After 3 awesome days in Bagan, we headed to Mandalay for two nights; a city that many people skip altogether. With not many iconic sights, and lacking the worn-down, colonial charms of Yangon, Myanmar’s second city is dirty and griddy, but underneath the dirt, street trash, and exhaust fumes that permeate the city, one can find a generous and courageous people that continue to strive in the face of continuous corruption and poverty.
With no fast agenda, we arrived at our hotel a little after 9 am. After checking in, and a quick nap, we headed to Shan Mama; a highly recommended hotel just south of the train station. When we arrived however, we realized there was a private party taking place, and the owner asked us to try again the next day. We apologized for interupting, turned around and began to come up with plan B, when an eager, smiling teenager came out after us and invited us back into the restuarant to sit down. Apparently, the party was her grandmother’s birthday, and she wanted us to stay and eat with them, their treat. Both moved by this incredibly generous offer, we thanked them and enjoyed a delicous meal of chicken, rice, salad, and soup. As people shifted out of the party, we asked one of the young boys who the grandmother was so we could thank her. We could not believe how young she looked! What a great way to start our visit to Mandalay.
After lunch, we walked to a local market. Overwhelmed with the cramped space, and over heated by the lack of ventilation, we quickly left and hopped a rickshaw back to the hotel. Later in the the evening, we hired a cab to take us to the U Bein Bridge, in the town of Amarapura on the outskirts of Mandalay. the world’s longest teakwood bridge, it stretches over 1200m across Lake Taunghaman. We went around dusk, which was a delightful time to go, as the bridge was packed with many locals, monks, and a few tourists.
All along the bridge, one can see fisheries, along with young boys and men jumping into the water to grab crabs, shrimp, and other fish, which are then deep fried in the stalls on and around the bridge.
On the other side of the bridge lies a little village, filled with street side vendors and a few interesting, smaller pagodas that we explored a bit before heading back.
As we headed back the way we came on the bridge, and the sun was clearly setting, we realized that perhaps we did not leave ourselves enough time to get back and get to the Moustache Brothers Show (which will be explained in a bit). Walking back along the bridge, there were mice coming up from the cracks in the wood, and bats flying overhead…not cool. But, to make up for it, just before we reached the other side, as we passed by the tourist police chatting with a Buddhist monk who immediately yelled “hello!” to us as we were about to pass. We struck up a conversation with him and the cop for about half an hour, talking about everything from Aung San Suu Kyi, international football, and his monastery. After a delightful conversation, we parted ways and headed back to our taxi.
That evening, we went to see the Moustache Brothers; a comedic trio that uses political satire, combined with traditional dancing and comedy to criticize the government. Back in the 1996, the three brothers were jailed for perfroming at Aung San Suu Kyi’s house and calling the government “sticky fingers.” They were jailed for 6 years! In 2013, one of the brothers died, but the remaining two continue to perform from the living room of their house. When we arrived were greeted by an eager Lu Maw; the one brother who speaks English. We bought tickets, then headed across the street for a quick dinner before the show started. The show itself is difficult to really desribe; part political satire, part kitsch dancing, some of the jokes may be lost on a current audience, and at times, the show is just plain weird. But one doesn’t necessarily go to be entertained, but to show support for human rights and those brave enough who speak out against government brutality.
The next morning, we woke up at the ungodly hour of 3:00am so we could be at the Mahumani Paya for the morning ritual of the washing of the Buddha. The Buddha, which was originally taken from Mrauk U, is covered on the bottom with gold leaf. Every morning, a group of really devote worhippers arrive at the temple to experience the ritual of the buddhist monks washing the head of the Buddha, the only part that is not covered in gold leaf. When we arrived, we bought an offering outside the temple, headed in and were directed by the temple assistants to have a seat with the other women, who, interestingly, were seated behind the male worshippers. We immediately sat down, feet behind us, with three elderly women who prayed and chanted continuously for the duration of the ritual. It was very moving to witness such devotedness.
The ritual lasts till about 5am, at which point, we headed back to the hotel to grab some sleep before enjoying the rest of our last day in Mandalay. In the afternoon, we did some jewelry shopping at a local gem store I had read about. Then, after feasting on an amazing and ridiculously huge South Indian lunch for only $4, we hired a driver to take us to Mandalay hill. There are many stupas and temples located on the hill, with Sutaungpyi Paya ( Wish-Granting Temple) being the highest. From the top of the hill, there are also amazing panoramic views of the city of Mandalay.
From here, we headed to the Kuthodaw Pagoda, which holds 729 mini stupas, each one housing a page a marble page from the book of the Tripitaka. Taken together, this is said to be the largest book in the world.
In the evening, we decided to attend the traditional marioneete show. A long ignored art form in Myanmar, this group of artists and performers is trying to bring it back to life. The puppet master, a man of 84 years old, came out and greeted everyone personally at the end of the show. A perfect way to end our stay in Mandalay. On to Inle Lake next.