Destination: Mandalay, Myanmar
Number of days spent: 4 days
Where we stayed: Nylon Hotel ($12US) Breakfast included & always hot water though our room was like a windowless cell. We arrived in Mandalay at midnight & took the first available thing we found. Too lazy to move, and nothing overly wrong with the place aside from little to no character, we stuck it out here.
Best Restaurant: The Chapatti Stand (corner of 27th and 82nd) has excellent chapatti (150K each – $.15) and virtually everyone comes here at least once during a stay. Just a couple of blocks away, near the Hindu temples on 81st sits a pair of street vendors. One sells a cheaper (100K – $0.10) not quite as tasty but still good Chapatti with beans or a sweet filling. The other sells a massive Dosa (a crispy, crepe like Indian bread) w/ 3 kinds of gravy or sugar for 200K ($.20 - an excellent buy!).
Best of: Cheap Chapatti Dinners, walking and chatting with monks, the brilliance of the golden Mahamuni image.
Worst of: We lost 400+ photos in a freak memory card incident.
Most memorable: Chatting with a dozen or so monks on the way up and at the top of Mandalay Hill for sunset.
Useful Tip: Don’t waste your money on the $10 government ticket. The Palace isn’t worth it, the Teak Monastery on the other side of town is more impressive than Shwenandaw (the old Palace monastery), ‘The book’ can be seen just as well from Sandamuni which is free, and if you walk up the hill, no one checks for the tickets. The only other thing you miss out on is a temple on Inwa (Ava) Island, nice but not worth the $10.
Sitting squarely in the center of the northern half of Myanmar, the former capital city of Mandalay is now the second largest city in Myanmar behind Yangon. The city continues to sprawl out as trade with China grows. Mandalay of old played host to the last kings of Burma and the hill looming above the city was said to be where Buddha predicted that a great city would be built here 2400 years after his death, or 1857 by our calendar. It was in that year that the king had the capital city moved from Amarapura (about 11 miles south of Mandalay) to Mandalay, perhaps fulfilling the prophesy. While the ‘Great City’ part of the prophesy remains to be seen, there is no escaping the cities importance to Myanmar’s history.
A popular way to see the city is by Blue Taxi. These tiny Mazda pickups from the 50’s and 60’s are still cheap (around 13000K for the day, max of 5 people) and make much better time than bicycles or rickshaws. They don’t have much power, so don’t expect them to take you up any hills, but the driver is yours for the day so go pretty much anywhere you want. We used a guy named Wyn Wyn. He was a personable guy who parks at the corner of the Nylon hotel & Garden hotel. As stated earlier, our camera had some sort of malfunction with the memory card and we lost a couple of days worth of photos in the process. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but we still have the memories I suppose.
For Myanmar, there are three main holy Buddhist Sites – The Shwedagon Paya in Yangon, Mt. Kyaiktiyo with it’s Golden Rock, and the Mahamuni image in Mandalay. The Mahamuni image may have been forged as early as the times of Buddha himself, but most date it to the 1st century B.C.E. While the image is actually bronze, you would never guess that given the amount of gold leafs that have been applied over the years. The image’s legs, the easiest to touch, bulge out in ripples of plated gold. Being one of the holiest images in the country, the statue is well tended for, even getting somewhat of a bath every morning from the attending monks. Around the complex there are also some unique Khmer statues dating from the times of Angkor Wat in Cambodia (11th century) which became tokens of conquests by various kingdoms. Said to help heal any parts of the body that ails, the statues are well ‘polished’ by years of believers rubbing them in various areas.
A short distance away from Mahamuni sits Shwe In Bin Kyaung, or locally called the Teak Monastery. The monastery, dating from the 1890’s, is in relatively good condition and it’s intricately carved wooden temple and interior provide an excellent alternative to the the Palace Monastery (part of the government $10 ticket). Perhaps even better, you will probably have the place all to yourself, we did barring a couple of monks. While this was part of the pictures we lost, we had a few extra minutes one morning to stop by again. We did find it interesting that the monk’s had a Land Rover, with that whole giving up worldly possessions bit, but as you travel around Myanmar, you begin to understand the interesting dynamic at play here. More on that and other random observations on Burma in a later post.
