It’s now our two last days in Myanmar, and we will spend them in Mandalay, the former royal capital city. As expected, it has its share of beautiful temples and pagodas to visit. We hop on bicycles and ride through the intense traffic, breathe in delicious exhaust fumes, listen to the concerto of perpetual honking when it isn’t the strident squeaking of our breaks as we try to avoid blind drivers.
We visit a few temples, two being very impressive:
The Shwenandaw Monastery: Built 150 years ago, it is the only remaining building of the royal palace (thanks to the allied bombings in WWII), as it was moved away from the palace grounds by a king that was convinced his dead father’s soul haunted the structure. The whole monastery is built in carved teak wood, for a stunning effect.
The Kuthodaw Pagoda: Another gold stupa, that is however surrounded by what is regarded as the world’s largest book: 729 pages (the entire Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism) carved in marble, each standing in its own white little stupa (around 3m-high). Apparently it would take over 400 days to read if you’d do it for 8 hours a day. We strolled through the blinding-white structures before climbing to the top of Mandalay hill (45 minutes of endless stairs – of course not at 1pm, because we’d have to be stupid to do that, right??).
Another interesting stop was one of the city’s gold-leaf factory. You can admire workers beating pieces of gold for hours and hours in order to make it as thin as possible. At the end of the process, the leaves are so thin that they almost float in the air! The leaves are then used to cover temples, statues, or decorative articles.
Finally, we drove south of the city to the famous U Bein bridge, famous for its sunset views. We convinced a driver to take us both squeezed on his motorbike for the 45-min ride through the busy streets of Mandalay and got there before sunset, strolled on the 1.2 km-long bridge built out of teak wood (over a thousand pillars), and took some pictures with no-one around except for maybe a few hundreds of other tourists.
Some interesting points about Myanmar:
During our stay in Myanmar, we really learned to love that country and already miss it (now being in Thailand). We noticed a few specialties that were worth a little note, however, other countries in South-East Asia might of course have similar ones.
- Thanaka – This is totally Myanmar! Thanaka is the outer part (bark) of a tree similar to the sandal wood tree and used as sunscreen, cosmetic skin care (against acne), but also as an expression of the personality. Men or women, adults or children, we would maybe estimate that about 90% of the people we’ve seen use thanaka – sometimes covering their entire face, sometimes drawing all kinds of different patterns. The round big circles on the cheeks sometimes look like they’re going to a clown festival, but we really loved this Myanmar specialty. You can buy Thanaka in it’s original form – the tree bark – and rub it on a stone plate with some water. Alternatively, there are ready-to-go Thanaka mixes.
- Longyi: We already wrote about this in the posts about Yangon, because we were fascinated how normal it is for Burmese men to wear the longyi – some sort of long skirt, equivalent to the sarong in Thailand. Again, the large majority of men wear it. Because most of the toilets are squatting toilets, the longyi is quite handy for that. Also, to visit any temple, no short pants are allowed, so a longyi is the perfect outfit.
- People in Myanmar are usually very friendly and smiling to tourists. As mass-tourism hasn’t reached the country (yet), they generally seem happy when we show interest for their daily activity or ask to take pictures of them. They often greet us in the streets, or invite us to see from closer what they are doing.
- People really don’t seem to know how to drive backwards – we had a few funny episodes with a taxi driver panicking when he had to go back 5m after taking the wrong street, or just looking at people trying to come out of a parking slot. A friend explained that this comes from the fact that a few years ago there were barely any cars on the streets, and that people never properly learnt how to drive. Also, locals can rent a taxi for the day without any license.
- Apparently, people are not used to long meals. Food was always served to us within less than 5minutes, and as we stayed a bit at the restaurant, enjoying our food, our table neighbours kept changing. Once, as we arranged for a tuk-tuk to wait for us as we had a nice dinner with friends far outside of town, he didn’t understand why we would need more than 45 minutes…
- Electricity cuts for several minutes – The power network is not made for heavy usage, so there are plenty of electricity cuts. We’ve experienced a few, ranging from a couple of minutes to a couple of hours, but luckily never ended up standing in the dark while taking a shower.
- Sweet and salty dried fruit is the Haribo version here. We missed out on trying it, but also couldn’t really find any more Haribo-like candy (to satisfy Quentin’s cravings)
- “Vegetarian” is literally translated by “lifeless”
- In Burmese supermarkets you usually cannot find any fresh food/fruits/vegetables, which are bought only on street markets. We also noticed that employees were busy taking out every article from the shelves to wipe the dust off. It is (hopefully) not because the products haven’t been bought for years, but rather a result of the heavy dust, especially during the dry season.
- Myanmar is still quite authentic, which also implies that technology (except for phones) hasn’t really reached the main population yet. We barely saw any computer (not even sure if even) – bookings for buses are made with telephone calls and hand-filled tickets; bookings for hotels with handwritten big books; no receipts in shops, etc.
- Water bottles are always filled up to the last bit so that – as hard as you try – do not manage to not spill it on you when opening the bottle (helps for a bit of refreshment though). Also, it’s always purified water, so no minerals left. You can buy little packages of minerals to add with the water.
- In Myanmar, you’ll spend more than half of your time barefoot. We actually really loved the habit of taking off shoes and socks when entering a house or a temple (especially Rebekka loves walking barefeet), it is just getting a bit annoying to use bathrooms (where you have to wear shoes again)…
- Burmese people don’t seem to get grey hair… Be it in cities or villages, we realised that even those that look over a 100 years old did not have any great hair… and we really tried to search for them. Maybe they color them, or they have particular gene?
Myanmar, we will miss you! Next stop: Northern Thailand!