Sunday, January 11, 2015

Mandalay: Culture, beauty, and a little tourist-guilt

Mandalay, a burgeoning city in the northern portion of Myanmar, made for a wonderful first taste of the country.

After arriving at Mandalay International Airport, we took a crowded van into the city and were dropped at our hotel. Choosing a hotel was fairly easy, as the country is new to tourism and there are not many options. Our hotel, The Hotel Emperor, was in a great location and had a very young and personable staff. The rooms were a good size and very clean. We had to carefully select our wardrobe, as Myanmar is a very conservative society. While there is no official religion of Myanmar, the overwhelming majority practice  Buddhism. If you have ever visited a Buddhist place of worship, you know that the "dress code" requires shoulders and knees be covered (and women should be covered closer to the ankle). Considering most Burmese people are devoutly Buddhist, it would be considered disrespectful to walk around scantily clad. I recommend long shorts or a long skirt and a t-shirt. Do your research. I packed the only long shorts I had (about 2 inches above the knee) and some very breathable t-shirts. On days I knew we would be in transit or in places with a lot of tourists, I would wear a thick-strapped tank top and throw my Nike windbreaker in my daypack.

They recommended a local restaurant that had a wide array of Burmese dishes. The restaurant had an open front and no one spoke English (for us, this wasn't a struggle, as we both lived in Korea. We're both fluent in charades).We pointed at things that looked good and they were warmed and delivered to our table with rice and a few sides. Blind trust in the restaurant workers was a prerry big risk; but it absolutely paid off! Fantastic meal!

What we did/saw:
Gold Workshop
We stopped off to see men pounding gold into gold leaf. The leaf is used as an offering to the Buddha, and you'll see worshipers walk up to the statues and rub the leaf onto the statue. If you have ever noticed the uneven distribution of gold on Buddha statues, that's why. [pictured above]

Amarapura and the Mahagandayon Monastery

Amarapura is the former capitol of Myanmar and sits on the southwest corner of the Mandalay region. There lives the Mahagandayon Monastery. The monastery houses around 1000 monks who, at 10am every day, line up to receive their last meal of the day. The number of tourists there to watch these monks... wait in line and eat, is overwhelming. Truthfully, it felt a little disrespectful. It did, however, offer some insight into the daily life of a monk, If you ever visit this location, please be mindful of how you would feel if people were staring you down while you ate. We watched from a distance, took a few pictures, and moved on.

We were approached by a monk who saw us kind of aimlessly walking, looking around carefully. He asked us about some common English slang, and then offered us a tour of the monastery. He was extremely kind and very eager to share his religion and culture with us.

Sagaing Hill Temples

Our driver for the day brought us from the monastery directly to the Sagaing Hill temples. We stopped at 3 very different temples in the area. All distinct, and all beautiful. Because they were set up on a hill, we had beautiful views of the area. Even if you feel like you're "templed out," its still worth the trek.


Located on the opposite side of the river from Sagaing, Inwa is a really cool area. Though it is not an island, from the direction we were coming, it was only accessible by boat. After getting off the boat, we were quickly approached by horse cart drivers- apparently that is the only way to get around over there. We hopped between a beautiful wooden monastery, a very unstable looking watchtower, and a very bumpy road. We went through the area very quickly, as we wanted to make it to our next stop before sunset. It's worth it if you have extra time. Otherwise, you wouldn't miss much giving it a pass.

U Bein Bridge

Incredible. Built sometime around 1850, the wooden bridge spans 1.2 kilometers (about 3/4 mile) across Taungthaman Lake. The bridge itself is very impressive. Just looking at it, it appears that the whole thing could collapse at any moment! The teakwood structure is actually quite strong. As we were walking along the bridge, we were approached by another monk! His English was impeccable and he had a lot of interesting information to share with us about the history of Myanmar, and the recent shift to allowing tourists to enter the country.

Grasshopper Adventures: Tea Shop, Foodie Tour

The tour was awesome! We all had our own bike drivers, and we rode in little stats facing backwards on the bike. We stopped at a roadside stand to grab some tempura, and then went off to a small restaurant on the edge of an open air market. The guide ordered us some mohinga, which is a fish and noodle dish traditionally eaten for breakfast. It was absolutely delicious. The empura we purchased on the way was to be eaten with the mohinga; making it noodely, salty, crunchy, and oh-so-satisfying!

We wandered over to the market and tried some home made tofu. We were taken into the market building, where there was a combination of food and textiles. It was a lot like the Korean markets. The next stop on the tour was a large tea shop where we were served tea and some dessert. The last stop was a shop where we could try the traditional green tea salad. It was probably the only thing that I had that I didn't absolutely love. It was fine, but everything else was just so fantastic, that the salad didn't quite stack up in my opinion.

Mandalay Palace

The palace complex is pretty well guarded. There are four 2km-long walls, only one of which has a public entrance. There are residents within the walls, and the actual palace is at the very center of the complex. Tourists are only permitted to travel down the straight road from the gate and into the palace area-- do not try to wander into the residential area!

The palace was beautiful, but eerily quiet. The architecture is similar to that of Thailand, so it wasn't as striking as it might have been if I hadn't previously seen similar buildings.

Shwenandaw Kyaung

Cool wooden monastery on the walk from the Palace to Mandalay Hill. Well worth popping in! It doesn't need more than about 15 minutes to explore and admire the wood wall carvings.

Kuthodaw Pagoda

Kuthodw Pagoda is a seriously cool attraction... and we almost missed it! We were rushing from the Mandalay Palace area to Mandalay Hill for sunset, and were going to walk past this gem, but decided cutting through would only add a few extra minutes. It looks a lot like all the other temples and pagodas in the area, but the small white stone structures hold a story. No, literally: a story! They hold large stone slabs with text engraved, and when read in sequence they create the world's largest book.

Mandalay Hill

Go to Mandalay Hill for sunset! It takes about 30 minutes to get to the top, and with somewhere around 1,700 stairs, make sure you bring water! There are posted signs all the way up saying "To The Top," and though it seems intuitive, it certainly is not. There are lots of landings and random rooms, the path twists a lot, and there are loads of Buddha statues. The view from the top is sensational. The tiles on the walls are colorful and reflective, and they catch the sunset beautifully.

NOTE: You should always remember to be mindful of where you are and the local culture. This is especially true in Myanmar. Keep covered and learn how to say thank you. You will be stared at and you will encounter people who don't speak English; learn how to handle it with grace or else postpone your trip until you can.

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