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Published: April 22nd 2017
Sunset Over U Bein Bridge
Myanmar has provided some spectacular sunsets.
Mandalay...the name evokes an exotic, almost mythical time and place; of a paradise far away, thanks mostly to the words of the poet Rudyard Kipling and his famous poem. Songs by Sinatra and er, Robbie Williams, add to the air of Western intrigue about the place and the famous Vegas hotel, the Mandalay Bay, ensconces the idea of Mandalay being a haven of Oriental luxury.
Mandalay was also the last royal capital of Burma before the country was annexed by the British; the idea of Mandalay being the residence of 'the last emperor' also adds to its aura.
In modern times, the place is merely a sprawling, mainly non-descript city and I certainly got this impression as I arrived in Mandalay.
The amazing thing about my journey here from Bagan however was the fact that it was door-to-door from my hostel there, to my hostel here. The bus - actually a mini-van - dropped you off at the bus station but then a free ride in a passenger pick-up truck took you directly to your door. Amazing. I appreciated because it saves you a bit of cash in transfers too!
My hostel here in Mandalay was a little unusual; I
Wonderfully intricate monastery built on stilts and made completely of teak.
was in a 20-bed dorm but the beds are all laid out as two levels of capsules. Inside each capsule is a large single bed - all the singles seem to be large in Myanmar - with your own light and charging point. It is like those capsule hotels I have always seen on TV in Japan.
Back in Bagan
, my mother and I had met a lovely Taiwanese girl in our guesthouse called Jean and she had also come to Mandalay on the same day as me. Thus I met up with her in the evening for a very interesting local dinner.
When you go to a Burmese restaurant, as well has menus that never have prices on them, you will typically get a plate of rice and a whole lot of side dishes on the table - all sorts of pickles, curries and vegetables - to go alongside your main order. Sadly, apart from mohinga
, I have found Burmese food to be a little disappointing. It is generally very salty and just doesn't really taste very nice. It has also been surprisingly spicy and has been going through me much faster than Indian food, that notorious philanthropist
Monks Lined Up For Breakfast
Hundreds of monks line up for breakfast at the Maha Ganayon Kyaung in Amarapura.
Touring around the city the next day, my first impressions of Mandalay didn't change - the city seems to go on forever in all directions without changing too much. Thus walking your way through Mandalay seemed to take forever too. There seems to be little character to the place - it certainly doesn't seem to have any leftover magic from its halcyon days. Just miles and miles of the same stuff; hawker-style restaurants, Indian-style general stores, two-storey houses, the odd flash hotel, wide roads and loads of dust. It reminded me a bit of Los Angeles.
Orientation is pretty easy though - Mandalay is set out in a grid pattern with numbered streets, similar to the way New York City
The three sights I covered in my walk weren't spectacular even if the sitting Buddha at the Mahamuni Paya is revered in Myanmar; it has had so many gold leaves applied to it over the centuries that there is now six inches of pure gold protruding from its body. The temple that houses it has its fair share of gold too.
Some of the gold leaves are produced in the gold pounder's 'district' on 36th Street although
Looking down over the stupa-studded slopes of Sagaing Hill.
calling it a "district" is a bit of a stretch; it only consists of two workshops right alongside each other where workers beat down gold with hammers for hours to produce the leaves that are applied to Buddha statues by devotees. Despite not buying anything, the teenage boy who showed me around was very informative as to how all the different gold products are produced.
The other sight I saw was Shwe In Bin Kyaung, a lovely, peaceful Buddhist monastery made almost entirely from teak upon wooden stilts. The Chinese-style pagoda is very intricately carved and is a work of art in its own right.
Despite only walking around for half a day, I was absolutely knackered by the end of it; Mandalay was so hot it was like walking around in an oven. It isn't too humid here - thank God - but the air is relentlessly hot, even in the shade, and you are literally baking when you're in the sun. It definitely felt hotter than anywhere I was in India and is quite possibly the hottest place I have been since I was in Mostar
. It was at least forty degrees outside and that was in
The exterior of the Shwe In Bin Kyaung.
the late afternoon.
