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A few days in Mandalay...

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A combination of headaches, an over packed bus with minimal leg room and the on board tv turned up to the max made the journey to Mandalay less than restful. To make matters worse when our tolerance levels were at an all time low the tv was showing a sketch show by the most famous and popular comedians in Myanmar. The laughter pierced through the soothing piano music I was listening to and I began to (over dramatically) wonder whether the torture would ever end.

Thankfully after a while it did but we were then awoken at around 12am when everyone filed off for a midnight meal, it would seem a snack was not sufficient. So drowsily we looked on through the bus window as people chowed down. We thought maybe they were just getting nicely full before the long hours that lay ahead but about three hours later when we had drifted off into a contented slumber we awoken once more and we had arrived. Usually it is great when you arrive places early but on this occasion I really didn't want to be ejected and have to deal with the host of people wanting to offer their services.

About half an hour later after a man had repeatedly told Adam there was no pick up we were standing on the back of one which was overflowing with people and I just hoped it wasn't going to take too long to reach the centre. In the dark it was difficult for Adam to get his bearings but he did very well and we got off pretty much where we needed to be. We then had an early hour faff around with a couple of rickshaw drivers who's local hotel knowledge was not up to scratch. In the end though we found a compact but welcomed room at the guest house Adam had stayed at before. Then sleep.

In the morning we still felt a little drained but we made ourselves get up. Last time Adam had been here he had met a monk on a bus to Mandalay and was eager to see him again. Through another monk he had managed to email him and so we were hoping he would reply and we could meet up. In the first instance though we needed some food so we headed towards the clock tower and then the market. As we were looking around we were approached by a young man and he struck up a conversation with us. He explained that he was trying to learn English and although in most other countries this would have set alarm bells ringing (i.e. con), here everything is a little more genuine. We told him we were looking for somewhere to eat and Adam asked if there was a tea house near by, these are all over the place in Myanmar, which means green tea is continuously flowing! He told us there was one round the corner and offered to pay if we would chat to him and we quickly agreed, of course we had no intentions of letting him pay, we just wanted to talk to him.

He was a sweet guy; a rickshaw driver and he did offer us his services but more as a sideline it wasn't the main focus of the conversation by any means. He had moved here from the country, was married with one child and he explained that times were tough. A little tougher than anything the global economic downturn is responsible for, people in Myanmar are very, very poor. We listened as he described how the competition in the rickshaw driving business is fierce and being able to speak foreign languages, especially English, is a real advantage. He told us all the places he could take us but with our plans not being firm it was a little tricky to agree to anything, even though we really wanted to. Adam explained about his monk friend and how he needed to check his email to see if he had replied. So this is how it began.

The rickshaw man took us to an internet cafe and we were both happy to see that the monk had replied. He was still saying in the same monastery and Adam knew where this was so we got the rickshaw driver to take us there. The monastery is made up of a few dorm buildings and then buildings where the monks do their studies. This is where things got a little tricky. Adam had put a photo of his monk friend on my camera as he was a little unsure of his name but when we looked it wasn't there. We asked around a bit and Adam tried to remember but it was proving a little difficult. The rickshaw driver did his best to help but it wasn't easy. Finally he asked someone and the monk smiled and said 'from England' and we nodded, he smiled again and went off to fetch someone. That monk from now on I will call Smiler because he had the best smile and even though his English was not as good as the others, he communicated well and just thinking about him makes me happy!

Then there was the reunion as Adam and his monk friend met up again after three years. It is heart warming when you think that there has been no communication in those three years but it was like long lost friends finding one another. It was clear from the outset that we were more than welcome. We went to have a little look around their living quarters and Adam took a picture stood in the same spot as he had last time. Then we were shown around the monastery and we saw hundreds of monks all sat on the floor lent over their books, reciting out loud. The dedication required was very apparent.

The next part was a little tricky as we still had the rickshaw driver with us. As we had now found the monks and they were on foot we didn't really need wheels any longer. As politely and gratefully as we could we explained this and I could see that maybe he had been hoping we would require his services for longer but I think we paid more than the going rate so we felt a little better. After this parting of ways we had a walk round an old monastery built of teak wood, which was incredibly peaceful.
Again the whole shoe removal makes you feel more connected to the experience, as your footsteps are a little lighter and more careful.

