A Royally Cultural Visit

Mandalay and surrounding areas (20 – 22 December 2014)

Every time before I go on a trip I feel at least a little bit stressed. I always feel like something bad is going to happen. And now that I have a job I also worry that something catastrophic will happen at work and I will not be there to solve it.

All that worrying really takes the joy out of the experience before I board the plane and I always wish that I am not going after all. Maybe I will be more comfortable in Singapore? In fact, this time I was going to Myanmar. Surely Singapore would be much more comfortable. And what was I thinking going on a 16-day trip there?

On the other hand I was glad to be away during this time. I needed a break from work desperately. And going away ensured some significant distance from the office which was the source of some unwanted annoyance lately!

I sat next to a Burmese lady on the plane. She had been working in Singapore for seven years. Her hometown was in Mandalay and she was going home to spend Christmas with her family. My encounter with her was like a quick cultural immersion to ease me into the trip. That was nice. I told her about the area in Singapore where most of the roads were named after places in Myanmar. She told me that the city layout of post-independence Singapore was originally modelled after Yangon’s. I did not know that. I was glad someone had told me about it. I would have to look at Yangon closely when I got there.

I was met at the Mandalay Airport by my first guide J. I was surprised to discover that he was Catholic. I did know that not every person in Myanmar was Buddhist but what were the odds that I would get a guide who was not?

I was taken to Amarapura straight from the airport to start my visit. At that point though, after almost five hours trying to get to Mandalay, my laziness had already taken deep root and I was actually looking forward to heading back to my hotel and not doing anything till the next morning. I however let J take me to a monastery.

The Mahagandayon Monastery is quite a large one with I think about 1,500 monks. I learnt that monks led a very strictly regimented life. They had to wake up at four every morning and they only ate 2 meals a day. Monks were generally not supposed to consume solid food after 11 am but I later learnt that milk was OK after that time. I still wonder if the younger monks get any proper nutrition though. There are many really young monks, maybe no more than 5 years old.

Both J and I were glad that we did not have to go through that sort of lifestyle. And then I remembered my time as a soldier. On the other hand monks were separated from their families whereas as a soldier I was still given time away for myself sometimes.

At the schoolyard in Mahagandayon Monastery

At the schoolyard in Mahagandayon Monastery

We next drove to the iconic U Bein Bridge where I was surprised by the throngs on the bridge. I had expected a peaceful bucolic scene, based on postcard pictures, but there I beheld an utterly touristy one. On hindsight however, I realised that I should have been more concerned about other things. The crowd on the bridge looked too big and the bridge looked too delicate for the crowd. The U Bein Bridge is a 1.2 kilometre long bridge made (almost) entirely of teak wood. The wood was taken from the royal palace in Innwa after the king had moved the royal capital to Amarapura and the former palace therefore became redundant. I learnt that ancient Myanmar kings had a habit of recycling building materials of former capitals.

U Bein Bridge

U Bein Bridge

There is also a charming story about why the bridge was built. Apparently a king wanted to get to the other side of the Taung Tha Man Lake to see a girl. I suppose if he had not been a king he would have had to go across by boat just like everyone else. Or go around the lake. Being royal in those days definitely had its privileges assuming the story was true. In any case U Bein was the name of the minister who had built it.

 Today the bridge is quite a rudimentary one however and there was mostly no railings along the way to prevent pedestrians from falling off. It was nevertheless a charming sight and I was sorry that the authorities had thought it appropriate to use concrete to rebuild some parts of the bridge.

Crossing the bridge

Crossing the bridge

View from the bridge

View from the bridge

View from the bridge

View from the bridge

I had visited the bridge at a good time however at sunset. J accompanied me while I walked from one end to the other and back. He told me that he was alright with walking since he wanted to lose some weight.

Sunset at U Bein Bridge

Sunset at U Bein Bridge

Sunset at U Bein Bridge

Sunset at U Bein Bridge

Although the USD is usable in Myanmar, using it was a stressful experience for me. A little tear, a little mark, a crease too deep, printed in the nineties. All not acceptable! At the moneychanger’s I had to go through all my notes with the changer to find the right bills. It was madness! I could have used my SGD I suppose which looked much nicer, but I had a stack of USD collected over the years which I really wanted to get rid of.

