Poverty, royalty and public enemy

Mandalay Travel Blog

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Early morning life on the river.

Today is going to be another busy day. We start by leaving the hotel and hopping on the characteristic tiny blue Mandalese taxis that take us to the boat on the river. Once cramped into the backs of the Lillyput vehicles the two-stroke engines start doing their utmost to get everything in motion. In spite of the rattling noise the engines make, their power is next to nill, I’ll be glad when the cars make it to the river in one piece. There’s no aircon in the cars, but who needs that when the only glass present is the windscreen...

The boat that is chartered for taking us to Mingun is far better than I’ve expected, it’s a rather big ship for only eleven passengers and it’s got reclining chairs on deck.

This taxi is something else...

The trip takes well over an hour, but we are going upstream now, so the way back will be quicker. Now we have plenty of time to enjoy life on the river and its banks.

The weather gods are on our side today and we can see the base of the enormous Mingun pagoda from afar. When we get closer we can also see the souvenir saleswomen that are waiting for us on the landing stage.

The intention of king Bodawpaya was to build a pagoda of 150 metres in height, making it the tallest Buddhist sanctuary in the world.

The base of what was to become the largest pagoda in the world.
The pagoda was never finished, because in 1813 the treasury was empty and construction was halted. The prophecy that the king would die as soon as the pagoda was completed may also have been part of the decision to stop building. Only the base was finished, towering some 50 metres over the surrounding area, making the view from the top superb. The earthquake in 1838 turned the magnificent base into the huge pile of bricks it is today, but it is still quite impressive and tourists are still allowed to climb it (without shoes, because it is still holy ground). When we get to the top and walk around to enjoy the view on all sides we have to step/jump over crevasses that are direct results of the quake. All the time we are followed by a young man that is very hard to get rid off, but we didn’t ask for a guide and we don’t want a guide, so we give him as little attention as possible.

When we have collected our shoes again, we drink a nice and fresh coconut near the base of the pagoda and I buy a small collection of worthless Burmese coins.

In the distance the white Hsinbyume pagoda, the small building with the red roof houses the Mingun Bell.
The coins have no value, because in 1997 the Burmese government declared all the money that was in circulation at that moment invalid, making all the people loose all there savings instantly. Selling the coins to tourists is the only way to make it worth at least something.

We walk further into the village, towards the Mingun bell, this is the second largest bell in the world, the largest bell can be found in Moscow, being three times as large as this one. And I think this one is already unimaginably big. The bell weighs 90 tons, is four metres high and 5 metres in diameter. A mentally handicapped boy is waiting for tourists to come by, so he can sound the bell for them. If I want to take a picture of the bell he steps aside, but when I tell him he can stand next to the bell he is all smiles. When I show him the result on my camera and Trudy gives him a biscuit (she has to open the wrapper for him, because he is unable to) his smile just can’t grow any wider.

The entrance to the Mingun pagoda. Two huge elephants, unfortunately also destroyed by the earthquake in 1838.
We say goodbye to him and check out the rest of the building, than we see the mother of the boy sitting next to an exit, probably waiting for tourists to give the boy some money. The boy keeps smiling and waving until we have gone completely out of sight, and we are happy we gave him a cookie instead of money. Later on Mick will tell us that she gave him money and that he didn’t look happy at all.

We walk along down the street, towards the temple that is on the cover of the Lonely Planet. The temple is not really a highlight, but it has some special wavelike shapes and on the top floor are two Buddha images, one behind the other, so at first glance there seems to be only one.

We get the advice to visit an old folks home, run by a very special nurse.

The Mingun Bell, sounded by a lovely handicapped boy that dribbles for joy when we give him a cookie.
She asked me not to name names or put pictures on the internet, but you should go there and have a look. Donations are welcome and needed, it doesn’t matter in what shape or form, if you don’t want to give money, go to a pharmacy before going to Mingun and buy some basic medication to donate.

On our way back to the boat we walk through the remains of the gate of the Mingun pagoda, the rough shapes of two elephants that were also destroyed by the earthquake in 1838.

