Friday, May 17, 2013

Myanmar Part 9 (a) - Mandalay Day 1

Right on time, Naing Naing arrived at the Hotel @ Tharabar gate to take us to the airport. The morning was a struggle as I was feeling a bit funny in the tummy (again), and hadn’t slept well. Naing Naing had his brother with him, who was part share holder of the vehicle, and he was driving. This allowed Naing Naing to chat with us during the short drive, asking us to recommend other travellers to hire him and the car when they came to Bagan. He apologised profusely for not having any professional business cards, but handed over a carefully cut piece of paper with painstakingly neat handwriting with his name, phone number and email address.

Interestingly, his brother drive the car pretty much at a normal speed on the asphalt road, whereas Naing Naing had driven it at crawling speed for the most part of the previous day. A little way down the road they had a heated ‘conversation’ where it was obvious that he didn’t agree with how his brother was driving the car. His brother went quiet and never took his eyes from the road after that exchange. In the back seat, J and I smirked, trying not to laugh out loud.

Unloading our bags, Naing Naing formally shook my hand. With a very serious look on his face, and a deeply sincere voice, he told me without an ounce of doubt that we would meet again. “Maybe not so soon, maybe not here, but for sure you will meet me again”. It was so touching. I truly hoped I would return to Bagan soon, as I didn’t want to leave.
Bagan airport had a little cafĂ© pumping out western-style lattes and cappuccinos. J quickly ordered one as I browsed the airport shops where I found my must have item – a fridge magnet (you should see my fridge!). With an on-time departure, much like the previous one, we arrived in Mandalay after a very short flight. Much to our amusement, the airplane was truly an air bus. When we had boarded, we simply sat in any empty seat that had been  vacated when the plane had arrived in Bagan.

Mandalay airport was large and modern. Our bags even arrived for our collection on baggage carousels. Airside, it could have been any airport in Australia with polished floors and air-conditioning. Then, as soon as you exit into the arrivals hall, you’re reminded you’re in SE Asia. A dozen or more drivers quickly surrounded us jockeying for position hoping to secure a fare. More than one physically grabbed my bag and tried to force me to follow him. Our normally polite “No thank yous” were a little more forceful than usual.
I made a bee line to the taxi desk where we paid 4000 kyats each for the transfer into Mandalay. A well travelled, beat up old mini van took us that we had to ourselves. One thing I hadn’t been prepared for is exactly how far out the airport was from the city. Sure, most western airports are a little way from the cities they serve. But it took half an hour to hit the outskirts or the city, after travelling along a mostly deserted, dual lane, divided highway. Clearly the town planners are planning well ahead.

Yangon traffic had been heavy. But Mandalay’s traffic was perhaps worse. To travel the last few kilometres to our hotel, Mandalay City Hotel, it took as much time as it had taken to get into the city. Pulling into a narrow driveway from the bumper-to-bumper traffic, we were surprised by how peaceful it was inside. Unfortunately, there was a power black out so our room was quite warm without airconditiong, but still significantly cooler than the dry dusty heat outside.

Feeling tired and queasy, I took it easy, taking some time to write a few postcards, while J stretched his legs and went for a wonder. I asked him to bring me back a present (thinking he’d buy a drink or something). However, he arrived empty handed, informing me that he only saw ball-bearing stores and mechanical workshops around the block he had walked.

Rested and feeling recovered, we headed off to have lunch at ‘BBB’ restaurant. It also gave us a chance to get our bearings and see the city a little. Judging by the map, it was five or six blocks along and didn’t seem far. However the baking sun, coupled with the constant exhaust fumes from the steady stream of traffic, the short distance felt like miles. The restaurant served mostly western food at mildly expensive prices. Lined with wood panelling, and prints of American Indian chiefs hanging on the walls, it sort of felt like a ski lodge. But the cool juice and comfortable air-conditioning were exactly what we needed.
Wondering back to the hotel, we enjoyed observing local street life. Some corners had motorcycle stands, calling to us and shouting their fares to take us anywhere. A few taxi drivers approached us on the street with offers of half or full day’s sightseeing. Tempting as it was to jump in, J and I made our way back the hotel, grabbing an ice-cream from one of the street vendors along the way. We wanted to review a map and decide where we wanted to go.

