Monday, October 13, 2008

Myanmar: Twenty-eight Days in the Golden Land of Burma (Part V)

"For the wind is in the palm-trees, an' the temple-bells they say :
'Come back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay !'."
- Rudyard Kipling, in 'The Road to Mandalay'.

Chapter Five - The Mandalay area

When we got up the next morning it was raining heavily again. Fortunately the only thing we had to do, was make it to Mandalay. This was easier said than done...

We attended a nat pwe (an energetical nat celebration) near the village of Nyaung U, then set off driving towards Ngathayauk, intending to continue to Myingyan and Myitthah. We progressed rather slowly but the beautifully green mountain region of the Bago Yoma, dotted with little villages, is very agreeable to drive through, even in bad weather. For the first time it was chilly outside.

In the vicinity of Ngathayauk, Phone Kyaw (the driver) said there was another big creek coming up and we might not be able to cross it. Possibly we had to take an alternative route. At a fork in the road he stopped to speak to someone about it. It happened the creek was impassable, so we turned left instead of right and intended to go by way of Kyauk Padaung and Meiktila. When we passed through a small built-up area, Phone Kyaw made a short conversation with a villager after which we backtracked to the road fork, then headed towards the creek. We drove for several miles, sometimes through puddles at least a foot deep, then had to move out of the way for a couple of passing trucks. Soaking wet people were hanging from it, resigned... It amazed me how calm these people were under the circumstances. They waved at us in a friendly way and shouted that we couldn't continue. They had tried with a truck and were forced to turn back, so we certainly could forget about it. We turned around once more - and nearly got stuck in the mud - and drove back the way we intended to go when we first heard the creek had become impassable. This brought us past the Mount Popa Nature Reserve, a national park. I would have liked to visit it but there was really no time.

The detour via Meiktila was rather tedious and monotonous. Because of the shitty weather and bad roads we weren't able to attain a decent average speed. It was another one of these long legs of the trip which were perfectly suited to talk to our 'guide', Phone Kyaw. I knew we were going to visit some monasteries in and around Mandalay, so I asked him some questions about layman's behaviour towards monks. We had visited the monastery in Yangon and been given a 'lesson' about donating money by the abbot in Salay, but there were still some things I wanted clarified. For example, what one should give to a monk when he's on his alms round. Phone Kyaw answered I needn't give anything if my heart didn't tell me to do so. If it did, I could give all kinds of food and money, "but they can only eat one banana per day". "And what about meat?", I asked. "Meat is no problem", my driver replied, "You can give many kinds of meat, but the strict monks will not eat it." "And the money? I thought monks weren't allowed to touch it?" "They aren't. You just put it in their bowl; back in the monastery a novice or layman will take it out." "Suppose there's a long queue of monks collecting alms but I only have enough to give to, say, five of them. To whom should I give it? The first five? Or should I just pick the ones I like most?", I laughed. "Doesn't matter. You can give it to any one you like." "But won't the others feel offended, then?" "No, not at all. They live by strict rules. They won't be jealous." "Suppose that upon returning in the monastery one of the monks appears to have collected nothing at all or at least not enough. Will the others share their food?" "Yes, always."
"If I put some food in the alms bowl of a monk, should I say something to him?" "If we give food to a monk we always say ... (he uttered something in Burmese). You as a foreigner are not required to say anything." "Can I shake hands with any monk?" "Yes, no problem for you, but women can't."
I asked many more things, things I often already knew but wanted my companion to hear too.

Approaching Meiktila, we passed the Maung Daing Paya, a collection of overgrown pagodas. It's a very beautiful spot, totally surrounded by greenery with skinny palm trees in front of it. It could easily be the setting for a movie scene, this one! Meiktila itself was a rather weird place. The population were surprised to see foreigners but reluctant to talk. Probably it had something to do with a larger than average local military presence. There's an air force base nearby so many soldiers live or are stationed in the area. Normally - and contrary to what I had expected - there's hardly any military presence on the tourist circuit. The tatmadaw keep a really low profile. The reason is only too obvious: the government wants tourists returning home that they hardly saw a soldier during their stay in Myanmar and thus conclude that the country is not a military dictatorship. If you look with your eyes wide open though, you cannot miss the sometimes huge army convoys heading to the off-limits areas loaded with foodstuffs, fuel and whatever else... And as soon as you deviate from the beaten track, the military are definitely visible and ready to check up on you. There's not much in Meiktila to interest the casual visitor. The only place I think is worth mentioning is the beautiful red-and-gold Wantawpyi Kyaung. It's on the way out of town and also includes a museum.