The Myanmar moneychangers also preferred bills of larger denominations. The exchange rate that day for 100 dollar bills was $1: K1032 whereas for 50 dollar bills it was $1:K1,030.

I tried paying for my dinner with some USD at the hotel and thought I had got away with one five dollar bill that had a little tear at its edge that was no more than three millimetres long. The waiter discovered it later and came after me to tell me apologetically that it was not acceptable. I then gave the waiter a ten dollar bill but the crease down its middle was too deep and wide. I had to find another ten dollar bill and that was acceptable.

The next morning I was taken on a 2-hour boat ride that lasted only an hour. We went downstream of the Irrawaddy, or more correctly the Ayeyarwady since the people of Myanmar call it that. An entire boat was booked for me and it looked big enough to carry about ten passengers I think. It felt like such a waste of space.

At the jetty

At the jetty

The boat ride felt like such an adventure. And I definitely got a kick out of going down a river that gave its name to a road at home along which I had walked countless times.

Along the Ayeyarwady

Along the Ayeyarwady

We passed Sagaing with its pagoda dotted hills. Every stupa, as in anywhere else in the country, is the result of someone’s attempt to gain merit. It is definitely a convenient method to gain merit for people who can afford it. According to J, building stupas on prominent places serves to remind people to pray. I wonder why people need to be reminded to pray if they are already so religious.

Sagaing

Sagaing

A temple in Sagaing

A temple in Sagaing

A bridge built by the British

Ava Bridge built by the British

The town of Innwa lies at the confluence of the Ayeyarwady and Myitnge Rivers. This was the ancient royal capital of Myanmar twice before a series of earthquakes in 1839 levelled the city. The king moved the capital to Amarapura after that. During the colonial period the British called it Ava.

Upon getting on shore, a girl tried to sell me some bracelets and refused to let me off. She followed me all the way from the jetty to a horse cart some 50 metres away. She kept telling me that if I did not buy anything from her she would not be happy. I do not remember anyone telling me that it was my responsibility to make her happy. I replied that if I were to buy from her I would then not be happy. Anyway she kept insisting that I think about it.

J and I hopped onto a horse cart to start our visit around Innwa. Fortunately the bracelet girl could not follow me that way.

On our way to the first attraction of the day, we encountered a novitiation ceremony about to take place. Everyone, especially the ladies, was wearing their best (Sunday best?) clothes. The little novices to be were dressed like princes, just as Lord Buddha had been a prince before he gave it all up. It was a village-wide affair and everyone seemed to be taking part. There were pots of food cooking away to feed an entire village and a make shift salon with beauticians and make up artists working feverishly away to prepare the ladies for the big event.

All ready for the ceremony

All ready for the ceremony

Coming out of the ceremonial hall

Coming out of the ceremonial hall

There was going to be a procession through the village. I suspect that this was meant to represent the journey that Buddha took to reach enlightenment. The modern journey however would involve lavishly decorated people carrying princely offerings of flowers and precious things although everyone would end up at the local monastery where the young novices would begin monkhood.

The procession was late by at least an hour but it was a worthwhile wait as I got to witness something that was very Myanmar.

Waiting for the procession to start

Waiting for the procession to start

Ox carts all decked out for the procession

Ox carts all decked out for the procession

Getting to the start point

Getting to the start point

Waiting for the procession to start at the gateway to ancient Innwa

Waiting for the procession to start at the gateway to ancient Innwa

Still waiting

Still waiting

The procession finally starts!

The procession finally starts!

A particularly young novice

A particularly young novice

I wonder if those young novices really understood what was happening and what was going to happen to them in the monastery? Being a monk seemed like such a serious affair and to me childhood was a time to learn about the world through play. On the other hand monkhood in Myanmar is almost like national service in Singapore. Most boys only became monks for a limited period of time. I had heard of a boy who was a monk for a mere half an hour. In any case the people of Myanmar believed that having a family member become a monk even for a short time would earn merit for not only the boy but the entire family too.

After all the excitement at the novitiation procession, going back to the itinerary suddenly felt a little like a drag. I got back to the horse cart and it took me further inland from the river between green padi fields and brown stupas. We passed by an archaeological museum but it was closed. J told me that the exhibits in there had all been moved to Yangon.

