Around Mandalay

Look at that hair!

Look at that hair!

I was up for the now-standard Mayanmar guest house breakfast just after 7:00 and was joined by my Slovenian friends (Anya and her boyfriend, who’s name I forget and for which I apologise profusely as ever). We jumped into the blue taxi they’d pre-arranged with our first stop being the Mahamuni Paya. This is the most venerated of the Paya (Buddhist temples) in the area, the centrepiece being a large Buddha statue which has had so much gold leaf pressed onto it for luck that it now looks almost disfigured.

The two men in our group were waved up some steps where we were handed some of the gold leaf which we pressed in place (for 200K each), then given a sprinkle of holy water for luck. Unfortunately, Anya couldn’t join us as women aren’t allowed onto the main dais. This is fairly common in a lot of the religious buildings in Myanmar.

Lots and lots of teak

Lots and lots of teak

We next stopped at U Bien’s Bridge in Amarapura a few kilometres outside of Mandalay. This is the world’s longest teak bridge measuring 1.2km or 1.3km, depending on whether you believe Lonely Planet or our taxi driver. Most tourists gather here for sunset, but we’d decided to stop by as there is more to see in the area during the day. We walked the length and back as locals asked to have their photos taken with the very tall man and the other man with the strange beard.

It’s an impressive structure though it wobbles a little in places. Some of it is open-sided, some stretches have wooden guard rails and one length has concrete barriers at the sides. You can see the ground and water beneath your feet for the entire length of the structure, though. Unnerving if you don’t like that kind of thing! During wet season I’d guess that the water is very close to the underside of the bridge. Right now, a lot of it was green.

Relaxing as dad paddles

Relaxing as dad paddles

At 10:00 we ensured we were back over the bridge and at the nearby Ganayon Kyaung where it was feeding time for the monks. Which sounds a bit weird, but you when you see around 1000 monks queuing up for lunch you can agree that it is indeed a bit weird. Well, I suppose you have to feed them somehow. Inevitably, this is a huge tourist draw and the place was quite busy.

Many foreigners were armed with cameras the size of me forearm and didn’t think twice about standing in front of everyone else (and the monks) and jamming the lens into some robe-clad novice’s face. The temptation to “accidentally” bump into one or two of these idiots in the hope they dropped their precious Nikons was strong. The monks were remarkably tolerant about the whole thing, but then… they’re monks. That’s what monks do, I suppose.

Millions of monks

Millions of monks

After lunch – theirs, not ours – our driver next took us to Sagaing. This is another nearby town, this one filled with stupas (over 500 of them) and temples many of which are up a lot of steps on the multitude of peaks within the town limits. We scaled one of these for the view which was very impressive. A shame that the air around here is rather nasty so there was a permanent haze from the middle distance onwards.

Back at ground level, our driver took us to lunch near the river. Food was good and plentiful for a very low price, and I got to play with a scruffy puppy. We had to get a boat across the river to Inwa (1000K return) and then a horse-cart to lug us around the sites (4000K for two people, they happily took three for 6000K). You do need the cart, though – it’s quite a sizeable place and on foot you’d be all day.

Cheap seats

Cheap seats

Some of the sights require the $10 ticket with Anya’s partner had, but neither she nor I did. The teak monastery of Bagaya Kyaung is one of them, so he headed in while we milled about outside. He didn’t sound overwhelmed when he came out, to be fair. Next up was the old watchtower (free admission) which is now rather squint as a result of an earthquake. It’s structurally sound (probably) and you can get right to the top for some nice – though hazy – views.

The final stop on Inwa was an old temple or monastery. Anya managed to sneak in as the person checking the tickets wasn’t being too fussy, but I stayed outside and played with a few of the local kids instead. They’ve got a line of asking for “stylo” then “shampoo” then “bon-bon” or “parfum”. For some reason all these requests are in French. As ever, I denied them completely but had great fun mucking about for twenty minutes or so before my Slovenian comrades returned.

Sunset and monks

Sunset and monks

Partway round, we bumped into a Canadian girl – Nada – who’s working at a university in Busan, South Korea. As it happens she’s half Croat, half Slovenian and in eight years living in Asia hadn’t met anyone from her maternal homeland before. We all met up in the restaurant where we’d had lunch back on the other side of the river and chatted for a while.

Nada hopped on her hired motorbike while we boarded our taxi thinking we were going back to the hotel. However, our driver had assumed we wanted to see the sunset back at the teak bridge, so there we headed. And bumped into Nada again. We walked the length of the bridge again, but this time settled down for a beer at the far end before returning as the sun dipped below the horizon.

This time we did actually head back to the guest house where the Slovenian contingent had to grab their bags and leg it to the bus station for their trip to Bagan.

His jokes must have been bad

His jokes must have been bad

I decided to spend the evening seeing the Moustache Brothers, a comedy troupe who the ruling body really don’t like. To the point where two of them have done hard labour for, basically, poking fun at the Generals who hold the country at gunpoint. Fortunately, all three are currently free though their performances are limited to being within the bounds of their own home and only to foreigners. The fact that so many outsiders visit is probably the main reason they’re not being locked up again. The performance lasts just over an hour and costs 8000K these days.

*chugchugchug*

*chugchugchug*

On the way, my trishaw driver dropped me off at Aye-Myit-Tar (number 530, 81st Street between 36th and 37th Streets) for dinner. I have a feeling this may be a charity restaurant of some description as all of the staff were young boys maybe around 14-18 years of age. They were also all very good-natured, polite and liked football! I went for fried chicken and was astounded when this resulted in no fewer than nine plates, dishes and bowls being placed in front of me. I mixed and matched the various sauces, vegetables, gravies and spices with my rice and ate until I couldn’t force anything else down. And there was still as much left as I’d already eaten. The bill, including a drink, was a ridiculously low 2500K.

And on to the show. When I arrived I was greated by Lu Maw, one of the troupe and the centrepiece. He’d run the show single-handed while his brother and cousin were incarcerated. He’s a really bouncy guy with a ton of charisma and he loves to show off all the souvenirs and bumph they’ve collected over the years. Aung San Suu Kyi watched one of their shows shortly before being placed under house arrest and her picture is displayed in a few places – which in itself is probably an arrestable offence.

Inwa

Inwa

The show itself, though, wasn’t really that great. It’s a mixture of traditional Myanmar dance/music and some political stand-up which isn’t really that hard-hitting once you already know the state of the country. The dance and so on just isn’t my thing and I guess I prefer the likes of Mark Thomas for my anti-establishment giggles, but then Mark Thomas has never faced hard labour with drug traffickers just for telling the Labour government what a bunch of idiots they are. On this score I certainly can’t find fault with Par Par Lay, Lu Maw and Lu Zaw. It was a pleasure to meet them. And I’d still recommend you go and see the performance. After all, it’s only my opinion.

Another thing that was brought up by a tri-shaw driver I spoke to was that they now charge 8000K per show. Once upon a time, it was a $5 donation. His issue was that these guys are now making a fortune from tourists, but it never seems to trickle out of their hands and down to the poor. Of course, maybe they’re saving up for lawyers for the next time they’re arrested.

By now I was nodding off and was glad to be tri-shawed back to the hotel by my friendly driver. Time for a quick read of Jules Verne and a good night’s sleep.

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