Monday, July 1, 2013

Ancient Cities of Mandalay

I was on my way to Mandalay. After an hour taxi ride, I arrived at the airport in Heho to catch a 45 minute flight. I checked in and was handed a sticker for my shirt and told to wait for my plane. I asked the woman at the counter for my seat and gate information and was told to go to gate 2 and I could just pick a seat when I boarded the plane. Wow! That is simple. Now I knew why I was suppose to wear a sticker, they could pick out who should be on the flight very easily. Why waist time and trees with a paper ticket? As I sat waiting at the gate, a woman approached me and informed me that the flight would be arriving an hour late which would delay my flight. She asked if I had any concerns with the change in flight time. What could I do? I was fine and grabbed my computer out of my bag to get caught up on my blog. I got everything out and was working on my blog when the gentleman that checked my bag comes over to me and tells me it is time to go. My plan had arrived. What?!?! I grabbed my belongings and followed him. There was my plane! I boarded and took a seat. The safety announcement was made and the woman ended it with "I hope we arrive safely." I giggled and the Burmese men next to me looked at me and said "Not funny. Plane crashes. Boom!" Yikes! WTH! He bowed his head and was praying.  I questioned if this was a smart choice. The plane started to taxi down the runway and I looked at my watch. It was leaving 10 minutes ahead of the departure time! I had noticed in Myanmar everything was on schedule or ahead of schedule. I had been impressed. Now I just had to pray I would land safely in Mandalay!

It was a quick flight and the view of the mountains was beautiful from the plane. Everything was green and lush with clouds nestled in the valleys. We landed in safely in Mandalay. Whew!  I waited for my bag in the hot, humid airport. Mandalay was significantly warmer than Inle Lake. I was dripping sweat when my bag finally arrived. I wanted to get to a hotel and take a shower.  The hotel, Peacock Lodge, had arranged a car to pick me up. I found my name on a sign and was headed into Mandalay. My first impression was a big dirty city that I just wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible. When I arrived at the hotel, I asked about a taxi to the three ancient cities. She offered to arrange a car. As we talked, I told her I would like to see U Bein Bridge at sunrise. I was already tired of the sales tactics at the tourist sites. I hear it was really bad at sunset but nobody at sunrise.  Since I was going to be up at 4:00 am, she suggested I take in a local tradition. The girl tells me that Buddha's face and teeth are washed and few tourists attend the ceremony. This is what drew me in. I like the local traditions and especially if there are not many tourists. Sign me up!
So, I was up a 3:30 AM and ready for the taxi ride to Mahamuni Pagoda. It is dark as the taxi pulls up to the pagoda. He tells me to leave my shoes in the backseat and meet him in an hour after the service. I walk to the entrance and stand with 3 Burmese people. Soon I see a procession of monks headed to the pagoda with offerings of flowers and fruits. They stand and wait with us. A man asks where I am from and translates to the others. They stand smiling at me as we wait. When the doors are opened the man grabs my arm and tells me to follow him. He is going to get me a good seat. I was confused because there were only a few of us. I think we will all have good seats.

The Buddha at the Mahamuni Pagoda has become famous for becoming fat. Over the last 100 years, men have been allowed to purchase gold leaf and enter the pagoda and add it to his body. Woman are not allowed to go into the inner sanctuary. There is a corded off area for woman to sit outside the main area and watch the ceremonies on a tv. I was in the front and had a good view of the ritual. I heard a beating of a drum followed by a bell. A head monk entered and was followed by layman  dressed in white. They entered and placed an orange robe over Buddha's shoulders and then arranged towels and offerings in the front.  The other monks that arrived outside the gates entered with their offerings of flowers and fruits. These were placed on the alter as offerings and then the monks were given them back and exited to the left hand side. The head monk used a cloth and a gold spray bottle. He would spray the water onto Buddha's face or teeth and then wipe it off. That was followed by waving of a gold fan.
My body was falling asleep as I sat on the floor. It was extremely hot and I was dripping sweat. I thought the ceremony had to be almost over. I looked at my watch and realized only 20 minutes had passed!! I was going to faint if I sat here any longer. I got up and moved outside to the courtyard. The fresh air felt good and I had a chance to cool off a little bit. My stomach started to cramp. No! Not again! I was having a hard time kicking this bug and the heat did not help the matter. I sat and sipped my water for 15 minutes and then decided it was time to go back to the taxi. As I exited the pagoda, a group of young monks surrounded me and asked for money. I said no and continued to walk. One boy actually kicked me. I was taken back and not expecting it. I looked at a woman that was watching. She said "you are a foreigner with much money, give each of them $5 USD. It will not hurt you. You have so much." I was shocked and appalled by this comment. I realize that I have more money but for a Novice monk to act that way and the woman to comment was rude. I know this is another tactic used to get the western tourists and they do it because it has worked in the past. But, I stuck to my guns and continued walking. I will not play that game.