We then caught a pick up to a park which also has some fairground attractions, such as a haunted house, a small rollercoaster and a ferris wheel.
As things stood it was just Adam's monk and Smiler (are merry band would increase in number) who were acting as our guides. The park was a little shabby round the edges but it had real charm and it was clear that being here was a treat for most of the visitors. A small entrance fee was charged but being a monk, or with one provides a golden ticket to many places and although we weren't privy to what was said we didn't hand any money over before we were ushered in. We did pay for all of us to enjoy the ferris wheel though. I'm sure in England health and safety would have condemned it but their concerns would have been unfounded as our round trip into the sky went by without a hitch.
There were great views over the city and the monks pointed out several landmarks including a number of pagodas and Sagai mountain which we would visit.

Being in Myanmar is like stepping back in time and being shown round by a couple of monks at times felt a little surreal. Next we were headed the for Ubin Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world. Best views are to be had at sunrise or sunset, as the suns descent was still a little way off we stopped to rehydrate with some much needed cold drinks. The sun was beating down and it was taking its toll on all of us. We then caught a pick up and I had my first proper conversation with Adam's monk. His English is really good but conversation was a little tricky over the sound of the engine and the other passengers. Pronunciation as I have mentioned seems to be the main problem and so understanding each other was at times difficult and we had to resort to spelling words which was really effective. Adam was helping Smiler, as he would continue to do with basic things. He is a big fan of English and European football so that was always an easy and light hearted conversation.

Once the pick up dropped us off it was still a bit of a walk to the bridge so the monks hailed down a horse and cart to take us some of the way. Knowing a local is the way to experience a country, you do and see things you never ever usually would and this was one of those moments. After we'd climbed down from the cart we stopped for some dinner. Since meeting the monks we hadn't eaten and all we'd had for breakfast was a few little cakes at the tea house so we were starving. The monks eat very little, it seemed to change and we couldn't quite figure out whether sometimes they have to fast. Everyday though, all monks go out around 5am with big lacquered bowls that have straps which go over their shoulders. They walk round and ask for food donations; sometimes there are stalls set up to give out food and there are long lines of monks waiting for their portion in the early morning light.

In this instance the monks did not eat but helped us order what turned out to be an abundance of food. We felt so guilty when our shrunken stomachs could not consume all that was placed in front of us and we asked them to apologise for us. As we walked to the bridge we asked them about their robes and whether there was a reason why some wore orange and others dark red. They told us that it was just a choice and as it turned out the colours of their robes changed over the next couple of days. We were also informed that they did not wear dark red or burgundy as we suggested but true brown. Not sure if there was some significance in this.

We came to the teak bridge which has a very basic structure, and it resembled a pier but as it led to an island it is of course a bridge. The simplicity was once again charming, it blended into its surroundings, which was a placid lake without needing to make any large statement.
There were a couple of leafless trees which stood out of the river, and as the sunset they became stark silhouettes. The monks asked me if I liked them and I told them yes, although I found it hard to tell them why in words I thought they would understand. Adam's monk had written a poem about one of them and I could see why.

It was quite busy on the bridge and we saw some Westerners, all of them with guides. Both the tourists and their guides seemed a little confused by us and our monk escorts. We waited for the sun to set, casually meandering our way to the end and then back again. By now we were both extremely tired, the lack of sleep on the bus and an action packed day had really caught up with us. I was also beginning to have a bit of trouble with my knees, (for those that don't know I have arthritis in both, not only the oldies that get it!) and really needed to rest. Unfortunately there was no horse and cart around and it was quite a long walk in the dark, as there were no street lights to speak of, back to the pick up stop. When we made it one soon turned up but it was rammed full of people, there was a week long festival which people were making their way back from, so we had to stand at the back. I was very pleased when we finally reached our room. The day had been really, really enjoyable though and we arranged to meet the monks the following morning at 6am. As we planned to visit a town a little south of Mandalay.

Too soon the alarm was sounding and then we were trudging zombie like down the road to meet the monks. There were plenty of them up and about with their lacquered bowls, going from place to place asking for donations.
Our monks were a little late but in the end it didn't matter. The pick up we were planning to get ended up sounding like it was going to be too expensive as we would be paying for monks too. It also turned out Adam had been to the place before and so we decided to change plans and just stay around the city.

After some breakfast in a tea house we went to the largest pagoda in Mandalay. Inside there is a massive Buddha whose size has increased over the years as people have placed sheets of gold leaf over his body as an offering. You can see before and after pictures over the years to see how much he has grown. Adam and I walked round the statue while the monks prayed and then they joined us and we explored the other parts of the pagoda. There were a series of paintings depicting the transportation of the Buddha from one kingdom to another centuries ago and also there was a large map of Asia floating in a shallow pool which highlighted the Buddhist countries. We then fed some popcorn to these enormous catfish which were occupying an outside pond with a couple of terrapins.

