11 April 2015
We’ve had a busy couple of days in Mandalay, city made famous by Rudyard Kipling in his poem, “The Road to Mandalay.” Which was then made into a song (loosely) based on the poem, and sung by Frank Sinatra. (Just in case you were wondering why Mandalay sounds famous, but we really started out knowing little about the city and region.)
We checked out the Royal Palace in Mandalay. Each king of Myanmar, or under the old name, Burma, moved the capital to a new location and built a new palace for their reign. I know, it must have been expensive for the people paying monies to the rulers! But this was the practice, and the Royal Palace in Mandalay was built in 1859. This was
the last palace, which was destroyed during the bombing by Allied
forces during WWII. (The British colonized Myanmar in the 1880s , then
the Japanese took over early in WWII. So the Allied forces bombed the
country to oust the Japanese, but of course managed to destroy various
important sites. And, post WWII, Myanmar declared independence from
Britain in 1948.)
Anyway, the current Royal Palace is essentially a copy,
rebuilt in the 1990s, a replica of the original palace. The entire
grounds are surrounded by a moat, with pagoda-like watch towers dotting
the perimeter. The palace grounds are 2 kilometers per side, making
this look like a huge park on the north end of they city. The red
towers really dominate the skyline in this part of Mandalay. We didn’t
really want to walk all 8 kilometers around the palace, so we just
walked along one side of the moat.
This area included several platforms for the water
festival - as part of the end-of-dry-season festivities, just prior to
the local new year, there’s a huge water festival. It will begin on
Monday, 13 April. Platforms are built where people spray water onto
other people, cars, etc. (We aren’t sure who are the people doing the
spraying.) People also walk around with water pistols, bottles, etc.
and spray water on others. It’s basically a giant water fight for 3
days, and then things quiet down for the new year. We’ll definitely
check out what’s happening with the water festival wherever we happen to
be during those dates.
We found these wonderful puppets at a restaurant, all
mounted on the wall. Just so gorgeous, and different - no idea who they
represent or what stories they tell. They just were so colorful and
unique, I had to take their photos.
I wanted to go to Mandalay Hill, which we can see from our hotel room. Most of this area is flat, but Mandalay Hill rises 950-something feet (or 315 or so meters) above the plain. I made arrangements with a nice taxi drive, and had a full day touring the sites outside the city.
Mandalay Hill has numerous temples, monasteries, pagodas, and stupas at the base and all over the hill. Myanmar has more religious sites than we’ve encountered in most of the Buddhist countries we’ve visited - someone explained that this is because the monasteries and temples were the only educational institutions until British colonization. And most people wanted an education, so there were myriad temples and monasteries. Today, many of these places are still in use; the public school system isn’t free, so any family who wants a free education for their child sends them to the monasteries. (This includes nunneries - and yes, there are Buddhist nuns. Here, they wear orange skirts under pink tunics - great colors together, actually!)
Well, the day we went to Mandalay Hill just happened to be the day a certain group of monks was graduating from their training, moving from novices to monk status. So there were young monks in their maroon robes posing for photos with their families, just about everywhere at the main temple on the hill. My driver, Mr. Fatty (really, that was his name!) said there will be partying all evening, and that special events were planned for the graduation.
The temples itself was fascinating - every surface was covered in mosaic tile, much of it mirror cut into intricate shapes and set into colored cement or ground. (Or someone painstakingly painted the cement between the mirrors and tiles.) And of course there was the giant central golden stupa, this one with rows of bells on the top, little bells tintinnabulating in the breeze. Add in the occasional gong being rung by someone as part of their devotions, plus excited families and friends - it wasn’t the quiet contemplative atmosphere one thinks of with a monastery or temple. But it was fun and colorful and interesting.
And of course the views from the top of the hill were wonderful, with the Ayarwaddy River in the distance, the rice fields and farms, and the stupas and pagodas dotting the hill slopes and across the plains.
I met a little boy who decided to be my tour guide, even though he spoke very little English. He was maybe 4 or 5 years old. He kept showing me different things he thought I should photograph, so of course I did. And then I asked if I could take his photo, so he gave me his idea of a serious pose. Of course he needed to check the picture and okay it before he let me go. He really was a funny kidlet. (I seem to attract them somehow.)
Then on to a temple that houses some 1,300 monks. At about 10:30 AM, every day, the monks line up in the street and receive their daily allotment of food. So tourists line the sidewalks and watch, take photos, and maybe chat with the monks after their meal. Today was a special day - I’m not clear if it was because of the phase of the moon (which meant the nuns were out and about, they only go out maybe twice a week), or if there was a graduation at this monastery, or what. But the monks had their meal, which included ice cream. Plus each monk received a towel, a toothbrush, and some other personal items from donors.
It was interesting, because some of the children from poor families in the area were there, begging food from the monks but also waiting for any leftovers. There were also several dogs and cats foraging for leftovers, scraps of cake, etc. I saw a little kitten trying to find something to eat, but he was intimidated by the dogs snuffling and licking the cake containers on the ground. I noticed the serving area had some melted vanilla ice cream on it, so I picked up the little kitten and put him on the table, where he immediately started licking up the melted ice cream. Not the best meal for him, but he was just SO skinny! A monk saw me doing this, and he gave me a big smile - I guess taking care of little animals is a Buddhist virtue or something, so he seemed to appreciate my gesture. (I just like little kitties. Well, and I feel bad for hungry animals in general.)
