Say the name: Mandalay!
Just the sound of it evokes visions of the exotic East, the opulent, ancient Burmese kingdom of Mindon! Oh, what visions of kingly splendor! Oh, what wonders to behold!
Oh, what a shock!
On the surface, Mandalay doesn’t have any of the charm of Yangon, with its wide avenues and lovely British colonial architecture. But look past the horrendous, all-day traffic jam in its grid-patterned streets and the characterless architecture of its downtown and you’ll be deeply rewarded.
We had arranged a local guide, and we immediately fell in love with him. Aung seemed to understand exactly how much information we could absorb and was very sensitive to Yao Yao’s shy disposition. At first, it was agreed that he was to take us to the hotel and we would meet him later to visit the U Bein Bridge (one of the loveliest, and most recognizable, sights in all of Myanmar). But after a 10-minute conversation, he asked us if we would like to see a ceremony at a monastery.
Uh, yes! We piled into the van and headed out of the city to a local monastery to witness the offering ceremony, which takes place when young boys become novice monks, and many gifts are presented in their honor. It was an amazing celebration to witness. We were the only Westerners and were welcomed with generosity and warmth. The huge crowd of family and friends stepped aside to ensure we could see the procession of burgundy-robed novices receiving their offerings. We presented our gift – cash, as it was all we had on hand – and were invited to sit for tea and a snack inside the monastery.
This is the type of experience you just can’t script. We were lucky to have a guide who was flexible and made changes based on the opportunities that presented themselves, as well as our interests and predilections. The ceremony was very moving, and I couldn’t help but imagine what would happen if a Burmese family “popped by” a religious ceremony in the U.S. Would they be welcomed in the same way? Would I have made them welcome?
As we are very interested in Buddhism, Aung took us to meet his uncle, an abbot at another local monastery. Talk about an experience of a lifetime! The monks we met asked if Aung could take our picture, as they had never met Americans before and they wanted to show some of the other monks the photo! As Yao Yao said, “We were looking at them and they were looking at us.” Regardless of your religious or spiritual beliefs, it’s hard not to be moved by the depth of the commitment and the kindness of everyone we met. Aung treated us as if we were newfound relatives and gave us access to all that was his. The time with Aung Min Lwin and the opportunity to meet his uncle and visit the monastery is something none of us will ever forget.
We agreed to meet again in the early evening prior to sunset, as Aung wanted us to experience the U Bein Bridge at its best. We headed to Amarapura with the Ayeyarwady River as our guide. The bridge, which crosses Taungthaman Lake, is more than 200 years old, making it the oldest, as well as the longest, teak bridge in the world. Let me put it this way: in the U.S., we would have had to sign a release of all our rights just to step foot on that bridge! Though we felt perfectly safe crossing it, there are broken boards, large gaps with no boards at all, and a totally untrustworthy (or nonexistent) railing, so be prepared.
Many Burmese do a daily “mindful” walk on the bridge with their entire families, so we followed suit, walking with ordinary Burmese as well as monks and nuns on their evening perambulations. (I would plan on carrying any toddlers and watching your young ones like a hawk.) After walking the bridge, we took a little rowboat out into the lake to see the final moments of the sunset, with water buffalo and farmers in the distance. What a lovely pastoral scene! It was so stunning we came back in the morning for the sunrise.
We found it fascinating that, in a country with such poverty, the Buddha images are bedazzled and bling’d with such riches of gold and jewels. Take the Mahamuni Pagoda, for instance: This is one of the most sacred places in Mandalay, in Myanmar, and maybe even the world. Legend has it that there are only five images of the Buddha made during his lifetime, and the Mahamuni Buddha image is one of them. Monks and believers apply gold leaf out of respect for the Buddha, and there is so much of the stuff on the statue that its physiognomy has become somewhat distorted. Every morning at 4:30, the monks wash its face and brush its teeth. Yao Yao had no problem with monks performing these extensive ablutions on a statue, but she did have a problem with the fact that only men are allowed to approach it! Anyway, Mahamuni is a special place, and regardless of your personal beliefs, just being here is a moving experience.
