Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Watching Monks commute to ‘work’ around Mandalay

For the stats on Mandalay, check out the previous post.
Useful Tip:  If you intend on going out on a boat for sunset at the U Bein bridge, take this guy out, Su Nie.  Not only is he quite the character, but he will go the extra mile, taking you to the other side of the bridge, pointing out several places for nice photos and staying as long as you want after sunset to catch the dusk glow.  We were the last ones off the lake both days.   You could not ask for a better boat driver.
Mandalay may have been the site of the last royal dynasty in Myanmar, but there were plenty others prior.  The surrounding area around Mandalay has been the site of numerous capital cities over the years.  Kingdoms have come and gone and what remains is a remarkable collection of temples, palaces and monasteries all within easy reach of the city.  Aside from the ancient capital cities of Mingun, Ava and Amarapura, the city of Sagaing is home to one of the highest concentrations of monks and monasteries in the country.
Mingun ($3 entrance fee combined with Sagaing) lies just a short ferry ride (9:00AM; 4500K per person) north of Mandalay and serves as home to King Bodawpaya’s magic fantasy land.  Like so many kings prior and since, the power goes to their heads and they begin to think in scales beyond the realm of reality.  After his father and brother’s short lived conquering of Siam (present day Thailand), Bodawpaya took on the Rakhaing’s taking away their prized possession, the Mahamuni Image.  Needing a pagoda so grand to house his possession, he began work on the Mingun Paya.  With a work force comprising mainly of slaves and prisoners of war, the pagoda was to be the largest ever constructed.  After 29 years of construction, only the base was ever completed as work halted upon the King’s death.  Despite the lack of completeness, the massive base of bricks stands ominously just off the banks of the river.  Since it was intended to be a holy site, you still have to go barefoot, but the stairs are in relatively decent shape and the climb to the top only takes a couple of minutes.  The reward is a great view of the river along with the surrounding village of Mingun. 
Aside from the massive pile of bricks, Mingun is also home to the worlds largest uncracked bell, apparently there is a bell somewhere in Russia that is bigger, but cracked.  Bodawpaya had the massive bell cast to go along with his equally massive Pagoda.  Illusions of grandeur continue.    
There are a couple of other sites in Mingun, but the bell and the bricks are the highlights.  Being a fairly standard stop on the tour group trail (they have their own boats even), the standard tacky souvenir stalls and vendors are impossible to miss.
Another good day trip from Mandalay is to visit the island of Ava/Inwa by either Blue taxi (14000K-16000K), Motorbike(10,000K plus gas) or bicycle (1000K-1500K).  We opted for the slightly more adventurous motorbike to check out Ava/Inwa and Amarapura in the same day.
Today’s unassuming island of Inwa (Ava) resembles little more than a collection of thatch hut villages and a couple of crumbling stupas in fields but this was once the site of the longest reigning capital of Burma.  Ava served as the capital city for over 400 years from the 13th century until the Buddha ‘prophesy’ for Mandalay was put into action.  If you come by Blue taxi, the only option you have to see the island is a preset horse cart tour.  Annoyingly, they charge a nominal fee for motorbikes but it was worth it to have a little freedom in exploring the island at our own pace.  We got lost a couple of times but since it was an island we could not get lost too bad.  A few locals helped us find our way when we stopped for some ‘ice cream’.  Thankfully it didn’t make us sick as the taste was off in a spoiled milk kind of way.  They must have felt bad for us wandering around because they brought us out a huge tray of sweet sticky rice and insisted we take it to the temple for a picnic.
The sites on the island are spread out, but fairly easy to find once you get on the right path.  The wooden monastery was another nice example of intricate woodcarvings while the ‘leaning’ tower of Ava provided a good view of the area.  The only place that checks for the combo ticket (same $10 ticket as the Mandalay city sites) is a brick and stucco built monastery, nice but again, not worth giving the government the extra $$’s.  
After having our filll of sour ice cream and crumbling monasteries, we headed over to what we consider the highlight of the area, the U-Bien Bridge in Armarapura.  Armarapura was also another capital city in Burma’s past, but little is left as most of the materials were used to construct other projects.  What draws most people to the area today is its unique teak wood bridge.  Standing for over 150 years, the U-Bien Bridge is the longest teak wood bridge in the world (not to be confused with other wooden bridges apparently).  Spanning a small lake, the nearly 1km long bridge allows monks to commute from one monastery to the other, local villagers to carry their wares across the lake from village to village, and tourists to break out their best lens to capture the moments in 35mm glory. 
Probably the most interesting part of the bridge is its actual use.  While so many bridges of this nature have been replaced with modern steel and concrete (and yes, there is one of those some distance away spanning the same water) this bridge not only still stands, but is well used.  All day long, the traffic never ends.  Underneath the bridge lies another world.  Farmers tend seasonal crops that will surely be covered over once Monsoon season is in full swing.  Makeshift tea shops give refuge to tourists, pilgrims and farmers alike.
As with many sites, the best time to come is either at sunrise or sunset when the light is best and the cooler air in tropical climates is most welcome.  We made it for sunset and the afore mentioned boat driver took us all over the lake, providing us with multiple viewpoints.  It was also in his boat, about halfway through, that the memory card gave us an error that essentially erased all the pictures from Mingun, Mandalay and Ava/Inwa.  While it was certainly a bummer, we still have our memories…at least for now!
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The following day, we headed out to Sagaing in the morning and followed that up with a return trip to U-Bien Bridge.  Having to run some errands in town first, we found it easier to hire a Blue taxi (14,000K whole day) for the day rather than try and manage the streets of Mandalay going place we don’t know on the motorbike. 
Yet another one of those royal capital sites, Sagaing today is known more for the monk population and the multiple monasteries in the cities borders.  Sagaing, much like Mandalay, has a hill covered with stupas, pagodas, and monks practicing English.  From the top, the view is more like a modern day Bagan with so many Buddhist symbols rising off the tree covered ground.   
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After leaving Sagaing, we made a few stops to satisfy the driver since he supplements his income a little by taking us to preferred shops.  The Chinese lunch shop was just OK and Tracy wanted to swing by the weaving shops again as we had the day before on our own, so we didn’t mind the couple of stops.  It’s ok to say no however as we did to a couple of other places he wanted to take us like the marble and wood carving shops.
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After the quick shopping stop, 
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We took the rest of the afternoon and relaxed under the bridge at a little makeshift teashop.  From our vantage point, we watched daily commute that we fell in love with the day prior while sipping on our 3-1 coffee (Nescafe+Cream+Sugar in one convenient package) and Chinese tea.
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Prying ourselves up from the seats, we managed to get across the rest of the bridge.  At the far end of the bridge sits a little village and a couple of excellent monasteries.  Unknown to us, the boatman had came up the village to show us around before we spent yet another wonderful Burmese sunset out on the water.
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As the sun set that night, so did our time in and around Mandalay come to a close.  We were sad to have lost so many pictures, but glad to have had the opportunity to make the memories to begin with.  Bags in hand, we headed out to the next stop – the ancient city of Bagan via the ‘slow’ boat!
To see more photos click on the city below:

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