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Published: November 6th 2005
Mandalay the city of pagodas
Mandalay the Golden City in the Golden Land is famous for its many pagodas. The Sandamuni Pagoda is situated at the foot of the Mandalay Hill
From the geographical point of view, we were already quite close to southern Myanmar on Kho Phi Phi, but we could not find out whether it was possible to cross the border there, since information on Myanmar is very difficult to come by. For this reason, Myanmar has been a stumbling block of our travel itinerary since the very beginning. We originally planned to start there and cross over to India, but most of Myanmar’s land borders are closed, and furthermore this changes very quickly. So we ended up in Bangkok, considering Thailand’s capital the only gateway to Myanmar. But even in the city where everything can normally be organised for you, they knew painfully little and told us that the only way to enter Myanmar was from Bangkok by plane and that you were obliged to use the same entrance and exit point. Which turned out to be simply false. But this piece of information came too late, when we had already bought the flight and were actually in the country.
Thailand is wonderful, everybody is willing to organise everything for the weary traveller for astonishingly little extra money. This was a comfort, but still we wanted to arrange
Train to Mandalay
We woke up early and were fascinated by everything that was going on outside
our trip to Myanmar by ourselves, this is a question of principle for independent-minded travellers like us. Top on our list was the visa since this might take a couple of days. The embassy of Myanmar was on the other side of Bangkok, but this did not deter us from using public transport, of which the boat is by far the cheapest and also very efficient. We arrived perfectly in time for the afternoon opening hours. There were only four tourists ahead of us and we conscientiously filled in the required forms in order to fully satisfy the bureaucrats. Nobody explained anything, personnel was conspicuously absent. While we were busy with the forms, the waiting room had filled miraculously fast but we did not care, convinced that somebody had registered us. We took a seat anywhere, until we found out that there was a strict seating order to be followed, and all of a sudden twenty people were ahead of us. We were still not troubled, two hours seemed more than sufficient to attend to the waiting people. Until we discovered the professionals (those nice guys who organise everything for the weary traveller) who turned up with heaps of passports.
Typical local Myanmar bus
The cheapest means of transport available, but not the most comfortable one
All right, but somebody MUST have noticed us!! When it was 3 o’clock, the official closing hour for visa application, and the queue still had a considerable length, somebody turned up with a registration book and wanted to know where our names were. What registration? Two hours ago we had bluntly walked by it in the antechamber, eager to get to the forms as quickly as possible. So our names did not show up anywhere, and we were politely but firmly asked to leave and put our names on top of the list for tomorrow morning. Of course we protested, but exciting oneself does not get you very far in Asia, it only results in uncomprehending looks and mild reproach. So we drew profit from our Asian lessons and stayed seated patiently, with a smile on our faces. Nobody was so impolite to shove us out, and by 4 o’clock we had successfully handed in our visa applications, which even earned us some appreciatory nods on the part of the professionals. Compared to this, purchasing a return flight Bangkok-Yangon only took us half an hour. Procuring money was the next issue. As Myanmar’s Kyat cannot be bought anywhere out of
Royal Palace and Mandalay Hill
From the huge grounds of the former Royal Palace you get a wonderful view on Mandalay's dominant natural feature
the country and there are no ATMs in the country either, we had to buy Dollars in Bangkok, which we would then have to change in Yangon to the best rate we could find. As we did not have many Dollars with us, we had to withdraw Thai Bahts and then exchange these into Dollars. Complicated, but the only possibility. However, after a couple of days we had successfully procured visas, Dollars and flight tickets and were burning to enter the Golden Land, as Myanmar
calls itself since 1989, before that the country was known as Burma
The flight from Bangkok to Yangon with Myanmar Airways was short and unspectacular. The airport in Yangon was incredibly small, endowed with a single luggage belt only. Border formalities were astonishingly quick and smooth, we then took a taxi to town that we shared with a German man whom we had met on the plane. Since in every guidebook and also on the internet it is written that you should not exchange Dollars at the airport due to an execrable official rate, we paid the taxi driver in Dollars and our first preoccupation was to buy Kyats at the most advantageous rate
Wildlife around the Royal Palace
The broad and long moat attracts a huge number of beautiful dragonflies
we could find. The taxi had taken us to the train station since our plan was to leave Yangon as quickly as possible and do the longest trip to Mandalay first, then work our way through the country back to Yangon. We mistakenly entered the local train station, where no word was written in English but all in the incredibly rounded Burmese letters. Our first glimpse of Myanmar revealed very old cars and buses which could have been taken out of a museum, men in skirts chewing betel nuts, and very friendly people. After a rather long way with our backpacks in the heat we found the ticket window where foreigners were allowed to purchase tickets and found out that there were places available in the sleeping compartment of an overnight train to Mandalay. The night bus in Thailand had already been an unpleasant experience, and we were not keen on repeating it in a country where the roads are reportedly worse than in India. We bought the tickets, although their price represented a fortune in Myanmar ($33 per person) and we by and large found out that many Burmese must survive a whole month on that sum. We left
Keeping fit in Mandalay
