The day I was to leave Myitkyina was the day that the rain, which had until then been sporadic, fell steadily with few breaks for the rest of my trip. It wasn’t until I left Myanmar and saw on the news about the severe flooding that I realized how seriously some parts of the country were affected. I’m still not sure how much of the flooded streets and structures that I saw is what they’re used to in the rainy season, or unusually severe. One night coming back from dinner I had to walk almost knee-deep through the watery streets. It’s possible to walk around parts of Mandalay where the attractions are clustered together, but I thought the best way to see the city would be for a guide to take me around. I asked at the reception desk at my hotel (where all the staff were so nice and helpful), and the girl got her brother to take me around the city on his motorbike. Despite the rain it was a great way to get around, because it’s how most local people do, either on their own bikes, or on the back of motorcycle taxis.
After driving alongside the reconstructed walls of Mandalay Palace, our fist stop was the Kuthodaw Paya, where 729 marble slabs inscribed with Buddhist text are housed in little shrines. Burmese script is similar to Korean in how syllables are composed by adding vowel symbols around the consonant.
Perhaps because of the bad weather during the rest of my trip, I wasn’t hassled much by souvenir sellers, although some of the other tourists had stories of the elaborate ways people would try to convince them to buy something. For instance, taking their shoes from outside a pagoda and keeping them ‘for safety’ at a shop. I bought some postcards from a girl at this pagoda and when I admired her leaf-shaped thanaka make-up, she offered to put it on me as well. It didn’t suit me at all but it was fun to try it out and she was very sweet.
The Shwenandaw Kyaung is a nineteenth-century teak monastery, a former palace building that escaped the destruction of WWII because it had been moved outside by the last king of Burma. Foreigners have to pay $10 for a ticket that also provides access to Mandalay Palace and three sites outside the city. I didn’t visit any of the other places covered by the ticket, but it was interesting to see a non-reconstructed historical site and the wooden carvings were very striking. Across the way was another massive monastery that had been reconstructed, with pictures inside showing before and after its destruction. The interior was a vast hall with a relatively small Buddha shrine at the back. As at all the pagodas I visited during my stay, there were people just hanging around inside, chatting or using their new smartphones. It was nice to see these spaces having a social as well as a religious role.
Kyauktawgyi Paya was very colourful and lively. Near the gate you can see larger-than-life-size statues of the penultimate king of Burma, Mindon and his wife. As in many of the popular pagodas, the Buddha images are lit up with neon lights, surrounded by flowers, and somewhere in the pagoda a monk was chanting sutras and this was played through speakers. All of these pagodas and monasteries were to the northeast of the palace, just under Mandalay Hill. I didn’t climb Mandalay Hill because I wasn’t convinced that the view would be worth it and I wasn’t too sure about going up the steps barefoot either, because the level ground was slippery enough. Shoes have to be removed at the entrance to pagodas and monasteries, which felt a little strange coming from Japan where it’s shoes-outside/socks-inside, whereas here it’s barefoot outside and in when it’s holy ground.
We then drove to the other side of the city to visit the most spectacular pagoda, Mahamuni Paya, which is most famous for its ancient Buddha statue that has a peculiar knobbly figure due to the layers of gold leaf applied by (male) worshippers. I sat with the women and my guide offered to take a close-up picture for me. I would have felt more annoyed about the sexism if I weren’t also feeling a little embarrassed about being a sightseer in a place of devout worship, although I don’t think anyone has a problem with that.
One of the most recommended things to do in Mandalay is to experience sunset at the U Bein bridge, the world’s longest teak footbridge. I knew there wasn’t going to be any sun to see set, but the bridge over the rainy lake was worth a look. It was a solid bridge, but with no railings and irregular planks, it did take some mindfulness on my part not to trip. The flooding here is usual, and it is an actual, if shallow, lake that happens to empty during the dry season.
The rain had gotten heavier as we crossed the lake and we stopped at a typical Burmese teashop. Earlier in the day I had asked my guide if we could go to one, but he had taken me to a very fancy place where the only other customers were foreigners. I think he was worried that I had high expectations for tea. This was his first time taking a tourist around the city and I could tell he was nervous in the morning, but he relaxed by the afternoon when he could tell that I was just happy to be taken around. He wanted to show me his university on the other side of the bridge, which was unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, closed that day, so instead we went to a teashop where I got to try the Burmese way of drinking tea (sweet black tea with condensed milk), he helped me practice some useful Burmese phrases (which I couldn’t make the tea girl understand because of my terrible pronunciation), and he told me about his plan to go to work in Japan in the next year and how he had been going to Japanese classes to prepare for it. It was a really nice way to spend my first day on my own in Myanmar – seeing some interesting historical/religious sites and spending time with a local.