We finished our two days in Bangkok and flew from there to Mandalay for our first of 12 days in Myanmar. As our Bangkok guide said, we were leaving a country (Thailand) that has been under martial law since May of this year for one that has been under the same system for many years. However, as he also pointed out, we had not seen a huge military presence on the streets of Bangkok and we presumed that our experience would be similar in Myanmar.
The International Airport in Mandalay is small but getting through Immigration and Customs was straightforward and we were met by our local guide, Dorothy, who will be with us until we end the cruise. The initial impression of the country is that it is poor (much like most of India and Cambodia that we have seen) and housing for many can be quite primitive. It is only a few years since the country was opened up to the rest of the world and is clearly still in the early stages of development into a modern society.
50% of the population are farmers (rice, bananas, mangos, etc) and another large part of the economy is mining of precious stones.
Things are changing, however, and the cell phone is becoming ubiquitous, especially now that they have two commercial phone companies in addition to the government controlled service that existed alone until recently. We were told that this is an ideal time to visit the country while it still retains its character which must surely change as more and more visitors come and technology (not to mention McDonalds, etc) become as common as in other western and Asian countries.
After arriving, but before we were taken to our cruise boat, we were taken to the first of many temples that we will see here. This was the most revered Buddha temple in this part of the country, perhaps in the whole of Myanmar since it was reputed to have been in contact with Buddha himself in some former time. The “serene gold-leaf Buddha” is housed in the very ornate Mahamuni Pagoda. The shrine was well attended by the locals (85% of the country is Buddhist) who had, over the years, applied 20 inches of gold leaf to the figure and were still doing it today. Actually, only men are allowed close to the Buddha and women (including those in our group) had to view the figure from a distance. Nevertheless, men and women by the score were in and around the temple praying and otherwise paying their respect.
Once on the boat we were taken for a short sunset cruise along the river around our dock area to give us a wonderful introduction to Mandalay and Myanmar and its very colorful environment – especially as the sun was setting. We saw literally dozens of gold-domed pagodas, temples and other shrines.
This was followed by a good dinner on board and an after-dinner drink on the sun deck – in a raging thunderstorm! Our small group (Jay, Gordon, Molly and I) recognized this ship as the sister ship to the one that had taken us along the Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam almost three years ago. It is a little outdated in terms of amenities (bunk beds, relatively poor air-conditioning, etc but it is a very attractive wooden ship with a good deal of atmosphere befitting the region.
Monday was a hot, sunny day for a full seven hours of sightseeing in Mandalay.We first stopped at the Kuthodow Pagoda where there is a magnificent golden temple but which is more famous for the “Biggest Book in the World”. This is a series of 729 marble slabs (each in its own small housing) on which are written teachings of Buddha. The slabs date from the 17th century, are written in Sanskrit and each measure about 3 by 2 feet. We were told that to read the entire set would take six months chanting around the clock! Apparently only a relatively few monks can even read the inscriptions these days.
Then we went to the Shwenandaw Monastery which is decorated inside and out with amazing wood (teak) carvings – most of which were originally covered in gold leaf. These carvings are almost 200 years old and in remarkably good condition. The building itself was built for the king but he died there and it has been a shrine to him and home to a monastery ever since.
Then, after lunch, it was on to the Royal Palace. This was built for the monarch when he moved the capital to Mandalay in the 19th century but only two kings reigned from there before the British took over Burma and the second king was exiled to India. He had no sons and, although his queen did eventually return to Myanmar, it was basically the end of the monarchy in this country.
The palace, however, is enormous. Inside the wall, there are dozens of buildings which housed the royal family as well as reception and entertainment rooms for visitors to the palace. The main entrance hall is a gold covered building and many others are similarly decorated, one of which is essentially built in glass. The whole complex is lavishly decorated and carved and must have made a great impression on visitors as well as providing a very nice home for the royal family. Many of the buildings have been re-built after a fire destroyed a large part of the complex during World War II.
Finally today we went to the craft “factories” and, of course, their associated shops. This is a necessary part of any tour and usually designed more to separate you from your money rather than educate, but there is usually something of interest to see and viewing the working conditions is educational in itself.
More to come,
Bob and Molly