We made a stop at the Bagayo Monastery. “Bagayo” means the starflower and the monastery is made of teak wood. It was built in the 18th century but, as with so many monuments in Myanmar, polluted by 21st century additions.

Bagayo Monastery

Bagayo Monastery

I had known that J would be different, but it definitely surprised me when he goaded me to take a picture between the wooden pillars under the monastery when a monk came into frame. “This will make a nice picture and you even get a monk in it!” he said. I was a little surprised that he said that and then I remembered that he was not Buddhist. Having a non-Buddhist guide in a Buddhist country definitely allows one to see that country from a different perspective.

Under the monastery

Under the monastery

Doorway inside Bagayo Monastery

Doorway inside Bagayo Monastery

What remains now of the former palace in Innwa is a solitary watchtower. It stands at the edge of a banana field and I reached it after a bumpy ride that could have jolted that day’s breakfast out of me if I had attempted that trip first thing in the morning.

Watchtower of former palace

Watchtower of former palace

J told me that the watchtower was a defensive structure not only against human enemies but bad luck as well. The people then believed that to have a crow flying above a building was bad luck. The palace guards therefore had to shoot down any brazen crow that dared fly above the palace. Unfortunately all that effort did not avert the bad luck of the earthquake that eventually destroyed the city.

The true gem of Innwa however was reserved for grand finale of my visit. The Me Nu Ok Kyaung, or Queen Me Nu’s Brick Monastery literally, is surprisingly not wooden like other monasteries. It was built in the early 19th century by Me Nu, a chief queen of King Bagyidaw, for the royal abbot.

Me Nu Ok Kyaung

Me Nu Ok Kyaung

Inside Me Nu Ok Kyaung

Inside Me Nu Ok Kyaung

Although she had built a monastery, Me Nu did not seem all that benign. Bagyidaw was devastated when he had lost a war with the British and he became reclusive after that. The queen and her brother therefore governed the country in his stead and they were tyrants. After Tharrawaddy, the king’s brother and heir apparent, rebelled and succeeded in taking the throne, he had the queen and her brother executed. The queen however left behind a beautiful monument.

Another view of Me Nu Ok Kyaung

Another view of Me Nu Ok Kyaung

We ended the visit with a heavy lunch. Since it was a company paid lunch, J ordered way too much food for me. I had thought that he was going to share my food with me but I was wrong. It was crazy! In the end, I took J’s suggestion to pack the leftovers and give them to the first poor people we meet on the way back to Mandalay.

J and I went to the pier to wait for a boat to take us across the Myitnge. The bracelet girl saw me and tried to sell me her bracelets again. I have to say that I felt a little trapped since I had to take that boat ride and I had to wait for a boat to arrive. When she failed to convince me to buy her bracelets she then asked if I would exchange my sweater with her bracelets. I think her asking price for a bunch of bracelets was 2,000 kyats. My sweater definitely cost much more than that. So fat chance!

Before we could reach Mandalay proper we had to drive through Amarapura again. This time we made a stop at a small silk factory where a dozen ladies were hard at work weaving silk cloths. It was fascinating watching them produce all those patterns on those cloths.

After that J took me to a monastery nearby that looked really new. I have to say that the fact that it looked new prevented me a little from feeling any interest in it. But I kept an open mind and followed J in.

Modern monastery

Modern monastery

Bronze statues of Buddha on display

Bronze statues of Buddha on display

I think the name of this monastery was also Bagayo (I reckon they really love starflowers in Myanmar). This monastery houses a museum of Buddha statues from the few centuries.

I had read about the callousness and shortsightedness of the military junta that ruled Myanmar when it came to preserving the nation’s heritage. All the questionable methods of restoration seemingly preferred by those soldiers were destroying Myanmar’s history. I however discovered through J that there was in fact a general lack of understanding of heritage preservation in the country. Everyone wanted things new. And renovating (as opposed to restoring) temples and monasteries, never mind how ancient, was a part of the people’s belief system. Doing up a temple was one good way to gain merit.

J told me that he had once tried to convince a man that leaving an old temple as it is was a good way to attract visitors. Foreigners preferred originality he said. The man countered that he had never invited those foreigners to visit his temple in the first place. It was hard for J to continue the conversation after that.

