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Published: November 6th 2014
Arriving a few days before Thadingyut (Festival of Lights) meant that we had a really easy first week with two days off school. I was really interested to see my first Burmese festival, the internet having promised ceremonies, processions and the whole city brightly illuminated at night. The reality, however, was a few Chinese lanterns being released and a few fireworks (but this has continued for the last month so it might not be festival-specific). It might be the fact that we live in the Chinese quarter of the city - our employers certainly didn't seem to celebrate at all.
We made use of the mini-holiday though to see a bit more of Mandalay. This time to the main tourist attraction, the morally-complicated Mandalay Palace. Like many places in Myanmar, it was rebuilt (supposedly) by government-dictated forced labour in the 1990s. Originally built in the late 1850s (reinforcing my belief that nothing here is actually old) the original was mostly destroyed by bombing during World War II.
There is great discussion over whether or not to visit Myanmar at all or, if you do, how to try and avoid money going to the government. However, any job that can
get you a work visa clearly has some ties to the government, even as a tourist your visa fee, hotel payments and entrance to pretty much any site of interest will all be returned to the government to some extent.
Despite the Lonely Planet's suggestions for an 'ethical' tour I think the only way to protest is simply to stay away. Even then I don't think the government cares particularly. And, quite frankly, for all the people who claim it is unethical to visit Myanmar under such conditions, half of them have probably been to China anyway so arguments of human-rights violations go out the window!
As we are here it seems a bit ridiculous to not visit the main places in Mandalay, but even then, it's not the simplest thing to get to. One extra annoyance (on top of the impossible-to-walk-along pavements, open sewers and impossibility of crossing roads around the palace) is that foreigners can only enter the palace grounds through one of the four entrances. All this does is increase the mystery of what on earth is lurking inside the other three entrances. So rather than entering and exiting via the closest one (and, incidentally,
the one next to a restaurant that promises pizza), we have to drive halfway around it instead.
Mandalay Palace and Mandalay Fort are actually very different things. The fort starts from the moated wall which encircles the whole complex and (despite looking very walk-able on maps) is massive. Visitors to the palace itself have to be driven through the gate and up to the palace complex - any attempt to deviate off the road is taken very seriously apparently as there are various military installations within.
The Palace complex itself is very walkable (although very hot and open) and consists of a large number of reconstructed rooms with corrugated iron roofs (not sure this exactly mirrors the originals.) Pleasant enough but with nothing inside the vast majority of them and, with very little information as to what they all were, the overall impression is a bit abandoned and incomplete with long grass and weeds everywhere. Not to mention my feet once more are completely filthy and suffering from splinter wounds.
The watchtower is one of the few original buildings still standing (rather perversely I think the only building in which I would feel safer if it were
modern as the stairs creaked and it was very obvious a lot of nails were missing.) It affords a lovely few from the top, the distance rather disguising the unloved feeling of a lot of the other buildings.
There's a small museum at the back of the site containing various examples of clothing, carriages and photographs of royal family members from the 1800s (most of which apparently were 'recovered' from the German Embassy - quite intrigued what that's about.)
After having organised a pick-up from the palace (really couldn't face the walk back to the gate and not even sure that tourists can) we moved on to the Kuthodaw Pagoda which houses the 'biggest book in the world.' Rather confusing idea until I realised that this is actually individual pages housed in mini stupas.
At this point we discovered what Myanmar people do during the festival - come to the book and sit and have a picnic. Which meant every walkway under cover was completely covered in whole families who had set up camp on the floor, leaving us to gingerly pick our way around them and hot-foot it (quite literally) between the white (and therefore slightly
Didn't spend as long as I would have liked there, mostly due to the extreme heat, but it should be easy enough to return to as we are here for the rest of the year.
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