After the stunning landscape of Bagan, with its vast green plains dotted with the rising spires of the temples, it was a tad bit of an anticlimax to be landing in Mandalay – a city. Bagan had captured my heart with its rustic country charm, and the city lacked appeal but there were more adventures to be had… and so, we were on the road to Mandalay!!
Our first stop in Mandalay was at a silk factory. Surrounded by spools of brightly coloured silk thread, we watched ladies deftly weave the bright colours into beautiful tapestries – an artistic skill to be admired, for sure!
Before we knew it, it was time to head out to a working monastery where the monks were lining up for their daily alms. Now, being unapologetically materialistic, I am somewhat fascinated with a monks way of life…giving up all worldly ways to live a simple, uncluttered life with only one hot meal a day (dished out between 10:00 am and 10:30 am), and depending on alms for their worldly supplies. In this day and age of consumerism (of which I confess I am guilty), this somewhat simplistic way of life had peaked my curiosity. So, off we went to join the hoardes of tourists already gathered around the dining hall of the monastery. The bell tolled and out came the monks, robed in red, barefoot and holding their alms bowls with a plate on top forming a line which snaked its way around the tourists and towards the dining hall where a senior monk was ladling out simple gruel.
Tourists and locals alike placed various food and other items into the plates. Whilst others gave fruit and biscuits, I was quite both shocked and amused to watch one tourist empty out the Bulgari miniatures that I know came from the Emirates Business Class amenity kit into the alm plate of a novice monk! Cameras clicked away, each tourist pushing and shoving the other to get a better “shot”. And at one point, I ashamedly put my camera away. I started to feel that as humans, we can be pretty insensitive to other cultures. What is a revered way of life to some becomes a show to others. Certainly was food for thought – for me at least.
Sombred, we continued with our sightseeing, this time opting for a slightly less crowded sight – the teak monastery of Shwe Nandaw Kyaung. This was more up my alley – adorned inside and out with beautiful, intricate carvings with a historical element to it as it was the only building to have survived the bombing of World War II and was moved piece by piece and re-assembled at its current site.
We spent some time here, soaking it all in and marvelling at the craftsmanship of the carvings…again…because I cannot do any form of art to save my life, I was mesmerised to say the least.
Kuthodaw Pagoda is also the site that is often known as “the world’s largest book”. The entire Buddhist scripture is carved onto marble slabs and veneered in gold leaf. When it was first unveiled, it took 2400 monks six months to recite the text, hence its nickname. It was quite fun ambling around the little stupas that house the texts, but what was even more fascinating was watching daily life unfold before us. Mothers and young girls sat and deftly stitched together lei’s to put as offerings within the temple (for a price, of course), and young children played hide and seek amongst the stupas, hiding behind the large marble slabs and then jumping out at one another.
And then, the sweetest little girl that I have seen, fascinated with the colour on my nails came up to me and took my fingers in her hand to have a better look. No words were spoken but her gorgeous smile said it all. That one gesture – reaffirmed the reason why I travel. To feel connected with the rest of the world, and to remind myself that I occupy such a tiny part of what is a beautiful planet!
As the sun was slowly sinking, we made our way up Mandalay Hill, dotted with stupas to its summit, to watch the sun set over the city. The climb up to the summit is 1729 steps up, but this being a luxury tour we took the easy way out and drove up. The atmosphere at the summit was so peaceful. Monks hung around the periphery, chatting to tourists and trying to improve their English. In one corner, the chant of prayer. And in other corners, little groups of locals, huddled together, sending whispers to heaven.
On the way down, we found the Kusinara Pagoda with what I think is probably the most beautiful reclining Buddha in a perfect, zen atmosphere – almost like a whitewashed cave. This pagoda was deserted, devoid of life and so calm. I had a true zen moment here!
All in all, I cannot say with absolute conviction that Mandalay had me as smitten as Bagan, but the sites we visited and the experiences I had made it worth the stop on the itinerary and I would indeed, recommend staying here for a couple of days.
You will need to buy an archaeological zone ticket to visit most of the sites in Mandalay. This costs $10 and we bought ours from the Mahamuni Pagoda. The ticket is valid for a week and some sites will ask to see it and stamp it, whilst others do not bother. This information was correct at the time of writing this post however as Myanmar is a dynamic, changing country this may not be the case when you decide to visit and so please do double check!