Travel

Myanmar – Part 3 – Mandalay

I finally convinced my boyfriend that it would be a great experience to take the train from Bagan to Mandalay. As he made a concession, I hade to make one as well and we booked tickets for the First class. The issue wasn’t about the price, which was insignificant, but more about the experience itself that I thought would be a bit distorted. I prefer to travel with locals in 2nd or 3rdclass (except for overnight travels) because it’s livelier, but my boyfriend needs a minimum of comfort. 
I have to admit that the experience was unique and genuine, even in First class. At the end, we were both happy.  And isn’t it the base of a balanced and healthy relationship to make compromises?
After another early start, we arrived at the train station where nobody spoke English and were happy to have bought our tickets in advance.
The train was supposed to leave Bagan at 7:00 am and to arrive to Mandalay at 14:30, 71/2 hours for around 200km… I let you calculate the average…
Most people prefer to take the bus or the plane, both being quicker, or the ferry when the river level allows it.

We were only 2 couples of foreigners to take the train on that day.

As the train was late, my boyfriend began to look at the pictures we took on his I-Pad. Suddenly, he was surrounded by a horde of Burmese people that had never seen a tablet and/or a camera before. There were very intrigued.

The train was finally announced for departure at 7:45. Not that bad!

It was in a very, very bad condition. 

However, the seats were quite large and comfortable.

JVC_4541 The slowness of the train gave us time to enjoy the landscapes… when we didn’t sleep… we couldn’t fight against the regular swaying of the train and the tiredness of the last few days.

We woke up hungry and had to wait for the next stop and sellers to enter the train and offer different kinds of food and drinks. 

But I didn’t drink that much because I didn’t want to use the toilets that were dreadful.

We finally reach Mandalay at 3:30pm with no place to stay.

Once again, our salvation came from a taxi driver who drove us to a guesthouse located near the market. The room was small but clean and comfortable. I was just a bit surprised by the decoration all baby pink and purple, like if we were in  “California Gurls” video!

We scheduled only 2 days in Mandalay and were happy not to have scheduled more because it was extremely difficult to breath due to the surrounding dust.

During those 2 days, we visited many temples, contemplated the work of talented craftsmen, got lost in the market, witnessed the daily life of monks and workers and ate delicious meals.

Temples

Mandalay is the cultural and religious centre for Buddhism in Myanmar. It’s the city with the most Buddhism monks and nuns in the world. So you can easily imagine that when in Mandalay, you will visit many temples.

Mahamuni Pagoda is one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Burma.

The temple houses the Mahamuni Buddha image, the most highly revered Buddha image in the country.

To pay respect to the Buddha image, male devotees apply gold leaves on it. As a result, the Mahamuni Buddha is covered with a thick layer of gold leaves of about 15 cm, which has distorted its shape.

Every morning at around 4 am the Buddha image ritual is performed. Witnessed by a great number of Buddhist devotees, the men up front, the women behind a rope, a very senior monk of the Mahamuni temple assisted by a number of helpers washes the face of the images and brushes the teeth. The ritual is performed in great detail and takes considerable time.

We didn’t assist to the ritual but we spent a good time wandering around the site and its garden.
Shwenandaw Monastery was originally part of the Royal Palace in Amarapura. When the capital city was moved to Mandalay, the building was dismantled, transported to Mandalay and rebuild there as part of the new all teak Royal Palace in 1857. King Mindon used the building as his personal living quarters. After the King died, his son often went there to meditate. But he soon became convinced, that Mindon’s spirit was haunting the building and relocated it to its current location outside of the Palace grounds, where it was converted into a monastery in 1880.

It’s a great place to get an impression of what the Royal Palace once must have looked like. As the Palace was destroyed during the second World War, the Shwenandaw Monastery is the only major original teak wooden building left of the original Mandalay Royal Palace.

This monastery is famous for its beautiful woodcarvings. It was once entirely covered in thick gold, but only the interior gold remains due to harshness of the tropical weather.

We went walking and the Monastery was not that easy to find but a nice gentleman leads us on the last hundreds meters.

We arrived early in the morning and were almost alone. It was perfect to admire the refinement of details, both outside and inside, without being rushed.

We also walked through many temples and monasteries randomly, just to get a glimpse of the monks and nuns’ daily life.

But my favourite image of a monk was very unexpected. It was very early in the morning, from the window of our room: I saw a monk meditating on a roof. It was unreal and I’ll never forget it.

Bridge

U Bein Bridge, with its 1.2 km, is said to be the longest and oldest teakwood bridge in the world.

It’s located 10 km South from Mandalay.

The local mayor U Bein is credited for the creation of the bridge in the 1850’s, using scavenged teak pilings from the discarded palace of Amarapura when the capital was moved to Mandalay.

The bridge is supported by more than 1,000 pillars and thousands of wooden planks. 

Over the time, some of the pillars have been replaced by concrete piles to strengthen the structure so that it continues to serve as a main passage indispensable to the daily life of the local people, as well as being a renowned tourist destination.

