After a thirteen hour bus ride, mostly occupied by Myanmar’s best snorers and a trio of women who uninterruptedly vomited into plastic bags, we arrived into Mandalay just as the sun began to rise. Compared to quaint little Mawlamyine, Mandalay has proven busier, dustier and crazier during our short stay.
Our first afternoon started with a visit to the Maha Myat Muni pagoda to see the only image of Buddha in Myanmar believed to be created during his lifetime. This thing is truly ancient and coated with more gold and bling than every chav in Britain combined. Due to it’s history it is probably the most important Buddha image in the country and due to this, it is off limits for women… They are however allowed to view it close up through one of the many TVs scattered around the pagoda which show footage from a camera which is inside the chamber. I’m sure there is a really ironic sexist joke about women and TV here, but the situation is already laughable without dropping to that level.
Day two involved splitting the cost of a car with a couple of people from our guest house and getting out of Mandalay to visit the surrounding towns of Sagaing, Inwa (Ava) and Amarapura. All three of which have at some point been the capital city of the country over the centuries. First up was climbing the Sagaing hill which revealed incredible views across the Irrawaddy and beyond.
Next up was a ferry over to the island of Ava where one of our ex-soldier looking boat crew appeared to maybe have lost his mind to PTSD. Throughout the journey he talked into his cigarette pack and held it to his ear as though it was a radio, and as we approached the bank he slunk up to the front of the boat as though he was wary of enemy troops before shouting and throwing a salute. Ava has no transport except for horse carts. Our little pony was well behaved unlike others we saw and took us to the island’s ancient ruins and sights. I also had my first glimpse of the Myanmar airforce as a Chinese built A-5 jet roared across the peaceful sky above. Ava was brilliant, though now we are on the tourist trail the few very persistent souvenir sellers were beginning to do my head in. One man did impress me though as he had learnt his entire sales pitch for each of his items in at least 5 languages. His German and Italian accents were flawless!
Our day ended with a stroll across the U Bein bridge in Amarapura. The bridge stretches 1.2 kilometres across the river and is built entirely from teak wood reclaimed from the former royal palace at Ava. It is the longest of its kind in the world, and is an absolutely beautiful place to enjoy the sunset. As we sat sipping Mandalay beer we watched locals fishing in the river, a snake skim across the water surface and generally enjoyed the rarity of a quiet moment in this perpetually noisy country.
Day three involved us walking a huge amount to conserve funds, first taking in the walled city and Golden Palace. This was a mixed experience. Most of the huge walled city is a base for the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces, and each gate has a different and fairly ominous billboard in English to let you know this. The two I remember were something like “The Tatmadaw will crush those harming the union” and “Unless the Tatmadaw is strong the country will not be strong”. Military rhetoric should probably be toned down if they want more tourists in here. Foreigners are only allowed to enter at the East gate and may only use one road, they are not allowed anywhere except on this road and within the palace. This is understandable as it is an operational base, however there appears to be some interesting military statutes and an independence monument in other areas I would have loved to have seen. The palace itself is a soulless empty replica of the one which once stood here. There’s one original guard tower which was great but so many empty buildings. With some work it could be a great site.
The second half of day three involved visits to a few more pagodas including one which claims to house the world’s largest book. This is in fact not a book at all, but instead is all of the text of the Buddhist Tripitaka inscribed on over 1700 stone slabs. It resembles a cemetary more than a book! After this we jumped onto the back of a couple of motorbikes and raced up Mandalay Hill. This was without a doubt the best site within Mandalay. The views were stunning but the walk back down to the Southern exit via the many pagodas was an adventure of its own. We passed some greatly unique Buddha images, men drilling sandalwood beads, countless animals lazing about and children wanting to chat with their limited English. Another barely visible monument I came across was erected by the British troops who fought to capture Mandalay Hill from the Japanese in WW2.
Whilst there is no sign of the fierce battle anymore, or any history info on site, I did come across this quote from one of the officers involved. I’d love to know if the tunnels are still accessible!
The Gurkha’s were given the task of clearing the Japanese from Mandalay Hill which was covered with Pagodas honeycombed with tunnels, unfortunately or fortunately for the Japs the Gurkha’s could not get at them and the 2nd Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment were ordered to assist, petrol was used to burn them out, not one Japanese soldier was taken alive. It was said that the hill could have been bombed from the air, but Mandalay Hill with its magnificent pagodas had to be saved. – Company Sergeant Major Theodore Martin Shave.
Day four started with a ferry to nearby Mingun to see the remains of what would have been the largest pagoda stupa in the world had it been completed. It is pretty phenomenal, and the earthquake damage in the 19th century just adds to it’s character. We also visited the Mingun Bell which at 90 tonnes is the world’s second largest, and the Mya Thein Dan Pagoda with its unique white wave like design.
Whilst Mingun makes a great day trip for the sites, this was our first bad experience with souvenir hawkers in Myanmar. At Mingun there are so many of them in such a concentrated area and they simply don’t take no for an answer. Despite trying to politely turn them down, multiple would pursue you until they got bored and then mutter some obvious abuse under their breath when they gave up. To top this off most of the food and drink stalls would inflate their prices for foreigners too. If you wanted anything you’d have to act disgusted at the price and walk away before they would bring it back down to normal price with a fake smile and their nonsensical catchphrase of “Lucky Money, Lucky Money!”. In a country where pricing is pretty standardised across they board (which is amazing!), it’s sad when a few greedy people ruin it for the rest. Not all foreigners are rich and/or stupid and this behaviour is not conducive to increasing tourism.
Tomorrow we leave for Bagan, and if it’s even half as good as people say then I know I’m going to love it!