Mandalay: It’s Not What You Think (But It’s Alright)

Posted by on Feb 2, 2012 in General Travel, Myanmar (Burma), Running | 2 Comments

Hear the word “Mandalay” and your mind is likely to conjure up images of gently swaying palm trees, dark-stained teak houses, and women with long skirts, conical bamboo hats, and parasols. Think again. Today, Mandalay is a noisy, gritty, bustling city – Burma’s second largest – with shopping malls, coffee shops, and motorbikes. Lots and lots of motorbikes, purchased from China for a mere $400 or so. Just five years ago, we’ve been told, the vast majority of traffic on Mandalay’s streets consisted of bicycles. I can only imagine how much more peaceful the city was then.

At the center of Mandalay is what was once the royal palace and royal city, surrounded by a square-shaped moat. The pathway alongside the moat turned out to be a decent place for a run, even though we were breathing motorbike fumes the whole time and the Burmese seemed to find it hysterical to see a couple of tall white people running for fun. Some of them were exercising too, but mostly in their longyis and flip-flops, and mostly on the funny exercise machines that are stationed around the moat. We had a laugh of our own when Pierre decided to give one of these machines a go a little later:

Swing those legs! (That's the palace in the background.)

Swing those legs! (That's the palace in the background.)

Thanks to British “renovations”/demolitions during colonial times, and destructive fighting during World War Two, what exists of the palace today has been reconstructed in the past 10 or 15 years, supposedly using forced labor. It was evident from the buildings’ corrugated tin roofs and warped wood that we were not seeing the palace in its finest hour. What’s worse, we had to give the government $20 for our two tickets – a total waste, especially since foreigners can’t visit most of the palace grounds, which are today being used by the military.

Some buildings on the palace grounds, with their lovely corrugated tin roofs.

Some buildings on the palace grounds, with their lovely corrugated roofs. The place was like a ghost town.

A warning to foreigners. Signs like these were some of the few reminders that we were supposedly traveling in a police state.

A warning to foreigners. Seeing signs like these reminded us that this is a country ruled by the military -- but not much else did. The military presence was surprisingly minimal.

Mandalay’s other highlight is the hill to the north of the palace, which takes at least 45 minutes to climb and offers fine views of the city and surrounding farmlands studded with gold stupas. We didn’t think the climb would be a big deal, but by the time we had passed the myriad souvenir stands and Buddha statues and finally arrived at the summit, we were drenched in sweat and completely wiped out. This wouldn’t be our last hill, either – along with karaoke and playing golf, climbing hills to see gold stupas and Buddha statues seems to be a national pastime in Burma.

Buddha points the way to Mandalay.

Buddha points the way to Mandalay.

At the top of Mandalay hill, the ogress Sandhamukhi offers her severed breasts to the Buddha.

At the top of Mandalay hill, the ogress Sandhamukhi offers her severed breasts to the Buddha.

Speaking of gold and Buddhas, Mandalay’s Mahamuni Paya features an enormous Buddha that has been adorned with so much gold leaf over the years that it appears to be covered in little gold lumps. At least, I think that’s the case, though as a woman I wasn’t allowed to get anywhere close enough to the statue to scope it out for myself, much less add any gold of my own. I’m not sure what they think will happen if a woman affixes a piece of gold leaf to a Buddha, but no one seems to have any problem with women making the gold leaf itself, as we saw in Mandalay’s Gold Pounders’ District.

The Mahamuni Paya. The face is lovingly polished every day, and no one is allowed to stick their gold leaf there.

The Mahamuni Paya. The face is lovingly polished every day, and no one is allowed to stick their gold leaf there.

Women preparing gold leaf for sale in a sealed room in Mandalay's Gold Pounders' District.

Women preparing gold leaf for sale in a sealed room in Mandalay's Gold Pounders' District.

While the women prepare the gold leaf, the men are pounding it. The bucket of water in front of them is their timer; when the ladle sinks, they flip the stack of gold leaves and pound the other side.

While the women prepare the gold leaf, the men are pounding it. The bucket of water in front of them is their timer; when the ladle sinks, they know it's time to flip the stack of gold leaves and pound the other side.