If you wondered how Stephan has lost so much weight, here is one of the reasons, daily physical exercise
our luggage well guarded inside the station and went on the lookout for a black market money changer. Only after a couple of metres we crossed one (these guys are abundant everywhere in Yangon) who offered us Kyats 1,320 for one Dollar, a very good rate. Everybody in Myanmar wants Dollars but the money changer also asked for Euros which are considered much safer than the greenback. Good to hear, but we had only Dollars. When we found out that the biggest local bill was Kyats 1,000 we decided to exchange only 200 Dollars (instead of the originally planned double), not knowing where and how to store the sheer mass of bills. The transaction was going on in a rather dim and stuffy room without fan, and counting the bills made us sweat a lot. From the beginning we had thought that the rate was too good top be true, and when the guy asked to take back the bills we had already counted, we cancelled the transaction, convinced that we had been about to be heftily cheated. With only a couple of Kyats in our pockets (return money from the taxi driver) we went to the Sule Pagoda in
Preparing for the Elephant Festival
As we heard some music in the streets, we of course had a look, and that's what we found. Two people moved it in a very gracious way, without really seeing much around them
the vicinity of which we wanted to have a look at a guesthouse that had been highly recommended on the internet. There we finally exchanged our Dollars at a rate of 1,300 and this time we managed to get our Kyats. It would soon be time to board the train but before that we had to find some packaged fruit juices, which turned out to be almost impossible. There are some small shops around but the choice of goods is quite miserable and when you find something that looks more appealing it is certainly imported from Thailand or Malaysia, all the coca cola for example is produced in Thailand.
We were the only foreigners on this train, which confirmed the first impression we had got in Yangon: very few tourists visit Myanmar these days. The whole train disposed of only one sleeping carriage, the rest consisted of hard wooden benches. A sleeping compartment consisted of four beds, and we shared ours with a monk and a young Burmese man. We still do not understand how they could afford this, monks are supposed to have no income or property and to live on the population’s generosity, but we suspect that
Nice elephant head
The elephant was actually going around and collecting money for the festival. For each donation attached to its trunk it would perform a nice little dance
two other locals had been kicked out so that many precious Dollars could be earned. Conversation was very limited, the monk did not utter a word and the young man was too shy to talk to us (maybe he was also afraid of possible ugly consequences). We tried to learn the first Burmese words this way and made use of the small phrase book we had recently purchased in Bangkok. Although the book gave no hint of they words’ pronunciation and we obviously pronounced everything wrongly, this helped to break the ice with the young man. We decided to sleep early and switch off the lights since they only attracted hordes of nasty insects. The bench was very comfortable, almost as soft as a real bed and we slept rather well, snugly cuddled into the provided bedding. Naturally we woke up early but refreshed and were glad to have much time to watch what was going on inside the train and outside in the countryside. The monk was very busy, he arranged and rearranged the burgundy frock he wore, an absolutely fascinating sight for us. He was an image of Buddhist serenity, with beautiful features, a well-built body and the
Typical Myanmar street food
Around Mandalay Hill they were preparing for a huge festival, the first to appear were the food and drinks stalls
fascinating colour of his frock. When he lay stretched out on an extra blanket and took out a small silver pocket radio with ear plugs twisting its antenna in every possible position, he really gave an unreal impression. Once we saw what he was wearing beneath his burgundy frock: a small saffron vest that looked crocheted or made of lace. We guess we were not supposed to see it but somehow it could not be avoided, and we were fascinated. In the morning the monk rolled his frock tightly, then he meditated and left the compartment carrying a big alms bowl whose lower part was covered by saffron lace or crochet. After a considerable lapse of time he came back and we realised that he had been collecting donations in the whole train. First he separated the food items from the bills, separated these again according to their importance and stored the bigger ones in a wallet. He had obviously got huge amounts of food (tangerines, juices, sweets and the like) and offered some to us. We had to accept in order not to offend the religious man, and when we ate too slowly for his taste he even pushed
Young women selling sticky Myanmar sweets with a sweet smile
us, a rather indignant frown in his face. Looking out of the window was equally fascinating. Up to now we had already several times believed that the train would derail, especially in the sleeping position our bodies sometimes popped up and down as if on a boat. We did not really understand why it was like this since the train never reached high speed. Looking out of the window and seeing them work on new rails, we began to understand. They did not use any machines to flatten the stretch but did it all manually with a pair of oxen as if ploughing a field. The rest of what we saw confirmed this impression, we felt like watchers in a film of the 1950s. Very few cars or trucks, many people on foot, hardly any tarred roads, everything strongly smacked of improvisation. Horse-carts on the roads, oxen-carts on the fields, adults, children and stray dogs on the rails. Almost as undisciplined as in India but much quieter and extremely friendly people, our arms grew tired from the constant waving. Very few big houses, mostly cots made of bamboo, and pagodas, pagodas, pagodas until the end of the horizon. Although the
Myanmar woman selling exotic food
She is protecting her face against the sun like most women. They use some king of sweet-smelling wood, grind it and mix it with water, then they smear the paste all over their faces.