Actually I have to admit that too many Singaporeans have the same type of mentality: if it isn’t new it can’t be good.

I took off on my own in the late afternoon and walked along the western section of the palace. It was just a few minutes walk away from the hotel but the journey there felt like a big gamble with my life. I cannot imagine how people survive without pedestrian traffic lights, but the locals obviously do. It did not help that the traffic was typical Asian: often heavy and usually undisciplined. There were traffic lights for cars but it seemed like they were put at junctions only out of sheer absolute necessity and drivers followed their directions only grudgingly.

I also noticed something during my time here. I cannot believe that it only hit me on my second full day here. The cars here drove on the right side of the road and yet were built for left-hand drive. How peculiar!

At a junction

At a junction

The local firemen

The local firemen

The palace was where the last king of Myanmar had lived. It covers a square compound two kilometres long on each side and is completely surrounded by a moat. Only the palace walls are still original now. The buildings inside the compound have either been destroyed during World II or rebuilt by the military junta. A large section of the palace is now reserved for government use. I did not enter the compound, which apparently can be visited, but it looked overrun by trees.

My evening stroll along the palace moat was quite pleasant despite the noisy traffic on one side. I even managed to catch a sunset along the way. Now how often does one get to see a sunset in the middle of a city like this?

Palace wall

Palace wall

Sunset in Mandalay

Sunset in Mandalay

That evening I had dinner at a restaurant recommended by the staff at my hotel. It served local cuisine and I was eager to try some and find out what exactly Myanmar cuisine is like. I was given a map with the location of the restaurant marked out for me. It seemed easy to get there on foot since Mandalay is laid out in a grid pattern and no one should lose his or her way in this city. However, as always, I underestimated the distance I would have to walk. I felt somewhat insecure when it got completely dark and there was little street lighting in the area. Nevertheless I got to the restaurant safely.

There were a couple of foreigners in there already when I arrived. So it seems that this restaurant is on the tourist trail as well despite its out of the way location.

I suppose I can safely call what I had Burmese cuisine. The Burmese cuisine that I became familiar with during this trip consists of different types of curries that is entirely different from all the other types of curries that I have had before. I have tried Burmese food in Singapore once many years ago and I recall not being too impressed with it. Maybe I need to have it in its country of origin to properly enjoy it.

I ordered a chicken curry which was not bad and a salad that contained tea leaves and sprinkled with a citrus juice which was appetising. I was surprised however when three or four other vegetables dishes arrived with my order. Apparently that is what they do in Burmese restaurants. I tried my best to eat as much as possible but it was just all too much! Maybe I should not have ordered that salad. I definitely felt bad wasting all that food.

The whole meal cost less than USD 5 though.

The next morning however was a little bad for me. I woke up with my stomach rumbling away. It felt like indigestion although I could not be entirely sure. A visit to the toilet sort of cleared it up but my stomach continued to rumble frequently through the day.

I was finally going to see the sights of Mandalay on my last full day in the city. J took me to the jade market first thing in the morning.

Buying jade

Buying polished jade

And what a sight it was! The place was crowded, messy and so dirty with piles of rubbish at many places and people spitting betel leaves remains wherever there was a pile of rubbish, and yet it was just fascinating. It was a huge market and there were all kinds of jade on sale there, from raw jade to finished jade products.

Looks like a jade scrap market

Looks like a jade scrap market

Before we entered the market, J warned me not to touch anything. Some tourist with itchy fingers in the past could not resist handling some of the polished jade and in the crowded market got bumped and dropped the jade in his hand. He had to pay quite a princely compensation. J also pointed out that he would not be able to vouch for the authenticity and quality of the jade if I wanted to buy any. I assured him that in Singapore only old women wore jade.

Jade polishing workshop

Jade polishing workshop

There was an entire section in the market taken up by Chinese traders. They were either local born Chinese or businessmen from China. I could tell from J that he was not too impressed with the folks from PRC. It did not sound like he found them to be pleasant people. Somehow I could understand him completely.