Most tourists come at sunset for the orange glow, which gradually engulfs the bridge and silhouettes those upon it.

During the dry season, the water level drops dramatically, allowing farmers to cultivate small crop fields under the bridge, taking advantage of the rich soil.

During wet season, the water level can reach the top of the bridge, and in some years has even covered the walkway.

We really enjoyed our excursion there even if we left before the sunset. I’m still not too sure why but I remember that my boyfriend tried to convince me that sunsets were all the same. I wasn’t (and I’m still not) convinced but we left.

We met very friendly monks that were as happy to take pictures with me than I was to take pictures with them!

We also really appreciated the fact that we were able to breathe normally for a couple of hours!, before going back to dusty Mandalay.

Market

The Zegyo Market is fantastic and not to be missed. 

It’s the oldest and main market of the city. You can pretty much find everything here: food, spices, fabrics, home wares, gems, Buddhist objects

It’s also a great opportunity to meet ethnic people in traditional costumes.

I was particularly fascinated by a group of young girls cutting betel nuts to make betel quids. A betel quid is the name given to a small parcel that typically contains betel nuts wrapped in a lime-coated betel leaf. Some also contains tobacco. And spices may be added for taste, like cardamom, saffron, cloves…

We wandered in the market for ages, attracted by colors, people, smells… 


Talking about smells, I have to warn you that the smell in some areas is worst than anything you’ve smelt before and that no one is ever prepared for it. But let’s say that it’s part of the charm and the experience!


Handcraft

Mandalay is also Myanmar’s hand craft centre with stone carvers, woodcarvers, gold leaf makers, silk weavers…
If you rent a taxi for a day or half-day excursion, chances are high that your taxi driver will stop you at different handicraft’s shops, as he’ll get a commission if you buy something. Even if you make it clear that you don’t want to buy something, he’ll try his luck so take it easy and who knows, you’ll maybe find something you actually like!

The stone carving workshops are located near Shwenandaw Monastery. They do a really nice job, mostly sculpting Buddhas of every sizes. 

We bought some small ones as souvenirs. But I would have loved to buy a big one!!!! I hope later, to buy one in Myanmar or Bali, when I’ll have my own house in Australia…

We also visited by our own one gold leaf workshop. 
Gold-leaves are originally made in Mandalay and are essential products for Buddhist life.

The workshops are concentrated in the south-east of the city, near the intersection of 36th and 78th streets. Jut follow the rhythmic hammering sounds and enter in any of them (there are about 20).

It is quite unbelievable to see the process, which has barely changed for centuries. Men must be very strong and women very meticulous.

Small pieces of metal are placed between sheets of parchment and pounded repeatedly with wooden mallets. As the metal thins out, it forms large sheets. These sheets are divided and the process is repeated. 

The final sheets of metal are trimmed, cut to various sizes, and sandwiched between sheets of paper to protect them.

But as the country’s economy opens up, people in the local gold leaf industry are concerned that an influx of imported gold leaf, machine-made and apparently of lower quality, is threatening their business.
To support them and maintain this tradition, we bought 1 small package of 100 sheets of gold leaf, weighing about 1 gram only!

When we went to U Bein Bridge, our taxi driver stopped us to several woodcarving and silk weaving workshops.

I don’t really like woodcarving but I was nonetheless impressed by the work, especially by the huge pieces carved in a single bock of wood.

I was more interested in the silk weavers and would have loved to buy a silk scarf but I didn’t find one that I really like. Maybe next time?

Food

It’s in Mandalay that we ate the best Burmese food, in restaurants but also in the street.If there is one restaurant you have to try in Mandalay, it’s Shan Mama, located  on the 81st, between the 29-30st.
The food is very diversified and delicious. All the ingredients are displayed and you can pick up and mix what you really want to eat. 

Moreover, the restaurant is run by a very welcoming family.
It was so good that we ate there twice!

What we didn’t do

We didn’t go on top of Mandalay Hill to admire the panoramic view and watch the sunset. We planned to (even if all sunsets are the same according to my boyfriend, remember?) but, the bloody dust entered in his camera and there was nothing he would do to remove it so he had to throw it away.

He was furious and had to calm down before we could actually go out again. And I didn’t feel like going by my own, so I preferred to cancel.

We aslo didn’t visit the Mandalay Palace due to a lack of time. But it apparently worths it. The Mandalay Palace was destroyed during the second World War but the 89 main halls were re-built faithfully to the original design. Even if some traditional construction techniques were used, modern materials like concrete and corrugated iron were incorporated into the reconstructions. However, it doesn’t take away from the experience, though, and the authorities have done a very good job at creating a sense of what the palace would once have been like.

Important to know

Don’t be suprised to be awoken by Buddhist songs chanting from loudspeakers of the nearby monasteries as early as 4:30 am.

No, it’s not in Mandaly that you’re going to sleep late in the mornings. But at least, you’ll be able to enjoy long days of sightseeing!


After 2 full days at full speed in Mandalay, it was time to head to Inle Lake. And this is where the troubles began…

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