train took considerable time for the trajectory, we still arrived with a delay of three hours in Mandalay, around noontime.
There are not many guidebooks available on Myanmar, and for some reason we wanted to get hold of the latest edition possible. We do not particularly like the Lonely Planet, not because we find it extremely bad quality but because it is the most wide-spread guidebook and with it you end up in the same places as most other tourists. So we chose a French guidebook this time, le Guide du Routard, ending up just in the situation described beforehand because around 50% of the tourists in Myanmar are French. As both of us speak French reasonably well and admire the French culture, we like talking to speakers of French and they also love talking in their mother tongue to strangers. The guidebook is very strong on hotels and restaurants, in Mandalay we went to the Royal Guesthouse, a very nice place with extremely friendly, helpful and knowledgeable staff. We had a room without private bathroom, but a very nice and clean one, and paid $6, breakfast included. Many prices, for hotels, taxis or entrance fees, are only displayed
The nice woman from the preceding picture had many roasted crickets in her basket. Although the product was cheap we resisted the local speciality
in Dollars, sometimes we managed to pay in Kyats if they used an acceptable exchange rate. The staff especially recommended one restaurant to us, the Mann Restaurant (‘Mann’ being the local abbreviation for Mandalay), very close to the hotel. Also we also tried other addresses, we kept coming back to this restaurant for its excellent food at really low prices. Klaudia was especially crazy about the eel and tried it in all varieties on the menu. For maximum Kyats 1,500 (= EUR 1) you got a tasteful meal and a big portion on top of everything. Later on we met several French couples, and they had all been regular customers there, which really is a good sign since the French people often have a highly developed sense for good food.
The city of Mandalay
takes its name from Mandalay hill, which rises 236 metres from the flat, dry central Myanmar plain and is situated on the banks of the 2000km long Ayeyarwady River, the life artery of Myanmar. Mandalay, or ‘the Golden City’, was the last capital of Myanmar before the British occupation, king Mindon founded the city in 1857; upon completion of what was now the new Royal
Another Myanmar speciality
We guess she sold quails, but these were certainly small birds with not much meat on them
capital of Upper Myanmar, the king moved his entire government and 150,000 people from nearby Amarapura. It was common in Burmese history to move capitals upon the ascension of a king. King Mindon was determined to ensure that his new city became the capital of the Buddhist world and the Fifth Buddhist Synod was held in Mandalay in 1879. Therefore, plenty of pagodas and a huge royal palace, which has in the meantime been destroyed, are Mandalay's main attractions.
Our first visit in Mandalay should take us to the region where the most important monuments of the city are gathered in relative vicinity: Mandalay Hill. We did not only go there once but three times altogether, using all possible means of transport: our legs, a bike, a taxi and a local bus. The first time we walked there but since the distance was quite long (around 3km) we used a taxi back. On that visit we did not climb up the hill but stayed at its foot where the more impressive pagodas and monasteries are located. The second time we used a bicycle (once again a basic model without gears and brakes that did not work perfectly well) but
Yes, it tastes good
He ate the whole small bird starting by the head
we reached the top panting and pushing our vehicles for only a short period. It was really exhausting but maybe less so than walking the 1,729 steps up and down, and definitely more fun. When we were in Mandalay, the whole country was preparing for a very important Buddhist festival, the Festival of Light, which signals the end of the Buddhist lent and which one guide attributed the same importance for Buddhist as Easter for Christians. On the foot of the Mandalay Hill the narrow streets were filled with food stalls selling sweets, fried quail eggs, fried vegetable pancakes and several unknown dishes. Furthermore there were cheap Chinese clothes, toys and local baskets, fans and other articles of bamboo on offer. In a way it did not at all look like we would imagine an important festival, no music or dance around, we were a bit disappointed. To get there, we passed the immense area of the former Royal Palace
, of which the mighty walls, eight meters height and three meters wide at the base, two km long on each side, and the surrounding moat are all that survive today. The palace forms a perfect square, with a flowing moat.
