Mandalay Part Two – The Amazing Race – Mandalay, Myanmar

Mandalay Part Two - The Amazing Race
Mandalay, Myanmar

The next morning I was up early and back on the bike. I had a lot of ground to cover. I intended to hit Mingon and Amarapura, two “ancient cities” on the outskirts of Mandalay and tack on visits to two more religious sites that I may or may not be required to sneak into, so I needed to utilize every minute of daylight.

Mingon Paya
Mingon Paya
I raced down to the river jetty for the 9:00 a.m. boat to Mingon. The one hour, upriver ride was nearly as diverting as Mingon itself. A simple but fascinating world existed on the Ayeyarwady River. I saw several, small fishing settlements constructed entirely out of drift wood and bamboo, built on otherwise desolate sand bars, boats with sails seemingly sewn together out of sheets and old clothing and, my favorite, a mysterious, long, barge-like vessel, lashed together out of dozens of pieces of wood, with no obvious steering mechanism or form of propulsion and three people ostensibly living on it in a simple thatch shelter.

We had some bumbling troublemakers on our boat. For some reason this 30 foot boat had a knife edge water balance, meaning that even leaning over too far to get a closer look at something resulted a surprisingly steep tilt. If one or two people switched sides, the tilt would be downright dangerous. There were about 10 of us on the boat and we initially arranged ourselves so as to balance the thing out, but this shaky situation was in constant flux thanks to an oblivious gay couple who were totally consumed with photographing everything we passed. They were never able to make the connection between their movements around the boat and the resulting sickening angle the boat would assume, despite the frantic whistles and gestures from the captain, so the rest of us did our best to compensate.

As you approach Mingon, the enormous, eye catching, never-completed Mingon Paya entirely dominates the town’s otherwise sparse skyline of one and two story dwellings and shacks. Even unfinished, the Paya is unfathomably large and captivating from any distance and I felt compelled to head straight for it, but there was much tap dancing to be done before I could ogle that highlight. As one would expect in an tiny, ancient town with a few indubitable tourist draws, Mingon’s primary industry is to suck tourists dry. There was a reception party of touts, souvenir pushers, tour guides and “taxis” (wooden carts pulled by water buffalo, with the word ‘taxi’ painted on the side) anxiously awaiting our arrival on the riverbank. The first few steps off the boat was like charging through a professional football defensive line. I was able to break through this hectic congestion with only a young girl and a teenaged boy on my tail. The girl gave up on trying to sell me decidedly girly hand fans after a minute and was just content to follow me around and cautiously flirt for most of my visit. The boy, Wen, gave me the standard line about being a student wanting to practice his English, but it was clear by the way he made a point of leading me around and carefully explaining everything we saw that he was going to want a “present” at the end. He was harmless and his English was actually quite good, so I allowed this.

After a quick pass through town, we headed for the Mingon Bell. Very little of Mingon proper is not devoted to tourist targeted restaurants, shops or art galleries. According to Wen, during high season (December through March) about 150 tourists blow through town each day, dropping enough money into the local economy to allow everyone to live like hogs, but now only weeks into low season they were only seeing 30 Pinkies a day tops. Consequently everyone was desperate for my business. For his part, Wen did a fabulous job of leading me through alleys and shortcuts that kept my profile low and the harassment to a minimum.

Having bulldozed right out of the jetty area, leaving my boat mates to be devoured by the welcome committee, I had the Mingon Bell pretty much all to myself. Cast in 1808 and weighing “about 90 tons,” the Mingon Bell is the largest uncracked bell in the world and the second largest bell all-around (the largest, incidentally, is a monster in Moscow, three times the size of the Mingon Bell).

Next we did a loop around a pair of gigantic, ruined lion brick statues. The front ends were sheared off and laying in a pile of unrecognizable rubble. The butts, strangely, were nearly intact.

After this, it was paya time. Wen built up the suspense marvelously. We first stopped at the Simpume Paya, then the Satoya Paya, respectively, which were increasingly larger and flashy. Wen dutifully pointed out the areas in each paya that the government had repaired, a new Buddha here, new floor tiles there, as a “gift” to Mingon. I was tempted to inquire if the government had also bestowed anything non-tourist targeted on Mingon which might be a little more practical for the people, like free primary education, but even an innocent, snide conversation like this could mean trouble for the Myanmar participant if one of the government’s reputed moles were to overhear, so I held my tongue. After disappearing at the Bell, the fan girl, Wei Wei, rejoined us at Satoya Paya. Girls/women are not allowed to enter the inner sanctums of these temples and Wen reminded Wei Wei of this as we entered, but she snuck in and shadowed us the entire time anyway, managing to deftly duck around a corner or into an alcove every time Wen looked back to see if she was there. It was hilarious.