Just before entering Paleik, a small town in a region of rice fields, one can visit a Snake Temple. Seen from the street the building doesn't give away much but inside three rather well-endowed pythons cling to a small but nice-looking Buddha image. There used to be more snakes but some have died. On the walls the many photographs of visitors with snakes indicate it's a popular shrine. The friendly caretaker draped one of the reptiles around our necks too. The temple is built on the spot of an older pagoda in which a snake lived inseparably with the resident Buddha image. It was fed weekly by the villagers. When it died, this sanctuary was constructed and new snakes were brought in. It's still partly under construction but because of its popularity I think it won't be long before the necessary funds have been collected to finish it.
The 'entertainment value' of the temple is high, definitely worth a visit.

It was already getting dark when we reached Mandalay. Most people I had talked to found it an unpleasant and ugly city. Upon arrival I was inclined to share their opinion, especially since the rain gave the city a disconsolate appearance. It's also rather dirty, especially by Burmese standards. Myanmar is not a dirty country compared to most of its neighbours. Yes, the lack of surfaced roads makes for a lot of mud but that by itself doesn't make a place dirty. By 'dirty' I mean the presence of garbage in the streets and unclean appearance of the people. The poverty in Burma means the people recycle everything until there's absolutely no other use for it. This seriously limits the amount of rubbish. Moreover, because of the rarity of artificial materials (such as plastics) the trash is usually bio-degradable, so if it's thrown on the streets it will rot away or be consumed by animals. How long this will last is anyone's guess but if the country somehow takes the development fast lane it's likely serious littering will occur despite the fact that the Burmese appeared to me to be disciplined enough to avoid that. They usually take really good care of themselves too.
After a while in the city, I began to appreciate it more. The people are all right for city folks, the town is not as gloomy as I initially thought it was, and the sights are quite fascinating. There are better places, inevitably, but also much worse!

Our first day in Mandalay we didn't spend in the city proper but went to visit the so-called Ancient Cities: Amarapura, Inwa (aka Ava) and Sagaing.
The Pahtodawgyi in Amarapura is not on most visitors' list but is nevertheless a nice, quiet place. The iron gate allowing access to the upper terrace of the pagoda was closed; I asked the old trustee - a very humble man - if he could unlock it for me. "Just push it open", he said, "It's not locked. We just keep it closed to prevent the dogs from running up and down the stairs." There are indeed many dogs in Burma. They breed like mad and almost all look identical - the typical 'street breed'.
The view from the upper terrace of the paya is pretty good. Out of the surrounding tree tops - almost as far as the eye can see - rise the peaks of countless pagodas, a wonderful sight which had me contemplating the religious building frenzy that is still going on. The Burmese donate a huge amount of money to pagodas and monasteries.

A monastery which receives hefty donations is Mahagandhyon Kyaung. Not really surprising as it's the biggest in Myanmar; over 1,000 monks live there. The donations are not mainly used for beautification of the place but to buy food for the monks. It's an incredible sight to see the fare being prepared in enormous cauldrons and the monks lining up in one gigantic queue to receive it. Unfortunately this spot has become incredibly touristy, to the point where the monks themselves are visually bothered by all the attention. I found things were even getting out of hand when the monks were eating their meals in the refectory. Photography is allowed but I think one ought to treat people as human beings, not as objects. After all, the monks are not there to model for us; this is their life. Whilst they were quietly eating their only meal of the day, some - no, most - foreigners walked around between the long rows of silent monks and were happily clicking away. They asked some monks to look in a certain direction or to re-arrange the food on their table, just because it'd look better on their pictures. Some people were even walking on the benches the monks sit on! Awful. It made me feel ashamed to be a foreigner. What's also always so typical about this egocentric variety of tourist is that they never bother to make a donation. After all, "there was no entrance fee". Sad. Truly sad.
I thought: "If I can pay five or ten bucks to enter a government site, I most certainly can leave a comparable donation here. At least these people put it to a good advantage." Perhaps I was too much led by my feelings but it felt darn good.

U Bein's Bridge, Amarapura

U Bein's Bridge, at 1,200 metres the longest teak bridge in the world, is majestic. A drizzle gave the scenic bridge a somewhat dramatic look, which most photographers would appreciate. Not too long ago the government collected a photography fee of $2 but that regulation somehow was quickly abolished.

At this time of year the plains under the bridge are normally only just covered by water but because of the heavy rainfall (there had been as much precipitation in a couple of days as normally in a whole month) there was about ten feet. It's possible to take a boat across the would-be lake but it's a pleasant walk to the other side - and a longer one than I expected. Small pavilions at regular intervals provide shelter from the sun or - in this case - rain.