My next stop was U Bein Bridge, easily one of Myanmar's most photographed sites. I was joining all the travelers that have tried to get the beauty of the bridge captured to remember their travels.

Their were few tourists waiting for sunrise. I walked out to the west side of the bridge. Dogs followed me as I looked for a good spot to take photos. I was watching the sky and snapping a few shots. A large black dog walked up to me and started to jump on me. I was protected by a frisky little brown and white dog. Before I knew what was going on, the 2 dogs were in a fight and I was in the middle! Crap! I can't get bit. I chose to skip the rabies shots that the CDC recommended. I got out of the middle of the dogs and they followed. I am not a mean person but I did not want to get bit and have to get a rabies shot. I kicked sand at the aggressive black dog and yelled at him. They moved away but I felt bad for kicking sand at them. Not the way I wanted my morning to start off but I was safe and keeping my eye on those troublemakers.

U Bein Bridge is the longest teak wood bridge in the world. Built in the mid 1800's, the 1.2 km long bridge spans over Taungtaman Lake. In the early morning, the Burmese were making their way across the bridge for exercise or on their way to work or school. I started my walk across the bridge. I was fine for the first section. But as I continued, the bridge wobbled and I was freaked out! The wood planks creaked with each step. They were uneven and I found myself watching to make certain I did not trip and fall off the side. The Burmese would laugh as they saw my hesitation. I made it a third of the way and realized I had to repeat this walk back to the taxi. At that point I had experienced the bridge and the view and decided to turn back.

The taxi took me to a few other sights in Amarapura that I did not want to visit. I told him I was ready to move on and then he started to take me to his friends shops (marionette salesmen, wood shop and bronze factory). He would sit trying to talk me into buying things I did not need. Ahhh! I politely asked him to please only take me to the places we had discussed. We had a disagreement and he insisted it was his choice. I had no patience to sit in this heat and wait around for these men to get caught up on their daily gossip while I was hassled to buy souvenirs. I told him I was ready to go back to my hotel. He was not  happy but I wasn't either. It was best for both of us to call it a day. I will find another taxi to take me where I wanted to go. And it was fairly easy. I gave the new taxi driver a list of the sights I wanted to see and he asked me to tell him if I would like him to pull over at any times. This was service!
Sagaing was the first stop with my new taxi driver. As we followed the river the view was beautiful. Pagodas and monasteries crowd the numerous hills along the ridge running parallel to the Irrawady river.
The city was the royal capital briefly in the mid 1700's. I asked the driver to take me to a few pagodas with views of the area. Some of the pagodas were under repair. I watched as workers balanced on the bamboo scaffolding and waved hello to me.
Others were not only used as a religious and tourist site but the center of daily life. As I pulled up in the taxi, I see a shop keeper giving his son a bath in a bucket. Each time his father poured water over his head, he giggled happily. Until he saw me. He was not sure what to think of me. He just stared at me and looked at his father. I thought he was adorable.

My final stop was a visit to Innwa,  an ancient imperial capital of successive Burmese kingdoms from the 14th to 19th centuries. Throughout history, it was rebuilt numerous times. The capital city was finally abandoned after it was completely destroyed by a series of major earthquakes. Today, only a few traces of its former grandeur remain. The taxi dropped me off at a jetty to take a boat across to Innwa. As I arrived on the other side of the river, I felt like I had taken a step back in time. Horse carts were waiting to take me on my journey around the island.
Our first stop was the Bagaya Monastery which was built with 267 teak wood posts. The largest post is 60 feet high and 9 ft in circumference. It was impressive, nothing I had seen before. The monastery was also famous for educating the royals. I saw young monks studying in a corner. There were maps a globes where they could locate a tourists home.
I crawled back into the horse cart. We passed other carts and the ancient wall of the city. Other pagodas looked similar to the pagodas of Bagan.  
The driver stopped to let me explore the ruins of pagodas ruined in an earthquake. Storm clouds were looming and I knew I would not have much time before the rain arrived.
I made it back to the horse cart just as the heavy rain started. We circled the remains of the old city and passed farmers on their way home from the fields. I am still amazed that they use ox and a cart in 2013.

I returned to the boat ferry and made my way through the mud and back to the taxi. I was ready to leave Mandalay and the heat and move northeast to the hill country.

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