At the foot of Mandalay Hill
One of the entrances to the Mandalay Hill, 1,729 steps leading to the top. As already noticed in Tibet, Buddhism is kind of a fitness program...
The outer walls face the four cardinal directions and the 12 gates thereon are named after the signs of the Zodiac. The beautiful wooden palace buildings were occupied by the Japanese during world-war II, and unfortunately were destroyed by fire during a British bombing raid. As there was nothing to see inside and the area is today mostly occupied by the Burmese military, we did not enter the complex but only walked along the moats, admiring the sheer swarms of dragonflies in many colours that were whirring in the air or sitting on the poles of the fence.
We entered the first pagoda randomly because we could not really stick to our guidebook, it happened to be the Kyauktawgyi Paya
(1853-78), the pagoda of the ‘Great Marble Image’, sited near the southern entry to Mandalay Hill. The chief feature of this pagoda (paya=pagoda) is a huge seated Buddha figure sculpted from a single block of pale green marble. Reportedly it took 10,000-12,000 men thirteen days to transport the stone block from the Ayeyarwady to the site of the pagoda where it was carved. The Buddha image impressed us by its size but also by the abundance of gold, a
Another entrance to the Mandaly Hill
The main stairs rise between a pair of huge statues of Chinthe, the mystical temple guardians that combine the body of a lion and the head of a dragon. They are Myanmar's national symbol and can be found on every bill and also in many other places
fact to which we later should get more used to as the Burmese simply adorn every piece of a pagoda with gold leaves or gold paint. What stroke us furthermore was the Burmese’ love of glitter, every temple or pagoda had some images or pillars decorated with tiny pieces of glass in all possible colours. This was the first Burmese pagoda we enter in the country, and at the beginning all the glitter still fascinated us, later on we came to admire the old pagodas for exactly their absence of this.
The dominant natural feature of Mandalay is its 240 m Mandalay Hill
which towers above the city and the flat plain below. Once visited by Gautama Buddha, and indirectly solely responsible for the construction of Mandalay, the hill provides an unparalleled view of the entire pagoda studded Mandalay region with the mighty Ayeyarwady in the background. There are several pagodas and other places of worship all around the hill, but we missed some of them because we did not use the steps neither the elevator but the unorthodox bicycle to climb the hill. You cannot reach the top of it though but have to use an escalator that
Klaudia and the nagas
Happy between her beloved snakes, she was relieved that she had made it to the top by bike
brings you close to the pagoda on top. As every holy site in Buddhism has to be entered barefoot, this also applies for the escalator, which is rather unpleasant. We did not have any problems anyway, but before us was a Burmese family who have never in their life used an escalator it seemed. Especially the older members hesitated before stepping on it, so long that they made the guard nervous and he impatiently showed them how to use the unknown beast. After some more hesitating and a lot of nervous and ashamed giggling they managed and were very proud of it. Once again we were feeling like observers in a film of the 1950s. The Sutaungpyai Pagoda
on top did not impress us very much, there was again a lot of gold and glittering glass around, probably the best thing was the wonderful view. Although Mandalay is said to have around one million inhabitants (we still cannot believe this), it ends all of a sudden and then there are only fields and the distant Shan hills.
