Mystical Mandalay

Mythical, mystical, magical Mandalay is what I found searching the outer perimeters where history religion seemed to collide creating a unique cosmos. Kings from different countries all wanted a piece and if they wasn't enough, the capital was repeated moved and structures added leaving the King's mark in the future.

Incredible Sunsets and a Side of Entertainment

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by nmagann on July 10, 2010

Amapura's claim to fame is the U-bein Bridge which spans a mile across the sometimes nearly dry Taung Tharman Lake. This teak foot-bridge has stood the test of time for some 200 years and is the longest in the world. About six or so wide spots offer much needed shade and benches along the way. They offer great photo opportunities even if you have to nudge your way between the vendors who seem to take them over during even the slightest occasion including the water festival. On the other hand a bottle of water if you haven’t brought enough can really be appreciated.

Sunsets views from the middle of the bridge are widely touted and most tours will ensure you arrive at Amapura just before. From this vantage point you get snap a picture of the lake and the watch tower with the sun setting in the background.

If you walk around the multitude of trash to the watchtower, identical to the one at Inwa, you can see the entire span of the bridge. I surmised this would be a good place to come for a sunrise and would undoubtedly have fewer tourists.

Near the end of the bridge where you are typically dropped off, a busy touristy area, there are plenty of outside restaurants serving everything from refreshing beverages to complete meals.

Just behind the eating places and trees, nearly unseen are some unusual stupas and temples in shades of pastel blues and green. I hadn’t seen colored structures before or since this place. The hues are so light that at first I thought it had to be reflecting off something or been dust in my eyes.

If the pastels were odd enough, imagine my surprise when rather than taking off my shoes and walking inside the entrance, I peered into the circular hall around the stupa to see a monk with his robes somehow wrapped to show the absolute complete length of his bare legs. He noticed me before I could ease out my camera that would have been a highly treasured shot for me and moved out of sight to lower his robes. I ducked backed momentarily and then peeped in again hoping against hope. His robe had been hiked only of few inches now so that he could play soccer. Hey, a monk’s got to have some fun too.

Inwa, by any Other Name, Ava

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by nmagann on July 10, 2010

Inwa is cut off from roads so your driver will stop at the end of a dirt road to let you off. From here a dollar ferry will take you on a one-minute boat ride across the very short distance of shallow water. Horse drawn carriages that charge $4 for the hour long ride to see the three main sites, are the only option offered.

Our first stop wasn’t even worth the guide telling us anything. I believe it was more of a warm-up for things to come. We stopped very briefly at a handful of seriously decaying statues which had everyone turning face and returning to the carriage. But there was a structure just to the side that appeared to be strictly walls with overgrown grass inside not worth looking at. I, however, made it a point to walk over and looked inside to see a large stucco Buddha. With no walls behind him and no ceiling, its ruinous state made it more appealing to me than the glitzy ones I had been seeing elsewhere. Somehow, for lack of a better word, it seemed more real or genuine.

Worthy of a visit, Maha Aung Mye Bozan Monastery is a lovely ruin built in 1818. Made of brick, intricately carved floral designs and mythical creatures of mortar adorn the walls. The sunlight reflecting on the building truly lit the place on fire. So often is the case that when trying to capture the reflecting colors, I as far from a professional photographer, can’t seem to get a shot of what I am actually seeing. This was a magnificent exception. Even the whipped frosting design appears to have taken on life.

The next site your driver stops at is Bagaya Monastery. This all-teak building is worth lingering in and around. The railings and doors are so massive and thick, yet delicately carved with dragons and other mythical creatures. The pillars were huge and had obviously withstood the many earthquakes this country has seen.

Inside were small chairs and tables where classes for monks are still held. Old bookcases a couple of donation boxes were fixtures surrounding the huge Buddha. There was no gold or neon, just an incredibly weathered, brown, wooden building.

A short distance away was the last stop, the watch tower. Not much to look at, but it does offer views of all of Inwa, the bridge, and farming fields. Its real claim to fame, our guide mentioned was that is was also being touted the Leaning Tower of Inwa because the damage of a previous earthquake left it leaning a bit. I don’t know that I would have noticed had I not been told in advance.

Saiging Hill, Amapura, and Inwa or Ava as it is also called, are often offered in a day trip for those with little time. If you only have one day, the first two mentioned should be seen. The time spent to go to Inwa and that it is only for an hour and is the second place a guide goes to when doing all three places, could be better spent in either Saiging Hill or Amapura.

Cerainly Great, Saiging Hill

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by nmagann on June 13, 2010

Saiging Hill is a surreal place. Just the other side of the Inwa Bridge, is a hill surrounded by several smaller ones. From a distance you could see there was a temple right on top of it as well as the smaller ones. As we got closer I could see crooked paths with uneven sheets of tin covering them dripped down from each of the hills connecting each other and finally to the pinnacle.

