The Melting Suns of Mandalay

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Our second destination in Myanmar was Mandalay. We had taken the overnight bus from Yangon and arrived after what passed as a quick night with adequate sleep on the road. Amanda had no problem sleeping as she had been up sick all the previous night. She was grateful to be well enough to make the pre-booked bus trip and also grateful that it was easy and comfortable for her to pass out in a hurry after boarding the bus.

We arrived in Mandalay just as the sun was rising. As we made the trek toward ‘budget hotel avenue’ (26th Avenue) we admired the views of the sun rising above the Mandalay Palace which marked the city center. There was a bit of fog near the water, and the morning light gave the palace area a mystical vibe.  The moment was much of what Ben had hoped for in the city that has captured the imagination of westerners for over 100 years.

Great views of the Royal Palace as we arrived in Mandalay
Great views of the Royal Palace as we arrived in Mandalay

The Palace walls are surrounded by a large moat filled with water and bordered with nice walkways. Locals can be seen here at all times of day hanging out, relaxing in the shade of the trees, walking leisurely, or working out on the permanent workout equipment the government had installed in various areas. Since it was roughly 5:30am when we arrived there were a good number of elderly out for some morning exercise before the heat became too strong.  When we got to 26th Avenue, Amanda stayed with the bags, and Ben went around with an Italian couple that were also looking for a place to sleep.  The group of three split up and then came back together after about twenty minutes to exchange information on which spots had available beds and what the prices were. After almost two hours of walking around, we found a place that would work.

Here in Mandalay we found that again, hotels followed the typical Myanmar pattern of being higher priced for southeast Asian standards.  This seemed to be a continuing trend as the number of tourists each year increases and the number of guesthouses has remained relatively the same due to the difficulty of getting a license from the government to board foreigners. Once settled in at ET Hotel we took a look at the regional map. It confirmed what we had already been thinking this morning upon arrival – Mandalay is BIG. In many ways we found it more spread out and harder to figure out public transportation than in Yangon. The other thing that became apparent was that cars, motos, trucks, and any other vehicle imaginable were everywhere and traffic lights or stop signs were pretty much nowhere. This meant that at most hours of the day you would have to risk your life running across the street (or walking along it since there were no sidewalks). And what was far worse than the risking of your life was the deafening sound of horns–hundreds of horns–all at once, non-stop. This was the way it worked here. No order to the madness meant that every person felt they would get the right-of-way and they needed to have their hand firmly on the horn to warn everyone else that they were there and they were coming through. Considering that twenty years ago there were almost no cars in the streets of Mandalay at all (as in it was rare to see a moped in the streets), we are somewhat scared to see what Mandalay may look like twenty years from now.

Biking Around Town

Temple & its Guards - Mandalay After getting settled into our hotel, we opted to rent bikes for the couple days we would be in town. We spent our first day just wandering around mostly the western part of the city without any real agenda. We were armed with a couple of ideas on places to go, and let those dictate our general direction.

It turns out biking is probably the best way to get around the city and do things. Mandalay was much larger than we expected, covering a total of 45 square miles. Walking is near impossible if you really want to see things and we imagine taking taxis or rickshaws everywhere would be expensive. Our bikes were only $2 a person per day and we doubted you could beat that price in a rickshaw with all the places we went to. While weaving in and out of the traffic is fun (we really do enjoy playing city cyclist, much more so than walking down the street), the real magic in Mandalay is on those small side streets that no one wanders to.

Our highlight of the afternoon was exploring these streets and stumbling across things like a pagoda and attached monastery where many novice monks (under the age of ten) were hanging out and some other kids were playing soccer. We would wander upon seemingly ancient pagodas surrounded by newer built homes. This isn’t hard to do in Mandalay because the city is packed with monasteries. It is, in fact, the place with the highest concentration of monasteries in the world, and most monks per capita. On Mandalay Hill, for example, nearly every single block leading up to the start of the walk has a monastery for the two mile stretch adjacent to the grounds of the former palace.

