monks.

Near the bridge, we stopped at Maha Ganayon Kyaung to watch the monastery give out / serve food for its thousand monks for breakfast. The whole scene was like a circus here but I was just as guilty. Abit like taking pictures of someone feeding their pet rabbits... I learnt today that monks here sometimes consume meat as they did today - chicken curry.

Thousands of Stupas & Pagodas
Next on the list was Sagaing, a beautiful city dotted with thousands of stupas and pagodas. The view towards Sagaing on Sagaing bridge was nothing short of stunning. However there was no chance of stopping for a photo as we were travelling across the bridge. Next I got to climb Sagaing Hill, another tormenting episode for my legs, for some amazing views of Sagaing's stupas and pathway shelters linking a network of pagodas.

The Chronicles of Jol Kar
Lunch at the jetty before entering Inwa, was another unexpected surprisingly delicious curries. Jol Kar shared some info about his life in Mandalay. He lived in Mandalay for 16 years , have a wife and a 3 year old daughter. He pays 25000 kyats a month for a house rental north of Mandalay, 5000 kyats for electricity and by next year his daughter's kindergarden will cost him another 5000 kyats a month. Kol Kar earns roughly 10000 kyats a day after deducting for fuel and food when the tourist season is at its peak - which is about 3 rider customers a week. I find Jol Kar a very pleasant and kind man. Always soft spoken and has a reasonable command of English.

Angry Government Official
So far I had not paid any ticket money to any of the Mandalay sights. Supposedly there was this US$10 combo ticket which the government officials enforce at various sights. Crossing the river on boat to Inwa costed 1000 kyats, horse carts queuing like a taxi rank costed 5000 kyats a cart and at Bagaya Kyaung Teak Monastery, the US$10 combo ticket is required.

At that monastery, I merely asked if I could read the history information on display before I decide if I wanted to buy a ticket and enter, the infuriated government official (Ministry of Culture) scoffed "No ticket no study story!" with piercing eyes. Ok, so I decided to keep my US$10 than to fill their dirty pockets. I turned my back and hopped onto my horse cart and left. There are other old pagodas and temples to visit for free. By the way, if one decides to not take the horse carts and walk to the various sights, one may have to walk about 10 kilometres under the blistering sun. But the horse cart ride experience was backbreaking for me.

Back to Amarapura's U Bein Bridge for sunset which I thought was simply amazing. It was picturesque and moody at the same time. I spent most of my attention taking shots of the sunset and completely forgotten about the moonrise which was just as beautiful.

The motorbike ride back to Mandalay was a dusty one especially when trucks were recklessly racing around in the foggy evening. It is true when they say that you could feel the dust in the back of your throat after a day out in Mandalay.

Chapati Stall
Hooray! Just discovered free wifi at the reception of ET Hotel and the connection was bloody excellent (in fact the best in my trip). Went off to a great open air chapati place at the corner of 24th & 81st Street (not the one featured in Lonely PLanet) with 2 new friends from China. Obviously chinese politics was the topic of interest. They honestly declared that the corrupted chinese government is the cause of many social breakdowns in China. 

Much later back at ET hotel, he showed me amateur footages of government officials bashing illegal hawkers to death on the streets, with onlookers afraid to act. These photos were posted on a chinese version of Facebook. For obvious reasons, these never made it to international news. I mentioned that China's economy created countless billionaires out of capitalism and he quickly pointed out that the mega rich did it out of motivation to emigrate out of China and certainly one day he will too. He claimed that Jet Li also migrated to Singapore - now that's interesting news. From a communist dynasty to another.
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