Our third day in Mandalay we decided to do a tour of a few of the surrounding “ancient cities”. It’s quite a popular route, so we decided to just get a tour guide through our hotel. We ended up getting a pretty good deal because the hotel was promoting a new tour company owned by an English teacher who is training his best conversational English students to be tour guides. We had a very enthusiastic 19-year-old guide who apparently went into the English tour guide trade after failing out of university. Which happened, he told us, because if you don’t do well on your entrance exams in Myanmar, you don’t get to choose which field you go into. He ended up in geology, which he hated, thus didn’t last long.
We first stopped by a local handicraft shop to look at marionettes and people carving crazy detailed things out of teak. Since teak is a very hard wood, they basically have to hammer and chisel everything and it takes a really long time. That, coupled with the cost of the material, makes all the carving very expensive. We also passed through the stone carving district where a billion buddha figures were being carved out of local marble. Similar to the wood carvers, it seems that only the best carvers get to do the faces, so there were a ton of buddhas with block heads waiting for finishing.
Our next stop was a bright white pagoda. Our guide pointed out that lots of things have been added to Buddhism that weren’t originally there (apologizing for the “no women” sign on the pagoda) and using the example that people have decided it is preferable to walk around the pagodas clockwise as to keep your good side (right side) facing the pagoda compared to your EVIL LEFT.
We then went to a silk weaving workshop as the region is well known for this. A lot of the silk is now shipped from China since it is cheaper, but they also have their own local silk production. We also looked around the show room, but as Chris didn’t want any silk pants and I had already bought some pants recently, we didn’t purchase anything.
At around 10am we headed to the Mahagandayon monastery, which is famous because over 1500 monks live there. It is so famous in fact that there is a waiting list of people wanting to donate meals to the monks. As such, the monks there don’t have to collect alms and instead line up at for their donated lunch (and final meal of the day) at 10:15am, which is made in literally THE BIGGEST RICE COOKER EVER. The cost to donate a lunch for the monks is at least $1000 USD. The donor will make a list of what they want to donate meal-wise, and the resident cooks make it. The curry or what not is pre-laid out in the cafeteria, so the monks just have to collect the rice.
Apparently this area can turn into quite the tourist zoo during high season, but since we were in low season there was only a handful of others there taking pictures.
After the monastery we drove to Sagaing, another of the ancient cities. Sagaing, like Mandalay, also has a giant hill studded with pagodas. We just drove to the one at the top; I’m not sure what is was called but its symbol was a frog, because that is what the hill looks like. Since I had a sore throat (as did the driver, he stopped and got lozenges for both of us earlier) Chris gave me 50 kyat to give to the frog and rub its throat so that it would cure me. It might have worked because later I was fine. Chris asked the guide a lot of questions about being a Buddhist, and (being an atheist) seemed pleased when the guide pointed out that his kneeling in front of the Buddha statue was a sign of respect to the Buddha for teaching the way, but not a religious devotion, rather “he was his own god, in a sense”.
After Sagaing we stopped for lunch, where we learned that the Burmese eat palm sugar after meals to help digestion. This was exciting to me mainly because no one at home ever tells me it’s a good idea to eat a huge piece of sugar. We also learned that our guide was worried about the upcoming elections because if the opposition was elected the military might have an issue with this and interfere, thus causing a renewal of international sanctions and a reduction in tourism. He also told us about how in the old days (5 or so years ago) he wouldn’t have been able to speak so freely because Myanmar had a large group of spies (like the secret police) to listen to people that were criticizing the regime and tell the authorities. It was all old Soviet Union up in here it sounded like.
Anyways, after lunch we headed to Ava, the last ancient city, where we visited the Bargaya teak monastery. There was a tiny elementary school in there for the local village but we don’t know how they were studying as it was so dark.
We also went to Hsin Gyone Fort which doesn’t look like much. When the British were going to invade, the current Burmese king hired an Italian engineer to design 3 forts to control the river. Unfortunately he didn’t know that the engineer then sold the plans to the British…
We also visited some lovely stupa ruins. Ava was actually the capital of Burma before it was mostly destroyed by earthquakes in 1839. There were some pretty persistent children trying to sell jewelry and postcards, so it was clear that low season was pretty low.
Ava is also the home to the brick monastery (it has a long name – Maha Aungmye Bonzan, thus most people do indeed just call is the brick monastery). The brick monastery was reconstructed after the earthquakes, a good thing because the original had a lot of booby traps apparently. Our guide told us a long complicated story about a queen that was originally a commoner. The prince had originally been denied marrying her because of her common blood, so the story goes, but then her laundry flew away or something and landed on top of the palace. This was taken to be a sign so he was allowed to marry her. Anyways, she didn’t like some of the statesmen, so the monastery had some traps (like trapdoors to beds of spikes-type things) in places that people always had to go so she could get them. He also said all the doors purposely creaked so that if she had secret meetings she would hear if someone was coming in to spy on her.
Our last stop of the day was the teak bridge (officially the U Bein Bridge), which we stopped at on the way back through Amarapura. At 1.2 km it is the longest teak bridge in the world, and we ended up walking the entire thing as our guide said that some university students believe that if you walk it as a couple and don’t go to the end, your relationship will not last. He waited for us because he pointed out that he is single.
The bridge is pretty rickety and occupied by a number of fishermen and ladies selling huge plates of crab and handicrafts made out of watermelon seeds. Being rainy season, it is also hilariously surrounded by a number of half-submerged huts that are used to sell beer when the water levels are lower. During that time, our guide usually sits with the tour group and they all have beers while they watch the sunset.
On the way back into town we got an extra stop at Mahamuni Pagoda, a popular pilgrimage site in Mandalay because of its big fancy buddha that is known as the “Face of Mandalay”. There were tons of people praying there. A monk washes the face of the Buddha statue there every day, and the washing water is apparently valuable to people who line up to get it. It was another one of the “no women allowed” kind of places, but they have a TV so that even if you are farther back you can see the face.
It turns out that the guy who owns the tour company we were with also owns Mandalay Marionettes, so we decided to check out the marionette show that night. We went to Koffee Korner first, which is a trendy restaurant just a few blocks away and has delicious food. Since it was Friday night, it seemed lots of young people were out and about there.
When we first got to the show, some kids asked us to speak with them in English (remember they teach spoken English there). Chris spoke to them about Canada a bit (like the fact that sometimes the sun doesn’t set in the Arctic) but wasn’t really sure if they understood anything.
The show was… interesting. There was a piercing oboe instrument and all of the drums and cymbals and what not appeared to play at any point (i.e. not with any discernible beat). Every once in awhile, the curtain would lift so you could see the puppeteers, so it was interesting to see them manipulate all the strings, but all in all it was a bit too obscure or opaque for us to understand anything that was happening. But at least we got some culture!