MANDALAY – Mingun and the ancient capitals
The ground under my feet seems to be burning. The tactics of fast, small steps and longer, slower ones, give no results. The only solution is to travel between imposed points and have a short rest on the wall surrounding the temple with raised feet. I also discover that some types of stone heat up less than others. That knowledge will definitely be useful to me in the following week. After all, Myanmar is a country of temples that you can only visit barefoot.
The whole idea of a trip to Myanmar, more commonly known as Burma, appeared very spontaneously during a conversation with one of my friends. I said, that Thailand is not at the top of my Asian list of places I would like to visit.
– And what is? – a question that ignited the whole journey was asked.
– Bhutan, Nepal …
– And something flatter?
– Burma – I answered without thinking, because this thought has actually followed me for some time
And so I stand in front of the airport in Mandalay, waiting for my driver. I am waiting alone, because my travel companion had to cancel his trip. I put so much time into all the planning and research, that I simply decided to go alone anyway. The white Toyota Royal, that remembers better times, finally arrives and I can throw my backpack into the spacious trunk, taking the passenger seat myself. As soon as we move, I realize that something is wrong. The driver sits on the right side, while right-hand traffic applies. Before the overtaking maneuver, the driver swings to the left, or uses the curves to see something from his side. The reason for this is – like many things in this country – quite original. In 1970, in the former British colony, in which left-hand traffic was in force, General Ne Win – at this time the president of Burma – changed traffic rules overnight. Reason? Willingness to protect the country against a coup predicted by an astrologer. Several times we pass the cars coming from the opposite so closely, that we almost lose the mirror. However, several minutes of being exposed to the local traffic, makes me stop paying attention to such details. It seemed to me that after a few years in China, traffic issues no longer have secrets for me. I was wrong. We pass a family of four moving on a scooter, additionally carrying a bicycle. We pass through toll gates with three men acting as the gates. They just stand on the road and “pluck” the banknotes from the outstretched hands of drivers. However, the local … bus becomes the icing on the cake. I don’t know what word to use here to fully convey the essence of this type of transport. It is something like a van or a pickup truck with a crate covered with a structure of metal bars and a flat roof, surrounded by a handrail. Two benches are arranged along the walls at the back. That’s not very special, but it gets more interesting. There are external standing (on a special threshold placed at the back of the vehicle) and sitting (on the roof). All these vehicles move in absolute chaos, avoiding accidents probably only due to the intervention of force majeure.
I have only less than two days to spend in Mandalay and the surrounding area, so I decided to simply rent a private driver who will take me to the indicated places. This decision also makes sense from a financial point of view, because taxi from the airport costs 20USD, while I pay 50USD for the whole day. With more people, the price remains the same. On the first day I choose the three former capitals of Myanmar – Amarapura, Inwa, Sagaing and Mingun. I start my trip with a visit to the last one. Under normal circumstances it’s best to get there by boat from Mandalay, but as I start from the airport, traveling by car is a more sensible option.
I point to my driver’s outfit and ask where I can buy something like this. Longyi is a traditional outfit for both men and women. Although at first glance in both cases it looks like a dress, male and female versions differ in colors and manner of binding. For 6.5USD I decide to buy one. It will help me to solve the matter of the right outfit while visiting the temples. Suitable clothing is understood as covered arms and knees, and no shoes or socks. A lot of tourists simply don’t give a damn about these guidelines and I see girls in short shorts and blouses with straps. I approach the glowing white Hsinbyume Pagoda dressed in burgundy longyi, which gets a loud approval from several locals. A small gesture and a piece of fabric allows to show that as tourists, we are aware of the country’s customs and we show respect to its citizens. Two children follow me – a boy aged seven and a girl two years older. Every day they attend a nearby school, but now they have vacation. The woman I bought longyi from is their mother’s friend. They follow me step by step, show which stones are cooler, say how many steps the stairs leading to the top of the pagoda have. When I return to the car, I unconsciously expect an offer of buying a souvenir, or outstretched hands asking for some money in exchange for keeping company – a typical picture in the countries destroyed by mass tourism, such as Egypt. Nothing like this happens. I exchange hugs with the kids and they simply run away in search of some fun. I realize that all information about Burmese hospitality is true. This is undoubtedly one of the nicest and most smiling Asian nations.
