Thursday, May 2, 2013

Me 'n Myanmar (Part II): Beyond Yangon

Mandalay.  The very name, exotic and evocative, drew us to visit this small city north of Myanmar’s largest city and former capital, Yangon.   The 400-mile road to Mandalay (thank you to Rudyard Kipling, and also Bob Hope) turns out to be a very slow one from Yangon, so we had to fly.  The other options were either a train (reputed to take as long as 16 hours) or a bus (cheaper, but lacking onboard toilets, and taking as long as 14 hours).  A one-hour flight on a rickety plane lacked local color but it gave us another whole day to visit the sights.

We were met at Mandalay International Airport, many miles south of the city itself, by our tour guide and driver, and started touring long before we checked into our hotel.  We joined a throng of tourists in Amarapura, an ancient capital of Myanmar, at the  Mahargandayon Monastery, madly taking photos as the monks lined up for their lunch, the last meal of their day.  Over 1,000 monks arise daily about 4 am, and study and pray until their 10:30 meal, donated by the faithful.  

We were also fascinated by the cooking facilities where the meal for all the monks was prepared.  

Also interesting was a well-preserved room where the monastery’s founder, Janaka Bhivamsa, had lived, written numerous Buddhist books and set the example of study, worship and strict adherence to Buddhist disciplines for which the monastery is famous. 

Not far from the Mahargandayon Monastery is the U Bain Bridge, the world’s longest teak structure which spans the narrow waist of a lake, Taung Tha Man Inn.  The bridge was built of salvaged teak columns from the Amarapura Palace when the capital (and the Palace) were moved to Mandalay in 1859.  The bridge is more than a kilometer long.  

Being a chicken about heights and a big baby about the heat during our visit, I stayed near the end of the bridge and had to tolerate endless begging by children whose job it is to earn a few cents this way every day.

Mandalay is Myanmar’s commercial center and so we visited the various city quarters (not in the city center, which now belongs to new residents from China) where teak carving, embroidery, weaving and beaten gold are produced.  

The working conditions are pretty primitive and this fine work is done with looms and tools that have been in use for decades.  After a brief lunch stop we were back on the trail of sights.

We were delighted by the old teak Shwenandaw Monastery.  

This was originally part of Mandalay Palace, and its builder King Mindon died there.  His son Thibaw, the last King of Myanmar (he lost finally to the British in 1885), moved the building outside the Palace walls as tribute to his father.  A good thing he did, because the rest of Mandalay Palace was bombed flat by the Japanese in World War II, and the Monastery is the sole surviving Palace structure.

There was still no rest for the weary.  Next we visited the important Kuthodaw Pagoda, lovely in the late afternoon sun.  Here, marble tablets inscribed with the entire Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism form the world’s largest book.  Each of the 729  marble tablets is housed in a carved white stupa.  

As the sun began to set we were driven to the top of Mandalay Hill.  The drive is just one of many examples of how the brief time we had to visit Myanmar forced us to miss many “don’t-miss” sights.  Four flights of steps from each point of the compass lead to the top, with sights to see along each way.  We reached the hilltop pagoda just as the sun was sinking in the hazy sky.  From the top you get a panoramic view of the surrounding flat plain, dotted everywhere with golden pagodas, stretching even beyond the lazy Ayerawaddy River. 

Finally we were deposited for the night at the Mandalay Hill Resort, the second of our four luxurious Myanmar hotels which made us feel incredibly guilty.  

At dinner we were treated to a traditional Myanmar puppet and dance show, mostly put on for tourists.  At least these traditions are being kept alive.

Early the next morning, on the shores of the Ayerawaddy, we witnessed the vibrant riverbank district of those Myanmar poor who work the river.  

Women hauled huge baskets of sand on top of their heads up the hill from the water.  

Homes and “shops” alike were made of tarpaulins and salvaged bits of corrugated iron and scrap wood.  Children played happily, small ones free of diapers, in the sandy soil.  

Parents improvised an infant’s swing from a shawl, and pulled it back and forth to keep that baby asleep.

Mingon, upriver, is renowned for having the ruins of the world’s largest (unfinished) pagoda, and an enormous bell, the largest uncracked one in the world.  Mingon was loaded with opportunities for tourists to spend money, but also had some charming bullock-cart taxis.  

The boat ride was pleasantly breezy and the life along the river, pretty much as it was 60 years ago, very interesting.  Boarding and disembarking from our little ferry was a pretty scary trek along wooden planks placed between five other boats, as our ferry had the berth furthest out.

A brief flight from the Mandalay International brought us to the small town of Bagan, another of Myanmar’s former capitals.  The Bagan Archeological Zone is 26 square miles of dusty plain, studded with an astonishing 2,000+ “merit-earning” temples.  Some are from as long ago as the 12th century and each features differing artistic styles and expressions of devotion.  

Bagan is in the driest, most desert-like part of Myanmar, and March is one of the hottest times of year there.  Our hotel here made us feel the guiltiest, as its choice location right near the archeological sites betrayed its ownership by cronies of the military regime.

Bagan’s tourist industry is in an early developmental stage.  By that, I mean that the locals who find themselves with the money-making opportunity of an influx of tourists are just beginning to learn how this business works.  Most are still in the stage of bugging tourists non-stop until they are paid to go away.  After a while I started telling “friendly” sales persons that I came from Canada and had no money.  (If you say you are from America, they assume you are loaded.)  Nothing else worked.  Sometimes I had to tell this story four or five times to a given would-be vendor.  This primitive stage of Myanmar’s tourist industry was one of the least pleasant aspects of visiting Bagan in particular.

Our visit came to an all-too-soon end with a final night in Yangon.  By comparison with the sleepy villages of the Bagan Archeological Zone, Yangon seemed like New York City.  We arrived late in the day to find ourselves in yet another embarrassingly luxurious hotel, and just in time to eat at a local Burmese-cuisine restaurant before they locked their door at 9 pm.  Luckily, our ever-thoughtful hosts had arranged that our driver from our first days in Yangon met us at the airport that evening, and he returned the next morning to bring us back there for our flight to Singapore.  Negotiating the trip to an unfamiliar hotel in the dark was a daunting prospect.

And should you go to Myanmar now?  Yes, unhesitatingly.  If you can, go as soon as you can arrange it.  The weather is apparently best in November through January, hottest from then until April, and wettest from May to October.  Myanmar deserves all the attention it can get from visitors, and needs all the dollars we can spend, preferably directly to the craftspeople and chefs rather than to the suspiciously-well-placed middlemen with big businesses.  Most of all, Myanmar’s wonders should be seen at first hand, before it catches up with the modern world, and its lovely, devout, friendly people should be given the little helping hand they need so much. 

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