Sightseeing Around Mandalay, Myanmar – Trip Notes
The sounds of Mandalay go on night and day, blending temple bells and wind-chimes with the sounds of scooters zipping around the city.
The melodic chanting of monks’ prayers emanating from hundreds of monasteries is carried by the wind, mixing with the sounds of cars’ horns, which are used constantly by drivers who communicate with one another by a “horn-morse code.”
Burmese music is also in the air, and its soulful vocals and drums add to the modern yet ancient symphonic hum of this city.
Mandalay is enchanting, with its vibrant markets and its colorful monasteries, its thousands of pagodas, and with smiling women whose faces are painted with Thanaka, a paste made from grinding a tree branch and water on a stone slab.
The paste of the Thanaka tree is used as a sunscreen, to protect the skin from mosquito bites, or just as a beauty symbol.
This city is most definitely a Buddhist stronghold.
Thousands of pagodas dot the landscape, and you can sense the gentleness in the air.
There are no cars speeding by, no yelling, no anger, no fights.
Anger is one of the biggest vices in Buddhism, along with ignorance and greed.
At the entrances to the pagodas and monasteries, you see kids selling necklaces of jasmine flowers to people who come to pray and place those fragrant necklaces as offerings to the Buddha.
We have traveled in many Buddhist countries, but only in Myanmar have we seen what we call the “Disco Buddha.”
It is a circle of neon florescent lights that glows and changes colors, surrounding the head of the Buddha, like a “Disco Halo.”
When we visited some monasteries, the caretaker has run inside to turn on the Disco Buddha for our photos.
In an ancient culture which has not yet been touched by much modernity, a techno colored Buddha is something that the childlike people love to behold.
We have been spending some time admiring the architecture and craftsmanship of this city, and its surrounding ancient cities.
Because of the overbearing heat, we decided to hire a driver to see the major sights.
Hiring a driver and car turned out to be a great idea. Our driver pointed out where we must place our shoes before entering the temples, and even stood outside and guarded our shoes.
He also turned on the air conditioning in the car when he saw us approaching so we would not enter a hot car.
The “Shwe In Bin Kyaung” is a Teak monastery close to the jade market.
We had to leave our shoes at the entrance to the garden, and could hardly walk on the scorching hot path as we made our way around the monks’ teak housing to the monastery.
The teak carving of this multi level monastery is a masterpiece of Burmese craftsmanship.
The “Shwe Nan Daw” is another Teak monastery with similar thick wooden floor boards, decorated staircases, wide columns and breathtakingly beautiful carved doorways and windows.
Both teak monasteries were unpainted, and the old teak carvings had darkened with time.
It is amazing how well these teak monasteries have survived the harsh hands of time, the sun and the monsoon rains….
The “Mahamuni Paya” is a huge temple complex with a central 12.5 foot high seated golden Buddha, which is constantly adorned with more and more gold leaf by thousands of devotees.
Only men are allowed to approach the Buddha, while the women sit on the floor in front of the main image, which is so covered in gold leaf, that it looks like it suffers from elephantiasis.
We visited one of the workshops in the city where gold leaf is made by hand, by pounding pieces of gold on a marble slab.
Those guys stand half naked, continuously pounding gold sheets with heavy hammers for over five hours, to produce the paper thin gold leaf that is used to add to Buddha sculptures.
By adding gold leaf to the Buddha, the devotees are giving the Buddha their abundance, as a show of their respect and devotion to him, prioritizing this over their own personal profits and gains.
The Mahamuni temple complex is surrounded with workshops, a craft market, places to buy bigger than life-sized sculptures of the Buddha, and all sorts of souvenir shops.
We saw people sleeping on the bare floors of the temples.
They were not homeless people, they were merely seeking a respite from the overbearing summer heat.
In fact, almost everyone sleeps during the day, either under the shade of trees or on the cool temple floors.
They simply lay on the dirty floor and proceed to fall sleep, exhausted from the heat and oblivious to the many people walking by, the monks’ chanting, the people’s talking nearby, and the lack of comfort…
Many vendors were selling food, which they carried on large aluminum plates.
We tasted some sliced green mango, watermelon, pineapple and giant guavas, and found them all to be tasty and refreshing.
At a drink stall, I tasted a local lime juice, which was served with small amounts of both sugar and salt, with some black jelly floating in it.
A nearby woman who spoke some English and introduced herself as a fortune teller and astrological chart reader, helped me to order the juice as I sat there on a tiny plastic stool.
At the “Sandamuni Pagoda,” we saw the teachings of the Buddha called the “Tripitaka,” which were carved by a single monk on 1774 marble slabs.
This monk used only hand tools, and the tablets, housed under hundreds of white pagodas, looked amazing.
Close to the “Kuthodaw Pagoda” is what is called the “world’s largest book,” with 729 hand carved marble slabs with commentaries on the Tripitaka, each housed under its own pagoda.
A stroll in this Pagoda complex would have been more enjoyable if it weren’t for the girls who walked around us ceaselessly, trying to sell us postcards or jade bracelets.