Later that day, we paid a visit to the Kuthodaw Pagoda, known far and wide as “the world’s largest book.” Built by the aforementioned King Mindon in the mid-19th century, 729 small stupas house carved marble slabs, upon which is written the entire Pali canon of Theravada Buddhist scripture. It’s spectacular. The carved slabs are white, the pagodas are white, and the entire area is surrounded by trees putting out fragrant white blossoms. It’s enchanting, even though we couldn’t read a single word!
We spent the next day doing the tourist thing, including a visit to the traditional wooden monastery of Shwenandaw Kkyaung. This is a monastery carved out of teak, and it’s the single remaining original structure from the old Royal Palace. It’s stunning and much of it is well preserved, although the use of creosote to preserve it is controversial – it’s turned the whole structure a weird, oily black color. It was initially built as royal apartments for King Mindon, but was later converted to a Buddhist monastery. The belief was that the apartments were haunted by Mindon, so King Thibaw, his son and the reigning king, had the structure moved to its present location.
In the afternoon, Yao Yao wanted to see how the gold leaf was made, so we visited the Gold Pounders’ district. It’s actually a fascinating procedure, very low-tech, with a whole cadre of burly men pounding the gold into thinner and thinner sheets – until finally it’s just a few microns thick. Perfect for applying to your favorite Buddhist shrine! The Stone Carvers’ district is also an enjoyable side trip, where you can see your marble souvenirs being made, and the Jade Market is first rate.
Tourism is just really starting to spring up and the lack of people hawking post cards and trinkets is wonderful. If you want to buy lacquer or gold leaf souvenirs or local crafts you can, but there is not the constant bombardment we’ve seen throughout India, Southeast Asia, and Africa. But it’s coming.
We always visit a local market, and the Zeigyo Market is a great one – stall after stall of everything from baskets and electronics to tea salad to pots and pans to dried fish. I love the colors, smells, and exposure to exotic fruits and vegetables, spices, and so on. We tried some local foods (carefully) and the shopkeepers seemed excited that we were willing to taste local foods. English is not spoken, and our Burmese is rusty. (Kidding!) But it’s easy to communicate with a smile or nod. Like many cultures, the Burmese love children, and Yao Yao was offered treats and little trinkets everywhere we went.
Our hotel, the Rupar Mandalar, was “away from the fray” (like, way away) but really lovely and peaceful. We spent the last night having dinner in the garden listening to crickets under the moon. My food-snoot of a husband opted for Thai food whenever possible, as he wasn’t a huge fan of Burmese food. (Dinnertime often led to inordinately heated rants about the relative merits of Thai and Burmese cuisines. Thai usually won.)
A nice hotel is a must in Mandalay – Yao Yao needed an oasis from the traffic, often unpaved roads, crowds, poverty, and the constant barrage of sights and sounds. There is nothing like a warm shower, a little nap by the pool, and a cool drink to get you ready for the next adventure! I highly recommend it.
And finally, a word about guides: We have a hot-or-cold relationship with most of them. But Aung, our local guide, made this visit very special. There is no way we could have gained entry into some of the places we went without Aung. Yes, we could have seen many of the sights on our own, but it was his knowledge and generosity that allowed us to meet people and have experiences that would have otherwise been unavailable to us. His English was serviceable, and he was one of Yao Yao’s favorite guides because of the way he interacted with her and imparted knowledge. We don’t often get guides because they can be intrusive and it can be awkward when you just want to spend time with your family. Aung seemed to know exactly when to give us time alone, and even when we insisted he join us for meals, he would typically go off on his own, leaving us to have family time. He was truly one of the best guides we have ever had, and he colored every aspect of our stay in Mandalay.
We met our guide in Mandalay whose name was Aung. Mandalay is very different than Yangon. Yangon has British colonial architecture as well as local style architecture. The book on Myanmar calls it “dilapidated grandeur,” and I think that fits Yangon well. Mandalay, on the other hand, is a relatively new city that is full of motorbikes and cars everywhere. It is a city of anonymous buildings and bamboo thatched structures. It’s also the second largest city in Myanmar.
The next few days were packed with unique experiences and interesting sights. We hit the ground running and drove to a monastery that was having an offering day. (Where monks walked out and people would give them baskets of treats that they usually wouldn’t get.) Younger monks started coming to us and Mom started taking pictures. The monks were interested in her pictures and the tinsel in my hair.