Dropped of at the entrance, I took off my shoes and carrying them with me, I headed up the covered zip-zag steps. along the way, a monk stopped to tell me it was 490 steps to the top. I paused at several platforms to take in the increasing panoramic vistas of Ayerarwaddy River and the Inwa bridge we had come across. I could also see numerous smaller hills with the same type of walkways branching off in all different directions from the top of them. It was like an upward maze with views and temples around each corner. Without a diagram it would be so easy to visit one these and get lost on the return, I had thought, and later confirmed first-hand.

Away from the big city with few power lines or other towering obstructions, the 360 degree views were spectacular. There was greenery on the hills and the by the rivers edge. Hardly believable in lieu of the nearly oppressive heat. Brightly colored pagodas and stupas dotted the slopes with meandering walkways leading to and fro.

I reached the top where there were several shrines with Buddha surrounded by food, incense, flowers, and money. Each temple had several worshippers due to the current festival. The sunlight made the gold and white of the buildings brighter and even more enticing. Different platform levels completing surround the various shrines enable me to see so many otherwise hidden statues, ruins and even an old pool of some sort. I could see the river and the Inwa Bridge so clearly. There didn’t seem to be a hint of pollution or dust marring the view.

Continuing down the other side of the peak with shoes back on, I found Umin Thounzeh, the cave of the 45 Buddhas that my guide had mentioned. Not alone, I might add. I was very fortunate to have found some to ask as the initial steps leading down to it were rather undefined and seemed as if they would lead to absolutely nothing. A crescent shaped hall, it contained identical Buddha images except for the center one which was more ornate with a headdress and had far more offerings laying in front of it.

If my thoughts about the spider web design didn’t seem fitting at first, the fact that I got lost and came out at another entrance should. Fortunately I had the right sense of direction and started walking up the main road wherein my guide started walking toward me. By that point, I don’t know if I could have recognized him until I was right in front of him as my mind seemed so foggy.

Mingun Paya Towering Above it All

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by nmagann on June 5, 2010

Mingun is reached by a government ferry that departs at 9:00am and returns at 2:00pm every day and costs a mere $3 round trip. The trip takes and hour each way and will run with as little as 4 people. Reservations are not necessary. The five passengers that went were given wicker chairs placed on the top deck under a tarp that provided much needed shade, but also the cool breeze off the water.

The breeze was very refreshing and the views offered an insight into the life styles of those along the river. Simple wooden homes and row boats dotted the shoreline. People washed their clothes and cooking utensils in the water and well as bathed, fully clothed in longyis. In the foreground, animals munched on the limited vegetation found at this time of year.

As soon as the boat docked, horse drawn carriages serving as taxis pulled up. Neither this nor guides were necessary. Walking along the main road, you pass the three main sites. Every traveler everywhere seemed to have a guide book of some sort with them or have previously done some researched on the sites. Anyone going to Myanmar must have thought written information might be limited or skewed and had prepared themselves. Although I found accommodations to have maps on their walls along with enough information to entice a visitor to see touristy sites.

The first site is Mingun Pagoda was far back while on the boat. At 50 meters high, it is only a third of what was proposed. It loomed large like a square version of Ayers Rock. Red in color, rising up in an otherwise flat area, it dominated the horizon. Off to the right, the white pagoda, seemed irrelevant.

Under King Bodawpaya's rule, construction of Mingun Pagoda construction began in 1970. A massive earthquake in 1839 severely damaged the structure and since that time in has the dubious distinction as being known as the largest pile of bricks in the world. The crack from the earthquake that runs from top to bottom is incredible. I've read about plate tectonics and seen renditions of them shifting, but this was unbelievable. Apparently the earthquake revealed a treasure of gold, silver, and gems, but I what was done with it or specifics it a mystery.

Although 4 entrances were built only the whitewashed one is the front is open. There is little to see inside and isn't very big. It is the outside and the chance to climb to the top, barefoot, along the stairs on the outside that offer no shade that brings people.

Next stop is the 90 ton bronze Mingun bell which is truly huge. It is purported to be the largest bell without cracks in the world. Many tourist crawled underneath not only for a look, but to hear it while being struck. I skipped that and simply hit the bell from the outside which, surprisingly, required little strength.

The last stop was at the Hsinbyuma Paya, which is beautiful if your feet can stand the steering heat in order to walk around the shrines and statues. Built in 1816, it consists of 7 terraces which take a wavy look rather than sharp peaks. Surrounding it are several interesting creatures such as the naga (multi headed serpent) shown protecting Buddha and the guardian lions. a small temple contains a more ornate Buddha.

The boat trip, as well as more unusual sites make Mingun an under-rated destination. It happened to be one of my favorites.

Good Lord! How Can There Be So Much WATER?

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by nmagann on June 4, 2010

Thingyan or Spring Festival is the largest and most important holiday in Myanmar. It occurs in April and last for about 4 days depending on what a seer/monk tells the government. It is the only holiday the entire government really recognizes and closes for during the entire week. It is a religious festival designed to precede the New Year.

Traditionally it was held during the driest time of the year when the king of nats or spirits, Thingyan judged the people's deeds. His departure marked the beginning of the New Year. Needless to say if you hadn't been very good, the new year wouldn't be very fruitful.

