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Monks in Mandalay


July 19, 2012
Shwedagon Paya, Sule Pala, & Strand Street

I met some Germans and Americans on the flight to Yangon from Bangkok and got some drastically different perspectives from the two groups. My major concern prior to arrival was money as there are no ATM machines in the country that accept foreign cards and only one place in the country accepts credit cards so it's all cash and the cash must be in perfect condition.

I got off the plane and soon found myself a black market money changer so got some local money before hiring a taxi driver. The money changer had large yellow smears on her checks and my taxi driver, who spoke great English, explained that this was traditional make-up called thanakha, which also acts as a sun block and moisturizer. He also talked about how the people of Myanmar have "had their eyes closed" for years but are now beginning to open their eyes. I suppose the same can be said about foreigners' knowledge about Myanmar.

As we drove to the bus station to buy a ticket, then to town I noticed all men wear sarongs, or longyi. The people also drive on the right side of the road, but the driver also sits on the right side of the car. The city looks and feels like many others, but the people look different in their unique dress and make-up.

My driver dropped me off at Arzani Mausoleum, which is only open this one day each year as it represents the death of Bogyoke Aung San and is called Martyr's Day. The atmosphere here was odd as the crowd grew in numbers and the opening of the building was delayed multiple times. I waited for an hour as various crowds arrived wearing shirts of all colors and, I believe, political leanings. I also met numerous locals here, including two whose teeth were red due to the chewing of betelnut, something that encourages regular spitting of the red substance. The energy and atmosphere continued to change as new groups arrived and left. The atmosphere was odd and somewhat uncomfortable, which only escalated with the arrival of the North Korean ambassador. It was at this point that I decided to move on.

My next stop was Shwedagon Paya, which is 2,500 years old and covered in gold. There were a few tourists there but it was overwhelmingly locals. The people here and at Arzani Mausoleum have been very friendly as nearly everyone stops me to ask "what country?" The people here credit the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia for their government opening up recently and everyone smiles when I say where I'm from. However, I feel no matter where I'm from the people would be friendly and smile.

I stopped at a restaurant nearby as it was very crowded and hence, I hoped, the food would be fresh and tasty. I ordered a dish of bamboo shoots and a number of other spices and other foods and received that along with rice, soup, dessert, and a couple other dishes. The food was good as was the dessert, which was a dense, moist bread topped with shredded coconut. The whole meal only cost 1,200 kyat (about $1.40).

During lunch and nearly all afternoon the rains came down and, due to the holiday, most places were closed. The National Museum was closed as was the Bogyoke (or Scott) Market. Due to this and the rains, I made my way to the Kheng Hock Keong temple in Chinatown. Here the people got me a chair and I just waited out the storm watching the locals play some sort of checkers-like game.

This was followed by more rain, but breaks in the weather, which led to my trip to Sule Paya, a large golden monument that acts as a traffic circle, Strand Street, which was filled with children playing soccer, and finally Botataung Paya, which had no tourists, but numerous children monks. In Myanmar, young boys are expected to become monks for a short period and their graduation from this stint is a great honor for their families. After this, I made it to the bus station for my night bus trip to Mandalay, a trip that proved to be excessively cold (due to the air conditioning) and odd karaoke videos playing the whole trip.


July 20, 2012
Mandalay Hill, Palace, & Monasteries

My bus arrived at 4:30 am, much earlier than I thought it was going to arrive. There was little action at the bus station at this time and after failing to find a car taxi, I got a motorcycle taxi to Mandalay Hill. The roads were empty at this time as was Mandalay Hill when I arrived. The hill is essentially a temple so I had to remove my shoes at the bottom before beginning my walk barefoot up the 45 minute or hour climb. There were few people on the hill at this time, only dogs, many of whom barked at me, but seemed scared as soon as I approached them. The walk was tiring, but for much of it the sky was dark so it wasn't as hot as it would be later in the day. As I reached the top the sun came out and I got great views of the sleeping city below; the very top pagoda though was closed at this time so after relaxing for about 15 minutes I began my trek back down.

