Mandalay

9 Nov

The first stop on our Myanmar adventure was the city of Mandalay. Although the city is quite large, the surrounding countryside (including the airport) is extremely rural. As our plane descended, I had my nose pressed to the glass in curiosity. The little girl in the row in front of me was doing the same. She piped up, “I don’t see any people!” I had to agree with her; I saw cows, cultivated fields, roads without cars, but not a person in sight. IMG_2622 IMG_2624 Myanmar as a country is not particularly overpopulated, and the area around Mandalay is no exception. I like random facts so here’s one for you: the population density of Myanmar is around 80 people per square kilometer. For comparison purposes, Thailand is about 132 per sq.km. and Manhattan has approximately 27,000 people in the same size space. Mandalay reminded me a bit of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. This makes sense since they are both large cities in the midst of poor, slowly developing countries. The buildings on one block might look all shiny and new, with a modern shopping mall, clothing boutiques, and cafes. The next block will include several food stalls haphazardly slapped together, two plots of rubble, an ancient pagoda, and a grassy field. The juxtaposition is both interesting and somehow exhausting. Mandalay is located along the east bank of the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River, the major river that flows the length of Myanmar and empties into the Andaman Sea near Yangon. Back in the day, Mandalay was a major shipping port, particularly for the logging industry. The logging companies used to float giant teak logs down the river from the north, all the way down to the ocean. There are still timber yards along the river south of Mandalay. The city is organized around the Royal Palace compound, which is surrounded by a giant moat (Really, giant. We walked the length of one side – over 2 km). King Thibaw lived there before he was exiled. Nowadays, the army families live within the walls, and the majority of the compound is off-limit to tourists. This welcoming sign greeted us as we entered:

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“Tatmadaw and the people cooperate and crush all those harming the union.” (Tatmadaw = the name of the Burmese army)

We spent two days exploring Mandalay, partially on foot and partially on motos. Walking around Mandalay was extremely tiring. Like the Thais, the Burmese don’t seem to do a lot of random walking, so the city is not designed for strolling. The second day was easier as we took a tour on motocys. No, we weren’t crazy enough to try driving; Nancy, Zach, and I each had our own driver. My driver, Hla Myo, was the lead tour guide. He spoke great English, including lots of fun slang and sayings (let’s hit the road Jack, easy peasy lemon squeezy, see you later alligator, etc.). He took us to many of the major sights, as well as a few sights off the beaten track. He also kept up a running commentary of random trivia and funny English grammar questions as we were driving. Eight hours on a moto is quite a long time, but it was a great way to see the city and get a better feel of the area.

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Hla Myo and I. He’s wearing a longyi, the traditional Burmese attire for both men and women on the bottom half.

Highlights of Mandalay include:

  • Visiting the Mandalay Palace and climbing the world’s ricketiest wooden watchtower for the view.
  • Watching the sunset from Mandalay Hill and tromping barefoot back down the 1,729 steps that lead up to the pagoda.
  • Stopping at Mahamuni Paya (paya = pagoda in Burmese), home to a famous Buddha statue. Men apply gold leaf to the Buddha body so profusely that it has grown over a foot thicker since it was originally made. Women are not allowed to approach the Buddha. Apparently, they don’t want menstruating women near the Buddha as they are unclean, and since they can’t politely determine who is menstruating, they ban all women. Logical.
  • Checking out the workshops of various local crafts, in particular a silk weaving place and a “factory” where they pound gold leaf for application to the Buddha.
  • Walking around Shwe In Bin Kyaung, a snazzy teak monastery.
  • Seeing the world’s largest book at Kuthodaw Paya. There are 729 giant marble slabs, each in its own stupa, representing the entire Tripitaka (the Buddha Bible as Hla Myo put it).
  • Sweating profusely as we climbed Sagaing Hill to enjoy the view. The impressive part is the sheer number of white and gold pagodas scattered around the hilltops.
  • Sunset viewing from the U Bein Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world. We had a particularly amusing moment there; both locals and tourists flock there at sunset for the gorgeous views. As Nancy, Zach, and I strolled along the bridge, we looked down to find two fellow teachers and travelers in a boat below the bridge! We had a fun, “Hey it’s you!” moment, and each took photos of the other. Good times.
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Michelle’s photo of me, Nancy, and Zach on the bridge – Nancy is the one with her arms up enthusiastically.

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My photo of Michelle taking a photo of us – Jen also looks quite enthused!

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My favorite shot from the U Bein Bridge

We departed Mandalay the morning of day three, in my favorite possible way  – on a boat!! Boat rides always make me unreasonably happy, and this one was no exception. Floating lazily down the Irrawaddy was delightful. The boat was comfy, with shaded deck chairs. I spend the majority of the time staring at the passing countryside. Bliss. 🙂 It took around nine hours to reach Bagan, our next destination. As usual, I went a little photo crazy. Enjoy.

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