Thursday 26 January 2017

Myanmar Journey Part Two - The Road To Mandalay

Mandalay is one of those cities that stirs the imagination. Distant, somehow mystical in the same way as Timbuktu or Lhasa, yet somehow familiar. For some of us it's because of the reference to the city in the children's song Nelly The Elephant ...they met one night in the silver light on the road to Mandalay.... For others it's the mistaken belief that Bing Crosby and Bob Hope made a film called The Road To Mandalay in their famous Road series. Although such a film was planned, the title was changed to Singapore and Mandalay was omitted. And of course there's Kipling's poem Mandalay which doesn't really pass muster today with some references and use of language that might best be described as being of their time.

White stupas, Kuthodaw pagoda
My road to Mandalay was mainly in the air on a short flight from Yangon to the airport at Tada-U, 35 kilometres away from the city. I was met there by my guide and driver who delivered me to my riverside hotel but not before I had touched a snake, seen an elephant, an astonishingly colorful procession and enjoyed the temple ruins of Paleik.

The Hmwe Paya temple in Paleik is widely known as the snake temple because of a group of pythons that made their way there in 1974 and despite efforts to keep them away insisted on returning and were eventually allowed to remain. When I arrived at the temple, shortly before 11 a.m. the pythons were resting, apparently asleep at the foot of one of the Buddha statues. People were beginning to gather for the daily ritual of seeing the snakes being washed and fed by the two men that care for them. To my astonishment people were touching the snakes, even stroking them  believing them to be holy. My guide, Myoswe encouraged me to do so too. I am not particularly scared of snakes but nor have I ever wanted to hold one or drape one around my shoulders as some visitors to the temple do. Eventually, to the amusement of the other visitors, I managed to touch the smaller of the two pythons with the tip of my middle finger. Shortly before 11, a tiled bath was filled with water and rose petals and the snakes were bathed and then fed scrambled eggs by both the carers and visitors, some of latter coming forward to have their photograph taken holding or feeding them.

Feeding the snakes at Paleik
Mythical creatures in the Paleik ruins
Western influenced architecture, Paleik
A short distance from the temple there is a large collection of decaying stupas and a small village where there are several mostly mechanised weaving workshops in which the work includes dyeing the textiles as well as producing garments and household items. As with everywhere else I visited in Myanmar, people called hello or mingalabar as we passed by. 

It was in the village that I had my first encounter with the ubiquitous betel, chewed by both men and women of all ages. Four young men were playing a vigorous game of carom, a board game, proceeding at pace, chewing and then spitting deep red juice onto the ground as they played. The betel consists of areca nuts, tobacco and sometimes other ingredients wrapped in a leaf brushed with slaked lime. The nut produces a red liquid which is not swallowed but spat out. This is the explanation for the red blotches you can see on the ground, footpath and roads all over the country. You can also see people carrying small plastic bags for the same purpose. The betel produces a kick similar to that of coffee or cigarettes but also causes damage to the teeth and can lead to oral cancer. Despite this its use is widespread.  

The temple ruins receive few visitors despite the interesting mix of golden covered stupas and prayer halls some of which surprisingly exhibit western architectural influences. There are more than 300 temples in total dating from the 14th century. Some are in the process of being reclaimed by nature as the vegetation begins to take over.  

Cattle drawn carriage on the way to the novitiation ceremony
Novitiation ceremony procession
Back on the road to the city and a few kilometers on we ran into a long, colourful procession involving carts, people in brightly colourful clothes, loud music and even an elephant on the way to a novitiation ceremony which is called Shinbyu Pwe. The children who are to be novice monks are dressed in costumes like those of a prince or a king and ride on a horse or in a carriage, protected from the sun by a parasol. The children of wealthier families may even ride on an elephant as in the parade I saw. The process symbolizes the journey of Prince Siddhartha as he relinquished the world of possessions in the first step towards enlightenment and becoming the Buddha. 