Although scheduled to begin on a Tuesday, I received my first taste of the festival the preceding Friday. At the end of the school day, students and staff went to the playing field where a couple of 5-gallon drums filled with water awaited. Hesitant at first, my students eventually had me soaked from head to toe. I made a mental to wear a skirt that wasn't color fast wasn't a good idea, nor was wearing good shoes. Little did I realize this would be a mild day.

Monday, just a few days later and in Bagan, I had cups of water tossed at me. It seemed to be a real treat for the locals while I was walking down a dirt road off any semblance of a tourist area. I knew they wouldn’t see many people, local or foreign, down this area, so I stood and let them make the most of while saying, "Happy New Year."

Tuesday, I arrived in Mandalay. As the van from the airport got closer to the city, people began appearing with water guns and small buckets of water flinging wildly at us. Those that were near windows, quickly rolled them up. I however, thought the drizzles were pleasant enough.

I ventured out in a trishaw, recommended transport by the hotel clerk, to see the sites. Traffic along all of the palace perimeter crept along in calf-deep water when moving at all. I not only had buckets of water thrown at me, but pick-up trucks cruised along with hoses made sure there was a dry spot to be found. Furthermore, temporary stages had been erected along the sidewalks surrounding the palace where people paid for the privilege of hosing passersby while music blasted from behind them.

Taxis, motorcycles, trishaws, and pedestrians were all targets with the objective of soaking them. Groups on motorcycles wearing masks or face make-up and painted black lips performed stunts like wheelies and standing on their bikes to impress the crowds. Whisky poured out onto the streets almost as much as water. Both adults and a few young kids offered to fill my water bottle with whisky. For some this was a huge rowdy party.

Only the monks escaped the water and they did venture out. At one point, while a couple of teen aged boys were pouring water over my head, a monk walked over and seeing my good nature about it all, shook my hand and said, "thank you." being a foreigner and a female one at that, I was shocked that he had spoken to me much less touched me.

Knowing people didn’t toss water at the monks, it came as a mild surprise that when walking up a lengthy stretch of steps to pagoda on a hill, that a couple of young ones had squirt guns that they used on me. Being kids, I smiled to myself, and shouted, "Thank you. Happy New Year." What came as a bigger surprise was that on the last day of the water festival, an adult monk walked over, smiled and poured a small cup of water over my shoulders after making a gesture to ask if it was alright.

I awoke the next morning very early to the shutters on my windows banging violently and another very weird sound. It was rain! The beginning of the new year, after the dry season and after being judged by King of the Nats, it rained. How eerie was that?

Mixed Reviews

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by nmagann on June 4, 2010

E.T Guesthouse on the corner of 83rd and 25th is located near other guest houses. Hence, you'll find eateries where English is spoken and menus have English written on them. You'll also find a little bit of it spoken at the markets and by the street vendors.

However, the hotel is right next to monastery that makes great use of megaphones to blast spiritual meditation in the early morning and late at night. I did go over to check it out as it isn't on any of the maps and it was one of the better ones to see.

The room was basic with 2 twin beds, a night stand and clothes rack. The floors were tiled and the bathroom was basically clean. Unfortunately, the towel felt like sandpaper and there was no housekeeping services during the duration of my stay. Had I had waste basket, it would have been full with water bottles and snack packages.

Although the man at the desk spoke excellent English, he wasn't reliable. For example, I asked about transportation to a monastery and the palace. He immediately hooked me up with a trishaw just outside who couldn't even get to the palace due to the water festival. There water was too deep and the traffic wasn't moving. The lack of movement meant I had a hose directly on me without stopping. He managed to get out of there and take me to the monastery which was closed so I chose to walk to the palace. The man at the guesthouse never bothered to mention that both were closed during the festival.

When I asked the clerk if we sure the government run ferry to Mingun was running. He replied yes, it runs every day. Needless to say I was skeptical so I opted to walk to the ferry the next day instead of taking the taxi he said I would need. Fortunately he was right.

When I need to reconfirm my tickets I asked where the airline office was. While giving me directions, a fellow traveler question whether it would even be open. The clerk assured me it was. It was relatively far away, but I walked hoping to see some temples along the way. The office was closed, so I came back and asked the clerk if he couldn't call for me. He never volunteered to verify or check anything on his own. He called and said the line was busy to come back later. Time was running out for me. I returned and again told to come back. Fortunately an older woman came out and asked me to give her my ticket and that she would confirm it for me. She asked if I needed to book the airport shuttle and would do that as well so I could go out and enjoy the day.

I came back in the evening, knowing I was leaving the next morning, and asked a young woman about the confirmation of my tickets. She looked in their notebook, started calling, got a busy signal and gave the song and dance to return later. Thankfully, the older woman was in the backroom came out waving her hands saying it was already confirmed. She handed me my tickets and said the airport shuttle was full and that she would try in the morning. Otherwise I would have to take a taxi. I got up in the morning sure I would have to take a taxi. She came out and told me to have a quick breakfast which I hadn't know was included, and that she booked one that was rather early but it was the only one. I thanked her for all her help.
ET Hotel
No. 129, 83rd Street
Mandalay, Myanmar
+95 (2) 65006

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