At the entrance to the hotel were a few taxis. A driver quickly approached, offering to take us to see some of the local attractions for 10,000 kyats. Softly spoken, Naung Naung wore a constant smile as he drive us through the thick traffic. With a few hours before the dark, we asked his advice for what to see before heading up to Mandalay hill to see the sun go down. He suggested the palace, the walls and moat of which we had seen during our walk. Not that I was too keen to see it, but the $10 ‘Mandalay Archaeological Zone’ ticket included it, so why not. I had read about the original palace in Amitav Ghosh’s historical novel ‘The Glass Palace’ years ago, so I had some interest. At the ticket booth, we realised we hadn’t brought any US dollars with us, so tried to pay with kyats, but to no avail. Oh well, that’s the end of that story for the day.

Undeterred, Naung Naung said that maybe the other sights may not have anyone asking for tickets given it was late in the day and off season. It was only a short distance to Atumashi Kyaung, a beautiful teak monastery, which I was keen to see. But as we pulled up, we could see the entrance was manned. Nevertheless, we got out to stretch (i.e. J to have a cigarette with Naung Naung), while I took a few shots of the intricate carvings of the building through the fence.

Onwards to try the next sight, we drove another minute further along to Mahan Lokamarazien Kuthodaw Paya, the world’s biggest book. Inscribing the Buddhist canon, the Tripitaka, the text is carved into 729 marble slabs that are housed in identical little temples called Dama Cetis. Relatively young, it took eight years to build from 1860-1868. Lucky for us, there was no-one looking for tickets and we walked in the tiled entrance terrace with golden late afternoon sunlight streaming in the open sides. A scale model encased in a glass box showed the layout of the 13 acre site, which gave us a wonderful impression of the scale of the place that is difficult to grasp on the ground.

Locals strolled in for late prayers as we approached the central golden stupa. I took a few side detours to check out some of the white-washed temples along the way. Surrounding the stupa, the concrete square held stalls, most of them closed, but a few with tapestries and paintings sprawled out on the ground. The only other foreigner in the complex was haggling with a stall owner, offering to pay 10000 kyats for three small woven pieces, instead of 10000 kyats each. It was obvious the seller was not happy and tried to strike a bargain with the blonde-haired man, but he was adamant, claiming he could buy them cheaper elsewhere. The exchange actually became a bit heated. As another  foreigner watching on, I felt very embarrassed by the man’s blatant attempt to rip the stall holder off.

A small girl was playing in an old cart while an older woman kept an eye on her while she tended to the stitch-work on her lap. Another woman asked if I wanted to buy something. Admittedly, I hadn’t seen the type of handiwork anywhere during my travels and they were gorgeous. Some were on velvets, others on canvas. I casually asked how much they were and was told that they varied in price according to their size. Conscience of the scene continuing to the side (i.e. the haggling), I took a few photos and spoke a few words to the little girl. Once the other traveller had left empty handed (which I was kind-of pleased to see), I asked about a large velvet embroidered piece complete with pieces of jade-like stones surrounding the central elephant figure.

Originally, when the prices were explained, the larger pieces were in the 60000-100000 kyats range. Amongst them were many black velvet ones, but there was only one royal blue piece that was one of the largest on display. J instantly told me that it was too big and heavy, asking how I thought I’d be able to pack it. Immediately, the ladies found smaller pieces, and a few other blue ones. But none were as nice. “45000 kyats” offered the first woman who was trying to make a sale to the other guy. They both showed me how it could be folded smaller to git into a bag. Taking it, I felt how heavy it was, starting to think twice about hauling it back on the flights home. “OK, 40000”, came the second offer. It wasn’t about price, rather the ability to get it back.

Then it hit me; we could buy another bag to carry it on board that would not exceed our luggage limits. Still not convinced, J tried to say it was simply too big and wondered off. “You like, you have. Ok, ok 35000”. How could I resist. I was prepared to pay 40000, and gave it happily. Poor J had to carry it around as we left the central square and explored the many rows of identical shrines. In the late sunlight, we amused ourselves as we walked up and down the rows of white-washed shelters.

Next door was the Sandamuni Paya, which was built as an extension to Kuthodaw with 1774 marble slabs carved with the commentaries on the Tripitaka. Different, they were housed in little white stupas and had a raised central stupa that provided a viewing platform to the surrounding grounds. A group of four young novices met us as we approached the main temple. Giggling, they said a few hellos and hurried off to play among the rows and columns. Once more, we were the only non-locals here and again felt so happy to have chosen to come to Myanmar outside the peak season, despite the oppressive heat.