Not long after passing the novitiate procession, we arrived in the city. Mandalay is a busy, modern  place of more than one million people and I was immediately struck by the volume of motor-cycles. In recent years motor cycles have almost entirely replaced bicycles due to the availability of cheap Chinese imports. Visitors looking for the Mandalay of Kipling might have to look very hard. Japanese air raids destroyed 3/5 of all the city's houses in 1942 whilst the British flattened the Royal Palace in a major bombing raid at the war's end in 1945. Although the palace has been faithfully reconstructed, I was reminded of my time in Manila last year which had a similar wartime experience albeit on a larger scale. 

The view from Mandalay Hill
Detail, Shwenandaw monastery
Detail, Shwenandaw monastery
On reaching the city, we headed for Mandalay Hill with its spectacular views that stretch to the Ayeyarwady River (which readers in the UK might know as the Irrawaddy). I loved the Kuthodaw Pagoda (pictured at the top of this post) at the foot of the hill with its white, gold topped stupas. Completed in 1868 during the reign of King Mindon, the pagoda is famous for being home to the world's biggest book - consisting of 730 stone leaves, 107 cm wide, 153 cm tall and 13cm thick. The pages carry the canonical texts of Theravada Buddhism and are inscribed in the ancient Pali language. Each page is housed in a small roofed structure with a precious stone at the top.

The Shwenandaw monastery is a short step away from Kuthadaw. Built as a royal residence in the nineteenth century under the direction of King Thibaw, it originally stood in Amarapura, which will feature later in this post. The building was later dismantled and brought to Mandalay to be used as a monastery. Constructed in teak it features beautiful carvings depicting figures and stories from Buddhism.

Mandalay was once the capital city of Myanmar and to some extent remains a cultural capital with music venues, theatrical performances and authentic marionette shows. Marionettes have been an integral part of Myanmar culture for centuries. The shows may tell stories from the life of Buddha or folklore whilst others tell stories from the former royal courts. The marionettes can be up to one metre high and manipulation of their dozen or more strings is a highly skilled operation. Over the last several decades the art has seriously declined to the point where it was felt to be dying. There are now efforts to revive it, mainly by Mandalay Marionettes - a small theatre running nightly shows that include traditional music and dance as well as the puppets. Before the show commences, there are brief explanations in English of the stories and of the instruments in the small orchestra. In the old days shows could last all night - these ones last for an hour and conclude with a humorous exchange between the musicians and the puppeteers. I attended a performance during my stay in the city and thoroughly enjoyed it. If you wish you can buy puppets to take home from the theatre itself as well as from just about any market or souvenir shop in the country.

Marionettes for sale
The Ayeyarwady river runs through Mandalay on its way from the far north of the country all the way to the Indian Ocean. It provides an alternative means of exploring the country and visiting the many temples, towns and villages close to the city. During the dry season, it also provides temporary farming land as islands emerge when the water recedes. The soil is so rich that farmers can grow two crops in eight months, usually peanuts and watermelons. When the rainy season commences and the water begins to rise, they move, along with their families, to cheaper rental accommodation in the city. The river is also used to transport goods to and from markets, to do the weekly washing and as a tourist attraction as visitors travel by boat between different towns and villages.

Part of the Setkay Thida nunnery
Ruined temple, Ava
I took a boat from the jetty near my hotel, arriving first at Sagaing, 25 kilometers south of Mandalay on the opposite side of the river. As the boat approaches the city, Sagaing Hill rises up with its many stupas. The village is one of the chosen locations for visitors who come to Myanmar to meditate. It is also where one of the country's largest nunneries - the Setkay Thida - is located. Visitors are welcome and can see the many pink clad nuns paying respect to the Buddha.

Back on the river, my next stop was at the former capital city, originally known as Ava but now called Inwa. Today it is a quiet, rural place scattered with ruins of the old city walls, stupas and other reminders of its glorious past. Like most visitors, I toured Ava on a horse-drawn carriage stopping off at the sites, some of which I had almost to myself.