J bought me tea at a teahouse in the market itself. It was a small cup of milk tea but tasted so like what we have in Singapore. The familiarity was comforting, especially with my stomach rumbling away, although I was not too sure that I was supposed to enjoy familiarity so much so early in my trip. I also found it interesting that the locals drank the milk tea and also Chinese tea in one sitting. Although the milk tea had to be ordered, the Chinese tea was provided in flasks placed on the tables and customers could help themselves with these.

At the teahouse

At the teahouse

The jade market that I saw however may not be there for long. There were plans to move the market to a place some distance away from the city centre along the highway to the airport. The old market was getting a little too messy and dirty for the authorities. The traders operating from the market were of course extremely upset about it. The effort involved to move would be too expensive it seems. There was going to be a big protest against the decision to move the next day. I was surprised when J told me that the government had approved this protest.

After that fascinating start, which definitely woke me up completely, we carried on our sightseeing. We went down this street where craftsmen made Buddha statues out of marble. The amount of activity with marble was absolutely obvious from the trees along that street. Their green leaves were covered by a significant layer of white dust. It could not have been a healthy working environment.

Marble statues along the street

Marble statues along the street

I was next brought to a workshop where men carved wood and women embroidered.

Carving door panels

Carving door panels

Embroidering cushions

Embroidering cushion covers

Burmese puppets

Burmese puppets

I really liked the traditional puppets on sale at the workshop. However, anything with any level of human semblance always becomes terrifying to me after a while. I am after all at the end of the day a superstitious Asian.

The Mahamuni Pagoda is one of the holiest sites in Myanmar. It houses the Mahamuni Buddha image which is believed to be a true likeness of Gautama Buddha himself. Buddha had apparently visited the Rakhine kingdom during one of his proselytising expeditions. The Rakhine king was so taken by him that he decided to cast a bronze image of the great sage. Buddha himself was so taken by the image that he breathed his spiritual essence on it. He even said that the image would last for five thousand years on earth as his representative. That means the statue is just halfway through its expected shelf life.

In the 18th century, the Burmese conquered the Rakhine kingdom and seized the statue. It was first installed in Amarapura and then later transported to its present location in Mandalay.

The Mahamuni Buddha image

The Mahamuni Buddha image

J however told me that bronze casting technology was not known in the area till long after Buddha’s passing.

In any case, the site was so holy to the locals that I had to cover up my legs to get in. I could usually get into temples and monasteries elsewhere in Mandalay in a pair of shorts of suitable length but not here.

I climbed up onto the high pedestal on which the massive image was placed and joined the male devotees and tourists already on it. Ladies had to keep a respectful distance from the statue. I was there mainly to gawk at it up close but an attendant handed me a gold leaf which I was expected to paste onto the image. I did it as a cultural experience. It was not altogether an easy task though as the gold leaf seemed to prefer my fingers to the statue.

The act of pasting gold on Buddha is supposed to help the devotee gain merit, but what is the use of pasting so much gold leaves on the statue that you can no longer see it clearly. As it is the Mahamuni’s limbs could no longer be seen clearly.

The faithful before the great sage

The faithful before the great sage

Besides all the pasting of gold leaves, the Mahamuni statue also has its own daily cleaning routine. At about 4 am every morning, monks will wash the statue’s face and brush its teeth. I do not remember seeing any teeth on the statue but I suppose human imagination is limitless. The monks will then apply sandalwood paste on the statue before wiping it off. The ritual is concluded by sprinkling scented water on the statue.

My attention then turned to the rest of the temple. The temple complex was actually quite big. Outside the temple proper there were arcades of shops selling all sorts of religious paraphernalia. The main temple building itself looked a little like a church with its neo-classical arches. The current structure was built by a British engineer after the original one had burnt down in a fire in the 19th century.

Wandering through the galleries of the temple

Wandering through the galleries of the temple

Frescoes on the columns

Frescoes on the columns

Details on the exterior of the main building

Details on the exterior of the main building

Details on the exterior of the main building

Details on the exterior of the main building

The temple pagoda

The temple pagoda

Elsewhere in the temple complex

Elsewhere in the temple complex

Elsewhere in the temple complex

Elsewhere in the temple complex

It was definitely a beautiful temple.

There are six bronze statues in the temple complex said to be originally from Angkor Wat. The Siamese had first seized them from the Khmers in the 15th century. Later the Burmese invaded the Siamese and took these statues to Bago. The Rakhines then invaded Bago and took them back to Mrauk U. When the Burmese conquered the Rakhines in the 18th century, they took back those statues together with the Mahamuni statue.