Finally, it was time for the big kahuna, Mingon Paya. After leading me into the main entrance to admire the single, surprisingly plain Buddha, Wen sent me off to climb the steps to the top on my own, saying that he’d stay back to watch my sandals which I was required to leave at the base. After just a few steps, I knew the real reason Wen was hanging back. Even at 11:00 a.m., the jagged, red brick that was used to build the Paya was hot enough to brand cattle. My velvety city-boy feet were nowhere near calloused enough to take this kind of abuse and I spent most of my time on the Paya racing from shaded spot to shaded spot, marooned on the precious few tufts of grass that had managed to sprout through the brick and mortar and dousing my sizzling feet with drinking water from my day bag. When I wasn’t tearing up too much to see straight, the views from the top of the Paya were amazing. You could see the entirety of Mingon’s modest sprawl, tiny, rickety shelters and low cement buildings, with a smattering of trees and other determined foliage providing minor shade from the sun. Looking inland, the landscape sputtered out into the usual, arid plain of dust and shrubs. No wonder everyone in Mingon was grappling for tourist business. There was no way anyone could eek a subsistence living off the land immediately available to them.

Having covered the highlights and still with nearly an hour to kill, Wen led me to a restaurant off the main strip to eat a mountain of chicken fried rice and pass the time out of sight of the hoard of touts. Wei Wei sat nearby with a friend that had recently appeared watching me eat, speaking only once to ask if I would ever come back to Mingon. I told her I’d be back when she was 18 to marry her, but I don’t think she understood, which was probably for the best. Sarcastic humor doesn’t always translate well in these parts and I’d hate to have a girl whiling away her young adult life waiting for me to return and whisk her away to my castle in the west.

I waited until people were boarding the boat before I emerged from my hiding place and ran for the shoreline. The tout masses were all over me again, offering me crappy knickknacks and pleading for me to change their dollars back into kyat at an insulting rate of one dollar to 1,000 kyat. Not only would I lose significant money (80 kyat on the dollar) on an exchange like this (a scam these people were likely well aware of), but my stash of kyat was starting to get dangerously low. I managed to leap onto the boat unscathed and with our downriver course, we were back in Mandalay in just 15 minutes.

It was nearly 2:00 p.m. now and the clock was ticking. I had two religious sites to visit and a second ancient city, Amarapura, 11 kilometers bike ride away to tackle. I was on the bike and pumping away moments after the boat docked.

I had planned my route to Amarapura carefully so that I would pass within two blocks of the all-wood Shwe In Bin Kyaung (monastery), just a hair outside of central Mandalay. Even though this was reportedly one of the places where I was supposed to face the ticket checking goon squad, there was no one around. There wasn’t a booth or even an abandoned chair at the gate, that might have suggested that the overseer was simply taking a hasty bathroom break. I walked right in and soon surmised that I was the only tourist there which was fine by me in that I had full run of the place, but a shame in that the monastery’s location was probably cramping its attendance and it was most definitely worth the effort to see. Though it was markedly smaller than Shwenandaw Kyaung, Shwe In Bin, built in 1895, was no less impressive in its wood-carved adornments, trim and styling. Nearly every non-floor surface was decorated in a blinding medley of religious images and superb bordering and embellishments. It was eerily quiet, so I tip-toed around accordingly, snapping photos and trying to take in the intricate wood work.

Praying at Mahamuni Paya
Praying at Mahamuni Paya
With my 11 kilometer ride to Amarapura weighing on my mind, I only spent about 15 minutes snooping around the monastery before I was back on the bike, pedaling frantically south out of the city. With my blazing speed on the bike, no local map and the fact that Mandalay’s sprawl never really ended I became a little disoriented as to my exact location. After about 20 minutes of riding I stopped at a café to chug a lemon soda and ask directions to Amarapura only to be informed that I was standing in it. I was really moving on that bike.

