We were at the domestic terminal of the Yangon airport bright and early Friday morning, worried that we would encounter a chaotic scene similar to what we had found in Tana. It turns out there was no need to be concerned as we efficiently checked in at a terminal that looked like a palace and proceeded through security without having to fight for our spot in line. We also never really had to show our passports to anyone, but that’s a separate issue.
Knowing when to board our flight was a bit more complex. Myanmar boasts numerous domestic airlines, all going to the same places at the same time. Seriously, about four flights were all departing at 8 am. Given there’s only one “gate,” it can get somewhat confusing. The electronic screens are never updated and the announcements, although possibly in English, were unintelligible. We noticed that the majority of other passengers had stickers on their shirts indicating which airline they were flying, presumably so that the crew could herd them onto the correct aircraft. We had misunderstood the purpose of these stickers and they were back on our checked luggage, so no one would be herding us anywhere. We paid close attention to the activity at the boarding gate and were eventually loaded onto an Air KBZ flight, hopefully bound for Mandalay as planned.
We did not inadvertently board the wrong plane a la Home Alone 2 and arrived in Mandalay more or less on schedule, but only after stopping to drop off half the passengers at a different destination.
We didn’t know much about Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, in advance of our arrival, although we had read a few worrisome articles in the New York Times over the summer about Buddhist-Muslim riots and the resulting citywide curfew. As we sped through mango and banana tree fields, all dotted with sparkling white and gold pagodas, it felt like we were actually on a tour rather than on a simple drive from the airport. The dusty city provided quite a contrast to the scenic green outskirts, but the streets were organized in an easy to navigate grid system and we quickly settled in to explore.
As usual, Steph insisted on lunch before any major city explorations could begin. We were eager to try more Burmese food and settled on a nearby restaurant specializing in curry. When we entered the restaurant full of locals, we followed the crowds to the counter in front. At the counter, we each picked out our curry of choice from the options arrayed before us. There were no signs in either Burmese or English, but the waitresses were happy to help with their limited vocabulary and we muddled through to order some sort of chicken curry and some sort of lamb curry. After completing the ordering process, we took our seats at one of the few empty tables and the waitresses began to deliver various plates and bowls – so many things except for the curries. It turns out, that in addition to the curries, there was soup, rice, chilies, mystery green leaves, mystery pickled vegetables, and a plate of raw lettuce and carrots to be had. As soon as any of the bowls was emptied, a waitress would promptly appear with a new one. All in all, it was quite the meal for only $5!
After we had refueled, Mandalay’s royal palace was next on our agenda. We walked a few blocks to the moat surrounding the palace complex, which is also home to a large military base, and followed the tree-lined path a few kilometers to the entrance. However, instead of being greeted by a ticket taker, we encountered a soldier with a large machine gun, who informed us in no uncertain terms that the palace was closed. We decided not to argue with the man with the gun.
We quickly retraced our steps and settled on an alternate agenda: visiting the city’s numerous pagodas. We explored a beautiful teak pagoda that may or may not have been haunted, followed by its next-door neighbor, a large convent.
Finally, the blinking electric lights of a third pagoda lured us through its entryway, where we found what the guidebook touted as the “world’s largest book.” The “book” consists of immense tablets carved front and back with Buddhist scriptures; each tablet is housed in its own white stupa. To read the book, you need to move from stupa to stupa throughout the grounds of the temple.
As we put on our shoes after the visit, we paused to wonder why there was a red carpet leading to the entrance, along with an unusually high number of Burmese military officers and policemen, as well as several non-Burmese (white) secret service agents. Eavesdropping on the backpackers next to us, we heard them ask when the king would arrive. When we heard 5 – 10 minutes, we decided we had to wait to see this mysterious king! It turns out that all the fuss was being made over the king and queen of Norway, in Myanmar on a five-day state visit. They too had come to see the world’s largest book and received the royal treatment, complete with red carpet and plush chairs (to help take off their shoes). We had been surprised by the quality of chairs as we had used them not long ago to take off our own shoes. Oops. Soon enough, the monarchs and their entourage arrived. We stood to welcome them, and they headed down the red carpet to visit the temple (barefoot of course, even the secret service agents).
Following our brief glimpse of royalty, the day’s final activity was climbing Mandalay Hill for the best sunset views. (You can also hire a taxi to take you to the top, but that seemed a bit lazy.) The city was actually named after the hill.
A series of covered stairways comprise the pathway to the top, complete with approximately 2,000 steps and various Buddha-filled pagodas along the way. What made the climb a bit more adventurous was the requirement that it be made barefoot. We gingerly made our way up the countless steps, stopping to admire the views along our route, as well as the immense Buddha pointing the way back down to Mandalay. The statue is meant to commemorate one of Buddha’s prophecies – that a great city would be erected in said direction in 2400 years. According to historians, the timing conveniently coincides with the year the capital was moved to Mandalay by one of Burma’s kings.
