Monday, October 13, 2008

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

Chapter Six - The Mandalay area - continued

The next morning over breakfast I suggested to go to Monywa. Kris agreed, so we checked out. Phone Kyaw got some black market fuel and had to have a flat tyre repaired. That was a really primitive affair. The inner tube - tubeless tyres are still a novelty in Burma - was heated up over a hot charcoal fire whilst a patch of rubber was pressed hard onto it. About twenty minutes later the three of us were on our way again. It was sunny and dry, the road was passable and the drive pleasant.

We had seen some during our previous drives, but now that the weather was fine there were many more donation collectors, standing on both sides of the road with silver bowls collecting money. When a vehicle approaches, they start shaking the bowls noisily to attract attention, and loud music often resounds from old speakers. Sometimes they're collecting money to sponsor schools but most of the time the money goes to monasteries. We knew the routine - it's the same as used to reward the road workers mentioned before: some change is thrown out of the window(s) of the vehicle and picked up by the joyous volunteers. I often gave something to the schools in particular because education is important; education is power. I put a good amount in the bowl of a nice lady who was enthusiastically collecting funds for a local elementary school. She was extremely happy with it and asked where we were going. I told her. She jokingly said: "When you return, bring me something sweet." I promised I would.

The awesome Thanboddhay Pagoda

About 20 kms (13 miles) short of Monywa, a small road diverts to the right and leads to one of the most fantastic sights I've ever seen: the Thanboddhay Paya. Two enormous white elephants guard the entrance to a paya complex. At first sight it doesn't give away much. In fact I didn't realise we'd arrived at the Thanboddhay. There's a sign telling you to pay a $3 entry fee but as nobody asked us to, we didn't and walked in. Funny little monk figurines look out of little windows modelled in the gateway. Following the track inside we walked past several colourful buildings, richly decorated with what rather resemble comic book figures. We turned right and suddenly were face to face with the main stupa, a structure beyond description. The golden pagoda consists of concentric squares topped with hundreds of smaller stupas. The top looks like a typical Burmese pagoda. In the yard around the pagoda are many more stupas, lavishly decorated pillars, adorable pavilions adorned with orange tigers, a Persian-looking watchtower (offering stunning views of the pagoda) and lesser shrines with mirror mosaics. It looks a lot like a theme park, albeit an extremely beautiful one. Inside the pagoda are no less than 582,363 Buddha images, all in the 'touching the earth' posture. I found it absolutely stunning, but everything's so richly decorated that some people may find it over the top.

Continuing a couple of miles along the same road by which we came to the Thanboddhay, we had a great view of a huge reclining Buddha lying on a hill in front of us. It looked quite impressive; Phone Kyaw drove towards it. Nearing it, on the left-hand side I saw what looked like an orchard full of Buddha statues sitting under umbrellas. It turned out they weren't fruit trees but small bodhi trees (the bodhi tree is the banyan tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment). We found out they were part of the Bodhitataung Paya (which literally means 'Pagoda of a Thousand Bodhi Trees'). The pagoda itself is a bit further down a dirt track. It's actually a beautiful pagoda but when you've just visited the marvel that is the Thanboddhay it looks mundane...

Almost right behind it, on the hill, lies the big reclining image. And from up-close it's even bigger than you expect from a distance. In fact, at the moment of writing this, it's the biggest such statue in the country. The length is 333 feet (102 m), the height 90 ft (27 m). When you add up the individual (Imperial) digits the sum is always 9, a number which the Burmese consider especially powerful.

The Alantaye Paya, as it's called, is impressive but I didn't find it particularly beautiful; it's too modern, too plain perhaps. One can walk around inside the statue but I found nothing of interest. However, not many tourists go there, making it a nice place to spend a while; the locals are friendly.

Phone Kyaw took us onward to Monywa. It's one of the eight biggest cities in Myanmar but there's nothing that would give you that impression; it looks like a sleepy agricultural town or trading post.
There aren't many hotels. We chose the Shwe Taung Tarn Hotel, allegedly one of the cheapest. A member of the rather unfriendly staff showed us a double room with A/C, TV and private toilet/shower (only cold water although they said there was hot too). The price was $15, no bargaining (but that may have been due to the pagoda festival being held when we arrived). The corridors are moist and smell really unpleasant, as do the smaller rooms. Our $15 room was OK, though. Breakfast was included but the quality could have been better.

It was still early afternoon, and as we weren't interested in sitting in the room for the rest of the day, we walked to the Chindwin River, the main tributary of the Ayeyarwady. The locals are not yet accustomed to seeing foreigners apparently, as they all stared at us. We boarded a motorised longboat that would take us to the other side of the stream. The price is K10 per person. Regular ferries are also available but considerably more expensive. The boat was completely full. We stood in the middle of it, surrounded by members of the local population, all of them observing us.