It is said that there had originally been thirty of these statues. King Thibaw melted twenty-four of them to cast cannons. The remaining six are those in the temple today.

Bronze statues from Angkor Wat

Bronze statues from Angkor Wat

The statues are said to possess healing properties and believers will touch that part of a statue that corresponds to their afflicted area to seek recovery. Judging from the state of the statues now it seems that these believers have ailments mainly in their stomachs and knees.

The people of Myanmar do believe in a number of quaint traditions. J told me that devotees frequently tolled bells in temples to share their merits with anyone who could hear the bells. We both agreed that it would be most economical to stand near a bell in a popular temple like the Mahamuni Pagoda all day. That way we could avoid the need to build stupas or become monks, or in fact do anything good.

Having had my cultural experience with the gold leaf, J took me to see how gold leaves were made. It was terribly hard work. I suspect that all the merit associated with the gold leaves may or should have gone to the men making them instead. Pasting the gold on statues is quite effortless. Pounding them all day to get the desired thickness is not.

Flattening the gold for pounding

Flattening the gold for pounding

Pounding the gold

Pounding the gold

Packing the gold leaves

Packing the gold leaves

Next stop on my Mandalay city tour was the Shwenandaw Monastery. Not only was the building formerly a part of the Royal Palace but it was originally built to be the apartment of King Mindon. A statue of Mindon sits all serene outside the monastery. J asked if I thought that the king was handsome. I did not how to reply to that but asked him why he had asked me that question. He said that Mindon had fifty wives.

The man with fifty wives

The man with fifty wives

Mindon accomplished more than managing to snag fifty wives though. He was also the king who had moved the royal capital to Mandalay. After Mindon’s death, his son Thibaw thought that his ghost haunted the apartment. Thibaw therefore decided to remove the apartment entirely from the royal compounds. The building was moved and reconstructed as a monastery on its present location.

The Shwenandaw Monastery was a wonderful building. The entire teak building was exquisitely carved from inside to outside, top to bottom. It was one artistic masterpiece.

Shwenandaw Monastery

Shwenandaw Monastery

Shwenandaw Monastery

Shwenandaw Monastery

Buddha statue in Shwenandaw Monastery

Buddha statue in Shwenandaw Monastery

Door in Shwenandaw Monastery

Door in Shwenandaw Monastery

J pointed out some of the carvings in the monastery to me. They looked very much like Western angels although I had initially thought that the resemblance could have been pure coincidence. J however told me that they were in fact Western angels. The Burmese at the time had adopted the angelic motif from the British and made it their own. It was a fascinating idea I have to admit but somehow it also felt a little strange to me.

Some parts of the building were however visibly touched up. There were the usual concrete additions in some areas and some of the carvings were new although these were thankfully still wooden ones.

Old carving of Western angel

Old carving of Western angel

New carving of Burmese character

New carving of Burmese character

Arriving at the foot of Mandalay Hill itself, we reached Kuthodaw Pagoda. On the grounds of this pagoda stands 730 white structures, each one called a kyauksa gu, and in each of 729 kyauksa gus is a marble slab inscribed with a section of the Tripitaka in the Pali language. Together they form the entire Theravada Buddhist canon. The 730th kyauksa gu describes the reason these inscriptions were created. I think Mindon who had built them wanted the scriptures cast in stone for posterity and to leave behind some monument for same said posterity to remember him by. The Kuthodaw inscriptions form what people call the largest book in the world.

Some of the kyauksa gus at Kuthodaw Pagoda

Some of the kyauksa gus at Kuthodaw Pagoda

One of the slabs containing inscriptions of scripture

One of the slabs containing inscriptions of scripture

The pagoda itself however was far less inspiring.

Kuthodaw Pagoda itself

Kuthodaw Pagoda itself

I was driven up Mandalay Hill for a visit of its summit. I could have climbed up the hill on foot but I was on holiday after all and I had paid for a car and driver. There was therefore absolutely no need to torture myself at all. The car drove me to the foot of a building containing an escalator and lift for the last part of the journey up to the Sutaungpyei Pagoda at the top.