At the other end we were approached by a likeable kid who spoke English really well. He asked if we wanted to see his family's weaving factory. We did indeed - the weather had deteriorated enough to make it very unpleasant to be outside.

The 'factory' was actually a hut in which four women were weaving longyis on very traditional looking looms. It was a small enterprise but it was an excellent place to see the craft.
It's only normal that the family hoped to sell us something. While having a complementary cup of coffee in the living room I asked how much the garments were. I must confess I'd expected them to be more expensive; the price asked was $2 for a pure cotton or $3 for a cotton-and-silk longyi. I'm not into wearing them, but I did want to reward these people with a sale. I thought Phone Kyaw - who I'd started to consider more like a friend than a driver - might like one. The polite fellow he is, he refused several times but when he realised that I really wanted him to have one, as a sincerely intended gift, he gratefully accepted. He chose a cotton-and-silk one which looked very good on him.

We finished our coffees. The people, used to living in the mostly arid climate of the Dry Zone, were really fed up with the weather because their houses are not really suited to coping with large amounts of rain and, more importantly, the rice harvest had largely been destroyed so the price for a bag had almost doubled. I felt so very sorry for the people; it's enough of a struggle to survive there without all these extra set-backs.
We said good-bye to this friendly family and let the clever, helpful boy lead us to the nearby Kyauktawgyi Paya. We hurried through the village, which I found very picturesque. It was as if we were taking a shower. By the time we reached the temple grounds not a single stitch of our clothing was dry. We removed our shoes and splashed through the water to the entrance. Inside it, three dripping wet figures stood and gazed at the beautiful wall paintings and quite exquisite marble Buddha image. We waited a couple of hours until the rain eased off; I devoted this time to talking to the local visitors. Again Phone Kyaw was most helpful with the translations.

Miraculously, it remained dry for most of the late afternoon and evening. We went to Sagaing by way of Inwa. We crossed the iron Ava Bridge, built in 1934 by the British. For many years it was the only span across the Ayeyarwady river and thus strategically very important. For that reason the English themselves blew it up during World War II to halt the advancing Japanese. It was not rebuilt until 1954. At the time we were in Myanmar there were already four bridges across the river and new ones were either nearing completion or on the drawing board. The government has embarked on an embellishment mission; they want to improve the country's infrastructure. It is desperately needed too!...
We passed the Pagoda of Many Elephants, the Hsinmyashin Paya, easily recognised by the white stone elephants standing guard at either side of the entrance and replacing the usual chinthes. We had a look inside but it was not very exciting.

The attractive Kaungmudaw Paya, the most famous of the Sagaing stupas, is a huge white dome built in Sinhalese style; it resembles a giant egg, 46 metres (151 ft) high with a circumference of 274 metres (900 ft). The whole complex is very impressive but the $3 entrance fee, a lot of money in Burma, is definitely over the top.
There was a lady who wanted me to release a bird in a cage (you know, to gain merit). It was not your average bird but a big owl, a protected species where I live. The poor thing was so scared in its prison in the bright sunlight. Releasing it would have cost me K10,000 but no matter how much I wanted it to be free, I decided to take a pass.

Sagaing Hill is dotted with stupas and temples. There are two ways to the top: one can walk all the way or one can drive up and walk only the last part - easier and well-suited to those who have little time, but consequently one forgoes seeing quite a few pagodas. None of them is particularly important, though - you'll see so many of them during your stay that you won't feel like you missed out on something.
The entrance fee for Sagaing Hill is $4. I wanted to get rid of the FECs and handed over the smallest note I had, 10 FEC, to the guy selling the tickets. He said he had no change for it and I said I didn't have any change either. I told Kris to pretend he didn't have any, too. Being unable to get out of this stalemate, the ticket seller finally suggested I pay in Kyats. "That'll be 1,050 Kyats." "One thousand and fifty Kyats?!?", I shouted out loud. "That's 350 Kyats to the dollar, which is worse than the black market rate!... You work for the government, right?" "Yes." "Well, then you should ask 20 Kyats, and that's better than I get if I change it in the bank." The man obviously didn't know how to react and said: "I'm so sorry, but I only work here. It's not my fault." I was quite sure it wasn't his fault but that didn't solve our problem, did it? Phone Kyaw, a gentleman as ever, thought things would get out of hand soon - they wouldn't have, but anyway... - and gave three 1 Dollar notes to the man, to whom this clearly came as a relief.

