Day 2 in Mandalay and a full on tourist day with Mr Soesoe, from 9am till sunset. It’s a long read so save for when you’re having trouble sleeping or had enough caffeine, or just skip through ahd look at some pictures…
Being my usual attentive self I’d not read the memo on the day’s events properly. I knew we were visiting a couple of the ancient capital cities of Mandalay but that was about it. Time seems to slip away each day, and it always feels as if I’m on catch up, trying to keep track of planning for the next part of the trip, downloading the photos from the day before, before you know it it’s bedtime and you’re still not sure what’s occuring the next day.
Mr Soesoe is not a Bamar (main ethnic grouping) but Yun, and he certainly stood out as being significantly taller and stockier than the little people I’d encountered so far. He’d started life as an English teacher over 25yrs ago and became a tour guide in the mid-1990s, just as people were asked to boycott the country. He was like a clockwork toy, start of the day, chatty, energetic, arms flying, stories coming and then as the day wore on he gradually wound down, quieter, lethargic. Having gone through to identify our stops on through the day, it’s no surprise really – we had 19 different locations that we visited. No wonder by the time we got to U Pein / U Bein’s bridge (means Mr Skinny) he stopped entirely and I was accompanied by his son to watch another sunset. By the time we got back to the van, he’d had a nap or a beer or both and was a bit more with it, regaling me with stories of French tourists, elephant trekking, opium fields and militia on the way back to the hotel.
First up (following a bit of Googling to remember), we went to Shwenandaw Monastery, a wooden structure built in 1880 by King Thibaw Min. He decided to dismantle and relocate what was his father’s living quarters, believing them to be haunted by his dead father’s spirit. So when you’ve got a ghost in-situ it seems the best thing to do is move it with the building and let some monks figure out what to do about it. The building seemingly moved around a bit previously, having been part of the royal palace at Amarapura, before ibeing moved to Mandalay. Today Shwenandaw Monastery is the single remaining major original structure of the original Royal Palace. There – cul-tcha for ya!
Mahamuni Pagoda, one of the most religious sites for Burmese. A statue of Buddha sits here covered in repeated applications of gold leaf, now over 6” deep, looking as if he has a festering impetigo on his body or was morphing into Thing from Famous Four. His face is kept clean of leaf, and every day at 4am there is a face washing ceremony to ensure he remains pristine. Only men are allowed to apply the leaf, not just here, but at other sites where religious artefacts are held – in Inle 5 images of Buddha are so weighted with leaf they are merely bulbous forms, like snowmen.
Giant screens are set up around the site so you can watch the faithful close up as they apply the gold. Across the way stand 5 Hindu-Buddhist statues stolen from Angkhor Wat are lined up, parts of them shiny bright from repeatedly being touched by locals who believe that if they have pain and they rub the corresponding body part on the statues they’ll be healed.
A quick looksee at a damaged brick monastery now used as a volleyball court by monks and then it was off to Amapura, ‘City of Imortality’, and the penultimate royal capital of Myanmar. Amarpura is known for its silk weavers and off we went to the ubiquitous factory of about 15 looms. Girls working in pairs were threading silk weft to create an extremely intricate patterned longyi. They mainly produce bespoke orders for weddings, religious ceremonies etc. The patterns are worked on the reverse so you need a mirror to view the actual piece.
Gridlike patterns were set up next to each girl but how they managed to keep track of their patterns seemed headache inducing. No wonder the prices were starting from $1000, which resulted in most people skipping the back of the show room where the good stuff was sat, and instead mooched around in the ‘cheap deals area’ looking at the bought in cotton scarves, Chinese factory made bags or silk mix cloth sold by the metre.
We headed to Mahagandhayon Monastery, which is home to several thousand monks and is renowned as a centre of Buddhist studies. I thought that was why we were there, getting a bit of insight an cul-tcha and was therefore a bit confused as to why we went to see the kitchen which was full of other clusters of tourists staring into big pots on big fires and taking photos. Big numbers of monks need a lot of food, so big pots of it makes sense.
Turns out that this is circus central, and everyone was brought here to watch monks line up for lunch. The tourist obsessions with monks is obvious in Burma, but even more so in Mandalay due to the high numbers of monasteries, and therefore high numbers of monks. People seem strangely drawn to wanting to photograph any male in a crimson robe just going about his business – looking at his phone, taking a photo, using an ipad, scratching his arse, sitting on a bus. It borders on stalking in some instances. It was therefore somewhat disconcerting to see hundreds of people all crowded, having bagged a ‘good spot’ to watch food being dished out. It was a paparazzi style madness, everyone jostling for position waiting for the clock to strike 11am and lunch to be served. The monks themselves arrived silently, bowls in their arms all in dignified receiving lines be dished out lunch by faithful donators who had paid for the privilege of serving. They were themselves being filmed by their own camera crew, recording the event. Even when the monks sat down to eat there was no respite, with long lenses loonies straining to peer into the gloom of the dining room to photograph men in robes eating food. No wonder a number of the monks looked disgruntled, and some deliberately choosing to avoid the dining room due to the sense of discomfort.
It was a relief to leave and to head over the water, heading toward Sagaing, the capital of the independent Shan kingdom in 1315.
