Mandalay: Saturday 21st February 2008

Myanmar 1392

Today we had the luxury of a little sleep-in. We watched the early morning mist blanketing the old palace grounds from our hotel window, which gave us excellent views over Mandalay. We had breakfast at the hotel, which had a huge assortment of food to choose from. I tried a Myanmar pancake which was quite nice. Today we were heading to Mingun, and Mimi met us in the hotel foyer. Mimi told us today that Myanmar is pronounced Mee-ah-mah. Similarly Mandalay is pronounced Man-a-lay.

We stopped at a street side market on our way to the river, and spent some time walking amongst the stalls. I love looking at all the exotic and interesting things on sale.

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At the Awerwaddy River, we watched as women carried terracotta pots up the gangplanks, balancing them 5 high on their heads. Young children called poppa, poppa and touched their lips, asking for lollies and other kids vied to have their photos taken, delighted seeing themselves on the cameras LCD.

The boat trip was lovely, a cool breeze keeping us comfortable on a very warm day. There are dolphins in the river, but Mimi hadn’t seen them for 3 years. The boat owners said that we would have to travel further up river to have a chance of seeing them.

We could see a Buddha statue on the hillside with many small stupas being built around him. The plan was to have 1,000 stupas constructed.

As we approached Mingun, the Unfinished Pagoda, a huge pedestal loomed. The project to build the biggest pagoda in the world proved too ambitious and it was never completed. Mimi told us that after 19 years of construction the people were fed up building the pagoda and started spreading rumours that if it was ever completed, King Bedawpaya would die. The rumours reached the King, but he would loose face if he told the workers to stop construction. Instead he told them that as they had been working so long they could all take a vacation for as long as they liked. The pagoda was hence never completed, and the king died in 1819, 29 years after construction first began. It is now the world’s largest pile of bricks.

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After leaving the boat, we visited Pendaw Paya, a working model of what the Mingun Paya would have been like if it was completed.

We passed the Settanga Paya, with Buddha’s footprint enshrined within, then climbed Mingun Paya. Two young men gave commentary and directions as well as helping Michelle on some of the more treacherous pieces of the pathway.

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After enjoying the views from the top we descended, bought a coconut drink to rehydrate and also picked up some T-shirts and a horse puppet from the girls who followed us from the boat landing and had waited patiently for our return.

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We next visited Hsinbyume Paya, a representation of Sutamani Paya on top of Mt Meru at the centre of the cosmos. The wavy terraces representing the seven mountain ranges. The temple was painted a soft duck-egg blue which was very bright in the sunlight.

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We were told that some travellers offered to clean the enshrined Buddha for the local villagers who gullibly agreed. The travellers cut off the head of the Buddha to take the treasures, but found none inside. They reattached the head and returned the Buddha but the villagers were not happy as the head was not attached straight. The would-be thieves agreed to replace the Buddha with a new statue, both of which are now at the top of the temple.

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Walking through the village of Mingun I tried a shrimp pancake, freshly cooked which was really nice. We next visited Mingun bell, which I rang three times for good luck. The bell is now the largest uncracked bell in the world, and the 3rd largest bell still in existence. The earthquake which damaged the Mingun Paya for which the bell was made also destroyed the bells supports.

We walked through the Buddhist Infirmary, and old folks home started by a kindly benefactor, and returned to our boat for our trip back to Mandalay.

For lunch we stopped at a really nice Thai Restaurant. The soup was extremely spicy, but nice. We also had a green curry, a fried chicken dish, some very, very tasty wontons and fried banana and honey for dessert.

A quick visit to the Jade Shop where I picked up a medium sized Jade elephant and four small jade elephants.

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We next stopped at a nunnery. The nuns were busy studying for their exams which were coming up in about four weeks. We were offered some dried green tea leaves with dried beans as well as some very sweet bananas and water. Very generous.

Mimi told us of the nun’s life, how it is voluntary to be a nun as opposed to the mandatory monkship for men. Nuns not only can join at will, but can also leave whenever they want. There was a young girl from a hill tribe who spoke no Burmese, just her local dialect. She had to learn to read and write Burmese before she could learn all of the scriptures of the Buddha.

We got a tour through the nunnery and sat and chatted some more with Mimi acting as interpreter.

I asked for a photo of the young nuns. The senior nun said it was OK, but they had to prepare themselves to be modest, so they all put on their proper robes and dropped their smiles and picked up their books for the camera.

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Next stop was the Golden Palace Monastery. Shwenandaw Kyaunj is all that is left of the old Mandalay Palace. It was dismantled and moved outside the palace walls and was thus saved from the later bombing of World War 2 which destroyed all of the old palace.

The building is intricately carved inside and out, and there are carved panels inside representing the 10 jakata, one of which is:

In one of the past lives of Buddha he was a young man who looked after his blind parents. One day he was in the woods surrounded by animals who were his friends. A hunter came into the forest and thinking the Buddha was one of the animals shot him with an arrow. The young man cried out in pain and the hunter, realising his mistake ran to him. The young man said, “I am dying – what will become of my parents who are blind and depend on me to look after them?” The hunter ran to fetch his parents, who when they realised that their only son was dying cried and cried.

The King of the Spirits heard their crying, and came and granted the parents one wish. Thinking carefully how to use their wish in a wise way, the parents wished to see their son alive bringing them a pot of gold. 3 birds with one stone!

From here we walked to the World’s Biggest Book. Each page of the book is a marble slab, engraved on both sides with the scriptures of Buddha.

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We then drove up to Mandalay Hill, where with hundreds of other tourists and many locals we watched the sunset.

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Dinner was back at the hotel in the buffet restaurant. Lemon fish and many other dishes to chose from. A rock concert with local Myanmar rock stars was playing in the field next to the hotel, but thankfully for us it wasn’t too loud. We met a girl in the lift the next morning that was staying at that side of the hotel; she was kept up all night so we were lucky!