Travelling through Asia has a strange way of messing around with a travellers feelings towards a place. One minute, you’re head over heels with where you are and then the next the mood can change where you will feel conflicted. It’s how I felt after my visiting Mandalay. It’s a place that I didn’t love but also didn’t hate completely; there was enough to make it interesting at the time, but not enough for me to say that I’d come back to it.
Mandalay is the second largest city in Burma and the final destination of our trip and our point of departure. By now I was looking forward to getting back to Vietnam. After a five hour bus ride from Bagan, we arrived to the heavily congested city and crawled our way through at a snails pace towards downtown. Even though we had already visited Yangon the largest city, It never felt as as busy and developed as Mandalay. As usual, we hadn’t decided on a place to stay and with a roll of the dice as the driver asked us where we wanted to be dropped off, we picked Silver Star hotel from the Lonely Planet.
I found Mandalay to be unlike any other city in Burma. The heat and humidity was worse and it would only require a few minutes outside of the air conditioned hotel until the sweat would start pouring from every pore. Unlike most SEAsian countries, there were just as many cars if not more than motorbikes on the streets and it felt like the heat would be was trapping of heat trapped in the city that was inescapable.
Not wanting to waste any time in the city, decided to go for a walk around to the palace in the middle of the city which was only four blocks away from where we were staying. It didn’t much time to realise that the chances of seeing it were pretty slim with each of the moats surrounding the palace grounds being two kilometres in length and with the tourist entry being on the opposite end to where I was, that idea was quickly abandoned. I was now in downtown Mandalay with the midday sun pounding down on me with nothing else to do I decided to find an air conditioned building such as a shopping centre so I decide to head southwards along the main road.
Along the way I came across the train station where men were loading huge bags of goods onto the train to be transported. They were all working on groups of four or five on each carriage but only one person seemed to be doing all of the heavy lifting whilst the others just stood around nonchalantly.
Further along where the passenger carriages that were split into “ordinary class” which were bare wooden benches and “premium class” which had padded seating and some oscillating fans. All carriages seemed full and everybody with the exception of children seemed quiet and motionless as they attempted to remain as cool. In the middle of the two classes of carriages were the dining carriages with a kitchen attached to the end where two men were busily preparing lunch. One was in charge of the wok over a hot coal burner while the other was packing the lunch into styrofoam boxes.
While I was taking a few pictures, a young local man came up to me for a chat. He was from out of town and said he came to Mandalay on regular basis. He asked me quite a few questions about Australia, the kangaroos and what I did for work. As the conversation came to an end and I was starting to walk away, he asked if he could have some money to which I declined. After three weeks of travelling and mostly in regional areas, we didn’t run into anybody asking for money, but like most places it only seems to be prevalent in larger cities where there is wealth and progress.
Next to the train station I found my sanctuary in the form of SP Bakery which would become my second home over the next few days. Here there was iced coffee, the fastest internet in all of Burma (relatively slow compared to other countries) and the crispiest and juiciest fried chicken that I’ve ever had in a long time. Slouched back in the diner styled booths, I was enjoying a chicken, A/C and internet combo like it was crack. Right now I’m feeling moderately guilty having just said no to a guy who asked for money even though I know it was the right thing to do in not giving money to beggars. Then five minutes later I’m singing with joy as I’m devouring some crispy chicken whilst being reunited with the drug that is the internet and its powers of connectivity.
Mandalay is a relatively flat city with a hill in the centre of it called…Mandalay Hill. On and around the hill are several temple sites with Sutaungpyei Pagoda perched high up at the top. It’s possible to walk from the bottom to the top via a steep of stairs but truth be known, I was pretty lazy that day so opted for the expensive $7 cab fare up to the carpark near the top of the hill. I can understand how a site can be developed to make life easier for tourists; like elevators at Schwedagon Pagoda and viewing platforms on some temples in Bagan, but on Mandalay Hill there is a set of escalators so that visitors could get from the car park to the top, sweat free. Again, it’s hard not to feel partly guilty catching a cab up especially seeing others, drenched in sweat as they reach the top after their hike, but installing a shopping centre like set of escalators was slightly disturbing.
At the top, you can truly appreciate how expansive the city of Mandalay is. One the eastern side are endless plains and overlooking the south are views over the royal palace which dominates much of the city landscape. The Sutaungpyei Pagoda itself was something to be marvelled at. Not in a “wow this place is so holy I can feel the religious vibe flowing through me” but due to the over the top renovation by the government to razzle and dazzle the tourists. Every square inch of the place was tiled, golden with sparkly and reflective mirrors implanted into each of the support pylons. Sure it looked easy on the eye but after the experiencing the old and crumbling charm of Bagan, the LED lights that adorned the Buddha shrines felt way out of place.
The next day we returned to the base of Mandalay Hill to explore the Kuthodaw Pagoda as we saw the hundreds of stupas from the cab the previous day and wanted to return to check it out. Kuthodaw Pagoda is the site of the worlds largest book. It’s not an actual book with pages that we’re all familiar with, but a site made up of 729 stone inscriptions in caves or stupas that each contain a marble tablet, each representing a page with the teachings of Buddha carved on each of them. The inscriptions are in Pali which is an ancient script originating from India and monks come from afar to study its teachings.
As soon as we were in inside, I saw a monk sitting on a ledge who called me over where we struck up a conversation. After a few minutes of exchanging pleasantries, he asked if I wanted a tour of the place, which I happily agreed upon. After meeting up with Jennifer, we continued the tour and he gave us an insightful tour of the various religious symbols and artefacts within the temple area that are also present at all the pagodas in Burma. Many of the things were interesting despite being repeated a few times but we just overlooked it. Over a couple of hours he had taken us through three different complexes in the area and despite running out of time to make it back to our moto drivers who were waiting at the entrance for us, he was adamant we continue till the end which we reluctantly agreed upon.
When the light had pretty much faded, we were pretty much ready to part ways. That was when things took a turn which would become the only blemish on our time in Burma. After saying thankyou, he demanded that we pay US$100 for the tour as he had new robes and books that he needed to buy. You could probably imagine the shock that struck us at that point. I was looking at Jen with a “did he ask for what I just thought he asked for” kind of look and I think she had the same expression. What felt like an eternity but in reality was ten seconds that passed and we eventually asked if he meant 5000 Khat (US$10) each and he bluntly responded with US$50.
After another minute of trying to reason with him, we parted ways by telling him in an assertive tone that although we are westerners 500 khats is the most we’ve ever paid and would pay for a tour. We held out our money and said take it or leave it to which he did and parted ways while he cursed under his breath and left.
I wouldn’t say that the afternoons event didn’t tarnish how felt about the Burmese, it was just an unfortunate incident to occur especially being so close to the end of the trip as well. Throughout the trip, we’ve experienced unfathomable kindness and hospitality from strangers throughout from start to finish. Then only to be what felt like being taken advantage of by a monk which momentarily sent me into a bit of a tailspin. For the entire night I found myself both shocked and also reasoning with myself that it was only the one incident and should not be a reflection on the entire trip.
Burma is truly a unique and relatively undiscovered place, but also where my patience has been tested the most. Having come from Vietnam where I had spent two months, knew the ins and outs could speak the language fluently, I pretty much left my bubble and felt the isolation in a foreign country. Although I felt like that I probably didn’t struggle as much as other travellers would have, I still had to force myself to slow down accept my own mistakes partly through a lack of preparation as well as the language barrier and cultural differences and understand that sometimes things never work out the way as originally intended. That for me is the love hate relationship with travelling but in the end is why I keep on doing it.
Do you think we handled the situation with the monk correctly?
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