Teakwood Monastery

Amanda had read that the Shwenandaw Monastery is one of the most peaceful of those located in the city and thus it was on our ‘to visit’ list. Finding this pagoda wasn’t all that difficult. Like many of the lesser visited pagodas and monasteries it felt strange entering and not quite knowing the etiquette: whether it was off limits or private, as no one else seemed to be around. As we entered we could hear they were beginning a meditation session (in Burmese) at one of the meditation halls near the entrance. We took our shoes off and respectfully began to wander around the grounds and soon took solace in some chairs resting under the shade of the trees. We decided to take in this peaceful moment and just relax for a bit. After about five minutes a monk approached us and apparently wanted to chat us up. His English was very limited but we did our best to communicate and make some conversation with him. From what we understood he was about 25 years old and lived there at the monastery. Our attempts to communicate further details were unsuccessful. He asked to take a photo of us and then asked us to take a photo of him (with our camera). Then he took an interest in our phone wanting to play around with it. There are many places in the world we would have never willingly handed our phone to a stranger we couldn’t communicate with, but here with a monk, at a monastery in Myanmar we felt okay with it.

Our mysterious and curious Burmese monk
Our mysterious and curious Burmese monk

 

Finally, exhausting our attempts to speak to him and him losing interest in the phone, we decided to check out the highlight of the monastery – the old teak pagoda. As we got up he slipped in the words “kyat? 2,000 kyat?” Having been in this trusting and giving part of the world we have definitely jumped on the boat of offering more donations to people and temples. There is something about a society and culture that is willing to give to those around them that sparks hope within you and makes you more willing (even as an outsider) to participate in the charity. It’s a great example of how your environment and culture can affect one’s perspective on giving. Regardless, after a year of being on the road, there is still something that grabs at our insides when people ask for money compared to us willingly choosing to offer. In some cases we would flat our tell people no, but we gave the monk 2,000 kyat and he beamed as he received it. We weren’t really sure what he would do with it, or why he asked. The monk did not need our money – as a monk you are provided everything you need from the monastery and society (such as free bus rides and collecting morning alms of food from locals).  We have also learned that unlike western ideas of what a monk looks like there are actually many types. There are those who were orphans and grow up monks because they are adopted, given an education and taken care of by the monastery – thus it is just what they fell into and the life they live as they grow up. There are those that choose to be monks and really want to dive into the spirituality and philosophy of it. There are those that just have nothing to do and so they become a monk for a few years (which could possibly be compared to some Westerns choice to go to grad school). Essentially the point is there are many types of monks and so we aren’t sure what type he was. In the end it was $2 and we considered it our entry fee to this free peaceful space we had entered.

 

The Shwenandaw Monastery’s main teak building is beautiful, and reminded us of a foregone era. As with many of the ancient buildings, it is on stilts. The entire building is all one shade of unpainted and unfinished teak wood, but after that it is detailed from top to bottom. Inside the pagoda is one large prayer room, and outside the roofed area is a large porch that encircles the building. The walls and panels were the most interesting part with unique and intricate carvings. The pagoda was designed for year round use, which meant it had to be cool during the hot summers, and protected from torrential rains during the wet season. This was accomplished by having ornately carved shutters that hinge at the top of very large windows. When shut, it lies flush with the walls, and keeps the pagoda protected from the rain. When propped open in much in the way a heavy fruit tree branch would be with a wooden post, the interior does not get direct sunlight and remains cool inside.

Teakwood Monastery detail duo - Mandalay

Pretty much any monastery is magical here in Myanmar but this one was probably our favorite, despite being small and somewhat more un-noticed on the tourist route.  We were glad we took some time to soak up the tranquility here during our first afternoon in the city.

