Until recently, Myanmar/Burma (what to call this country with respect to its tricky politics and turbulent history is a whole different topic, which I hope to tackle in the near future) was considered a Pariah state, only truely opening to tourism following the dissolution of the military junta in 2011, a consequence of the previous years general election – their first election in 20 years. It was quite an impulse decision for me to come here, the main reasons to get off the hectic tourist trails of Vietnam and Cambodia, and prompted by good feedback I’d heard of this country whilst traveling.
I flew in to Mandalay, and the first thing that struck me was the friendliness of the Burmese nationals. I think this is the only place I’ve ever been where I’ve been afforded a smile at immigration control! A few signs of the developing nature of this country were evident early on however – withdrawing money from the new ATMs, I’d heard ATMs were hard to come by in Myanmar, so was best to withdraw big chunks of money at a time. The maximum I could withdraw was approximately $250, or 300,000Kyat. What I didn’t realise was that the maximum note denomination (or the maximum I’ve come across so far) is 5,000Kyat. This left me with a wad of bills far too big for my wallet which then required stashing all over myself and my bags. Next, when I tried to get in the shuttle bus to the city, the van wouldn’t start, prompting 3 or 4 drivers to chip in for 5 minutes or so before the journey could begin. I noticed that the van was right hand drive, so I thought I’d be back to the familiarity of driving on the left hand side of the road – but no, all cars here are right hand drive but drive on the right side of the road as well, strange I thought… I guess it doesn’t really matter here, the rules of the road are whoever is biggest wins, and motorbikes drive up and down whichever side of the road they like to a certain extent.
It took me a couple of hours to notice my watch was wrong, I hadn’t checked what time zone Myanmar was in but was excited to find I was half an hour behind what I’d been use to so far in South East Asia. The first half hour time zone I’ve ever been in!
By the time I’d checked into the guesthouse it was already late afternoon, and decided to go for a walk alongside the riverfront. On my way home after another failed sunset viewing, I stopped in the street to talk to some locals, which prompted joining them for a drink or two. It didn’t matter that only one of them could speak just a little bit of English, they were some of the nicest people I’d ever met. They sat me down, bought me snack food, fruit, offered for me to try their locally made drinks etc. The one guy who could speak English, called JoJo (probably not spelt like that) asked me what my plans were for my time in Mandalay and then offered to essentially be my tour guide for the next few days. I graciously accepted, and when I was about to leave he offered to give me a lift back to my guesthouse, but first we stopped off at his house to meet his family, where they also cooked me food for the night.
Their family lived in a small hut, but housed him and his wife, his four children and his mother and father. A big family to share such a small roof, but this was just the first lesson in seeing the inequality in the share of wealth in the country, with many of the rich having ties to the former military junta. Anyway, the next morning I’d harangued to meet him for a lift down to the jetty to catch a boat across the river to the old town of Mingun.
Mingun is famous for its pagodas. The main one being built in honour of the king around 200years ago. However, after the Kings death it was left unfinished, and after a large scale earthquake in 1839, much of the pagoda collapsed. It now stands 50m tall where it once towered almost 100m in height over the river. A second, smaller earthquake just 2 years ago caused further cracks to appear. In some places it feels like a miracle it’s still standing and it was only on my way down from the top of the pagoda I saw the sign discouraging people from climbing it. That being said, the tourist board is still happy to charge a few dollars for the privilege of reaching the top and seeing the dazzling views of the pagoda filled countryside along with the views across the river back over to Mandalay.
The Mingun bell, which once stood in the Kings Pagoda, is now housed in a separate, adjacent building where it has been since its recovery from the pagoda ruins since 1896. Weighing in at 90tonnes, the bell is second only in size to the Moscow Bell, which now no longer chimes, and is therefore claimed as the largest working bell in the world, fourteen times the size of that in St Paul’s.
Heading back towards the boat, I had just enough time to see the White Elephant Pagoda – built for the Queen, and the ruins of the giant Lions, built at the riverside, serving as protection to the Kings pagoda. These have long been in ruins however with the lions head falling into the river long ago. Much of this information I found out from a couple of kids around the town, they were excited to practice their English and learn about my culture. We even had time to talk about Morgan Schneiderlin’s recent transfer from Southampton to Manchester United, it seems everyone here is a United fan – but I’m doing my best to change this.
I met JoJo again for lunch – locals lunch he called it. If I’m totally honest I really didn’t like it at all, but I couldn’t crush his enthusiasm and forced it down saying how much I liked the local cuisine (this would come back to haunt me the next day). He needed to run some errands before taking me around the city as we’d agreed earlier on, so I followed him back home. The previous night, he’d told me that his mother was a teacher for the kids and showed me the black board where English and geography teachings were evident. I didn’t realise she was a teacher for the whole community, and so where I’d been sat last night for dinner was now a room full of 9th grade school kids! When I showed up at the door everyone stopped what they were doing to see what the new addition to the class had to say!
Next was the errand running. JoJo told me that he has a Sunday job, but that he also does work with the lottery. At least that’s what I thought he said, and then I thought he said laundry, but it turned out I was right first time, when we turned up at a monestary of all places which doubled as a gambling HQ. JoJo gets commission when Chinese tourists, acquaintances or connections place a bet with him. They are all betting on the Thai stock market – he told me no photos! But it was a room full of computers, phone calls and numbers scrolling across flat screen TVs.
There are a number of fascinating sites in Mandalay, the city in itself being a perfect example of the disparity between rich and poor. The streets are dusty with building sites propping up every other street corner. We stopped in the middle of one of these such streets to visit a gold leaf paper making factory. Here, gold is continually hammered against stone blocks for periods of up to one hour to produce a leaf of thin, pure gold. These leaves are then used to layer statues and sculptures or sold on for the purpose of what I saw next…
Mahamuni Paya. One of the most revered Buddhist temples in Myanmar and home to a 13 foot tall golden statue of Buddha. Every day, men (woman are not allowed onto Buddhas platform) meticulously paste these golden leaves over the statues body. The thickness of the gold is thought to be around 6 inches, and is present on all parts of his body, except for his face, which is polished daily.
I skipped viewing the royal palace, a newly restored version of the palace that was destroyed during the Second World War. However the 2km square fortress and moat that surrounds gives a real identity to Mandalay. It is comparable to size as the whole of the old town of Chiang Mai, but is funny to think it is home to little more than a small palace and thick woods.
I got a birds eye view of the palace when I climbed Mandaly hill. In climbing some 900 and something steps up to the top, you pass through numerous pagodas, many of which have a stunning view over the town and across the river. At the top, the views were truely breathtaking, with Mandalay city and down to Sagaing Bridge on the south, Mingun to the west, green countryside plains to the north and mountains to the east.
The next day I took a trip across the Bridge in the south to the ancient town of Sagaing. The main feature here being Sagaing hill. This wasn’t as harsh a climb as Mandalay hill but the pagoda at the top was more striking and the views equally as spectacular. During the whole climb I could hear the distant chants of the Buddhist monks from the many nearby pagodas. This created a much more spiritual atmosphere and a sense of a miniature pilgrimage to reach to the top of the hill to worship.
The final site on my quick tour was the U Bein bridge at Amarapur. A wooden bridge stretching almost a mile in length across the river built over 200 years ago. It’s remarkable that it is still standing today, and is a popular place for locals to visit. After this there was just enough time to return to my local bar/shack with JoJo, drink some traditional rice beer, chow down more locals lunch, and say goodbye to my new friends.
The collapsed Mingun Pagoda.
Home schooling in JoJo’s house.
Around town on this bad boy.