By the time we returned to our driver, the sun was sinking closer to the horizon. He was surprised at how much time we had spent in the pagodas. J informed him of how coo-coo I was with photos before we set off driving up the hill. Many guidebooks say you can walk up, with a few stupas and temples to see along the way. In this heat though, I think you’d have to be mad! Even though it was late in the day, I’d say the temperature was still hovering in the high 30’s.

Parking near the entrance, Naung Naung pointed the way to get to the top and to take our time. Grabbing my tripod case, I told him we’d stay till the sun was down. Inside the entrance building was a series of escalators, not unlike what you’d find in any shopping mall. J and I jumped on to first one, totally flabbergasted by the sight of the multi-story, motorised stairways that was so completely unexpected.

At the top, a temple covered in glass, mosaic tiles took centre-piece with the wide terrace encircling it, affording stunning 360 degree views. Stalls sold drinks and ice-creams. Local families sat in shady places picnicking. Monks wondered around the temple occasionally bowing and chanting. And a few dozen tourists clicked away their cameras (me among them) at the magnificent sight of the surrounding hills and the mighty Irrawaddy river in the distance.

It was here that one of the highlights of our trip to Myanmar happened. Walking around the hill were groups of local students with their tutors, some high school aged, some at university level, all learning English (and other languages); all wanting to practise with native speakers. There were also a few monks, also hoping to meet foreigners to speak to and practise with. A teacher would approach you, asking where you were from and asking if you would be able to spare some time to talk with them. Then the group of two or three students would come over and chat. Many other tourists were also speaking with these students, enjoying meeting them and sharing as well.

J and I spoke to a number of young adults and teenagers. Mostly about where we were from, the weather, work and family. Always with much smiling and many laughs. Here we were watching a lovely sunset over a spectacular view, but we were enjoying having a chat with the locals. Not that I didn’t take a heap of photos. By the time we returned to the car, it was pretty much dark and Naung Naung was worried that we had go lost.

Farewelling our patient driver, we made plans to meet up tomorrow for a day’s touring to the usual out-of-town places around Mandalay. Time for a quick beer before heading out to find dinner. A recommended place was right around the corner, a chapatti stand. We knew we were near by the steady stream of motorbikes arriving and departing. Almost every table was full. J and I jumped to grab a table as the previous group departed. Many travellers are wary of street food (as I am too but only because of not knowing whether the dishes contain meat), but honestly, it may be some of the best food you’ll ever get.

Ordering chapattis, accompaniments and a chicken briyani for J, we relaxed in the cooler evening air watching the night’s comings and goings. And the food was exceptional. In fact, J had never had a better briyani. Filling up on freshly grilled hot bread and delectable sauces and rice, we were almost embarrassed to pay less than 5000 kyats for our meals – including soft drinks. Does it get much better than that!

Before finishing our night, we wondered toward the Zeigyo market, where there was a night market.  Anyone who has been to Phuket, Phnom Phen or maybe even Luang Prabang would think a night market was mostly there for us tourists, but not this one. Yes there was lots to buy, but it was set up for mostly local trade. J and I walked up and down the two lines of stalls, amusing ourselves with the Anglicized names on the labels (particularly the underwear). A few stalls had dozens of books spread out on the ground, many old English school books and novels. So now I know where my 1970’s chemistry book went. And there were many stands selling longyis for both men and women. Lucky for me, there were also plenty of bags, exactly what I needed for my recent purchase. In fact, I chose a genuine, Ferrari bag, that was blue… Ferraris are often blue, right? Anyway, it was the perfect size and only 5,00 kyats. Surely for that price it was a bona fide Ferrari licensed article?! Anyway I was very happy with it and J could only shake his head as I explained how much extra room we now had for further shopping…

On the way back to the hotel, we walked down another dark street that had some lights and what appeared to be other market stalls. There were also a few local restaurants selling food and drinks. Upon approaching the stalls, we found that they were selling condoms; lots of different colours and packaging. Not only that, there were sort-of posters displayed like what you’d find in a doctor’s surgery with health advise about how to use them and their benefits with cartoon characters depicting the information. Concerningly, the characters appeared to be children. I’m sure the message got across.

Back at the hotel, we enjoyed a beer in the lobby bar. A tour group had just arrived with a few Aussies who we chatted with, recounting stories of our journey through Myanmar so far. They told us the latest on the home front including the cricket scores etc. Sharing a final beer, J and I mused over the wonderful day, and my outstanding purchases (haha), agreeing that though we had been apprehensive about visiting Mandalay (due to many reports saying it was missable), we really liked the city and looked forward to our next day’s explorations.


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