Myanmar. Country 21 and we are in Mandalay, arriving via Air Asia from Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport. We’d taken advantage of the new eVisa scheme that allows you to enter through a small number of points (mainly airports) and exit through any border post open to foreigners.
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The online evisa is US$50 and came through within 48 hours. Air Asia got us easily to Mandalay Airport, which is in the middle of nowhere. Then, although we were clutching hundreds of pristine US dollars which we DIDN’T NEED we grabbed 3,000,000 kyat (chat) from the ATM in arrivals. We then took the free to Air Asia customers bus that would take us to the center of Mandalay.
Mandalay. Sounds colonial, Kipling like and exotic doesn’t it? For me it evokes imagery of colonial life, of handlebar moustaches and a land of glittering pagodas and stupas.
The reality was a little dustier and more modern. Wide, dusty roads that you’re not quite sure are concrete, tarmac or just dust. If there’s a sidewalk, then its covered in stalls, bikes or motorbikes. No signs in English.
I feel as though I’m traveling again. My immediate thoughts are that I like this country. It’s a feeling that only grows in my time in Myanmar, which although it has its frustration, it more than overcame them.
Our hotel is close to the central train station, the 79 Living, selected because we want to take a train to the Gokteik Viaduct and it leaves at 0400. It’s one of the great train journeys of Myanmar, another is the Slow Train to Thazi, which is equally fabulous.
Mandalay is nothing like the images in my mind. If there is a centre with a colonial feel we didn’t find it. Kipling never even came here, he stalled at Mawlamyine, hundreds of miles to the south, where he only stayed for 3 days. Plenty others did though – and I read Amitav Ghosh’sThe Glass Palace in my time here and it brings the history of this place (and India) to life for me.
Our hotel offers bicycle rental, so that we can take ourselves off to the Palace (the entrance is 5 km away) and to the various pagoda and stupa around the city.
It’s in the mid 30’s, temperature wise. So we take a 35,000 kyat (pronounced chat) (US$27.56) air conditioned car and driver. Our driver speaks enough English to tell us where we are and point. That works for us.
It’s not difficult to navigate the city, it’s pretty much on a grid system, but distances are large and walking is hard work. That’s not just because of the heat, but also because the sidewalks don’t exist and traffic – like in all of Asia – comes from all directions.
Our day trip starts in the south with the Mahamuni Pagoda. This is one of the more important Buddhist sites in Myanmar,
It holds a 3.8m high Buddha which came from Mrauk U in 1784.
No knees and shoulders allowed in here. Men’s or womens. When Nigel tries to put on the sarong he bought in Indonesia over his shorts, he’s told that that is a woman’s longhi. They press a men’s one on him. He zips the legs of his shorts on instead.
A burmese longhi
The longhi is basically a piece of cloth sown into a cylindrical tube. It’s slipped over the head by men and stepped into by the women and tucked in at the waist. Men and women fasten their longyis at the waist in different ways. Men fold the garment into two panels and knot it neatly at waist level. Ladies wear it like a wrap-around skirt tucked in at the side of the waist.
The Buddha is for Men only.
Anyways, back to the Buddha. Women are not allowed into the inner area regardless of how many clothes they’re wearing. We can, however, watch it on TV. So I can see where the males can apply gold leaf to the figure.
The complex proudly displays how different the Buddha looks now compared to a few years ago, showing how much gold lead has been applied.
Mandalay’s Stone Carving
Our trip also takes us to the stone carving area here in the south of the city. There are store upon store, workshop upon workshop all lined up.
Huge chunks of marble litter their front entrances and while they also sell smaller items, all the folks working here, are working on large items.
The last part of the carving to be undertaken is the face – as often purchasers give specific instructions on the facial design.
Here too in this area are gold smiths, puppet makers, tapestry and wood carvers. The detail is stunning. That it’s all done by hand is stunning.
Shwe In Bin Kyaung
Our next stop is Shwe In Bin Kyaung. This glorious small teak carved monastery, also in the south side of Mandalay was built by jade merchants from China.
There’s no one around at all as we just walk around enjoying the peace and the amazing carvings. We don’t enjoy the heat of the teak as we leave our shoes at the bottom of the steps to walk up and view the upper area.