Amarapura, “City of Immortality,” was briefly the capital of Upper Burma before the fickle and superstitious king had the entire palace dismantled and moved piece by piece to Mandalay on the advice of some astrology hack. I managed to execute an all-Myanmar conversation with the collected people at the café, explaining that I wanted to see the sights of the city, but communications broke down during the directions part. A guy who happened to be biking in the same direction kindly offered to lead me to the main attraction, U Bein’s Bridge, a 1.2 kilometer long wooden bridge that connects Amarapura to a small village which plays host to Kyauktawgyi Paya.

No sooner had I locked up my bike by the bridge, a student-wanting-to-practice-English-cum-tour-guide latched onto me and insisted that I tour the temples near the Bridge before making the crossing, something I intended to do anyway. I cut to the chase and informed the guy that I was down to my last few kyat (I only had 1,000 kyat notes anyway which I was not going to hand over for 20 minutes of sketchy “guiding”) and that I would not be able to give him anything for his efforts. He assured me that was fine and led me around for a short while, trying to make himself useful, dolling out just a few bits of minor trivia about the collection of temples, including the “2000 Buddha Pagoda” and the regrettable practice of thieves, Indians according to him, beheading Buddha statues in search of treasure.

When it came time to part at the bridge, despite my clear warning of having no money to give, he predictably went into his spiel anyway, saying how he desperately needed money for school. My patience was wearing thin for this particular act and that these single-minded, money grubbing touts refused to take to heart my assertions of having no money to spare. I sternly reminded him of my declaration of having no money to offer when he first approached me and that he chose to ignore this wasn’t my problem and then walked off. Much to my consternation he persisted, following me several hundred yards out onto the bridge and hassling me while I tried to take pictures. I finally confronted him and told him that unless he want Thai baht, he wasn’t getting anything. He hesitate at this and then agreed to take baht. Just to be done with him, I gave him 20 baht (50 cents) and as he pondered what the note might be worth in kyat, I left him.

Once I was rid of that unpleasantness, the walk across the bridge was actually quite nice. It was getting to be late afternoon and the dipping sun was providing suitable mood-lighting for pictures of the half dry river bed which was being cautiously developed with a few thatched houses and utilized for farming and grazing. The bridge was surprisingly quiet, just me, a handful of tourists and a fair amount of locals out for strolls. I was so consumed with my surroundings that I didn’t see that the bridge was barricaded at the ¾ point until I was almost on top of it. As I stood stunned and puzzling over this, a monk with two apprentices in tow joined me. The monk explained that they were making repairs to the bridge and that if I really wanted to get to the paya I was going to have to cough up a few hundred kyat for a boat ride. My paranoia over my dwindling kyat situation ruled this out immediately.

When I turned to head back for Amarapura the monk stuck with me, a development I wasn’t too thrilled about. By now I was darkly assuming that everybody in Mandalay who even looked sideways at me was after me for something. I expected the worst and figured he’d hit me up for change at the end of the bridge, especially when he mentioned right off the bat that he wanted to practice his English with me, which to me was now well worn code for “I want a handout for doing almost nothing,” but it never happened. Instead of trying to provide some kind of superficial service in lieu of the solicitation of spare change, he went to work on me with his English, initially asking me detailed questions about grammar, before moving on to questions about life in the U.S. Kusala’s innocent, placid curiosity won me over and I ultimately became very involved in the conversation, particularly the part where he asked me to compare life in the U.S. to life in Myanmar. Obviously this particular subject could have persisted until Buddha’s return to earth, so I just tried to stick to general bullet points. Things got muddy when it came time to explain the concept of McDonalds to him - no one I met in all of Myanmar had any idea of what McDonalds was, the absolute pinnacle of ignorance-is-bliss if you ask me - but by this point we were standing back at my bike with the sun getting dangerously low, so I had to give up. I jumped on the bike, begging forgiveness, saying that I had 90 minutes to ride 11 kilometers and hopefully visit one last paya before my bike was due back at the shop. He asked which paya and I replied “Mahamuni Paya,” which he eagerly informed me was the paya where he lived and studied. I said I’d give the guys there a shout-out for him, wished him luck and was gone, racing the setting sun back to Mandalay.