They also thought I was really tall, and I met a thirteen-year-old monk who was about three inches shorter than me! We went inside their great room (where they eat, meditate, and teach the novice monks). They generously gave us food that I didn’t really like. That happened to be good because their way of cleaning isn’t the cleanest way. We went to another monastery too, one where our guide’s uncle was the abbot. A guy who grew up in the same village as our guide said he had never seen an American before. He asked to take pictures with us and did, but he didn’t seem very happy in the pictures. We met the abbot. Everyone is very generous even though they are poor and have little to give. There weren’t many tourists at the monastery. It is amazing how many stray dogs there are. Buddhists don’t kill dogs, but don’t take care of them either.
So far I’m at 312 stray dogs.
U Bein Bridge across Taungthaman Lake is one of the biggest attractions in Mandalay. It is over 200 years old and the monks do a mindful walking every morning at sunrise and every evening at sunset.
The sunset was incredible. We walked across on the bridge and met a boatman who took us back to land after the sun went down in his sampan. We saw oxen and monks and farmers in the rice fields. It was really beautiful.
We also went to the Mahamuni Pagoda where there is a statue of Buddha. Guys can go up and put gold leaf on the Buddha. Girls can’t go up, I don’t know why, Budddha said everyone is equal. Years have passed since it was originally built and it has grown fatter and fatter because many men have come and put gold leaf on (some probably more experienced than others). We had to go through a little market to get there, and then there was another marketplace behind the pagoda, most of it was astrology. The face of the Buddha statue is washed at four in the morning with gold bowls. They also brush his teeth during this time.
Another place we went to was the Kuthodaw Pagoda, where they had 729 slabs of carved marble. It is the world’s biggest carved book.
It took two hundred people to carve it, and twenty-four hundred monks to read the book in a nonstop relay. Each slab is encased in a small stupa. The guide, my mom, dad, and I went inside one stupa. It was very crowded but really cool. The writing was in Burmese, and it looked beautiful on the slab.
We went to place where they made gold leaf. It looks like hard work. They wrapped it in a deer skin box and have to pound it with a huge, heavy hammer for three minutes straight on the top half, then separately on the bottom half. After that they have to pound it for two hours! I could never do that, maybe for a minute. They make the tissue paper that goes between the gold leaf out of bamboo pulp. They put the bamboo in water and it sits for three years to make the pulp. Then there are women who sit on the ground all day and make the gold leaf into squares and stack them. I bought a lacquer (which Myanmar is also known for) box with gold leaf flowers. ™®
Yao Yao I thought the U Bein Bridge was pretty cool even though it was kind of rickety. It was fun to get to walk across the bridge and then go on a boat. It was really interesting to see the farmers and buffalo and to sit in the boat at sunset. I wonder why there are so many broken boards on the bridge and if they are going to fix them.
Samantha U Bein Bridge is pretty amazing. It’s a fun site for kids to see as this could never exist in the U.S. Locals also use the bridge daily and it’s lovely at sunset.
Yao Yao There are wild dogs everywhere. Some of them are soooo cute but I wasn’t allowed to pet any of them, even the puppies. I counted the dogs and by the time we left Mandalay, I had already counted 312!
Samantha Feral dogs roam the streets, cafes and markets. They’re everywhere. The interesting thing is that we never saw a dog fight, a starving dog, or anyone mistreating any animal. We saw only a few dogs that look like they weren’t being cared for in some form. The Buddhist do not believe in killing living beings so they are often looked out for by the larger population. Having said that, we were advised never to pet any of the dogs and were vigilant with Yao Yao.
Yao Yao I am glad we stayed in nice hotels. It was good to be able to rest and wash my feet after going in so many monasteries. I like having a nice clean hotel with a pretty pool and restaurant so when you get kind of tired or freaked out you can go back to the hotel and feel normal.
Samantha I’m glad we hired a local guide in Mandalay. Though we certainly could have navigated most of the sites on our own, the local connection made experiences available to us that we could never have had on our own. Aung gave us a view into a world we would never have seen on our own.