Myanmar – MandalayBack to Story

Mandalay is steeped in history and spirtuality

Mandalay is a large and busling city in the north of Myanmar. It is Myanmar’s second largest city with a population of over two million people. It is not modern Mandalay but the history of this city as the last Royal Capital that is the drawcard. Surrounding cities such as Amapura, Sagaing, Ava, and Mingun hold magic for the visitor today.

On the drive into Mandalay my guide takes me down a small road through some very small villages. We see a lot of activity in one of the fields and pull over to take a closer look. Most of the small village is out harvesting the chick pea crop and it feels like we’ve been teleported back a hundred years as we look on. The ox and cart still play a very important role in village farms as they do much of the heavy lifting still. There is an old machine that looks like it is run by a tractor engine to help break up the stalks but apart from that much of the work is still done by hand with large sifters.

Further down the road we stop by the road and watch some fishermen who are standing in waist deep water welding large nets that look like giant butterflies. The fishermen skilfully work a net in each hand lifting each in and out of the water. I have never seen anything remotely similar as a technique of fishing and stand on the shore mesmerised by how graceful these men look.

Mandalay Palace

The original Mandalay Palace was heavily damaged by bombing during the WWII and the buildings you visit now are rebuilt and lie within the old palace walls which is now an army compound. Security is high to get in the gates and access very restricted but the buildings give a clear insight into what palace life may have been like. There is a watch tower well worth the climb to see the rooftops and enjoy the palace from a new angle.

Shwenandaw Monastery

The Shwenandaw Monastery is the origin monastery for the Palace is one of the nicest buildings in Mandalay city itself and an excellent example of the traditional teak monastery’s. King Thibaw moved the building out of the Royal Palaces in 1880, and converted it for a monastery. Fortunately it was not destroyed in the bombing in WWII so remains a rare example of this amazing architecture. Apart from the sheer size of the timber from obviously first cut forests the splendour of architecture is the details and workmanship in the carving, which has surprisingly stood the test of time. Originally the inner rooms were gilded in gold but this has unfortunately faded.

Maha Muni Pagoda

Every year the city celebrates the glutinous rice festival called Htamanè pwè is in February. Here a special rice dish with coconut and peanuts is brewed like a giant risotto in a wok for days and offered to monks and the community. During this time at the Maha Muni Pagoda where the cities most sacred Buddha image known as  The Mahamuni Image is alive with pilgrims. It is believed that the image represents the live Buddha and therefor requires its face to be washed. Arriving to the temple at 4:30am there are already crowds forming to witness the monks washing the face of the Buddha. Offerings of fruits, rice and other foods are presented to the Buddha prior to the wash and buff.

There is a crush of humanity swarming to exit outside where a bonfire of sandalwood licks the sky. Teachings are repeated and respect paid. The crowds pick up the closer we get to daylight. Surprisingly there are a lot of young people gathered in and around the temple. My guide informs me it is because there is a music festival on nearby and they have come over to the temple. This is another example to me of the strength and depth of the Buddhist religion in this country. In a world where the younger generations are apathetic towards traditional beliefs and values it is refreshing. The same cannot however be said of the traditional dress. The younger generation are no longer seen in the longy which is the tradition dress for men and woman. Young men in particular are emulating their Korean movie star hero’s and wearing jeans and tee-shirts.

Mandalay Hill

There are many monasteries and pagodas in and around Mandalay. Well worth the drive or walk if you feel like some exercise is the view from Mandalay Hill. The hill not only looks back out over the city but also the mighty Irrawaddy River which remains an important trade transport system for the country. The most popular time to go up this hill (justifiably) is sunset where you can see the last light of the day disappear over the river and surrounding hills. Don’t rush off though because the Sutaungpyei Pagoda is well worth exploring and within minutes the crowds disappear. The mirrored mosaic walls look amazing in the fading light and if you sit quietly you can hear the bells on the top of the Pagoda chiming in the breeze. From the hilltop you can look back on the Kuthodaw Pagoda in which the teachings of Buddha are written on stone tablets creating what is known as the World’s Largest Book. These are housed in many pagodas around the temple and well worth looking around.

Local craftsmanship

The area around Mandalay is known for the production of some specific crafts that can be seen today and well worth including into a trip around the area. Many of the crafts are centred around their use as a Buddhist relic or offering.

Gold leaf making

One of the famed crafts is the making of gold leaf. Gold leaf plays an important role in Buddhism. Each major centre seems to have an important representation of the Buddha. Itt is believed that attaching a small square of gold leaf to the Buddha image is a sign of respect and a way of gaining merit. In Myanmar the honour of placing the gold leaf on the images goes to the men. The Mahamuni Image in Mandalay is one such image and there is a steady stream of men climbing up to place their gold leaf on the image. Pictures nearby show how much the image has evolved over the years with the addition of so many layers of gold leaf.

The making of the gold leaf is in itself somewhat of an art form and extremely hard work. The gold is hand beaten between layers of paper until it is a mere sliver. Each piece is said to take 5 hours to bash into shape. It is then handed to the girls who cut the fine wafer into 2.5cm squares and place this in paper to be sold in pagodas not only in Myanmar but surrounding Laos and Thailand as well.

Alms bowl making

The making of the alms bowl is also steeped in history and custom. Bowls are donated to the monasteries by worshippers for the monks and nuns to receive alms. The bowl itself is said to be representative of the teachings of Buddha because of a story of a woman giving an offering to the Lord Buddha as he sat under the Bodhi Tree while awaiting divinity.