After viewing the sunset from a strategic location at the top of the hill (and resting our sore feet), we embarked on the return trip in the twilight. We had hoped to catch a taxi back down the hill, but the only taxis on offer were motorcycle taxis, which Steph refused to ride. (It’s one thing to sit on the back of the bike and clutch Giorgio for dear life, another thing to similarly cling to a stranger.) So it was back down the steps (albeit a different set) in the dusk, encountering various other Buddhas that showed us the way down, as well as several children playing football on the landings. Two giant chinthes marked the end of the descent, where we easily located a safer regular car taxi to take us back to the hotel.
On Saturday, we set out to explore the region outside of Mandalay. Although we had initially considered renting a motorbike to facilitate a more independent expedition, the roads were more chaotic than in Laos and we hadn’t had much time to organize. So when our friendly taxi driver offered to be our guide for the day, we negotiated the price and took him up on the offer.
Before we exited the city, we stopped at Mahamuni Paya. Since it was a Saturday, the monastery was filled with locals, interspersed with a few tourists. Everyone was there to see a large gold-covered Buddha. A constant stream of (predominantly) local visitors (men only) replenishes the statue’s gold leaf. (Women purchase gold leaf and ask men to adorn the Buddha with it on their behalf.) Stephanie waited outside while Giorgio went to see the gilded Buddha first hand. Unlike many of the statutes we have seen, the Buddha’s body is no longer smooth, but instead rather lumpy from the constant reapplications of gold, which is now said to be over six inches thick.
From Mandalay, we travelled to Amarapura to visit a much larger monastery housing 1,000 or so Buddhist monks. Even the youngest monks eat only one meal per day and the monastery has become an unexpected tourist destination at lunchtime, when camera-toting foreigners line up to take pictures of the monks lining up for their lunch. This process is just as intrusive as it sounds and is something we probably would have skipped if we were on our own, but it was on the taxi driver’s itinerary so we figured we would go with the flow. If nothing else, it was fascinating to see a working monastery, particularly such a large one. After taking the requisite one or two pictures of the monks, Gio was mostly interested in taking pictures of the incredibly rude (predominately Asian) tourists who photographed the monks and made noises to have them turn around as if we were in a zoo. The goal was to make them feel as awkward as the monks might feel, but we failed miserably – they have no shame.
All of the tourists at Mahagandayone Monastery had been overwhelming to say the least and we were happy to find ourselves alone at our next destination, Saigan Hill. We climbed hundreds of stairs to the top, an easy climb relative to Mandalay Hill's thousands of steps. As an added bonus, we got to keep our shoes on until we reached the very top! Along the way, we could see innumerable pagodas dotting the jungle-clad hills, all glinting in the sun. Once at the top we were treated to another fabulous pagoda together with its multiple giant Buddhas and chinthes.
We spent our afternoon travelling via a more unusual form of transportation: horse-drawn cart. Our taxi driver dropped us off on the banks of the Irrawaddy to take a ferry to the small town of Inwa. Outside the town, there are various historic sites amidst the rice paddies. They are too far apart to walk comfortably in the afternoon heat, so the local horse-drawn carts are the only option. The horses all seemed fairly healthy (in better shape than many NYC carriage horses), so we had no qualms about this new mode of transport. Plus, it was a unique way to explore the unusual landscape, although we would note that the carts are not quite as comfortable as we had imagined.
For our final stop of the day, we returned to Amarapura for the fabulous sunset views from U-Bein Bridge, the world’s largest teak footbridge. There were just as many locals as tourists traversing the bridge on a Saturday evening, which gave U-Bein a festive air. We even stopped to chat with a local monk, who informed us that he walks on the bridge every evening and likes to practice his English with foreigners. Our guidebook had noted that many monks approach tourists to practice their English, but this was the first time it happened to us. The friendly monk pointed out what he thought was the best spot for sunset pictures. Trusting the advice of someone who walks the bridge everyday, we walked down a path to admire the sunset – we were not disappointed. The sunset rivaled Cambodia's for "best sunset yet" so obviously, Gio may have gone overboard with the pictures. As an added bonus, soon after the sunset, the full moon started to rise at the other end of the lake.
To cap off the day, we swung by the local night market en route back to the hotel. We found all sorts of street food on offer, although we had no idea what most of the items were.
As we purchased items, we would turn to each other, usually saying, “I think he said chicken… maybe?” Regardless, we sampled various dumplings, skewers, and fried mysteries, all of which were delicious (and incredibly cheap). We have yet to accidentally be served or eat goat brains, which are apparently a Burmese delicacy.
Before sunrise on Sunday morning, we were aboard a boat bound down the Irrawaddy to the ancient capital of Bagan, where further adventures awaited while we explored the area’s hundreds of temples!