As we were leaving the pagoda Adam's monk bumped into a friend and he invited us back to his monastery. Here we met more monks and we sat for a couple of hours drinking green tea and helping them with their English. Adam was helping Smiler with sentence structure and I was given the task of looking through a book on idioms and then highlighting and explaining ones which I thought were relevant/actually used. I really enjoyed myself because it is not often that you actually think about the English language and how wonderfully descriptive it can be and it was nice to discuss this with people who were genuinely interested.

The English lesson over we decided that we would like to go to the festival that was being held and the monks arranged for a taxi. There were now six of us in our group and we all cramped into a tiny taxi. The festival was in no way religious, in fact it was quite the opposite and none of the monks had ever been before. It was in honour of a spirit called a Nat which takes on many different forms and is borne out of folk legend and superstition. By holding the festival and giving offerings the people believe that they will enjoy good luck. We had to get out of the taxi and walk the rest of the way because it was so busy. When we finally made it to one of main areas where stalls had been set up we saw lots of people carrying flowers into a kind of small shrine, this is where they placed their offerings.
There was also music coming from an area which seemed to be the main focus and the monks managed to clear a path for us so that we could see what was going on. There was a little room set up with people sitting at a table or on the floor, there were bottles of liquor dotted about and in the centre there was a man dressed in drag dancing about and people were giving him money. He/she was supposed to represent the Nat I believe although I must admit this is where my understanding ends.
We saw another display like this a little further on but it was a bit strange and the monks didn't seem too taken in by it either. It was interesting to see but it was so busy and it didn't seem easy for us to just join in, so we decided to move on.

The taxi found us again and drove us out of the city where we stopped for some lunch and the monks did eat. Once we had filled our bellies we headed for Saigai Mountain and a pagoda which sits on top of it. It was a long climb up the steps to reach the top and we all had to rest a couple of times. Adam and I were pleased to find that our fitness levels had improved though as we were first to reach the top. It was well worth the physical exertion though as the view was lovely and there was a refreshing breeze.
We relaxed for a little while and everyone took a few photos to document the great day we were having. On the way back down Smiler struck up conversation with a couple of Americans and we chatted for a little while. They had been to over 70 countries and since retiring were living a kind of nomadic life, and they seemed very happy for it!

In the taxi once more we headed back in to the city and said our goodbyes. We still had one day left in Mandalay though so we arranged to meet the following morning for a trip to Mingun. This massive pile of bricks would have been the largest pagoda in the world if it had been completed but a high fatality rate during its construction brought things to a halt. Once again Adam and I were both knackered and were very ready for sleep when we got back to our room.

We had to catch a boat to Mingun so we headed down to the little port area. The cost of a ticket was a little pricey and Adam noted that it was definitely more than he'd paid when he visited last time. Still we were here now and we knew it was worth seeing. We had lost one of our companions from yesterday as he had prior engagements but there was still Adam's monk, Smiler and one of the monks we had met the day before. His English was the best out of the lot, he seemed to have a real ear for it and remembered everything I said. He'd come out with phrases like 'not my cup of tea' which made me smile. The boat trip took about forty five minutes as we slowly chugged along. There were a few other tourists on there and I recognised a some of them. As the traveller route in Myanmar is pretty set and there aren't a lot of tourists in the first place you tend to see the same faces.

We docked and walked up to enormous plinth like structure made of red brick. The reason the King was going to build one so large was so that he and his wife would be able to see it from where they lived many, many miles away.
We climbed up to the top which was quite hard going but again worth the effort because the view was even better than the one the previous day. As we gazed out we saw the green hills which surround Mandalay, all of them intermittently dotted with the dozens of golden pagodas. We walked round the whole of the top of Mingun which was falling to pieces in places. It was a bit treacherous at times and definitely violated healthy and safety but that was part of the fun.

Once we had descended we made our way down the road to see the second largest bell in the world. The largest is in Moscow but it has a crack in it, so technically it is the largest intact bell in the world. We stooped down to get in underneath it and it was covered with scratched in graffiti which seemed a bit of shame but also gave it a little more character.

The day seemed to have gone by very quickly and it was soon time for us to board the boat. Back in Mandalay we had to say goodbye to the monks as it we had a late afternoon bus to catch to Bagan. We were both sad to say goodbye to them, but Adam especially felt sad about saying goodbye to his friend. I think meeting up again had meant a lot to both of them. I'd learnt a lot and I was so grateful to them for showing us around as it gave us such a unique experience. We all said we would stay in touch and then they headed back to their respective monasteries.

We saw little point in hanging around in the city and simply went back to the hotel to get our bags before making our way to the bus station.

More Soon,

Laura & Adam

Posted by LauHot10 03:45 Archived in Myanmar Tagged round_the_world

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