Mandalay Hill Sunset

We had wanted to visit Mandalay Hill during sunset since it is the highest point around and is also known for it’s great views.  We set out on our bikes in that direction around 4pm. Again, it was much further than it looked on the map. We later found out that each side of the palace (which stood in the center of the city) was roughly two miles long. The ride was pleasant though and very direct.

Madalay Hill Reflective - Mandalay

We arrived at the base of the hill around 4:45pm. Trucks were waiting as tourists piled into them and the drivers eagerly tried to motion us toward their vehicles. When we said we wanted to walk up the hill a couple people tried to deter us with ‘very far’ and ‘very hard’ comments. Finally a smart fellow realized we were fit, young, and appeared to be well traveled backpackers; thus we were very likely going to do the hike up even if we did think it would kill us.  (Which by the way we didn’t).  He pointed out the stairs that marked the start of the ascent.  Before taking our first step we removed our shoes, since the site was considered holy and it is rude to wear shoes in holy sites.  We would make the climb just as the locals did it, completely barefoot the entire way.  No amount of bird poop would stop us.

The hike up the hill wasn’t difficult but once again, was much longer than we expected. The climb was all stairs, protected from heat and weather with an ever-snaking roof system just wide enough to cover the stairs and designed with traditional roofs that curled slightly upwards at the tips.  The entire way was shaded, just as many stairways to hilltop pagodas are. As we climbed up, many of the little shops and stalls with food along the way were shutting down. Apparently most of the climbers came during the daytime. Every few hundred steps there would be a plateaued area with some shrine or buddha to worship, and then the stairs would continue on upward behind it.  It was interesting to see that there were a fair amount of people living at various levels of the path up. Some of them lived in their shop/homes and others lived right on the landings with areas to worship. It seemed to work at this time, but we wondered where they went during the monsoon rains, as these were open-air living spaces with a roof but no walls in most cases.  It always amazed us to see how the poorer families of some countries adapt.  What is even more amazing is when despite their situation they have a general sense of love that is underneath everything.  We found this to especially be so in Buddhist countries.  This paired with the Buddhist culture that takes in the poor without question, always made us wonder why sometimes it is so hard for us as westerners to do the same.  Yes, politics are complicated.  But compassion is not.

 

Just before sunset we arrived at a larger pagoda covered with reflective tiles, mosaic patterns, and a couple large buddhas. At first Ben thought this was the peak, especially with the amazing reflections shooting every which-way with the angle of the setting sun. But once again, on the other side of the buddha was another stairway, with another fourty meters or so to go up. We arrived to the top just as the sun was beginning to set. Since the very top level was completely packed with people we found a special space just below it with equally stunning views and twenty times the privacy. This was the first real sunset of Myanmar we had enjoyed, and it was truly incredible. We would soon learn that there is something about the sunrise and sunset here in Myanmar. The sun looks huge and is always a stunning ball of perfect pink orange along the horizon.

Girl in Sunset - Mandalay Hill

Once the sun had completely set the crowds of people headed back to the trucks that had driven them up so they could return to the base of the hill.  We took some time to explore the top (the pinnacle) of the hill and the buddhist temple.  The colors were vibrant in the post sunset light and the energy about the place was something that just filled you with an inexplicable sense of ease.  After about ten minutes of finding ourselves spiritually swallowed up by the majestic surroundings and time of day we came back to our senses.  If we didn’t start our decent now it would soon be dark.  Knowing this we quickly began to go down the direction we had come up.  We made it half way before it was almost to dark to see our way.  Even with the families and vendors that lived on the grounds, there were very very few lights.  At some points we held hands and just felt for the next step with our feet.  By the time we reached the bottom we felt exhilarated.  The journey to the top of the hill by foot had been a rewarding experience and a wonderful way to spend our very first night in this new city.

Budda Face Washing

 

Washing of Buddha’s Face & U-Bein Bridge All Before 7am!