We are having lunch at Mann’s at 1 p.m. and afterwards we start walking to explore the city. We want to visit the Royal Palace inside the Mandalay fortress, but don’t know on what side to go in, it has entrances on all four sides, but only one is open to the public.

One Buddha image hides the other in the stupa on Hsinbyume pagoda.
It stands to reason that the entrance we need lies on the far side and this means a walk of about four kilometres. We walk along the 70 metre wide moat with a nice view on the fortress and the watchtowers. When we get to the bridge leading to the first entrance we want to make sure what entrance we need and ask the guard, but it is as we feared, it is the gate on the other side of the complex. Since we are now at the hottest time of day, the trishaws are very tempting. We hire one and sit down in the narrow seats. It isn’t much faster than walking, because part of the ride goes slightly up hill, but it is nice to sit down for a while. At the tourist entrance we have to show our area tickets and the numbers are written down in a book so it is not possible to visit twice on the same ticket. Photography is only allowed in the archeological zone, being the restored Royal Palace. The original palace was brought here in 1861 from Amarapura by King Mindon and it must have been a structure of unimaginable beauty, made of lacquer and guilded teak, decorated with carvings and mozaïcs.
Plenty of monks in Mingun as well, the monastery is nearby.
On advice of his archeologists Mindon buried 52 people alive under the palace, so their spirits could protect it against evil. Of no avail, in 1885 the British conquered Mandalay, named the complex Fort Dufferin and used it as the seat of government. On march 20th 1945 it was destroyed by fire during fights between the British-Indian and Japanese armies. The palace that is open to tourists nowadays is reproduction, but it is hardly a replica, it is more a giant architectural model. Details have been largely left out and the whole thing feels dead. If you’re in lack of time in Mandalay, don’t bother coming here, there are better things to fill your day with. We do climb the watch tower, that is the symbol of Mandalay, that overlooks the palace.

We walk the same way back to the fortress walls (that are more interresting than the palace itself) and on the way there we see a policeman that thinks of himself as being very important.

Mandalay Hill, seen from the bridge over the 70 metre wide moat leading to the fortress.
When a vehicle (even a bicycle will do) he gets off his chair, strides onto the road and starts blowing his whistle. Nobody seems to know what he means or what he’s doing, but everybody lets him be. On a large field inside the fortress a military band is practicing and what immediately comes to my mind is that the music they are playing sounds very European, maybe even British. Strange, considering the fights Myanmar has fought to become independant again.

Once outside the fortress walls, but still within the safety of the moat I see a lovely picture possibility, looking out at Mandalay Hill with flowers on the right and the fortress wall on my left hand side. When I pull out my camera Trudy starts looking kind of alarmed at me, I wonder why. It turns out that I am taking my picture underneath a giant propaganda billboard about slaying the common enemy of the union or something, with several members of the Tatmadaw only tens of metres away from us.

I took this picture of Mandalay Hill with the fortress wall in the foreground, standing underneath a huge propaganda billboard while being watched by members of the Tatmadaw.
Fortunately they didn’t think anything of it, but looking back at it, this could have had a rather negative effect on our holiday.

We charter a trishaw and agree a price of 4,000 Kyat to have him bring us to the foot of Mandalay Hill, wait for us to climb it at look at the sunset and take us to the hotel afterwards. Mandalay Hill isn’t far, but we figure climbing the hill will be effort enough for today. We decline all offers from taxi drivers to drive us up the hill and we don’t want a guide either, we feel like taking our time, just the two of us. It is quite a climb and we are pleasantly surprised that every now and then the stairs take us to a horizontal platform that serves as kind of a temple, housing statues of the Buddha or other holy images. On top of the hill is another sanctum where people are enjoying the view, monks and tourists alike.