A must visit in Mandalay is the Jade Market.
It is a very crowded market with narrow lanes that are barely wide enough to pass through.
On both sides of the lanes are vendors, each sitting behind a tiny table with a tray displaying their polished ovals of jade.
Buyers and sellers walk between the lanes and examine what the vendors have.
Deals are made constantly, and we saw Chinese and Indian traders who had obviously come to buy large quantities of good quality jade here.
Each vendor has a flashlight, and with it they examine the jade ovals that the passing sellers offer them.
These sellers walk around with a small piece of paper with their jade ovals folded carefully in it.
They show it to the vendors, and with a quick glance, the vendors either refuse them or negotiate with them.
At the jade market, a group of kids with matted hair and unwashed faces came to us begging for money.
One girl who looked like she was about seven yours old, had her baby brother tied to her body with a sarong.
To my amazement, even the tiny baby who could not even speak yet, grabbed our clothing and mimicked a hand signal of wanting money so he could eat by rubbing his thumb and tiny first finger together as if he were counting money, and then pointing to his mouth.
This was a first for me.
I have seen many young kids beg for money, but this was the very first begging baby I have ever seen, and before we handed each kid the money, I looked into the baby’s eyes,…. he had the gaze of a mature adult,…. one who had incarnated into a family of generations of beggars and was resigned to his destiny….. I felt a chill run through my spine….
Everybody in the market was chewing betel nut leaves and spitting the red mixture after they had chewed it on to the ground, or in one of the many, many buckets which were placed in the middle of the aisles.
These betel nut chews, which are placed into a green leaf and covered in caustic lime paste, eat away the teeth of those who chew it.
It was sad to see so many young people with no teeth left in their mouths or with stubby remnants of rotten teeth, colored red from the betel nuts.
At Zaycho Day Market, we saw hundreds of vendors selling those betel nuts in all shapes.
They also had tall piles of the leaves which are used for chewing.
Betel nut chewing is a habit that has replaced Cheroot smoking in Myanmar.
Cheroot are handmade yellow cigars that used to be smoked by many.
People now chew betel nut, get a mild high and then spit the red mixture out.
I felt sad for those people.
Not just for their rotten and decaying teeth, but because this terrible caustic mixture eats away their insides as well, and those youngsters who start in with this addiction early in life face a lifetime of living without teeth and with fragility from their compromised organs.
It is hard to find any old person who does not chew betel nuts and when they smiled at us, their red colored mouth exposed horribly rotten gums, and the painful remnants of rotting teeth.
The Zaycho market is a fascinating place to see what makes up Burmese cuisine.
There were aisles of dried fish and dried shrimp, which are used as flavoring, aisles of fermented green tea leaves, which make the tea leaf salad that they eat, aisles of rice and nuts and beans, black puff mushrooms, noodles and herbs.
We saw aisles of fabric that are used in their “Longhis,” which are the ankle length sarongs that both men and women wear.
As we passed through the city, we saw many workshops in which artisans worked making beautiful craft pieces.
There is a section in the city where the marble stone carving workshops are located, and another area in which the woodcarving workshops are located.
We saw the woodcarvers holding pieces of wood with their toes and using only hand tools, creating stunning wooden windows and door shutters as well as puppet heads and sculptures.
We visited an area where they weave Longhi, and an area where they embroider tapestries overlaid with tiny colorful beads.
We visited many monasteries and pagodas around the city and as sunset grew near, we made our way to Mandalay Hill to see the temple there, and to enjoy the sunset and the nice panoramic views of the city.
On the road up Mandalay Hill, we saw many pink-robed young Buddhist nuns, and red and yellow-clad young monks.
The gentle local girls always ride seated sideways on the scooters, and somehow they managed to stay put and never fall off, even with all the bumpy roads.
The city has many scooters operating as taxis.
We took one such scooter taxi one day, when we could not locate a taxi from the Zaycho market.
It was an exciting experience to sit behind our scooter driver, who looked like a very young boy but probably was in his twenties.
I sat behind him, holding gently to his tiny, slim body, and Jules sat behind me.
I noticed that both of the side mirrors were not directed towards the traffic to see if cars were coming from the right or the left sides, but directed towards him, so that he could see himself from all sides.
From Mandalay Hill, the panoramic view was beautiful, with uninterrupted vistas of this pagoda studded golden city.
When we got down from Mandalay Hill, the lights of the monasteries at night were glowing, and people were visiting these golden temples, almost like a visit to Disneyland.
We entered one of those temple complexes at night and admired the golden columns, the golden Buddha and the elaborately lit buildings.
We decided to check out of our hotel and move on to Bagan a day earlier than we had originally planned.
We did not expect a refund for the last night that we had already paid for, but we did ask them if they could do something…
They invited us to a fabulous last dinner in the hotel restaurant.
It was a tasty meal of yellow lentil soup, green tomato salad, a Burmese fish curry sprinkled with peanuts and spices, and semolina cake with sautéed bananas.
I plan to describe our visit to the four ancient cities around Mandalay in my next post.