The bowl is an important part of a monk or nuns life as they walk the streets to receive offerings of food or money on a daily basis. They head out as a temple to walk the streets barefoot in the mornings from 5am onwards. The bowls are all worked on by hand and then dried underground before being glazed.

Stone Street

There is a street in Mandalay famous for the carving of glorious stone statues. Traditionally  the carving was for monasteries and pagodas and typically Buddha images or symbols important in the teachings of the Lord Buddha. Today stone is carved into all manner of objects and the purchasers can be anyone from tourists to hotels. The stone carvers use power tools these days but it is interesting to watch them at work under a cloud of dust turning their blocks into works of art.

Amarapura

Amarapura is approximately 11km South of Mandalay and was the capital of Myanmar from 1841-1857. However, little remains of this ancient city as it was dismantled and moved. This township has a number of other attractions which make it an appealing and ‘must visit’ town. Amarapura is famous in Myanmar for its silk weaving and in its day producing royal garments. Today fine handcrafted silks can take two weavers weeks to produce and the resulting fabrics are mostly worn as wedding gowns or by the wealthy.

You can visit these specialist weavers in a commercial setting near the shops that sell the product but if you take a walk you will probably hear the clacking of looms as there are many family producers in the town. The people are so friendly that you will likely be invited to come in and take a look around. In fact the level of friendliness and hospitality shown by the Burmese is a rare and precious event to experience as a traveller.

U Bein Bridge

For either dawn or more popularly sunset the U Bein Bridge is very interesting as it is the worlds longest teak bridge at 1.2 kilometres. But it is the people walking and cycling across the bridge that bring it to life. Monks,tourists and locals alike use the bridge both as a functional bridge and as a social and relaxing venue. There are a number of boats lined up shoreline to offer a view of the bridge from the water. It is a lovely way to observe both the pedestrians passing on the bridge and also the local fishermen. From experience the morning was the best time to see the fishermen as more of them are out in their boats.

After watching the sunrise we pulled in to get a closer look at the farmers working in the fields which line the water. In the dry season the riverbanks are lush with crops and of course in the wet season all the area is submersed. An old man is catching and releasing small birds in order to protect his crop while the women plant in the field. They wear hats on their heads which would look more in place at a day at the races. We all look at each other in amazement. I am surprised to see such elegant looking hats in the fields and they are surprised to see a tourist with two large cameras come across the same fields.

Maha Gandayon Monastery

A well worn path for all tourists seems to be the Maha Gandayon Monastery which is home to over 1000 monks. After walking the streets for the collection of alms lunch is held daily at approximately 10:30am. The fruit of the collection are not shared here though but volunteers cook for the large number of these monks in the most enormous woks I have ever seen. Busloads of tourists come to see the monks line up to receive their lunch and enjoy their last meal of the day as you cannot take food as a monk after noon. After the monks have eaten they share their food with the needy who come to the temple and also any dogs and cats that turn up for their share.

Sagaing Hill

At 21 kilometres outside Mandalay this area is a little further and is the much quieter. The ancient capital of Sagaing Hill is home to over 400 monasteries and nunneries and is therefore considered a very important religious centre. This area is well known for its retreats and places of worship. I have since meet an American woman in Thailand who had stayed at one of the local nunneries in this area and found it as fascinating and rewarding experience . The hills are awash with Pagodas overlooking the mighty Ayeyarwady River making this a spectacular sight.

It is in this area we visit a local nunnery and not only the temple but also a lunch ceremony. I am told that the nuns are often overlooked when it comes to donations of food and supplies as a generalisation. It is an amazing sight as they line up gracefully in their pink robes to receive their main meal for the day.

Nearby we stop to take a look at a factory making wooden doors. The men skilfully wield saws and sanders but you can’t help but notice they work barefoot and with little or no eye protection.

Inwa (Ava)

Another ancient city is that of Inwa (Ava) which is approximately 20 kilometres out of Mandalay and was the royal capital for five Centuries. You have to take a barge across the river where you then explore the island by horse and cart. It is well worth getting off for a walk and exploring on foot where you can meet some of the friendly locals. My guide and I enjoyed cups of tea and local snacks with the families. Bagaya monastery was another amazing example of the traditional teak monastery set in lush rice fields.

Mingun

Mingun a famous for Mingun Paya an unfinished Pagoda on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River. While it is only 11 kilometres out of Mandalay it is upriver on the Western banks so offers a new viewpoint of the area.  Seemingly the most popular way to get there is by boat and it is a great way to enjoy the river and see some of the river life.

The Mingun Paya is an unfinished temple which was an ambitious project and clearly would have been imposing if finished and the largest Buddhist monument in the world at the time. Legend has it that the temple was not finished because an astrologer predicted the Kings death on completion of the pagoda. It is well worth taking a walk through the village and see the Myatheindan Pagoda where one of the worlds largest ringing bells is. At 90 ton the bell is certainly impressive.

It is here we meet a group of novice monks who show us around and guide us around the nearby Hsinphyumae Pagoda which has a fascinating design. Said to be modelled off the heavens of Sulamani there are white waves cascading the the ground from this pagoda making it very interesting to walk around.

Mandalay, Amarapura, Sagaing Hill, Mingun, Mandalay Hill.

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