The Buddhists of Myanmar really treat the matter of respecting hallowed grounds very seriously and I had walked barefoot in all of the temples. Footwear was not allowed on even the grounds of these temples. I did not really mind going about barefoot and in fact I thought it felt liberating. But here on the hill I had to leave my flip fops in the car and go up barefoot even on the escalator. I started remembering all those stories of kids getting their toes caught in escalators back home years ago.

The building that housed the escalator and lift was full of cobwebs and looked like it had been abandoned. J said that some of his previous clients had asked about these cobwebs and he had replied that they were left alone because the locals did not want to kill the spiders out of some Buddhist sense of compassion. But of course that was just a joke and the truth was that people just did not care enough.

If the cobwebs were allowed to remain, why did I have to remove my footwear so soon then?

The Sutaungpyei Pagoda on the summit was this glittering palatial structure. Having seen the Shwenandaw Monastery and Kuthodaw Pagoda before this however made the pagoda look a little too new to be interesting. Being so high up (240 metres) though afforded visitors a good view over Mandalay.

Sutaungpyei Pagoda

At Sutaungpyei Pagoda

View from the top of Mandalay Hill

View from the top of Mandalay Hill

Many monarchs enjoy giving themselves special myth stories to justify their rule. Like the emperors of China used to shamelessly claim that they were sons of heaven despite how human and often abysmally stupid they could be. King Mindon with the fifty wives however created for himself a story that I am sure not many other kings would have been able to come up with.

There was once an ogress by the name of Sanda Muhki who was so devoted to Buddha that she decided to cut off her own breasts and offer them to him. At this point J asked me not to ask him why she chose to offer her breasts and what Buddha could have possibly done with them. In any case Buddha was pleased with the offering and therefore granted her a boon. She asked to be reborn as a man in her next life. Buddha told her that not only would she be a man in her next life but a king as well who would build a capital at the foot of Mandalay Hill.

I suppose it should be quite hard not to realise what Mindon was driving at with that story. It was hard to understand his preference for an ogress who had mutilated herself though.

Sanda Muhki with her offering of breasts

Sanda Muhki with her offering of breasts

Having had a fruitful long morning in the city, it was time for lunch. J took me to a Burmese eatery. Despite my stomach still rumbling away and against my better judgment, I ordered a Burmese chicken curry dish. J warned me that most foreigners were not able to handle Burmese food. He told me that a former client of his had insisted on having Burmese food. The client had his way and enjoyed his food very much. The next day however the client complained about a bad stomach.

I assumed that since it was just a small chicken curry dish it should be fine. And the dish served at the eatery was really quite tasty. Tastier than the curry I had ordered at the restaurant the night before in fact!

Next to the eatery was an office of Myanmar’s ruling party. There was loud music playing at the office and J found out from a waiter that they were entertaining some guests. I wonder if that had anything to do with the general elections that will happen in 2015.

It all felt quite exciting for me when J told me about the coming elections in Myanmar. I had assumed that J would be quite excited but he did not sound too optimistic about the whole affair. He did not think that the political situation would change much after the elections and in any case the much loved Aung San Suu Kyi would not be the next president anyway. The Myanmar Constitution forbids any person who had married a foreigner to become president. Aung San Suu Kyi is therefore disqualified unless the Constitution is amended as per the people’s wishes. The ruling party, essentially consisting of soldiers in civilian clothes, will in any event make sure that the military junta continues to control the nation. The day they lose power may be the day they end up in prison.

It was back to the jetty after lunch to catch a boat to Mingun and more opportunity to enjoy the river. There were Irrawaddy dolphins in the area and I was hoping to see one. J advised me to not place my hopes too high.

Even though I did not manage to find any dolphin, it was fun anyway watching locals at work on the river. Some men were looking for teak wood on the riverbed by feeling around it with long poles.

Looking for teak

Looking for teak

Despite the width of the Ayeyarwady, it was apparently quite shallow as it was the dry season. That could prove to be dangerous for boats. The boat driver told J that they navigated by looking at the river currents. Apparently she was supposed to drive the boat between the darker waves. I really could not tell which ones were supposed to be the darker waves.