Before leaving for this trip, every time I searched for images of Mandalay I got pictures of Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas and a building with numerous white spires. This was my next stop, the Sandamuni Paya. Each spire is home to a hand-carved stone holding a Buddhist saying and the grounds are very impressive as there are dozens of spires surrounding a golden spire.

I spent most of the next couple hours wandering around this area as there is a monastery, a teak temple called Shwenandaw Kyaung, and additional temples. This area is also home to cows, a school, and other seemingly rural items despite being just a short walk from Mandalay Palace.

Mandalay Palace was empty when I arrived. In fact I had to sign in at the gate and was the first guest of the day. The complex was odd in that most of it is run by the military and only the very center of the walled enclosure is the palace. I read numerous signs specifically stating where I was allowed to go and what was off limits for my walk and for taking pictures. I obeyed the signs and after about a half mile walk I made it from the wall to the palace itself.

The palace was empty, just a couple locals who arrived later, but the place was mine alone... mine and a couple cleaning women who were present. The entire complex burned in the mid-1900s so today is just a re-creation, but impressive none-the-less. This was followed by the long walk back to the eastern gate, then a walk around the palace walls to the west side for lunch.

After finishing lunch, a Chinese Australian couple joined me because they wanted to sit by the window. I welcomed them to my booth and talked to them for a few minutes before we parted ways. I then headed to 86th Street, a large market, which truly represents the people, city, and culture as it is today.

As I took a lot of time in the market and had a bus to catch to Bagan, I missed my last couple stops, which sound impressive, but didn't seem as interesting as the lively market. I took as much time as I could in the market, but eventually had to get to the bus station so got on a local bus. They put me in the front seat, the VIP seat, which costs a bit more money. Along the bus route we stopped regularly as locals tried to sell food to us. This delayed the bus trip substantially as we spent more time parked than we did driving.

At the bus station, the movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest was playing and the place was glued to it. Kids and adults alike stared at the screen mesmerized, as did I until my bus boarded. As I was watching for a the few minutes I had, I noticed that each bus that arrives honks their horn a couple times, an invitation for the salespersons to grab their goods, throw them on their heads, and run out to the passengers getting off the arriving bus. Soon my bus was off to Bagan.


July 20, 2012
Trip to Town

On my bus to Bagan we passed through an incredible town on a lake, which was home to fishermen and numerous golden spires. The markets were visible from the road and it seemed like a lively and active town. Later on the journey we made a stop for food, where I met a young couple, Nandar and Yarzar. They told me they lived in Dubai for a couple years and their English proved their claim as they were fluent and had very mild accents. They bought some signs in Mandalay to market their ice cream as Nandar makes and sells ice cream for a living, but there is no place closer than Mandalay to have nice signs made.

After arriving to Bagan the touts began as numerous taxi drivers got on the bus before anyone got off. They tried to sell everything from a taxi ride to tours and since I needed a taxi I negotiated a fare only to have a ride filled with scam offerings. An unwelcomed surprise in a country so friendly and sincere elsewhere.

July 21, 2012
Hotel Madness & Bagan

This morning I switched hotels as my hotel last night was not the best, not even having towels for their shower, and being very overpriced I moved to a new hotel, checked-in, and rented a bike for the day.

I got on the road early with plenty of water in hand. Everyone I talked to recommended that I begin my tour at Ananda Pahto and move to Old Bagan then to the eastern parts of the landscape. Thanks to their suggestions I began in the east and moved west, a move made to avoid crowds and in order to have the sun at my back throughout the day.

My trip began with old empty temples, monks in vans, and farm animals. Began, when it was built, was constructed in wood as stone could only be used for religious buildings. Over time the wood structures collapsed and the stone remained so today the old massive city is only seen in the stone and brick temples. The rest of the former city has turned into small villages or farm fields. The site is massive as temples dot the skyline in every direction and in between are nothing but fields, some filled with crops and others just sitting empty.

The first few temples I saw were impressive, but not exceptionally so; what made the scene so impressive was the entire landscape, land, farms, temples, and all. This atmosphere was magnified by the fact that there were no tourists in this area, only a couple locals farming or traveling. My first few stops were impressive primarily due to the atmosphere, not the architecture.