As Mandalay is such a spread out city with little public transportation (especially that made any sense to foreigners) we had to plan where we wanted to go and how we would get there with a bit more effort than our usual ‘head out with no direction‘ state of mind wandering. We specifically rented bikes for a two day period so we could have them overnight, as we had read about a morning ritual unique to a Mandalay’s Mahamuni Temple: a ceremony centered around the washing of a buddha statue’s face. This is supposed to take place around 4:30am.  Knowing this we woke up before 4am, bright eyed and bushy tailed (ok, well maybe not Ben) and got moving on the bikes in what most people would consider still the middle of the night. It took us about a half hour to ride south roughly thirty blocks, but eventually we knew we’d arrived with the sound of loud music and a PA system.

We were shocked to see the exterior had somewhat of a carnival atmosphere, and that this was a pocket of activity in an otherwise sleeping town–rightfully so at 4am! We took off our shoes and walked along the marble entryway. It seemed as though we were the only Westerners who were present out of a few hundred people in attendance. This is a ritual that happens every morning, so we assumed it was not going to be too packed.  We also expected that there would be a fair number of tourists here to observe, much like the monks collecting alms in Luang Prabang. While we can’t say for sure that there weren’t many tourists (since tourists come from all places of the world), we are fairly confident we were the only westerners. There were quite a few other people taking photos and recording the process, so we assumed it may be somewhat of a pilgrimage or a bigger draw for Asian, Buddhist visitors. Interested in getting involved and seeing more, Amanda bought a few flowers to present as an offering. In doing so, it also allowed her to proceed to the front and lay down the offering at the base of the large buddha and say a quick prayer. While up front, she could also see the care the four devotees were putting into washing the face of their idol.  Ben was in a kneeled prayer position in the back watching everything happen on a flatscreen. When Amanda returned we managed to find a middle ground, where we could watch the process unfold without being blocked by others kneeling in front of us (although this view was still just barely unobstructed).  After an additional half hour of watching the process and listening to the prayers, we walked around the grounds and enjoyed the lights of the pagoda.  It was still dark and a long time before sunrise.

Eventually we left the temple and headed on for the second part of our morning adventure, which was to see the famous U-Bain Bridge. To see it, we made our way south of the far reaches of Mandalay, still biking under cover of night the entire way. We finally arrived with about 10-15 minutes to spare before the first light in the sky. The bridge itself is an old wooden bridge that crosses the Taungthaman Lake.  It is said to be the oldest teak wood bridge in the world spanning 1,200 meters connecting Amarapura to the other side of the lake (where there are other small towns and many monasteries). Amarpura is where we sat lakeside once we arrived.  It is a very ancient area (now more of a district of the larger Mandalay City) and was once actually the capitol of Myanmar (then Burma) in the late 1700’s.  The area definitely had a much different feel to it in comparison to the bustling city center of Mandalay.

 

Many people come here (as we did) to witness the beautiful sunrises over the lake that light up the ancient teak wood bridge.  This image has been captured on the cover of many of the guidebooks of Myanmar and multi-country guidebooks for Southeast Asia. Oddly enough, this bridge was one of the popular destinations for visitors, but we seemed to have the far end of the bridge mostly to ourselves. We chose to watch from a lakeside bench roughly a couple hundred meters from the bridge, so we could have the best perspective. Unknowingly, this also placed us outside of the many lakeside monasteries. So as the sun came up, we watched the small, planked teakwood bridge light up as the sky went red, orange, yellow and then blue, a group of monks came out to sweep the grounds of the monastery behind us.  Many of the local monks use this bridge to travel via foot.  The number of monasteries in the area are countless and you could easily count more monks than villagers and visitors combined.  As we mentioned above, Mandalay is supposed to have the highest concentration of monasteries in the country.  Once you get out of the heart of the city you really can start to see this fact reflected in streets and everyday life.

