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Published: October 18th 2014
Or rather, actually in Mandalay. Which doesn't resemble the idyll of Rudyard Kipling's poem much, so much as a modern, bustling and very dusty city. And then it turns out that Kipling never even made it to Mandalay anyway, so I am left rather disillusioned about the whole thing.
On first impressions, despite the plethora of motorbikes, no working traffic lights and (apparently) no traffic laws, it seems rather safe and civilised and, unlike most places in South America, the drivers would actually be quite sad if they managed to kill you in the middle of the street.
Despite arriving at the close of the rainy season it is still disgustingly hot and humid - thank god for air-conditioning - although it is so hot that I'm not counting on any decent photos of myself this trip. Unfortunately, people here don't seem to realise I am disgustingly hot, sweaty and make-up free and insist on having photos with us whenever they can grab us. I now feature on at least twenty people's i-phone photo collections, including that of a monk.
Despite supposedly being one of the most closed-off countries to the rest of the world, everyone here has
touch-screen phones, luxury cars feature quite highly on the roads and there is no end of recognisable brands in the supermarkets.
The main downside being the lack/poor quality of internet. I have been reliably informed that the 'good' internet is only licensed to big (government-sanctioned) hotels, and people with high-up links to the government. The rest of us poor people have to deal with dreadful internet and electricity cuts a few times a day. Not due to poor electricty-production, rather the fact that the government sells electricity to Thailand thereby leaving their own people without. I don't think it's meant to make sense! Hence the reason I am currently using the internet link stolen from the hotel next door which has constant electricity and semi-decent internet.
Anyway, thanks to our lovely employers, upon arrival we more or less instantly got a guided tour of Mandalay, starting with a monastery. Which, confusingly, is called the Golden Monastery, despite it being made entirely of teak and being dark brown. They seemed ridiculously proud of it for being so old. Despite it being truly beautiful architecture and carvings, I always find it vaguely amusing when people try to convince you that
something is so amazing because of its age.
To an English person, something built 130 years ago is what you live in, not what you pay to visit. Frankly, it's also quite worrying that, in a mere 130 years, the 'Golden' monastery can have all of the gold leaf that once covered it worn away. The carvings had also suffered the ravages of not much time. Some were indistinguishable blobs whereas, the presumably reconstructed ones, were truly gorgeous for the skill that went into producing them.
Despite being a monastery it seemed that no monks lived or worked there any longer, they only came as tourists. Which made for some nice photos even if they did all have touch-screen phones and seem to be just as intent as the foreign tourists on taking photos of each other, random white people, and girls who seem to have come on the trip with them. Can monks have girlfriends?!
The only downside to this place was the danger of splinters in feet. I came fully prepared for taking shoes off at every imaginable opportunity but, naively, I assumed that 'indoors' would mean smooth and clean floors. The reality is splinters
from temples and filthy feet from the school and our home. Strangely it doesn't seem to bother everyone else, although it might be the same Myanmar magic that prevents all women from sweating, despite wearing tight, long-sleeved tops (mostly of fake fabrics) all day everyday. I am currently showering three times a day and changing at least twice. I definitely did not bring enough clothes for this!
Leaving the monastery we moved on up to Mandalay Hill. To get the top you have a choice of walking, or using the escalator. Bare-foot. A rather unusual experience to say the least and not helping my already-disgustingly filthy feet. We chose the easy ride - probably the best choice until I get a little more accustomed to the heat - but it did mean missing out on the mini temples on the path up.
The top is dominated by the Sutaungpyei Pagoda - a rather garish, gold-covered pagoda with liberal sprinklings of tacky Buddhas. Surprisingly few foreigners for such a famous landmark, especially in the run-up to sunset but rather nice with gorgeous panoramic views and plenty of photogenic monks (so much better than the hoards of tourists who always
seem insistent on wearing bright colours that stand out a mile in the final picture.)
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