Myanmar feels like what it might've been like travelling to fascinating places before they got too touristy; where you still had to learn a few words of the local lingo and having favours done for you without expectation of a payment (unlike in India).
But being charged £3 for each withdrawal of cash really grates. It means you have to be so careful with the management of your cash. Just as well I got some practice with the demonetisation of notes in India!
But it is just another thing that you'd rather not have to worry about.
Such worries get tiresome after a while and after almost a year and a half on the road to Mandalay, I had reached a serious crossroads in terms of the entire trip.
I knew I was taking a risk buying some coconut and jelly 'soup' the previous day from a street vendor but I just couldn't resist; I'm not sure that was what actually gave me diahorrea the next day. In any case, as I lay prostate in my capsule with stomach cramps, I realised that I really wasn't enjoying myself. I was sick. I was sick of planning days of sightseeing. I
Inside The Mahamuni Paya
The hallowed halls of the Mahamuni Paya. I was a bit cheeky sneaking this photo without paying the camera fee.
was sick of being underwhelmed by what I was seeing. I was sick of backpacker banter. I was sick of being on such a tight budget. I was sick of having to manage my cash. If I was really sick of it all, was it really worth carrying on? Should I try and stretch my budget to September or should I shorten the trip and enjoy myself more? Was I really sick of travelling, or was this just a phase? I had shots of reinvigoration in Spain
and India - and even Myanmar
to a small extent - but it seems those bursts of enthusiasm have become shorter each time. It was the first time I started to seriously think about shortening the trip.
And I have no doubt that what I will term the "Nepal
has played a part in how I am feeling now. Despite having an amazing experience in India, it is a tough place to travel and after three months of it, it has almost depleted any reserves of patience that I might have started with. And perhaps two days in Yangon have not been sufficient in recovering from the toughest 2-3 weeks of the trip
Inside The Shwenandaw Kyaung
Carved scene of past-life story of Buddha inside the Shwenandaw Kyaung.
I didn't bother going out that day - I really didn't fancy going out into that heat. It was still productive though, as I got another blog entry done!
I also read up about other things you could do around Mandalay and it seemed there were four ancient capitals just outside the city. I could get to one of them by bicycle but I kind-of didn't fancy cycling myself to death under this hellish sun. I did think that I'd perhaps be short changing myself if I just went to one
of the cities so when I found out that the hostel did an all-day group tour that took in three for just K9,000, I was sold. So I would extend my stay by two nights - one day to do the tour and another to see the rest of the sights in Mandalay itself. I think my body wanted me to rest a little that day, so rest I did.
The next day, I checked out four sights within the city.
The first one was the Mandalay Palace, where the king used to live before he was ousted by the British (it's always the British
Impressive square, wedding cake style temple.
innit). Much of it was destroyed during WWII and what you see today was rebuilt in the 90s, albeit to the original plans. A couple of the buildings and courtyards had some wow factor but otherwise it was OK - it wasn't shitty but it wasn't amazing either. After seeing places such as Shwedagon Paya in Yangon, everything else similar seems a little underwhelming and samey. Perhaps the only thing of note about my visit to the palace was meeting Kasia, a Polish girl who decided to make me her photographer for the day!
I then cycled over to the Shwenandaw Kyaung, a teak monastery very similar to the Shwe In Bin Kyaung monastery that I went to on my first day here. Only with way more tourists. I actually thought that the bigger and impossible-to-miss Atumashi Kyaung next door was what I was looking for, with its white and gold terraces of stupas.
The nearby Kuthodaw Paya has the "world's biggest book" - 729 slabs of stone, all inscribed with the Buddhist canon of Tripitaka. Unbeknownst to me, each of the slabs are kept inside a small temple that looks like a small mausoleum and they are laid out
Each mini-temple houses a slab of rock containing a chapter of the 729-part canon of Tripitaka.
in rows that seem to go on forever - it was quite a sight.
