I must admit, I had high expectations for Mandalay. Everything that I’d read and seen told me it would be spectacular. Perhaps I got caught up in the romance of it. Whatever it was, it meant I was left slightly disappointed by Mandalay.
It was dirty and smoggy, very spread out, choked with traffic and overwhelmingly noisy. We were there two days and the power didn’t work once; generators ran continuously and some places were selective about what they powered from the generators. We were all exhausted by this point of our trip (and Pat and I ended up with a small bout of food poisoning from some dodgy milk) too, which added to our disappointment.
However, Mandalay has plenty to do. You really need more than two days there – we wrote a list of our “must sees” over beers and sun set gazing at the Shwe Taung Tan restuarant, which changed rapidly when we discovered there was a football game on the next day. We hired an air conditioned car and driver for the day for 45,000 kyat ($AUD50).
A truly amazing structure, even if the creaks are a little unsettling. The Shwenandaw Monastery was built by King Mindon in the 19th century and was once a part of the original Mandalay palace. After King Mindon died (allegedly inside this very monastery), King Thibaw had it moved from the palace to it’s current resting place. The original palace has since burned down and been hastily reconstructed. Shwenandaw Monastery is the only remaining piece of the original Mandalay Palace.
The entire monastery is made of teak wood and would have been completely covered with gold once upon a time. The intricate carvings are still there, although some are damaged. Women are not allowed within a certain section of the monastery, but we were free to take photos throughout the building.
Kuthodaw Paya is surrounded by 729 marble slabs, each housed in its own little white stupa. The slabs layout the complete 15 books of the Tripitaka. King Mindon once hired a team of 2400 monks to read the entire set out in a continuous relay. It took them 6 months to finish.
It’s quite difficult to gain an understand of the size of the complex from the ground. It sprawls out in all directions for what feels like miles! I was forever getting left behind by Patrick and John, because I got distracted by just about everything.
Everything was peaceful inside the walls of the paya. The pagoda itself glittered in the hot sun and we were sure to stick to the white marble path in an attempt to stop the soles of our feet burning. Monks and other worshippers wandered through the complex around us, leaving incense and green banana arrangements at planetary posts.
While we walked around the pagoda, local teenage girls and young monks came running up to us giggling and asking for photos. We obliged. This had me confused for the longest time, because we were really nothing special. Just foreigners, staring in open-mouthed awe at the glittering pagoda and the hundreds of small white stupas. When we met up with our Burmese friends Carlos and Shiba in Bangkok, they explained it to us. According to them, having your photo taken with foreigners in Myanmar is very exciting and something to brag about. People will often hang these photos on the wall of their houses so they can tell all their friends and visitors about the time they had their photo taken with the foreigners. Little bit humbling, I thought! There are now four monks and five teenage girls running around with our photos in Mandalay.
Mandalay Hill sticks out like a sore thumb on the Mandalay horizon. Several temples and monasteries are nestled amongst the scrub, with some of the most famous Mandalay temples perched on the top. Spectacularly lit at night, this 230m high hill is a thriving and busy place of worship and tourist markets.
We took our car up to the top, but you can walk up (if you, I recommend having your head read… the heat in Mandalay was immense, the last thing I’d want to do is climb a whole lot of stairs to the top of the hill). At the start of the main walkway up, two enormous lions stand either side of the walkway.
The view from the top was… hazy. But that was partly due to the time of year we were visiting (in April, farmers clear land by setting it alight; the smoke haze is very thick). You could imagine Mandalay sprawling out before you, in all its hustling and bustling glory.
At the very top of the hill, you must pay a small fee to be allowed to take photos. The very top of the hill is crowned by a large temple, and I am unsure whether the camera fee went to the temple or the government. I didn’t pay it and vowed to remember the view.
The markets near the temples at the top of the hill were a curious mix of local needs and tourist trinkets – all without the shouting touts that we’d grown accustom to in Bangkok. Some women were selling t-shirts, lacquerware and hats, while others were busy crouching over pots on the fire, stirring madly or chopping furiously. The scent of sandalwood incense mixed with the aroma of chillis and garlic, and women scalded children for running down the stairs or throwing rice at each other. As with all of Mandalay, the top of the hill was the same chaotic and noisy. You couldn’t escape the hubbub, even when you were on top of the hill.
Mahamuni Paya houses a four meter high golden Buddha statue, decorated with precious gems. Locals believe it to be nearly 2000 years old. However, Mahamuni Paya differs from other temples. Women are not allowed to touch the statue, or even pray inside the main hall. Men and women are separated, with women relegated to the sides and far back of the worship hall, and can only view the statue via television screens. Men prostrate themselves in front of the Buddha image and apply gold leaf to it. In fact, so much gold leaf has been applied over the years that the gold is six inches thick.
Mahamuni Paya is the cause of some controversy. Lord Buddha never taught segregation like this, and many women believe the time has come for equality.
I wasn’t too fussed with the Buddha statue – the segregation thing put me off a little bit. However, Mahamuni Paya houses six bronze statues that started their life in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.
Originally the spoils of war, these Khmer statues were taken from Angkor Wat to Ayutthaya by the Siamese in 1431. The Burmese invaded Ayutthaya in 1564, and took the statues back to Myanmar (then Burma). After a spate of internal wars, these six statues were brought to Mandalay. There were up to thirty statues at one point, but King Thibaw melted many down to cast cannons for his palace. These six are the only remaining statues today.
Locals believe the statues hold healing powers and by making offerings to the statues and rubbing their hands over the affected area on the statue, they will be cured.
Gold Pounder’s District
The famous gold leaf applied to so many of the Buddhist statues in Myanmar is pounded out by hand, here in Mandalay. It was a fascinating look at the industry, where men worked furiously, pounding the gold into gossamer thin sheets and women sliced and packed the gold leaf into neat packets with painstaking precision and patience.
The staff showed us around the workshop and explained the process to us. There are also lots of stunning gold souvenirs available – I bought a small “gold leaf”, an actual leaf coated with gold. We also left small tips in the bowls placed in front of the gold pounders.
I didn’t get any photos of this place, but if you thought the car horns of Yangon were noisy, wait until you get near the jade polishers at the jade market. This dirty, pokey open air market makes for an intriguing visit.
Some stalls sell dirty great hunks of raw jade, whilst others will cut slices or chunks off for you. Along one side, jade shops flourish, selling polished jade jewellery. Shop owners laze on collapsing couches, smoking cheroots through PVC bongs (not even kidding!) and watching shop assistants play an odd version of backgammon.
I bought a small jade buddha pendant, which they threaded on to a cord for me to wear.
Some sections of the “walkway” – again, you are sharing this space with speeding scooters and motorbikes – become boggy from the water used to wash the jade as it is polished. Watch where you step, or you’ll end up sinking to your knees in smelly mud!