Two payas on the hill are noteworthy: the Onhmin Thonze and Soon U Ponya Shin Paya. The crescent-shaped Onhmin Thonze, built to resemble a cave, has an extremely beautiful facade. Inside, 30 Buddhas sit shoulder-to-shoulder along the full length of the building. It's a wonderful place which is certainly worth a visit.
The wonderful Soon U Ponya Shin Paya sitting atop the hill offers splendid views over Sagaing, Inwa and the Ayeyarwady and has a nice interior. I was walking around on its terrace when a friendly-looking monk, about my age, walked up to me and asked me if I'd mind him practising English with me. Of course I didn't. He didn't go through the apparently set list of questions but started an interesting conversation in good English. Barring Phone Kyaw's it was the best I'd heard so far. He was an extremely nice guy - humble, polite, soft-spoken and very compassionate; he said he had blood type AB and was on his way to the hospital to give blood to a patient with the same sero group as his. He pointed towards a big building at the foot of the hill: "That's the clinic over there."
He said that in the monastery he studied the ancient Pali language (in which the old Buddhist texts are written) but in his private time he was learning modern languages like English and French. A very likeable fellow, he was curious about me, my life and ideas; and I was interested in his.

We returned to our hotel (more about that later) in Mandalay, showered, then went to have supper at Mann's Restaurant, one of the better Chinese eateries in town. As you know by now, 'better' and 'best' in Myanmar don't mean 'expensive'; most dishes were K500, including the typical broth-like soup which is served 'on the house' in most Chinese restaurants. Mann's is a good place to spend the evening, eating and talking to locals as well as other travellers. At around half past eight the lights went funny - flickering. First I thought it was yet another power-outage, but no, it was the signal that in about half an hour the joint was going to close.
We finished our drinks, paid and left, dodging the professional beggars near the entrance. There are a couple of really sad cases hanging around there; not sad because they're so badly off, but sad because they're too lazy to find/do a serious job. They're in perfectly good health yet do nothing but hang around the tourist hangouts to ask for money, making the babies they carry on their arms cry to draw attention and induce compassion. I refuse to give anything to such jerks.

I wanted to make a telephone call to my folks at home so I went to the Telephone & Telegraph Office on 25th Street. It was still open but about to close, so the man in charge refused to connect me and told me to come back later. That I did the next morning. Making a telephone call here was extremely straightforward - much to my surprise after reading so many horror stories about it. I just wrote down the number, the operator dialled it for me and handed me the receiver. As simple as that. The charge was $3.80 per minute (of course this depends on the destination).

The next morning the weather was overcast and we decided to go to Mingun instead of staying in the city. As it's on the other side of the Ayeyarwady it involved a boat trip. Foreigners are required to go by special 'tourist boat' for which tickets can be bought at the jetty for 200 Kyats. The duration of the trip depends on the water level of the river but took us about 80 minutes. It's fun; the boat passes several small and quite picturesque villages on both banks of the river.
The boat docks near the Settawya Paya. A partly paved path leads from the muddy river bank towards the attractions but before you can walk there you have to get a ticket ($3) at the designated booth. A woman asked for our passports, noted down most of the information in them, then gave us the tickets.

Mingun Paya

The Mantara Gyi Paya, better known as Mingun Paya, was started in 1790 by King Bodawpaya whose intention it was to build the largest pagoda in the world. The construction costs were far too high and when the king died the project was abandonned. The pagoda stood 50 metres (164 ft) high, about a third of its planned height. Then disaster struck: a severe earthquake shook the area, leaving the pagoda with enormous cracks.

Stone steps, of recent date, lead up to the top where young boys awaited us in the hope we'd accept their offer to show us around. We did as it involves climbing broken brick walls and navigating the cracks caused by the quake - all not too easy on your bare feet. The view from up there is really good. Tickling the imagination are the remnants of two really huge stone lions which were the guards of the pagoda. They were also reduced to rubble - only their butts remain - but one can easily imagine how imposing the complete statues must have looked. When we'd walked around at the top for a while the boys suddenly became very nervous; policemen were coming up. One of the kids said they were afraid of the police because they were not allowed to give foreigners a tour. Apparently, so I was told later, not too long ago a tour group lady thought she had some money stolen from her purse so the tour leader filed a complaint with the local police who started an investigation. All hawkers - and there still are many in Mingun - suddenly needed an expensive permit to sell their goods. Whoever hasn't got one and still approaches foreigners is in big trouble. But the story continues... The tour group lady's money wasn't robbed at all; she found out later that she'd left the money in the hotel. So she was happy but the people at Mingun, essentially a simple village, were left with the consequences of her foolishness. Such stupidity, such thoughtlessness really makes me sick!