We couldn’t just head there and were pretty soon stopping at Kaunghmadaw Pagoda, a very breast shaped temple. Built in 1636 to commemorate Inwa’s establishment as a royal capital, the king was dithering about the shape of the stupa, until the queen supposedly ripped open her blouse and pointed at her breast saying ‘make it like this!’ I presume she meant the shape and not the size.
Soesoe and son were a bit peckish, and it wasn’t even 12noon. They left me at the market to have a potter about and then lunch was at a little restaurant away from the market, choices were curry, or curry, 5 actually – pork, chicken, fish, something I missed, and deer (complete with mime of Rudolph). But it wasn’t just as straightforward as that, because no, you get your chow for you kyat. What turned up was a small dish of curry with two pieces of meat, rice, soup, beans, a fish tomato thing, cabbagey salad, chilies and raw veggies with the chili dip. If that wasn’t enough then you could refill and take advantage of your two bananas for dessert. Did I know Wayne Rooney? (Big premier league fans here in Myanmar), ‘Sure, and I’ll tell the big eared, potato headed overpaid boy-man to come eat here’.
The Sagaing Hills are now home to over 6000 monks and nuns and we passed many who were finishing up exams, feeding the local dogs, or heading out to temples. We visited Soon U Ponya Sin Paya, where a giant bronze rabbit was somewhat incongruously sat as a donation box next to the large Buddha image. Nearby was the Umin Thounzeh caves which contained 45 Buddha images arranged in a crescent. Donors had recently paid for the glass mosaic that decorated the colonnaded space and their names covered the walls opposite the statues.
Winding back down the hill we headed off to a brick monastery that had completely caved in following various earthquakes.
Around it some local kids and some of the novice monks were playing together, as the school holidays had started. Attacking tamarind trees, playing football, clambering over the rubble, before they scooted off to harass a cow.
The harassment was short lived as they all got a bollocking from Mr Soesoe, at which point they all shuffled their feet, looked suitably contrite and one of the boys made a concillatory pat on the cow’s head. They then screamed off to their next adventure. We were off to our next stop too, but with less screaming – Mr Soesoe’s son was a very calm driver, I don’t think we ever went over 20mph.
Next stop was Inwa another ex-capital city of Burma. It had been the capital four times since . Nowadays it’s a quiet rural location, with gardens of banana trees in the middle of what was the old palace city walls. We left the van by a small pagoda complex and spent the trip around Inwa being transported by pony and cart.
It was a weird rush hour of tourist filled carts, lines of them outside ruins like a rural taxi rank.
The pony knew the routes by heart and set off at a brisk trot to the various sites, occasionally speeding up to the sound of the driver’s clicking tongue.
At the Bagaya Kyaung teak monastery, built in 1834 and supported on 267 pillars it was drama central. A French tourist had gone arse over tit on his way out from the gloom of the interior and seemingly dislocated his knee. He was surrounded by his tour group, a monk flapping a fan at him (someone would get mega-points for a photo of that), and a worried tour guide. There was no way he was walking anywhere. A British nurse popped up to assist although not sure he was going to be putting that bad boy back without anaesthetic.
It wasn’t the only pratfall of the day (not me, amazingly been accident free to date) as later at U Bein bridge someone did a full on somersault down at a footpath at the river level. I thought it was someone pratting about doing acrobatics, until it was clear they weren’t getting up and a whole heap of people were surrounding him and looking a bit perturbed. We were rattling towards our sunset conclusion, after a quick look at the leaning watchtower of Nanmyin, the only surviving part of the royal palace complex. It was on a wonk, and the earthquake of last year meant it was listing even more than ever, so no chance to walk up it.
Another monastery, this time brick, built in 1822, a trip to the city walls next to a Nat shrine and we were off ot the last stop of the day, U Bein Bridge.
Sunset at U Bein bridge is a thing so the place was HEAVING! Not helped by it being not very wide and no hand rails along it. Just over a kilometre of teak footbridge going across a very shallow Taungthaman Lake from Amarapura to Mandalay. People pay large £20 or so to be rowed into the middle of what’s left of the ever decreasing shallows to watch the sunset. As it’s no more than knee high you could save yourself some cash and wade out.
Everyone was angling for the best position to see the bridge, and the sunset, and if there was a monk walking through the scene at the right time it was triple bonus points all round. I sat next to monks drinking sugar cane (nil points – no photo) watching the melee unfurl. On the shore line a girl from Singapore or somewhere was being told to artfully wander up and down by a guy with a camera, she had to pause…pout, and look up a la Diana to the camera, repeatedly. After about 15mins of flouncing and twirling, racing back and forth to check the shots, they were spent, and then one of the aunties in the group wanted a go too. She got told ‘look straight to camera’, ‘click’, ‘you’re done’. Obviously a face for radio.
It was a great opportunity to people watch, give blood (to the mosquitos buzzing around), and to accidentally get in the way of mega zoom lens fiends and their tripods.
It was all over bar the return to the hotel, over 10hrs of non-stop touristic site-seeing, I was done in. Least I had a bit of a lie-in, the cookery day didn’t start till 9am the next day and nopagoda viewing to be done.