Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’ fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China
‘crost the Bay! (Rudyard Kipling 1892)
Another early morning, this time from Bagan to Mandalay. Myanmarian flights not quite Kipling’s road to Mandaly. The dutiful guide was awaiting my arrival where she whisked me off to breakfast in the ancient royal city of Amarapura. This was followed by a visit to the Mahagandayon Monastery, one of the largest Buddhist teaching monasteries in Myanmar. Here I learnt you could become a monk, stay as long as you like and leave whenever you felt like it. A lot of the poorer families send their children (boys & girls) to the monasteries during the summer break from school and this way they avoid the cost of feeding them over the summer. Traditionally, one should be a monk at least three times during ones life – as a child, as a young man and as a pensioner. We arrived as the monks were about to be fed and as the people donated daily gifts to them.
From the monastery it was on into Mandalay, the second-largest city and the last royal capital of Burma. Before lunch we made visits to the industrial handcraft areas that Mandalay is famous for. Colourful silk weaving, fantastic teak woodwork hand-carving, labour-intensive hand-embroidered tapestries of gold thread, and mammoth marble and alabaster statues. The dust from the marble factories filled the lungs and covered one in a fine white powder.
From there it was on to the Mahamuni Temple with the Maha Myat Muni Buddha. This Buddha statue is most revered as it is one of the three Buddha statues made within the lifetime of the living Buddha (4th century BC). The other two being in India. It was transported to Mandalay in the 1st century BC, a feat in itself considering the mountains along the way. The 4m high-seated image is cast in bronze and weigh 6.5 tons and crowned with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. As it greatly revered, one should not visit without adding some gold leaf to the actually statue. Not being one to miss out, I took the opportunity to add a little gold of my own, however, I was surprised that this chance was limited only to men – equality is yet to make it here! Buddhists are so devout that countless thousands of devotees have applied gold leaf to gain merit and the image is now completely covered with 15 cm thick layer of gold and its original shape has become distorted. With gold leaf still clinging to my fingers it was off to lunch and my hotel overlooking the the Arrawaddy River (Kipling’s Burma Road).
Suitably ensconced and refreshed from my hotel visit, it was time to take up my afternoon’s activities. It started with a stop at the bank to exchange some money. It feels remarkable to leave in a few hundred dollars and get back a couple of hundred thousand Kyat (chat). With a couple of hundred bank notes in hand one feels decidedly rich. Next door to the bank was a workshop making gold leaf. They take small ingots and roll them out in a press to fine ribbons. The ribbons are cut into 1 cm squares and then about 100 are layered upon one another separated by bamboo paper, wrapped up in leather and then hammered by a very fit man for about 3-4 hours. The constant hammering flattens the gold until you get the leaf. The heat generated in the hammering is 50-60 C and once the hammering starts the poor guy can’t stop until he is finished otherwise it is ruined.
After having seeing my fill of exercise for the day, it was time to hop into my chauffeur-driven limo and off to the Mya Nan San Kyaw, the Royal Palace of Mandalay. The palace is a square 2 km x 2km, surrounded by a moat and built by King Mindon in the mid 1800s. It was home to the last Burmese King (King Thibaw) before he was routed by the British in 1885. Barely finished before it was lost and most of its artifacts were looted and are now in the V & A Museum in London. With its lavish teak pavilions covered in gold leaf and the beautiful glass palace (interior covered with glass mosaic) at the centre containing the Bee Throne, it unfortunately is all a facade. It was burnt down during the British-Japanese conflicts of the WWII, however, it has been faithfully restored although I wouldn’t know the difference.
First stop on the way from the palace to the top of Mandalay Hill – Shwenandaw Monastery. It is actually a former apartment from the palace occupied by King Mindon but his son King Thibaw believed it was haunted by his father so had it moved and used it to create a monastery. Shwenandaw Monastery is the only remaining original structure today of the Royal palace before the fire of WWII. Beautiful teak carvings emblazon the entire building.
Second stop on the way from the palace to the top of Mandalay Hill – Kuthodaw Stupa, home to the world’s largest book. In the grounds of the stupa are 729 white stone gazebos, each containing a marble slab inscribed on both sides with a page of text from the Buddhist scriptures. I think I will stick to my paperback for ease of transport. It was a lovely site to look around, reminding me of small soft meringue tops on top of a cake.
Last stop – Mandalay Hill! The hill dominates the skyline and at the summit the Sutaungpyei Pagoda gives great panoramic views of the city to all points of the compass. From here the Royal palace and the world’s largest book are easily visible. Once again I found the shrine of the rat and completed my Buddhist ritual to my animal of birth (see previous post Bagan day 1). One thing I have become aware of on this trip is that fresh water is always available around temples without the need to buy it in plastic bottles. Earthenware pots filled with fresh drinkable water are available for the thirsty, is this an attempt at environmentally friendliness or just plain commonsense hospitality? Anyway, with the sun setting I was ready for a lovely cold beer and some snacks.