Some of Mandalay’s most well-known residents are the so-called Moustache Brothers, a trio of comic dissidents who have gotten in quite a bit of trouble in the past for making jokes at the government’s expense. One of the brothers, Par Par Lay, has spent at least five years doing hard labor for making cracks about the uselessness of government officials. He’s free now – when we went to the Moustache Brothers show in an old garage on a Mandalay back road, we even got to see him “perform” (read: posing with handcuffs) – but since the Moustache Brothers can’t do their act in Burmese without getting into trouble, they’re relegated to putting on a very strange show in very broken English for tourists. We were hoping for some real political satire, but except for a few extremely mild taunts and an oft-repeated joke about liking Obama “because he’s black like me,” most of the show consisted of people in silly costumes doing silly dances. We left covered in mosquito bites and feeling a bit puzzled about what we were supposed to take away from what we had just seen.

Lu Maw, the only one of the Moustache Brothers with passable English, cracks some jokes.

Lu Maw, the only one of the Moustache Brothers with passable English, cracks some jokes.

Par Par Lay shows us his handcuffs.

Par Par Lay shows us his handcuffs.

Arguably, Mandalay’s best sights are located outside the city. We found this to be true when we hired a taxi and spent a day driving around the nearby towns of Sagaing, Paleik, and Amarapura. Sagaing is best known for its stupa-covered hill. It is pretty, but of course it meant we had to do another climb past Buddhas and souvenir vendors in order to reach the top.

View from the top of Sagaing Hill, with the Ayeyarwady River below.

View from the top of Sagaing Hill, with the Ayeyarwady River below.

I loved these faded buildings on the top of Sagaing Hill.

I loved these faded buildings on the top of Sagaing Hill.

Paleik also has about a million stupas (albeit not on a hill). They were cool, but we went to Paleik specifically to see the snake temple. There, at 11:00 every day, the resident pythons come out for their daily bath and slither. They are also subjected to about thirty minutes of photo op time with the visitors. I felt a little sorry for them, but they seemed well-cared for and I had to admit that it was not your typical temple experience.

Among Paleik's stupas.

Among Paleik's stupas.

A stupa in Paleik.

A stupa in Paleik.

A monk meets one of the pythons.

A monk meets one of the pythons.

Getting some exercise.

Getting some exercise.

Our last stop was Amarapura, a former royal capital that features U Bein’s Bridge, the world’s longest teak footbridge. The bridge lacks handrails and, in a few places, entire floorboards, but it is a stunning setting and a great place for people-watching. While on our walk across the bridge, we met a couple of friendly monks who wanted to practice their English. We ended up chatting with them all the way across the bridge, through a temple (visiting a Buddhist temple with a monk is pretty special, I gotta say), and then back across the bridge again. We discussed school, work, family, and politics. Like many other Burmese people we met, they had very good things to say about the United States and its current leaders – not surprising, given that while we were in Burma, the U.S. announced it would reopen diplomatic relations with the country and Hillary Clinton had just completed a visit with both the government and Aung San Suu Kyi. We asked them why monks in Burma wear different colored robes, and with a big smile, one of them cracked, “I don’t see color.” We loved talking to them.

A view of U Bein's Bridge.

A view of U Bein's Bridge.

Women working in the fields below the bridge.

Women working in the fields below the bridge.

Pierre with our monk friends.

Pierre with our monk friends.

Back in Mandalay, we sampled a couple of novel forms of transportation. The least comfortable were what Pierre christened “Smurf taxis,” a fleet of goofy-looking miniature blue pickup trucks. Passengers cram onto wood benches in the bed of the truck and, if they’re our size, hunch over to avoid hitting their heads on the roof when the vehicle goes over a bump.

A smurf taxi getting a new tire.

A smurf taxi getting a new tire.

Though it was slower, we much preferred the trishaw, a bicycle with two back-to-back seats stuck on the side. The trishaws were easier to find than taxis, and the “drivers” were always very friendly and eager to chat with foreigners. A few times, we ended up taking two separate trishaws just so we could spread our money around a bit more. And taking the slow way meant we had plenty of time to soak in the atmosphere, letting our drivers point out the jade workshops, marble cutters, and bamboo houses along the way. Maybe there is some of that old Mandalay character left after all.

2 Comments

  1. Ed
    February 2, 2012

    I’m very impressed–did you have some kind of Burmese spell-checker? The names of all these places and people are presumably not in our alphabet. Nice connection with the monks…

    Reply
    • Robin
      February 2, 2012

      The spellings used here track what was used in our Lonely Planet guide! We did notice a few alternate spellings for some places, though (I saw t-shirts that said “U Pain’s Bridge,” for instance). And of course, if we wrote the words out in Burmese it would look like a bunch of circles and boxes to us.

      Reply

Leave a Reply