An 8 hour spoiling ride on the VIP bus, and I was in Mandalay, at about 4am, ready to…take a nap!
After getting some rest I was ready to face the heat and the dust of Mandalay, so I jumped in a truck/bus and head to the Mahamuni Buddha temple. Inside the temple there is a 6 ton bronze buddha statue covered by the gold leaf that male believers apply on it. I was really excited to see the big statue, but once I got there I didn’t find what I expected: after crossing many shops, once you get close to the site, you’ll find two big money exchange offices just few steps away from the holy statue. There are many people and, because not everyone can’t get close to the Buddha, there is a screen from which you can see it better. There are many guards around as well, it’s messy and noisy; really not what I expected.
I left the temple and I went towards the market where I met the guy that would have been my guide. When walking around Mandalay you will be approached by guys that want to be hired as your guide for the day to show you all the beauty of Mandalay and surrounding. I normally refuse because I prefer to take my time, stop for pictures for as long as I want, etcetera. Plus, normally their english isn’t that good, so it gets difficult to understand them and they become more just drivers than guides. This guy, though, spoke quite good english so I chatted with him for a couple minutes, unsure if I should hire him or not. As I was chatting with him, an English lady arrived and I soon found out she was the author of ‘Myanmar: A Memoir Of Loss And Recovery’ and Khaing Gyi (the guy) and his cousin had been her guide in Mandalay for years. At that point I couldn’t refuse and I accepted hiring him for the rest of the day.
My guide took me to see the villages along the river, the Shwenandaw Monastery and finally Mandalay Hill, where I was once again the guest star of many family pictures.
On my second day Khaing Gyi came to pick me up at 5.00 am, as we agreed the day before, to take me to see the sun rise on the U Bein bridge in Amarapura and then continue the day in Sagaing and Inwa, the ancient capitals around Mandalay. I have to say that Khaing Gyi wasn’t that excited to start the day that early, but once we got to the bridge, he had to admit that it was a good idea. The U Bein bridge is a 1.2 Km long wooden bridge that crosses the Taungthaman Lake and is most popular for its sunset, which must be awesome from the pictures that I saw, but it also gets very busy at that time of the day. When I got there, early in the morning, instead of the tourists I found monks, nuns, a few locals working out and fisherman starting their day in the mellow pink light of the early morning. Not too shabby!
Next on was Sagaing, one of the most important religious and monastic centers in Myanmar. When you reach the top of Sagaing Hill, you can enjoy a great view of the green hills dotted with golden stupas.
We finally got to Inwa, which was the capital of the Kingdom between 14th and 19th century and today little of the remains from the glorious past are still visible.
Khaing Gyi took me around explaining the different buildings, but at the end we spent more time chatting under the shade of the beautiful Yadana Hsimi Pagodas and drinking tea than actually visiting. I had millions of questions for him about the past of Myanmar, the conflicts and how it’s fast changing and he had as many questions for me about the western world, what is outside Myanmar and how I live. Chatting with him was an interesting cultural exchange and made the day flew by. Soon enough it was time for me to go back to my guesthouse.
Mandalay is the second biggest city of Myanmar, but it’s completely different from Yangon, the biggest one. It’s much less built up and you’ll find a new shopping mall in one street and a hut with no running water around the corner. As soon as you leave the downtown area, it gets much more rural: my guest house was surrounded by huts where people still take the water from the well. One evening I was eating along the street and a cow came to keep me company. Still, the traffic is mad and the city is the upper Burma’s main commercial, educational and health center. There are many contradictions in this city and this is what make it interesting.
My visit to Mandalay was short, just 2 full days. Next up? Cooling down in Pyin Oo Lwin.