The sights and sounds of a day in Myanmar
08.08.2011 - 08.08.2011 30 °C
The mere mention of Mandalay, in part thanks to Kiplings The Road to Mandalay, conjures the most peaceful and serene settings imaginable: Asia at its most traditional, timeless and alluring. Possibly as Kipling never visited Mandalay this image may not quite translate to the rather scruffy, dusty, booming city on a wide bend of the Ayeyarwady River. Yet, our initial introduction to the city gave us a pleasant perspective on this unexpectedly enticing city.
Rising 760ft-high Mandalay Hill breaks out of Mandalay’s pancake flat sprawl to the north of the city. Commencing our bare foot ascent from the south entrance we were soon passing small shrines and temples on our forty-five minute hike to the summit. Close to the top of the hill is a huge standing Buddha with outstretched hand towards the Royal palace. According to legend the Buddha climbed the hill on one of his visits to Myanmar. He prophesied that in the 2400th year of his faith a great city would be founded below the hill. By our calendar that 2400th year was 1857 – the year King Mindon Min decreed the capitols move from Amarapura to Mandalay. With a pleasant Buddhist temple at the summit of the hill and outstanding views towards both the Mandalay Palace, the rice fields of the plains and towards the distant green hills of the Shan Plateau our mid-morning hike is certainly worthwhile. A great introduction to a city we would grow to enjoy.
In need of a little R&R time after our hot and humid hike to the top of the Hill we were soon on board a trishaw that was to take us on an unplanned afternoon long tour of the city. With our peddler ‘very happy’ to take the two of us across town, for only then can he earn money to pay the daily trishaw rental that he must pay, we are soon barreling along the dusty streets dodging scooters, buses and other random and erratic motor vehicles. The relatively slow pace offers us a terrific opportunity to see life on the streets of Mandalay. Stopping frequently to visit interesting stores and imbibe a few cold drinks. Entering a gold leaf store we are able to watch the process of taking relatively thin but mechanically created strips of gold and through six hours of manual sledge hammer pounding achieve the requisite wafer like thickness of gold leaf. A bundle of hundred two inch square gold leaf sheets retails for 100USD. With no immediate use for a little gold leaf we make our excuses. After some thirty minutes of pedaling we reach the southern suburbs of the city and one of Myanmar’s more famous Buddhist sites – Mahamuni Paya.
The gold and crimson site was originally built by King Bodawpaya in 1784. In 1884 the shrine was destroyed by fire; the impressive wood work on display was, therefore, comparatively recent. The Paya’s fame comes from its shrine centerpiece, the highly venerated Mahamuni buddha image, which was seized from Mrauk U in Rakhaing State in 1784. It was believed to be of great age at that time and it may even have been cast during the 1st century AD. The 13ft-high seated image is cast in bronze, but over the years thousands of devout Buddhists have completely covered the figure in a 6in-thick layer of gold leaf.
From the Paya it is a relatively quick ride to the stone carving street where hundreds of craftsmen use angle grinders and drills to fashion detailed alabaster Buddha imagines and other religious statues. With alabaster dust hanging heavily in the air and with dusk falling we are soon at a disappointing night market. With nothing of interest we retire our trishaw driver at a local Burmese restaurant, partaking of a Barma curry and a cold Mandalay beer. Evening brings pleasant temperatures and an opportunity to stroll without the affects of heat and humidity.
As is typical, throughout Mandalay, walking back to our hotel illicit cries of ’hello’ and ‘where are you from’. Certainly at this time of year tourists in Mandalay are relatively uncommon. Seeing few westerners we are usually a centre of attention. No matter the age or background a cry of min-găla-ba to any of the locals immediately brings a bright smile and a similar response. After visiting various countries whose populations actively appear to disapprove of tourists this warm welcome and apparently genuine hospitality makes a pleasant change. With shouts from passengers hanging from passing pickup trucks, on bicycles and street corners our evening stroll, as with all our strolls in Myanmar, requires constant waves and returned shouts. We walk as if the entire town knows us, welcoming us as old friends.
One such shout of ‘hello’ is from a older gentlemen sitting on a busy street corner, with his wife, enjoying the balmy evening. As a semi-retired English teacher, forced into this position by the Government, he is keen to share his story. As an intellect and speaker of English he is seen as a threat by the Government. All such persons in Myanmar are punished. It is their revenge for others past transgressions. Our tri-shaw driver earlier in the day, a pleasant 15 year old boy with some English works from 8am to 10pm, seven days a week. He pays no tax but is not punished by the government. The educated are taxed and penalized. If he works, teaches English, in any official capacity a significant piece of his income will be taken by the Government, “revenge”. Powerless he finds his children are not interested in learning English. It is of no real value in Myanmar. The Government assumes anyone speaking English is the agent of some mythical western power. The situation is sad, terrible and disgusting but it is not an unfamiliar story. A Government oppressing those they fear, happy to overlook the transgressions of those who cannot threaten them. A sad story and one to reflect on as we return to our hotel to sleep and consider the unusual tourist happenings that become typical during a visit to Myanmar.