When climbing Mandalay Hill we see the Buddha pointing out to his apprentice Ananda where, according to his prophecy, a holy city will arise.
When I pull out my camera again, I do something that I have never done before, I drop my lens cap. Without hesitation the darn thing bounces once on the floor and then drops straight down at least 7 metres into the rough on the slope below. I reckon this will end my relationship with my faithful lens protector, sob L. But, completely out of the blue a Burmese man walks up to me and offers to go down and get it, because he saw where it landed. Within minutes we see him below us, ploughing through dry leaves and snapped twigs and Lord knows what else. It doesn’t take long before he holds up something round and black, smiling at us victoriously.
A monk taking in the view from the Sutaungpyi pagoda, on the top of Mandalay Hill.
When he brings me the cap several moments later I want him to know that he really has made my day and I want to give him 3,000 Kyats that he initially refuses to accept. When I insist he puts the money in his pocket, smiling and thanking us several times. The amount I gave him is very small for us, a little more than 2 Euros, but to Burmese standards it is a lot of money. If it weren’t for this man I would’ve never found my lens cap again, if only it were because I could never have gotten down there on my bare feet (yep, we’re on holy ground again!!).

The sunset is nice, but unfortunately it is a bit hazy today, so we have seen better ones. In spite of this we wait until the sun has completely disappeared, before we start going down the hill again. Ever since we started climbing the hill we have a feeling that we are being followed by a man that offered to be our guide.

The descending sun shedding its last light into the sanctum on the top of Mandalay Hill.
At times we think we have lost him, but just as often he pops into view again. When we are near the entrance, where our shoes are waiting for us he definitely has given up hope and we don’t see him again.

The trishaw driver is waiting for us as promised and without further ado he starts paddling us to the hotel through nightly Mandalay. We are running out of time, because we have to be at the hotel at 7.30 p.m. to go with the main part of our group to a show of the Moustache Brothers. We don’t have time for dinner, so we buy some cakes and sweet rolls in a baker’s that we spot near the hotel.

The Moustache Brothers are very famous in Myanmar, because they are the only ones to take the Mickey out of the government in public.

The Moustache Brothers at their best.
Although the brothers aren’t getting arrested for performing nowadays, they can only play for tourists in English and in the enclosure of their own home, so the Burmese citizens don’t get to know what they are saying. The brothers live in a part of Mandalay that we never would’ve found without the taxis and the roads are here and there flooded with water from the recent rains.

We are welcomed by one of the brothers who does most of the talking. He speaks in a rapid tongue, but his English is far from perfect, so he is hard to understand at times. I get to sit in the lucky seat, a plastic chair that once seated Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Aung San, hero and father of the nation (although he made some dubious decisions to save his own hide at expense of the people). The show starts not long after we come in and lasts well over 100 minutes, but they by far haven’t got enough material to fill them, so many jokes are repeated and quite some time is filled with silly dances. They do have some good stuff, if only the show would’ve lasted 50 minutes or so it would’ve been perfect. Par Par Lay was arrested on september 25 2007, because he was near a demonstration and shouted at a policeman or something like that. Not funny at the time, but now they use the fact thankfully in the show. When the show is over the brothers rapidly bring out the merchandise, hoping to make some extra money from selling t-shirts. Unlucky for them none of us are buying, because the t-shirts are of  a poor quality.

Back in the hotel we take a lovely hot shower, yesterday the water got lukewarm at best, and sleep like logs afterwards.

glennisnz says:
That business of making all the present currency obsolete is dreadful, all the people who must have lost their fortune and savings, unfortunately it is exactly what could happen around the world any time soon. Its a worry.
Posted on: Nov 08, 2008
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Early morning life on the river.
Early morning life on the river.
This taxi is something else...
This taxi is something else...
The base of what was to become the…
The base of what was to become th…
In the distance the white Hsinbyum…
In the distance the white Hsinbyu…
The entrance to the Mingun pagoda.…
The entrance to the Mingun pagoda…
The Mingun Bell, sounded by a love…
The Mingun Bell, sounded by a lov…
One Buddha image hides the other i…
One Buddha image hides the other …
Plenty of monks in Mingun as well,…
Plenty of monks in Mingun as well…
Mandalay Hill, seen from the bridg…
Mandalay Hill, seen from the brid…
I took this picture of Mandalay Hi…
I took this picture of Mandalay H…
When climbing Mandalay Hill we see…
When climbing Mandalay Hill we se…
A monk taking in the view from the…
A monk taking in the view from th…
The descending sun shedding its la…
The descending sun shedding its l…
The Moustache Brothers at their be…
The Moustache Brothers at their b…
Mandalay
photo by: Mezmerized