After a short ride we reached the village of Naungbingyi, on the western river bank. From there we wanted to go to the Po Win Daung Caves, about 25 kms (16 mls) further on. The only way to get there is by a high-clearance 4WD vehicle. The return trip (including waiting time) by old pick-up truck cost us K1,500.
The trip in itself is not very exciting but the cave complex in the hills of the same name is probably worth the effort. The name derives from a famous zawgyi, or alchemist, who used to live there. The artificial caves contain Buddha statues and beautiful murals, usually from the 17th-18th centuries. Purportedly there are over 400,000 images in these and nearby caves but I never got that impression.

It's a quiet, beautiful place populated by a large monkey colony. They're not nearly as bold as the ones in Mt Popa but take care anyway; one nearly bit me when I inadvertently scared it upon entering a cave.
Admission is $3, payable in Kyat if you wish.

The pick-up driver suggested we'd also have a look at nearby Shwe Ba Daung, a complex of pavilions, images and cave temples cut from the living sandstone rock. Some of them look distinctly British and some are definitely unique and funny. How about a giant stone elephant serving as a facade with the doorway between its legs? Or a column being climbed by a couple of people, one of whom is losing his loin-cloth? By itself, Shwe Ba Daung wouldn't justify coming all the way from Monywa, but combined with Po Win Daung I'd say it's essential. Entrance is free.

We returned the way we'd come; it was already dark. The ferries crossing the Chindwin stop at 6 pm but we would have gone by longboat anyway. It took a while to fill up now and there was a 100% price increase: K20 instead of K10, not really something to worry about.

It was supper time. I asked where we could find the Pann Cherry Restaurant, which got a good review in the Lonely Planet guide. As I'd come to expect by then, the book was useless; the restaurant had been closed for some time and had apparently been turned into a bank. We decided to try the food in our hotel's eatery. Hotel restaurants are never my first choice but to my great surprise it was very good. The lady who prepared and served the meals was not talkative at all but she created wonderful plates of Chinese food, complete with Japanese-style carved veggies and fruits. Surprisingly, the breakfast next morning was quite poor with burned toast and undrinkable tea. Perhaps she'd been partying too hard at the pagoda festival dance?

We went to the festival ourselves and ended up spending half the night at it. It's basically a big fair-cum-market, albeit a very pleasant one. All the people were disarmingly friendly. Most traders wanted us to see (or taste) their wares, even if they could assume we were not going to buy them (e.g. hammers, chisels, women's clothing).

The festivities continue for days but almost all the activity happens at night and gives the Burmese a chance to indulge in some night life. Consequently several people get drunk. A totally smashed soldier (armed with a handgun) walked up to me and vividly described his record of killings (murders?), not leaving much to the imagination. I didn't pay much attention to him but he kept talking anyway. Finally, he was hanging on to my arm, not exactly a good impression on the people around us. It was difficult to get rid of him but by buying some candy, for which I needed both hands, I got him to let go.

The next morning we had to make tracks back to Mandalay, although Monywa deserves better than just a one day visit. On the spot where I'd met her the day before, I saw her again: the nice lady collecting money for the elementary school. She was very excited to see me, virtually dancing around the car. She asked me if I had brought her something to eat. Blast! I'd totally forgotten to bring her something, initially taking it as a joke. She feigned disappointment but was actually very happy to see me again. Through Phone Kyaw we exchanged some gags, then I asked about the school project. She explained all about it; the cash they collected was to pay for an extension. She was very sad when I said we were leaving, but we did have to go.

In Mandalay we checked in at the same hotel we'd stayed in before. All our nights in Mandalay were spent in the oddly named Nylon Hotel (just in front of the Garden Hotel). The Chinese proprietor (who also owns the nearby ice cream parlour of the same name) has attempted to Anglicise 'Nai Lon' to make it appeal to tourists but the result is a name which in the West would probably pass for a joint of dubious nature.
It's a good place, where lots of travellers stay. We tried three different rooms. All were between $12 and $15 after bargaining (original asking price for the $15 rooms was $20). They all had A/C, private toilet/shower, TV, telephone and fans, and breakfast was included. Some drawbacks, though: all rooms were noisy due to different causes (A/C, thin walls, street noise...) and there seemed to be a hot water problem throughout the hotel (although the water never was really cold). Oh yeah, and I was bitten by a bedbug in one $15 room, although it looked clean upon first inspection.