Maha Aungyme Bonzan, Ava
Carved peacock, Bagaya Kyaung, Ava
Rice field and stupa, Ava
Working in the rice field, Ava
The Maha Aungyme Bonzan is  gorgeous, fortress-like stucco covered structure was built in 1818 by Queen Me Nu as a home for the Royal Abbott. At a time when most monasteries were built from wood, its brick construction led it to sometimes be referred to as the "brick monastery". It was damaged by an earthquake in 1838 but restored before the end of the nineteenth century. Guarded by two mythological Burmese lions it is home to a large colony of bats who I am told can be seen taking off en masse at dusk as they go to look for food.

Ava still has a beautiful wooden monastery - Bagaya Kyaung, made of teak and built in 1834 during the city's final period as a royal capital. It is still a working monastery and includes a small school for the younger monks. It is exquisitely decorated with carved figures and peacocks and flowers painted on the internal surfaces.

In addition to temples and monasteries there are many banana plantations in Ava. I like bananas. I especially love the deep red colour and rubbery texture of the hood-like bract on a maturing banana plant. I really wanted to get some pictures of these and of a full banana plant and my excellent guide Myoswe accommodated this slight eccentricity by walking through the fields with me until we found some. Please indulge me by enjoying the photographs below!

Fallen banana bract
Amarapura is a small town just 11 kilometers south of central Mandalay. The Maha Gandyon monastery is home to hundreds of monks and some beautifully restored prayer halls. The abbott, Ashin Kelasa,  receives visitors within certain hours and as in other monasteries, people come to seek his advice and guidance. He is also the author of a number of books on Theravada Buddhism.

Monasteries are a key element in Myanmar society where more than 80% of the population are Theravada Buddhists. At some point during their lives, all Buddhist men will spend some time as a monk. As well as providing guidance and teaching in Buddhism, the younger monks will learn reading, writing, mathematics and other academic subjects. This is vital as although access to primary education is free, children must provide their own books and other materials which is often not possible for the poorest families. At Maha Gandyon there is also a project to provide work for women from the surrounding villages.

Local women employed at the Maha Gandyon monastery
Shoes (and socks) must be removed before entering monasteries and temples
The spectacular U Bein footbridge is a short distance from the monastery. It stretches 1200 metres across Lake Taungthaman. Constructed entirely of teak in 1859, there are more than 1000 columns that support the bridge. Some of the original teak columns have been replaced with concrete. Together with hundreds of other visitors (and locals) I visited the bridge to see the sunset but in sufficient time to first walk its length and have a look around the small settlement on the opposite side of the lake where there is a pretty pagoda complex with many ceiling paintings. However, the highlight of the other side of the bridge (at least for me) was a small street food stall where a young woman was cooking and selling very thin savoury pancakes topped with chillies, tomatoes and herbs, which were then folded and sliced. Delicious. And very cheap too. That pancake alone was worth the walk across the bridge!

Street food near the U-Bein bridge
Small temple complex near the U-Bein bridge
After a quick visit to the temple and longing looks at the pancake stall on my way back to the bridge, I was stopped by two young monks one of whom was pointing to his camera. At first I thought they wanted me to take their photograph, but no, they wanted to have their picture taken with me. My guide obliged and I removed my hat for the camera - to much hilarity on their part as they realised I probably have less hair than they do! Smiles and thanks and on I went to the centre of the bridge where there are steps down to a small cafe set up on the land exposed during the dry season. As the sun began to go down, hundreds of people gathered, many of them in small boats in the centre of the lake. The Myanmar sunset comes quickly and leaves the sky a deep orange.  At Amarapura it silhouettes the people on the bridge and provides opportunities for great photography. Unfortunately my low light photography skills are not good. In fact they are terrible and so I sat back and enjoyed the beauty of it all, unencumbered by my camera. A great way to end another great day in Myanmar.

U-Bein bridge just before sunset

You can see more pictures of Myanmar here.

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