U Bein Duo Already feeling very accomplished, by the time the sun came up we were ready to head back, and possibly take a small nap during the midday heat. We stopped along the way so Ben could get a snack – what looked like a Spanish churro, but in Burmese is called a youtiao, and is consumed with coffee or tea containing condensed milk. While greasy, they definitely hit the spot, especially on a morning like ours. It was also a nice treat to find out they only cost about 10 cents apiece.  Our love of Burmese food and it’s prices continues to grow….

 

Dreamland in Process - Mandalay

 

Dreamland Art Gallery

Knowing we would be staying in hotels the whole time we were in Mandalay, we were really interested in having the chance to scratch beneath the surface of being just a visitor to the city.  Once again, CouchSurfing came through as our tool for connecting with a local family.

We found someone on CS that was open to meet and hang out with visitors, as it’s illegal for her to host as a local Burmese (with reasons mentioned in our last post).  Sophia and her family lived on the east side of the city which was easy to bike to in roughly thirty minutes from our hotel and with limited traffic dodging. Sophia had told us she lived at a music and art venue, so we were curious, not knowing what to expect.  When we arrived, we immediately knew we were in for a treat.  Sophia and her family live in a complex built by their father.  They have their home here, and when they were young, their father wanted to give them exposure to music.  So, over a decade ago, he worked with the local university music teacher to brainstorm on how to accomplish this.  And, as we all learned from Field of Dreams, “if you build it, they will come.”  Sophia’s father built a building on their land and over time it became a place for music teachers to give lessons, as well as an artists studio.  Sophia and her four siblings were all home-schooled, and aside from getting a great education and being trilingual (Burmese, Mandarin and English), they were all artists and musicians, having nonstop exposure to the arts for their entire lives.

 

Upon our arrival, we were greeted by Sophia and her sister.  They then gave us a tour of their latest project: opening what would be the second hostel (with dorm beds available) in the city of Mandalay.  The only current hostel with dorms, Royal Guesthouse, was fully booked every night we wanted to stay, and only about $2 cheaper than the hotel we ended up in.  This place, which they were calling Dreamland Guest House, was amazing. Using the family’s artistic talent, they were establishing a fairly large hostel, and each room was painted by a different sibling, in whatever theme they wanted.  It was a building covered in art from head to toe.  We were really impressed, and more than a little sad they were not finished yet.  They were also waiting for the government permit to be able to host foreigners, which could take several more months, although they were optimistic it would come soon.

Dreamland Girls

After exploring the grounds, we were invited to tea and palata (like Indian naan bread with sprinkled sugar), and Sophia’s father came out to chat with us.  He was just as interesting as the house.  Being of Chinese descent, he had spent years in the rebel army, before it was absorbed into the government in the 1970’s.  He moved the family to Mandalay from near the Chinese border, where poppy was the main crop. He told us how 20 years ago there wasn’t a single car in Mandalay, which was something almost impossible for us to imagine after the madness of the vehicles we had experienced.  Apparently even in the early 1990’s in this isolated country if you had a bicycle, it would be like pulling up somewhere in a brand new Mercedes Benz. The entire family was nothing less than welcoming and open.  They even gave us a wonderful gift of a book that each member of the family had contributed a story towards and hand drawn the illustrations to go with it.  The family helped give us information and tips on other parts of the country we could possibly visit.  Hearing about all the beautiful places and having a handful of options made it hard to choose which way to go next.  But Sophia’s dad sold us when he recounted a story of traveling up the Chindwin River.  This we decided would be where we go to after Mandalay.

There are a few reasons we would return to return to Mandalay in the future, but seeing Sophia and her family as well as getting the added experience of staying in their guest house are two that top the list.  Oh, plus the offer Sophia’s dad made to Ben to take him out for some ‘authentic Burmese street BBQ’ next time he visited.  That is something he looks forward to!