I needed to have a couple of photos developed. My mother had told me on the phone that at Brussels airport several people had had their films destroyed by the X-ray machines. I had put my hand luggage through them myself, so wanted to verify whether they had been ruined or not. Eastern Color Express on 28th Street between 80th and 81st Streets (reputedly the best film lab in the city) did a good job. Developing the 400 ASA film cost K100 plus K50 per print. Processing took 1 day. The shop also does truly wonderful passport photographs; much better than the ones at home.

It was time for food. The Pan Cherry Restaurant on the corner of 25th and 83rd Streets (almost opposite the Nylon Hotel) serves a simple though very tasty bowl of Shan noodles for only K80. After dinner we wanted to see Mandalay Palace, one of the most controversial tourist sites in the country because most of the restoration was carried out using forced labour. All males in the city were required to 'voluntarily' (note the contradiction in terms) help rebuild the palace one day per month. All names were registered and not turning up resulted in severe penalties. Negative publicity in the foreign press led to the government abolishing this scheme. The palace and surrounding moat have nevertheless been completely restored. I would suggest that, if you decide not to visit, you should do so only because of the $5 you have to pay to the Department of Archaeology, not because of the forced labour used in the reconstruction. After all, if we had to give a cent to each and every person who, throughout history, was forced to help construct the monuments which are now part of our world heritage...

The palace, often called The Fort, is actually a city within a city, a green square with a circumference of 7,920 metres (4.95 miles). Using the old Burmese measurement system that amounts to 2,400 ta, which at the time of building was the exact number of days which had elapsed between the death of the Buddha and the founding of the city.

As the army has occupied most of the Fort it's tightly secured. Visitors can only enter through the gate in the eastern wall, which is reached by way of a bridge over the 52 metres (170 ft) wide moat. First you present yourself and your passport to the military officer manning a small desk in front of the gate. Then you get the tickets at the designated booth and take them back to the officer. The palace complex is right in the middle of the Fort grounds. A couple of grumpy security officers checked the tickets, after which we were finally allowed in.

King Mindon Min's palace compound was completely destroyed during the Second World War. What we see today is a total reconstruction. On the face of it, it's extremely beautiful and artistic but looking more carefully you notice that what once were teak pillars are now concrete casts and the wooden roofs have been replaced by aluminium ones, all non-flammable materials.

An immediate eye catcher is a copy of the king's Lion Throne in the Audience Hall near the entrance. Unfortunately, it looks a bit too artificial, and a highly reflective glass panel - thick with dirty fingerprints - has been placed in front, obviously to protect it. It totally removes the opportunity, and the wish, to take a picture. Elsewhere, the complex offers great photo opportunities. The 33 metres (108 ft) high watchtower offers a wonderful vista; a spiral staircase winds to the top of it.

Not far from the fort lie several interesting sites. If you've seen the Kyauktawgyi Paya in Amarapura, you can skip the pagoda of the same name in Mandalay. It's more or less the same. The Buddha image in the latter is more impressive than its counterpart but it also costs $2 to see it while the paya in Amarapura can be visited for free.
The Kuthodaw Paya should not be missed. It's been dubbed the World's Biggest Book, for the 729 small stupas surrounding the main pagoda each contain a stone slab with inscriptions. Together these writings form a uniform version of the tripitaka (the Buddhist scriptures) as determined by 2,400 monks during the Fifth Buddhist Synod in 1871.

We were guided around by a very beautiful girl in her early twenties, Su Su, who had a souvenir stall within the grounds (what else is new?)... Her eyes and voice would make most men absolutely crazy. She showed us the best places to take pictures and a remarkable statue of a very emaciated Buddha, one of the phases in the "You will be old, you will be sick, you will die" cycle as taught by the Enlightened One.
Entrance to the Kuthodaw is $5 but for that price you also get admission to the adjacent Sandamani Paya, where another large number of small pagodas house inscribed stone slabs. They contain a commentary on the tripitaka.

Nearby are the Shwenandaw and Atumashi Kyaung, which we saw the following morning before leaving Mandalay. Another combined ticket (another $5) gives access to the two of them.
The Shwenandaw Kyaung, or Golden Palace Monastery, is the only original remainder of Mandalay Fort - the rest was completely levelled by the British during WW II - and as such is extremely interesting. I wondered why a building belonging to the Fort was constructed outside it. Apparently it used to be within the palace walls but King Thibaw Min had the all-teak monastery dismantled and rebuilt on its present site. It's very beautiful and the carved woodwork is exquisite. Inside is another copy of the Lion Throne of the Konbaung (Mandalay) kings as well as the couch which Thibaw Min used to meditate on.
Next door is the Atumashi Kyaung, the 'Incomparable Monastery'. That title is certainly no longer valid. It's a beautiful building, but once inside it there really is an empty feeling. It's impossible to believe the original was like that before it burnt down. There's nothing 'incomparable' about it; several other places are much more impressive.

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