Thinking that we would not be able to avoid the $10 ticket, we decided to go ahead and pay to see the newly constructed Palace. Home to the last kings of Burma prior to British colonial rule, the Palace is somewhat of a farce. While the moat and walls are impressive, and free, inside these barriers exist two worlds – neither of which are worth the price of admission. Most of the interior area is off limits to foreigners as the first world serves as military barracks for the ruling military junta. At the center of the complex lies the second world, the palace grounds themselves. Mostly a reconstruction from the 90’s, supposedly done by forced labor by the military to help promote tourism, the grounds are highly forgettable. The cheap and shoddy reconstruction exudes a tourist-trap feeling and little, if any, knowledge can be gleamed by coming here as 98% of the buildings are barren and provide no useful information.
Having already paid for the ticket, we went ahead and visited the other places included. Dubbed the world’s largest book, all 15 books of the Tripitaka (for lack of a better explanation, the Buddhist Bible) were inscribed on marble slabs and each marble slab enshrined in it’s own small stupa. The stupas emanate out from Kuthodaw Paya (part of the $10 ticket) and nearly encompass Sandamuni Paya (free!) next door. It’s estimated that if one person read for 8 hours a day, it would take over 15 months to read the entire ‘book’.
Across the street from the main moat sits the only existing part of the original palace, the Shwenandaw Kyaung ($10 combo ticket), or the Golden Palace Monastery. The building was once the part of the palace where King Mindon lived and died. After his death, his son, the last king of Burma, had the building moved outside the palace walls and was turned into a monastery. By being located outside the walls, the building survived the bombings in WWII that destroyed the palace itself. The monastery does have very nice carved wood features, both on the inside as well as outside. The afore mentioned Teak Monastery was just as nice, and free.
Seen from just about anywhere in Mandalay, Mandalay Hill serves as a commanding backdrop to the city below. A trip to the top is almost a must for commanding views at sunset. There are a couple of ways to the top. The easy way is to take a car/jeep taxi (Blue taxis, rickshaws and bicycles can’t make the steep grade) to the base of an escalator that will take you the rest of the way. The slightly harder way is to walk all the way. The hill itself is a sacred place, Buddha himself stood atop it, so you are required to walk barefoot the entire way. It’s about a 30 minute climb, but the entire way is covered so it’s not overly difficult. The best part about walking up is that it allows you the time to talk with monks. Several monks attend University in Mandalay and they come here to practice English with foreigners. After talking to the monks, many of them have aspirations of going to Sri Lanka or India to finish their studies. In order to receive a doctorate degree, they need to be able to deliver the Buddhist message in English, which has become somewhat of the modern day universal language. We were so busy with chatting in fact, that we almost missed the sunset!
Another popular nighttime activity in the city is to take in one of the numerous puppet or dance shows. The notorious Moustache Brothers perform nightly from their home. The three brothers, spouses, sister and mother are all under house arrest and unable to perform their routine in Burmese, but for some reason, the government allows them to continue the act in English. The first part of the routine is all about dissent – mostly in the form of video clips. One Hugh Grant movie mentions the brother Par Par Lay being arrested for 7 years for telling jokes about the government and another series of clips featuring various actors calling for a free Burma get intermixed with Lu Maw’s interesting commentary and joke telling. The second half consists of several dance routines performed by the vaudeville troupe. The show is not particularly good to be perfectly honest, and the lackluster expressions of having to perform the exact same show, every day, year after year, for a small crowd of less than a dozen with nothing ever changing can be seen on their faces. It gives you a sense of what it must be like being one of the few outspoken opponents to the junta, however, and we were glad to support the cause, no matter how in vain it may be.
Aside from the time spent in the city, we made a few other day trips to sites just outside of Mandalay. See the next post for more on Amarapura, Sagaing, Mingun and Ava!