Published: December 18th 2005November 18th 2005
City streets filled with the bustling of everyday Burmese life, is this the 2000's or the 1970's? Looking around at the traffic, people, roads, shops it could be either. The only giveaways the occasional electrical store selling DVD players and PA systems.
This is an Asian city in concentrate. The essense of south-east asia squeezed and compressed into this little bustling city, given a twist of India and pushed forward in time 40 years. Mandalay lacks the glistening skyscrapers, well dressed mobile tooting middle class, and large shiney SUV's of most other South East Asian cities. The city streets are laid out in a grid system, blocks and numerically numbered streets. It makes it simple to navigate, easy to get lost as the streets and chaos all blurs into one. Little three wheeled turquoise Mazda Taxi's buzz around looking for fairs, must have been shipped over from Japan in the late 1970's, a couple of benches for the passengers in the back. Bettle nut chewing drivers grinning with their teeth bearing carnivorous stains, smiles or snarls of hyenas interrupted in a bloody feast... "taxi"? Pavement stores selling items from food to stationary, insects (cooked) to coconuts, unidentifiable street
food that smells to me no better than it looks. I could spend hours exploring the corners and crossroads of this place.
No junctions have street lights, simply the largest vehicle has right of way, pedestrians play a real life game of frogger hopping back and forth between taxis, bicycles, trucks, buses, the occasional car and many trishaws. Mandalay has a strong charm, like a filthy rag wearing street child, with a ton of energy and a friendly smile, your never sure if you should give it food or double check your wallet.
Buses that are little more than holes held together by patches of rust, fill to bursting with passengers, going to places I cannot imagine, in buses that I cannot imagine reaching any destination. They rattle into life, bellow sooty exhast onto the dusty roads and roar off at slightly more than walking pace, people sitting on every surface and and hanging to every handhold.
In the center an enormous fortress 14 blocks by 14 blocks, with a square moat dominates the city. The fortress is a reconstruction of an earlier occupant rebuilt with slave labour after world war II. Journeys.
are not pleasant in Myanmar. Part way through our journey from Inle to Mandalay the bus breaks down. On the twistiest, steepest section of the mountainous roads the steering of the bus fails, the bus can go in only two directions; backwards in to a sheer cliff, or forwards over a cliff into a deep gully. After a few hopeful tries the driver decides to stop. The resourceful Burmese driver and conductor switch roles becoming mechanic and mate - under the beating sun they start removing the front panels of the bus, crawling underneath, pulling spanners and other tools from a large box wedged under the back seat - after only three hours they repair the bus. I am the only male not involved with the repair, many hands making light work or spoilt broth, not sure which. Accomodation.
We stay at the Royal Guest house in Mandalay, another recommended place to stay in the yellow bible. The city shuts down at 9pm, bar the occasional ice-cream parlour. We play card games into the evening and plan the days ahead.
The rooms are the nicest in Myanmar, and come complete with free wake up call, the sound
of phlem and mucous being forcilbliy and vocally removed from bronchial lungs and sinouses. On cue 7am-7.30am everyday. Day 1- In Mandalay. Mahamuni Paya
In the south of Mandalay is the Mahamuni Paya, another big temple. It is beautiful and vast. The central Buddha is a weird bumpy object vaguely Buddha shaped, but after many years of piligrims adding gold leaf the Buddha has been warped. A number of other important religous items are contained in the complex, a foot of Buddha, a number of lucky statues. I'm shown around by a monk for the afternoon in trade for an English lesson and a handmade cigar. Mandalay Hill
1720 steps, or there abouts, I didn't count just took the word of others for it. We arrived in time for sunset and students waiting to practice English. The students were excited by my native english. The sunset caught the thousands of tiny mirror set on the pillars and walls, reflecting orange and yellows throughout the area. The view over the city and reflections from the river make the seventeen hundreds steps worthwhile. Day 2 - Around Mandalay
We rent a Mazda three wheeled
taxi for the day, our taxi driver, I've forgotten his name - sporting bettle stained teeth and spikey hair is really friendly has good English and acts as guide for the day. He takes us to only a few factory shops, and waits while we get chocolate from a supermarket that we happen to pass at the end of the day. We meet a friend (Ben) in Amarapura and are able to give him a lift back to Mandalay, he got to Amarapura sitting on the top of a local bus. Sagaing
Climb up to the top of another temple. Temple fatigue has sent in. We sit, I play guitar at a cafe and Jessica and Katrijn drink cokes. At the top of the temple we meet many many monks, monks weilding digital cameras in a poor country, they have their photo taken with us in a rare role reversal. The view from the top is lovely looking over the Ayeyarwady river, white temples gleaming in the vivid sunlight. Walking around bare foot in the Buddhist Temple light reflecting from every surface. Inwa
A quick ferry crossing over the Ayeyarwady river to Inwa, Inwa has a couple of
things worth seeing and a sting for the unwary, to actually see anything a horse and cart has to be rented, fixed cost of $3. We have to get to as our guide has at this point come with us.
The first stop is yet another temple, I forget the name, and don't really worry about it. Then a 27m high ancient tower which leans disconcertingly. Finally we come to a temple, completely constructed from Teak. It's one of the most peaceful temples that I've visited. Amarapura
The bridge, the sunset, everyone is there, we meet our friend Ben and watch sunset over the Ayeyarwady river to finish the day. Day 3 - Ferry to Mingun Mingun
A massive ruin dominates Mingun, the stump of the what would have been a 150m tall Paya, the largest in the world. In 1790 King Bodawpaya started it's construction, only for the entire structure to be split during an earthquake. Today the 50m high stump draws in tourists and pilgrims from all over the world and from within Myanmar.
King Bodawpaya left behind another world beating legacy, the Mingun Bell, a 90 ton bell
that was to be placed in the gigantic stupa. Today the bell is still the largest uncracked bell in the world. It hangs in the centre of the village and you can stoop down go inside and stand in the imense space inside. Outside people strike the bell with a short wooden staff, for luck or blessings, inside some school girls start to dance and sing.
There are several other little temples to see in the village, one a beautiful white structure with an incredibly geometric symetrical design. We meet a Burmese man who speaks English and French yet has never even gone to Mandalay - because it is too busy. We drink coke, eat lunch, I take photos, I somehow make small children cry. Goodbye Mandalay
We leave Mandalay on the most expensive bus we can find. Desperate to make an overnight bus journey in some form of comfort. Leo Express is a comfortable bus, but bus sleep can never make up for a missed night.
There are more photos below