As my trip continued I came upon the village of Minnanthu, where the locals brought me into the village to see how they make cooking oil, clothing, and cutting leaves. We also spotted a tree snake in the village. After a hard sales pitch I declined I went on my way, moving west to Sulamani Pahto, where I found all the tourists. There were multiple gawkers here selling anything and everything and the tourists, primarily from France, were ever-present. The tourists were present though because the building was incredible in its architecture and interior painting.

At Sulamani Pahto I bought lunch and found a quiet place nearby to relax and eat. As I moved further west a half hour later I noticed that all the tourists seemed to have taken the recommended route and their movement east and mine west met at Sulamani Pahto; the temples in Old Bagan and in the west were empty in the afternoon, nearly as empty as the eastern temples were in the morning.

I made a quick stop at Ananda Pahto, then moved south to Myinkaba village and Old Bagan. Myinkaba, like Minnanthu, is a small piece of local life as the houses are made from wood and large leaves covering the roofs. The temples also seemed to become more impressive as I moved in this direction as there were numerous impressive temples, including Dhammayangyi Pahto, Nagayon, Mingalazedi Paya, and Shwesandaw Paya. However the highlights were in Old Bagan and Ananda Pahto. Old Bagan has a huge number of temples, all of which are extraordinarily impressive, highlighted by Thatbyinnyu Pahto. As my day came to an end I made one more stop at Ananda Pahto as the sun had come out and glistened off the golden spires. This temple is, without a doubt, the most impressive temple in Bagan and the outside architecture and detail shows much more character and care than most temples. The interior design is also more detailed than most buildings on the plain.

After my second stop at Ananda Pahto I slowly made my way back to my hotel, which had no power at the time, a common occurrence in Myanmar. That encouraged me to head out for dinner, which I got at a place offering "Burmese, Chinese, Thai, hamburgers, pizza, Italian, & Western" foods, a common sight in Myanmar; I went with the Chinese food and got fried rice. Again they offered numerous dishes free of charge here with my meal, including spicy anchovies, a cigarette, limes, red onions, and two different soups. This was in addition to a huge plate of fried rice. Here, like at other meals in Myanmar, I was served with a spoon and fork; every meal has been served with a western spoon and fork thus far, with chopsticks and Chinese-styled spoons rare. Soup is also served with every meal.

After dinner my hotel had power back so I took a shower and got clean after the long day. I also booked a bus to Yangon for tomorrow, which will occupy most of my day.


July 23, 2012
Raining in Yangon

Yesterday I grabbed breakfast, then had a long bus trip from Bagan to Yangon. The bus left about an hour late and was filled with music videos; most were American videos (think Bon Jovi) followed by the local re-make of the same song, translated into Burmese and performed by a local band. The only break from these videos were horrible dramas in Burmese and regular stops along the roadside for our bus driver to urinate. The scenery shifted from mountains in the distance, to hills, and finally flatlands. Once in Yangon I got a taxi, which broke down temporarily then found that my hotel lost my reservation, moving me to cheaper local hotel nearby.

Today I slept in before beginning my second day of sightseeing in Yangon. Today was disappointing though as both the National Museum and the market were again closed, as they are every Monday, and it rained all day. This led a trip to get passport photos (for a visa to Cambodia). The woman at the photo shop tried to convince me that I would look better with a suit on and that she would photoshop that in, but for an official document, a visa, I felt that wouldn't be the best plan so asked her to keep the photo as is.

The rest of the day consisted of getting organized, getting clean, playing Angry Birds, and casually walking around the city. It rained again all day, but I was out enough to realize the city's diversity. There were Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians. I saw mosques, temples, and churches as the people seem to live side by side without any visible tension.

July 24, 2012

This morning I made it to the airport without a problem. What I did find odd was that the airport in this highly restricted country offers free wi-fi. A nice surprise and great time killers as I waited for my plane, which was severely delayed, but got off safely.

Continue the above trip to: Cambodia

Learn more about Myanmar (Burma) Return to Justin's Travel Blog