What also churned my stomach was the fee the boys wanted for the fifteen-odd minutes they'd spent guiding us around: five dollars! I kept walking and refused to pay. As the policemen were closing in, the boys continuously dropped their price. When it reached an acceptable level I paid them but not without mentioning they were cheats - they knew very well how much money was reasonable for their services.

A short walk from Mingun Paya - skip the small pagoda dedicated to abbot Bhaddanta Vicitta - a pavilion houses the Mingun Bell, the biggest uncracked bell in the world (it's mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records), weighing approximately 90 tonnes. It was somewhat difficult to get a clear look at it; the small building is crammed with people selling stuff.

Continuing along the main footpath we reached the whitewashed Hsinbyume Paya, a beautiful construction built to resemble mythical Mount Meru, the golden mountain standing in the centre of the universe and acting as the axis of the world. We backtracked to the river and waited for the boat to take us back to Mandalay. Right on the jetty stands the Pondawpaya, the working model for the Mingun Pagoda. Definitely worth a peek to get an impression of how the latter would have looked when finished.

In the afternoon, in Mandalay, we first had a very good and affordable dinner at the Chinese Fast Food Restaurant opposite the railway station, then went to a nearby privately-owned railway company which sells tickets for the train to Myitkyina to find out how much it would cost to get there. It was $30 for a seat and $60 for a bed in a train that would take about 22 grinding hours to make it to the Kachin state capital. Not cheap, but still affordable considering we wouldn't have to pay for a hotel. I would have done it - especially since the return trip to Mandalay would have been quite spectacular (see chapter 2) - but Kris was of a different opinion. He complained about how much money he'd lose on this excursion and how bad the weather would be up there in the North... I kept trying to convince him but eventually I gave up. We didn't go.

Still in Mandalay. The famous Maha Muni is a seated Buddha image so revered that over the years its whole body - not the face - has become covered in a gold leaf layer between 15 and 20 centimetres thick, making it a priceless piece of antiquity. It's extremely beautiful, as is the gold-covered pagoda which houses it. At any time of day, dozens of devotees sit in front of the image to pray or meditate. No chaotic Indian Hindu scenes in which the believers jostle each other to get as near to the main idol as possible; here everything is orderly in a serene atmosphere. Nevertheless I must say that the ambience was soured for me by the steep $5 entrance fee. I've always been against entry fees for religious buildings, whether in Myanmar, Syria, France, Belgium or wherever, but what pisses me off particularly in Burma is that in several places they dare call it a 'donation', "It's not a fee, it's a donation"... Come on, people, be real! Donations have to come from the heart. On the positive side, the ticket price includes a booklet with information about the paya as well as the right to take photographs, something which formerly was prohibited.

In a subsidiary building hangs a huge Burmese gong weighing five tonnes, and another one houses a couple of bronze statues originating from Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Near the Maha Muni Paya, but still inside the pagoda grounds, stands a very beautiful green-roofed building which serves as a museum of Buddhism. On display are Buddha images and photographs of the most important pilgrimage places in the Buddhist countries. Worth a visit.

Outside of the grounds one can see stone cutters at work and iron htis ('umbrellas') being made in several open-air workshops. It's interesting to have a peek, the workers are welcoming and at least there's no pressure to buy; all these things are meant to decorate pagodas, not tourists' chimneys or gardens.

In the late afternoon we arrived at Mandalay Hill. Enormous chinthes await the traveller who wants to climb the stairs to the top. Foreigners must obtain tickets. They cost $3, which to my surprise is one dollar less than in the past.

There are some sights along the way up but the best place to be is on the top. Mandalay Hill is the only high point in an otherwise flat area and as such offers magnificent views over the city, the Ayeyarwady river with the Sagaing and Mingun hills, the flooded green plains and the distant blue-ish Shan mountains. The pagoda crowning the prominence is beautiful, especially at sunset when the last rays of the sun are reflected in its mirror mosaics. Just before dusk is indeed the best time to be there. The flip side of the coin is that everybody knows that, so we had to share the spot with dozens of other people but it was never rowdy. If you arrive early you can relax in one of the high chairs which have been installed solely for watching the sun go down.
I felt such good vibes in this place, I stayed until everyone else had gone.

Then we went to see a marionettes performance at the Garden Villa Theater, a simple theatre on 66th Street (between 26th and 27th St, next to the luxurious Sedona Hotel). Tickets cost K1,000 for a show which lasted about 45 minutes (not an hour as advertised in their pamphlets). The programme is very good with appropriate music; the puppet players are skilled and take joy in their work.
Back in the hotel, later that night, I got into a conversation with a room boy who was from Monywa, a town 136 kilometres to the north-west. He told me about the things to be seen there. They sounded impressive.

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