Lastly, I caught the sunset atop Mandalay Hill. It is a bit of an experience walking up there - you walk up a covered staircase barefoot, past loads of stalls and temples before reaching the temple up the top which affords amazing views over the sprawling city. The sunset wasn't too bad either though it had nothing on Bagan's. Some of the stall keepers seem to live up on the hill as well, in small shacks.
Cycling back to the hostel was a little hair-raising - there really don't seem to be any road rules whatsoever apart from traffic lights and every intersection seems a bit of a whoever-gets-there-first free-for-all and you have to look out in every direction when crossing them. There aren't many street lights either and people just seem to go anywhere they want.
On my final day in Mandalay, I went on my tour which to my pleasant surprise, was done in an air-conditioned mini-van with a friendly driver and friendly Spaniards Laura and Moises, as well as friendly Slovakian Sonca.
Our first stop was at the Maha Ganayon Kyaung in
Sitagu International Buddhist Academy
Large Buddhist campus crowned by a large dome at the base of Sagaing Hill.
the ancient city of Amarapura, where I have never seen so many monks. Burmese males generally have to attend monasteries twice in their life; once between the ages of 5 and 15 and again at some stage when they're over twenty. Thus the majority of the hundreds of monks lined up in two lines for breakfast were young. Breakfast every day seems to be a bit of a ritual and tens of tourists like us were waiting to snap hundreds of monks about to have their breakfast in a huge dining hall. Some tourists gave food and drink donations into the monks' bowls which they carried with them. To be honest, most of the monks didn't look too happy to be there.
Next up we visited the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy, a massive pink and gold pagoda complex which amusingly, had pictures of all the different Buddhist shrines, caves and temples around the world hung up on the wall encircling the pagoda, all with the same monk posing in the pictures like some sort of garden gnome travel mascot.
We then went up to see a couple more pagodas atop Sagaing Hill, which is dotted all over with them. I'm
Row Of Buddhas
Inside a shrine on Sagaing Hill.
a bit pagoda'd out to be honest so the pagodas aren't so special anymore; in saying that, the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda had colourful floor tiles which were eye-catching, and the views at the top over the area were impressive.
After lunch, we were then taken across the Myitnge River by ferry to the ancient royal capital of Inwa, which was the capital for nearly four centuries. Nothing much is left of it and it is pretty much a place full of fields and rural thatch huts housing farmers. At one pagoda, we were taken in by some super-friendly monks and were force-fed watermelon. That was a funny experience. We were also told to pray to the Buddha and take a photo of it. It was a bit of a laugh; those monks were so cute. It was a shame we didn't have any sort of map of Inwa though, as we were kinda just walking around aimlessly on dirt roads under the hot sun looking for anything of interest. We weren't given any directions either and were constantly accosted by very eager and persistent horse-cart drivers who wouldn't stop nagging us for a ride. On the way back
Along The Boardwalk
Crowds pack the 1.2km long U Bein Bridge just before sunset.
to the jetty, we did managed to hit two of the Lonely Planet featured sights; the Maha Aungmye Bonzan, a very impressive carved monastery building with three concentric squares built around the main shrine and had architecture and colour a little different to what we had been seeing; and the Nanmyin Watchtower, which is Myanmar's low key version of the Leaning Tower Of Pisa
To finish off, we went to the famous and iconic U Bein Bridge for sunset. 200 years old, the bridge is the longest teak bridge in the world and crosses the Taung Tha Man Lake. It feels more like a boardwalk however and at sunset, the place is packed. It's also a little dangerous as there were more than a few loose planks and there were no railings stopping you from falling into the lake should some local push past you and accidentally bump you in. Myanmar has not been short of decent sunsets though and I got another one here at the bridge.
And with that, I was happy to finally be leaving Mandalay; illness, laziness and a need to stop and rest for a few days meant that I spent longer than planned here but I
Gold Buddha At Mahamuni Paya
Devotees (male only) apply thin sheets of gold to the Buddha statue. The Buddha's legs are so big because of the six inches of layered sheets applied over the years.
think it was definitely the right decision. It is a noisy, hot and bustling city so I was looking forward to getting away to the countryside at Inle Lake!
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