The Mandalay Palace
Then we head to the north and the area around the Mandalay Palace – first the palace itself.
Most of the area around the palace (inside the moat) is off limits to foreigners, being controlled by the army. The palace itself disappeared years ago, this is a replica of the palace constructed by King Mindon in 1857, when he made Mandalay his capital. It’s similar in a lot of aspects to the Forbidden City in Beijing.
The buildings are aligned in an auspicious fashion, inside a walled fort and both sit within a huge moat. Only Mindon and his successor Thibaw ruled from here before the British arrived, Thibaw and his wife Supayalat and their family went into exile in India in 1885 with his family and World War II took care of flattening the rest of the buildings.
The reconstruction looks much better from a distance. Up close the roofs are of corrugated iron painted red, but peeling badly. Signs are few and far between.
We make to the watchtower first of all to get a birds eye view of the complex and Mandalay. It’s said that in the original of this tower, Queen Supayalat watched the British arriving in the city.
We then whistle round the Pagoda’s of the Northern part of the City.
The Golden Palace Monastery -Shwenandaw Kyaung
This is another glorious teak constructed monastery, there’s a weak golden glow inside.
Kuthodaw Pagoda – The World’s Largest Book
Kuthodaw Pagoda is the home of the world’s largest book! No paper or papyrus though, this book is made from engraved slabs of marble, 729 of them!
Each marble slab is housed in a small stupa and together they relay the fifteen books of the Tripitaka.
It took more than a decade to complete (and check) – the British created a huge amount of damage to the slabs during their rule.
The Buddhist tradition of removing footwear and ensuring that knees and shoulders are covered before visiting shrines and pagodas is pretty tough in this heat. The long trousers I can cope with. The dashes across the hot ground are made worse by someone’s decision to cover the ground in shiny tiles, which scorch the soles of feet relentlessly. I guess the sensibly devout get up early and do this before sunrise.
It’s here at the Kyauktawgi Pagoda that we get to know the Burmese habit of covering their Buddha in LED lights. They’re flashing at such a speed as to bring on fits in those that are that way inclined. The Buddha here was carved from a single piece of marble. It’s 12 metres high!
Kuthodaw might be the world’s largest book, but Sandamuni houses 1774 marble slabs. These are engraved with commentary on the Tripitaka scripture. It’s another glorious site here in Mandalay, and empty when we visit.
Originally built to house a diamond studded Buddha in the 1850s, this is now a reconstruction, cavernous, white, gold and allows no drone photography.
Our tour takes us finally to Mandalay Hill – supposedly for sunset, but we’ve been whistling through and we arrive mid afternoon – so head up there anyways.
In this heat we have no desire to hike up one of the covered staircases and stand in a line to possibly watch the sunset. There are the usual stores, stalls and anything for sale, even sandals in an area where footwear is not allowed.
We decline to pay the 1000 kyat to go “right to the top”, stopping at a “this is high enough for us” free to view area. The view is worth it.
The Ubein Bridge – Sun Rise
The day before we leave Mandalay we head south again, this time up in the dark and we arrive at the Ubein bridge in the dark, deciding to visit at sunrise, rather than sunset.
Of course you can also visit during the day, but we pick sunrise in the hope that we’ll get to see the monks heading out looking for alms.
There’s no one here. Well no tourists.
There are locals out for their morning constitutional, or sleeping in the small huts that you find mid way on this 1.2km long bridge constructed almost entirely of teak.
The bridge’s very existence is due to Amarapura’s mayor (that’s the area that we’re in now), Ubein, who when the Mandalay palace was moved further north decided that he’d recycle some of the teak pillars to make a bridge. And there are over one thousand of them, there are also concrete replacements in there.
The sun does rise, but not in a pretty fashion this morning, so we make do with walking over the bridge and back. We only spot one monk and he asks for money.
It’s gloriously peaceful, though, as we leave we spot one small group of westerners. Germans, they’re here shooting for a fashion magazine. We head back for breakfast.
Mandalay isn’t what I was expecting, but it’s been a pleasant and easy introduction to Myanmar. That said, it’s a city and I’m looking forward to getting out into the countryside, we have an early start tomorrow, the train to Lashio via the Gokteik Viaduct and Hsipaw leaves Mandalay at 0400.
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