For an unknown reason we did not visit the most prominent sights around Mandalay Hill for a long time but went to
Sutaungpyai Pagoda on top of Mandalay Hill
The Burmese are simply crazy about gold and glittering stuff, there are pieces of glass all around in the temples and pagodas
see the minor pagodas first. Like the pagoda with the huge marble Buddha or also the Sandamuni Pagoda
which we mistook to be the famous pagoda containing the world’s biggest book. This minor pagoda also contains marble slabs on which Buddha texts or sermons are inscribed and these slabs are also housed in small stupas, so it was rather easy to make the mistake we made. Anyway, we discovered our mistake only at the very end when we decided to visit one pagoda that we had not yet seen and were immediately asked to pay the $10 entrance fee valid for other monuments and another former capital. We had decided to visit Myanmar and therefore some money would inevitably go to the country’s oppressive and crazy government, but this time we decided against paying this sum and to see the buildings only from the outside. So we did not take many pictures of the famous Kuthodaw Paya
containing what often is called the world’s largest book. It is a large walled complex situated at the base of the southeast stairway to Mandalay Hill and was built by King Mindon at the same time he was constructing the Royal Palace. The
Buddhist days of the week
They do have eight days, Wednesday is split in two (morning and afternoon), and each day is represented by a different animal. For Myanmar people it is essential to know on which day of the week they were born so they can make their offerings to the respective Buddha statue
same can be said of two beautiful monasteries, one completely made of teak wood (Shwenandaw Kyaung Temple
, mid-19th century) and the other one reminding us of a wonderful palace (Atumashi Kyaung
or Incomparable Monastery), one of King Mindon’s last great religious construction projects. In spite of not entering, we got wonderful views from outside, probably better ones than from too close up inside and still paid our due respects to the magnificent structures. Instead of lingering on the monasteries’ compounds we came to the grounds of a beautiful university where Klaudia walked around for a long time while Stephan needed some rest and engaged in a long conversation with a young monk who talked quite freely about the political problems in the country. We were really amazed and impressed and hope that he did not talk himself into trouble.
At the end of our first stay around Mandalay Hill we were addressed by a woman who had German-American grandparents named Cherry. She invited us to tea, which we accepted although we were not sure what she was after. We should soon find out. She started telling us her sorrowful story (having lost husband and children, she was all on
Buddha in one of his former lives, the Golden Duck reminds the people of the futility of life and the constant presence of death
her own and basically lived on her friends’ generosity, we counted among her friends immediately). We do not like this approach and Stephan told her so quite openly, but we were willing to pay her for lessons in Burmese. Cherry accepted, admiring Stephan’s skills and calling him very smart. This charming way we learned the first scraps of Burmese, mainly the numbers and some civilities, which should turn out very helpful for bargaining.
Another day, we took the bicycles to the south of Mandalay, where we wanted to see the famous Mahamuni temple
. We arrived there later than we had planned because there was soo much to see on the way, many pagodas, monks, kids, street life and even a car garage inside a temple complex! Still we were glad to have arrived at the renowned temple, containing the venerated Mahamuni Buddha that can barely be recognized for the huge numbers of gold leaves attached to it. According to legend the big statue is one of a handful cast when Buddha was still alive. Only men are allowed to approach the legendary image, and they are constantly patting on layers of gold leaf. The fantastic figure is now 15
The pagoda of the ‘Great Marble Image’, sited near the southern entry to Mandalay Hill
centimetres thick with gold and has adopted a swollen, bloated appearance. Outside are Khmer bronze figures from Angkor that have been on quite a tour after being looted by army after army. Not surprisingly, they look a bit battered, centuries of rubbing for luck have worn them further. This was one aspect of the Mahamuni temple which fascinated us a lot since we would see Angkor Wat at the very end of our trip and these bronze figures are the only ones surviving from Angkor. Inside the temple buzzed with life, not unlike many Hindu temples, people sleeping or eating and there was a constant coming and going. The Burmese pagodas or temples display a phenomenon that is very unpleasant for each photographer: they are approached by covered galleries which vary in length according to the place’s religious or tourist importance. This way it is practically impossible to take pictures from further away, so an overview is extremely hard to get and Stephan nearly got mad because the pictures got so distorted. Still the galleries are interesting as they protect against the heat and rain and also offer a nice array of souvenirs. Mostly they are not very solid, but
Buddha inside the Kyauktawgyi Paya
This huge seated Buddha figure is sculpted from a single block of pale green marble
the ones leading to the Mahamuni temple were real arcades and furthermore these were decorated with beautiful mural paintings. We ignore how old they are and whether many tourists ever see them, the Burmese were astonished to stand there with our pocket torch and take pictures in any case.
Mandalay was our first destination in Myanmar, and we quite liked it although it does not get very good credits in the travel guides. We stayed rather long because in its surroundings there are three former capitals and other places of interest which we had no intention to miss out and about which we will report in further entries. This one is already quite long without these reports. So be patient a bit longer and you will be able to follow our itinerary around Mandalay.
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