We stopped at a weaving workshop - of course I loved that, all color and pattern. The young women were weaving the intricate silk and cotton fabrics, and singing along with music on their cell phones. There were a few men weaving, mostly working on the dark plaid fabrics that men wear. The “longi” (pronounced long-GEE) is similar to a sarong, but sewn into a tube of fabric. The person steps into the tube, and ties it differently depending on their gender: men make two pleats and tie the ends and create sort of a knot; the women make one large pleat and tuck the end into the waist. (People periodically re-adjust their longi, so I’ve noticed the way they secure them. I know form experience that sarongs don’t stay put for a day.)
Then we were off to one of the old towns outside Mandalay, where there are a few more hills covered in temples, monasteries, and stupas. I walked around a lovely temple that has 45 Buddha statues inside - they look identical at first, but if you look closely you can see that each one was made individually. One might have a narrower chin, another might have rounder cheeks. One might look more serious, another almost amused. And of course the walls of the rooms were covered in mirror mosaic. It was peaceful in here, with fewer visitors.
More lovely pagodas, more stupas, Buddhas all over, people chanting and praying. Oh, pagodas always have an opening, while stupas are fully enclosed. Some stupas are bell shaped, others more like stepped pyramids. I asked Mr. Fatty if things were enclosed in the stupa while it was being built - we were told in Thailand that various Buddha statues have been found in stupas that were split by lightening, or whatever. He said yes, most stupas contain statues, or gem stones and gold. Various precious objects, at any rate. And they each mark an important event or occasion. Although many times, the reason (as well as the contents) are forgotten after a generation or two.
Okay, so after all these temples, we had a lunch break. Then I took a small ferry (more of one of those long boats with an outboard motor that has an extended propeller for the shallow water) to Inwe Island, an island in the middle of the Ayarwaddy River.
Because this is an island in the middle of a river that floods in rainy season, there aren't many cars on the island. Most people get around on motor scooter or horse-drawn carts. And most tourists go the horse cart route. The carts are decorated, the horses look okay (though small), and it all sounds romantic. Except for those of us with major horse allergies. I knew I'd be miserable after two hours behind a horse, no matter how well groomed the horse might be. And I'd be sick for days after. (Been there, done that.)
So I thought I'd just walk around town and see what the place looked like. I kept trying to explain to the people who wanted me to rent their horse cart that I just couldn't do this - finally, a tour guide understood why I couldn't do the horse thing and she explained to the drivers for me. Well, out of nowhere a young man, really more of an older teen, showed up and offered to drive me around on his scooter. He promised to go slow (he doesn't know me!), and he told me he's never crashed or fallen over. So, well, it was 10 km to the old temple, and I wasn't about to walk that and back. So I had a scooter tour of Inwe Island. Crazy, right?
He was quite the gentleman - at one point, my hat blew off, so he stopped and wouldn't let me go get the hat out of the middle of the road, he ran and got that himself. (I held the hat after that, so I have rosy cheeks with just a little sunburn.) He took me all over the island, showing me the oldest stupas and pagodas (with several Buddha statues over 600 years old). He took me to a monastery where they're re-covering the main stupa, so it was interesting to see how that is done. (Brick core, lots of rebar, and then I guess plaster over that. Then maybe gold leaf, or a thin layer of metal, or just gold paint if they want to save money.)
He also showed me the old walls of the city - but I didn't get a photo since we were in motion. He took me to the watchtower, which dates back to the 1800s, and the old fort, complete with cannons. I had a great time with my young guide, named Sansa. And I paid him twice what he had asked, because I thought he did a great job. He also showed me his house, his school, and later introduced me to his brother (who he then called his son, and the kid laughed so I knew he was just trying to act mature). It really was just about the funniest tour I've ever done.
To top things off, he was playing music on his cell phone - including a Myanmar language version of "Rhinestone Cowboy." I kid you not. I recognized the melody, even though I couldn't understand a single word.
I should mention that everyone must leave their shoes outside the temple or monastery gates. So we’re all walking around barefoot. In the hot sun. All 104 F (38 or 39 C) degrees. I learned that the marble tile is the coolest surface for walking; red brick is probably the hottest, it seems to retain insane amounts of heat from the relentless sun. Glazed tile is hot as well. There usually was a pathway of marble tile for my tender feet, but sometimes I had to suffer to get the photo I wanted. Later in the day, however, the bricks and cement were brutal, and I did some hopping around to try to avoid the really hot spots. (Much to the amusement of some people having a picnic lunch in the shade at that particular monastery.)
Ferry back to the mainland - and yes, motorcycles take the same ferry. Then off to the 150 year old wooden bridge across the Ayarwaddy, all 1.2 km of old wooden bridge. I tried walking a distance, but it was a bit bouncy. And the view from underneath the bridge was actually more interesting than the view from the top.
It was a FULL day, and really interesting! Had a great time, and was surprised at how many places were outside the city of Mandalay!
Next up: the stupas of Bagan (over 3000!) Give me a few days, we just arrived in Bagan this afternoon. I'll report back in a few days!