On the way into Mandalay, I took many rolling pictures of teeming pickups-cum-local buses, piled high with men on top and stuffed to bursting with women underneath (women never ride on top of pickups, as it is insulting to any men that might be sitting below). Without exception, each time the passengers caught me snapping pictures, they all called out and waved to me like they were on a parade float. I also swerved into a few Buddha-making shops I had passed earlier, clicking several pictures while still sitting on the bike of the rows of half-finished Buddhas, fashioned out of wood, marble and metal.

I got back to Mandalay before dark, with nearly an hour to spare before my bike deadline. Considering the time carefully, I decided to risk playing beat-the-clock and swung around heading for Mahamuni Paya. Though I had already seen several payas that day, this was a Toe Recommended site and so far the man’s advice had been spot on, so I was eager to make the extra effort. I don’t know what the occasion was, it was a Tuesday evening, but Mahamuni was absolutely hopping with worshipers when I arrived, more than any paya I had seen outside of Shwedagon in Yangon. I made the rounds, taking pictures of the huge five ton gong - which, if it weren’t heavy enough to make the whole house collapse in on itself, would have looked smashing in my old living room - and the small collection of peculiarly out-of-place Khmer bronze figurines that had been laboriously hauled to Burma 400 years ago as war spoils, before I returned to the bustling area around the central Buddha figure.

This Buddha is especially popular in Mandalay, having been carted to its current resting place from the western Rakhaing State in 1784 and is reputed to have been cast as early as the 1st century AD. After hundreds of years of being wallpapered in gold leaf by worshipers, the details of its features have long since been caked into a hopelessly nondescript series of lumps, aside from the untouched head. The crowd of worshipers facing the front of the Buddha stretched back half way to the entrance. The men and monks were predictably up front, in the actual Buddha chamber while the much more numerous women were lined up behind the chamber for several meters. I made a few attempts to take illuminating photographs of this spectacle without using an intrusive flash and succeed in getting mostly blurred crap. A couple of women with a baby that had been softly following me around for several minutes were joined by two monks and some kids, all curious to see what I was working at with such diligence. I decided to give them the digital camera orientation, which had never previously failed to win ’em over in Myanmar, but this time my small crowd was strangely unimpressed, or perhaps they were just baffled into silence by my space-aged technology. I suddenly recalled that good ol’ Kusala was from Mahamuni and I tried a shameless name dropping with the monks, but they had absolutely no idea what I was taking about until I scrolled about 100 photos back in my camera and show them the snapshot I took of Kusala at which point one monk showed vague recognition. I think these guys do just a little too much meditating.

Suddenly I became aware of the completely dark skies and I realized that I had about 10 minutes to return my bike, so I hastily left my groupies and cruised the streets of Mandalay in total, terrifying darkness, through a sea of questionably safety-conscious drivers back to the bike shop.

I gorged on a forgettable Chinese dinner while reminiscing on my action packed Myanmar travels. Though I had only been in the country for six days by this point, it felt like weeks, due in large part to the fact that I had been reluctantly awake for the lion’s share of the trip - I silently thanked whichever Myanmar government stooge that had approved the import of Red Bull, without which I’d have already collapsed into an exhaustion fueled, sobbing nervous breakdown. My time with Toe and the comforts of Motherland Inn II seemed like an eternity ago. Not surprisingly I was noticeably starting to hit empty, travel stamina-wise. The high pace, repeated bouts of night travel, the physical beating I was taking on said night travel and the resulting sleeplessness, was wearing me down on all fronts, most notably my patience for people and my tolerance for noise and crowds. I pitifully hoped that Bagan would offer up the opportunity to amass a little extra sleep and recuperate from my draining big-city sensory overload.

I checked out of the Royal Guesthouse - despite me arriving at 4:30 a.m. the previous day, they only charged me for one night! Wonderful guys! - and after some extended, shameless loitering in their lobby, I went out and made the day of one of the 10 or so glum trishaw drivers sitting out in front and appointed him usher me and my bags to the train station. Predictably, the 10:00 p.m. Mandalay to Bagan government-run, and therefore inexcusably inept, train service left after 1:00 a.m. and I was devastated to see that my US$9, “Upper Class” ticket that LP promised would get me into a reclining bucket seat, only bought me half of a maliciously designed wooden bench, with a bread slice-thin pad for my comfort. This indignity and the rattling, spine grinding train kept me miserably awake and in pain for the entire nine hours to Bagan.

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