Although I was supposed to keep my eyes peeled for dolphins I was quite distracted when J told me about how the Burmese named their children. J’s Burmese name starts with the Burmese equivalent of the letter “A” because he was born on a Sunday. As for Thursday babies like me, they are given names starting with the Burmese “B”, “P” or “M”.

It did not take long before I caught sight of the Mingun Pagoda from the river. There were already a couple of ox carts (charmingly referred to as taxis by their owners) waiting on the beach but it was going to be a walking tour for me.

An ox-driven taxi

An ox-driven taxi

The Mingun Pagoda is this gargantuan structure that was quite a sight to behold. I knew that it would be huge but I only got a proper sense of its massiveness when I actually saw it for real. Near the pagoda, on the way in from the river, is a model of what the gargantuan stupa should have looked like if completed.

Mingun pagoda

Mingun Pagoda

Model of Mingun Pagoda as it would have looked if completed

Model of Mingun Pagoda as it would have looked if completed

Even the guardian lion was humongous

Even the guardian lion was humongous

The stupa was however intentionally left uncompleted. It might have been that the superstitious King Bodawpaya who had ordered its construction started believing in the rumour that his kingdom would end upon the stupa’s completion. They left behind a 50 metre tall structure. The completed structure would have been about 150 metres tall.

Although essentially in ruins now, especially after the earthquake in 1839 which left huge cracks on its face, there is still a shrine in one side of the structure.

Shrine inside Mingun Pagoda

Shrine inside Mingun Pagoda

A short distance away from the ruined stupa is a Mingun Bell. This was originally cast for the Mingun Pagoda. The bell is today still the second largest ringing bell in the world weighing in at 90 tonnes.

Mingun Bell

Mingun Bell

Under the bell

Under the bell

All that megalomania and need to have everything as big as possible was getting a bit overwhelming for me. The walk through the little sleepy and dusty town was a nice change although it appeared to have been given away to tourism. If there was a shop along the street that was not catered to tourism I must have missed it.

Mingun town

Mingun town

The next attraction in Mingun was far more graceful and reasonable. The Hsinbyume Pagoda was built by King Bagyidaw in memory of his first queen Hsinbyume. She had died from childbirth. This is a white stupa surrounded by seven concentric terraces representing the seven mountain ranges leading up to Mount Meru here represented by the stupa itself.

Hsinbyume Pagoda

Hsinbyume Pagoda

My Mingun visit ended in the late afternoon and I was taken back to my hotel after that. My return could not have been at a more opportune time. My second attempt to digest Burmese curry that afternoon earlier had failed tremendously and my stomach was finally reacting in the worst possible manner. It was simply awful to succumb to traveller’s diarrhoea so early in my trip!

Nevertheless, I decided that I simply had to see a little bit of the famous night market of Mandalay which was near my hotel and so I dragged myself out to have a look. It was about 7 or 8 pm when I got there and many stalls were already up and running. But there was not much activity there. J had told me that a good time to go to experience the market was at about 10 pm. I did not believe that I was going to be able to make it at that time considering what my stomach was going through and how it was making me feel quite weak.

The night market was practically set up on the road. Therefore besides looking at the items on sale I was looking out for motorcycles too. It was an interesting place to conduct business and I wish the place could have come fully alive earlier. I also marvelled at how many bookstalls were set up. All of them were simple affairs consisting of canvas sheets laid on the ground with the books piled neatly all over them. Most of the stalls sold Burmese books. Except for the many book stalls, and the food, the items on sale were similar to those sold at Singapore’s night markets.

At the night market

At the night market

At the night market

At the night market

I returned to my hotel after a quick walk around the stalls only to have to use the toilet a few more times. I finally had to admit complete defeat and took two Imodium pills so that I could get some proper sleep. I would really have to be careful with what I ingest from then on.

Although I had problems with the food, Mandalay was indeed almost as exotic as I had hoped it would be. J had told me more than once that this was both the geographical and cultural centre of Myanmar. If one wanted to appreciate Myanmar culture, one simply had to come to Mandalay.

On the other hand, modernity and bad governance had affected the heritage of the city and the ancient towns around it. I would be sorry to see more 21st century encroachments on the area’s monuments and I am glad that I got to see those monuments before things got worse.

I will probably return to the area again in the future and I think I am likely to call J to guide me again.

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