After Hsinbyume, I stop by the unfinished Pahtodawgyi Pagoda. If completed, it would be the largest pagoda in the world measuring 170m. Construction at the end of 18th century got stopped, when the building already had nearly 1/3 of the planned height. The official reason was – as it slowly becomes a rule – the prophecy of the astrologer who announced that when the building will be completed, the kingdom would fall. The construction got stopped and the temple, additionally destroyed by the quake, is now only a vague memory of its intended size. The souvenir stands placed from the front additionally strip her of her beauty, so it’s better to just get around the side.
My next stop is Sagaing, which used to be the capital of the country for a short period of time. Two characteristic points here are Umin Thounzeh with 45 buddha statues and Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda, offering a wonderful view. There is also a ferry from Sagaing to Inwa, formerly known as the jewel city. The ferry crossing sounds proud, but it is actually a few minutes boat trip to the other side of the river. Before I get on board, my driver reminds me that to see the area I will have to use a horse-drawn carriage, otherwise there is no chance I could see everything before dark. Ain’t gonna happen – I think to myself and with a firm decision that even if I had to spend the night in Inwa, I would not get in the carriage. The drivers immediately surround me, offering their services. I pass by the surprised crowd, only feeling bad for the animals that do not look happy in 43C. I don’t go far, however. While passing one of the local bars with three men sitting inside, one of them approaches me and in broken English offers transport on his motorcycle. This option suits me much more and after setting the price at 5000Kyat (about 7000Kyat for a carriage), we hit the road. The lazy province life surrounds me. The cows are dozing in the shadows, someone in a characteristic, conical hat traverses the field, banana plantations stretch around. Everything mired in the afternoon drowsiness dictated by the temperature. I finally reach Bagaya Kyaung – nearly two hundred years old monastery built entirely of teak wood. The whole area of Inwa is not as big as it seems, so if you have all day, walking around the area is not a terrible solution. You gain the opportunity to stop at any time and take a closer look at the object that just caught our attention. Next to Bagaya Kyaung, which I mentioned above, the most characteristic places in the area are the Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery and the Nanmyint Tower, which, due to its condition and angle of inclination, unfortunately cannot be climbed.
The last stop on my first day is the U-Bein Bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge. The nineteenth-century construction measures over a kilometer and now it still fulfills its function. It’s best to come to the bridge in the morning, at sunrise, when it is free of tourists, but unfortunately I have no choice. There is still a lot of time until sunset, so I decide to go to the other side. I maneuver between a mixture of tourists and the local population, agreeing to take a picture several times. Above all, however, I return greetings and smiles – warm, natural and full of warmth. Finally, a group of kids in “Let’s speak” shirts approach me. A man sitting nearby turns out to be a local teacher who explains that this is kind of summer activity to help children learn English through the dialogue with tourists visiting Mandalay. The initiative absolutely captivates me and I spend another half an hour answering dozens of questions (often recited from a card, or asked in chorus after prior agreement). The sunset is far from the perfect, postcard-like. Due to the season, the sun cannot be seen against the background of the bridge structure, including the lake. It does not matter, however – Myanmar has already captivated me with its people and unique atmosphere. And best is still yet to come.
– You have to pay for access to some attractions – they are covered by a ticket valid for 5 days, costing 10,000kyat. At the entrance to a particular place of interest, you will receive an appropriate stamp on the ticket. If you lose your ticket – you have to buy a new one. However, if you do not want to enter the temples, there is a chance that nobody will ask for your ticket.
– A ticket will also be required from you in Mingun and you will pay 5000kyat for it.
– It’s worth renting a car in Mandalay. The price is 40-50USD per day, which for a group of three becomes a decent price. Urban transport might be problematic and standard taxis can be expensive.
– Bring long pants with you or buy Longyi on the spot. The price is about 6500Kyat. Show respect to local residents and do not run around the temples in shorts. No one will probably speak up about it, but that’s not the point.