Daytrip to Pynn oo Lwin

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After a couple days in Mandalay, we needed to make one of the harder decisions of the trip, deciding exactly where we would go outside of the “big four” places: Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake, and Bagan. Over 90% of all Myanmar visitors go to these places, and for many visitors this is all they see, especially with the tighter travel restrictions over the past years.  While we had heard mostly positive things about all these places, we were once again eager to get off the beaten path more. And as we had over three weeks in the country, we had the opportunity. What was most constricting were the limitations the government placed on travel for foreigners. So while we were in Mandalay we went to the MTT office again, and asked more questions. It was tiring to speak with other travelers and hear misconceptions about what is open and what is not, and we were grateful to have helpful staff in the bigger cities available to get straight answers from – the only people who really knew.  With knowledge in our heads from the MTT and inspiration in our hearts from Sophia’s father we had decided on travel up the Chindwin River toward the Indian border.  Before this trip we would take a quick overnight visit to the nearby town of Pynn oo Lwin.

Pynn oo Lwin was once a summer escape from the heat for British officers when they controlled what was then Burma. The city is at a much higher elevation, which gives it cooler evenings, and less balmy days compared to Mandalay. Even though this small city is only 60 miles from Mandalay, it takes over two hours to get to via public transport. Almost the entire way is twisting up a granite mountain, which we did packed into the back of a songthaew. After about 90 minutes we stopped at a cafe for thirty minutes, and our driver ate while the rest of us doddled about and watched as they hosed down the radiator for the entire time. Every vehicle that stopped there had its own hose, and for some of these older vehicles with over 400,000 miles on them, it’s probably the only way they could make it up with hill with their excessive loads. When we finally did arrive, we stopped for a quick bite then found reasonable accommodation near the clocktower in the recently remodeled Queen Hotel. At $17 a night it was slightly less than what we had paid in Yangon and Mandalay, and as this was our seventh day in Myanmar, we were starting to get more used to the higher priced accommodation.

Breakfast, lunch, or dinner -- it's Tofu Nway is always good.
Breakfast, lunch, or dinner — it’s Tofu Nway is always good.

After putting our things down, we found that the ride had zapped a bit of our energy, and Amanda was also not feeling 100% again. We decided to do what we do best — walk around, explore, and generally get lost in a good way. The city of Pynn oo Lwin is not that large, but offered a bit of a different landscape.  It was refreshingly greener here than in the two previous cities. We also found there were a few nurseries, as well as a large botanical garden. We walked for a couple hours, and after reaching the back side of the botanical garden and spotting some interesting monkeys, opted to return to our hotel, cutting through a golf course on our way back. Did we mention this was a getaway spot for former British colonial officers?

Once back, we rested a bit and after it grew dark went to look for food. We had been told of a night market, so that was our goal.  Ben scoped out all the food stalls (along with what the people were eating at them) before choosing to eat at a place offering  Tofu Nway soup.  This soup was new to us.  It was thick (like melted cheese) filled with herbs and noodles.  The primary ingredient is the special Burmese tofu (made with yellow bean) which is what also gave it it’s thickness.

 

This Burmese tofu dissolves into a gravy or cheese-like consistency when heated. And while it did not look fantastic, it was really delicious.  We didn’t know at the time but it would be a special dish we were unable to find again while on our travels.  Maybe part of that was not knowing what the official name of this ‘warm cheese soup’ was.

The following morning Amanda was not felling much better than she had been the previous day, but we wanted to walk around and see a bit more. It can be hard to force yourself to have do-nothing days while on the road, especially as we were only in this town for a day and a half. Instead, we were just trying to scale back our ambition. While out it was pretty warm, and when visiting an interesting buddhist meditation temple, Amanda started feeling more sick and had to rest in the shade. With that, we knew we had to stop exploring, and get her rest at the hotel. When we went back, and the nice staff let her lay down in our room again, despite having already checked out.  Once she was feeling up to it, we made our way back to the road where we had come into town, and caught another songthaew back to Mandalay,  arriving just after sunset.  Together we rested for our last night in Mandalay before we would move northwest the following morning toward the previously off-limits areas of the Chindwin River.

To see our photos from Mandalay and Pynn oo Lwin, click HERE.