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Beautiful palaces, turquoise pools lined with luscious palm trees, exotic singing birds, and colorful dressed beauties wandering the streets. These are the images that the name of the city, Mandalay, evokes when first heard. Reality could not be much different. It is a bustling, dusty city, not much different from Yangon, bathed in the heat of the March sun. Loud little local blue Mazda pickups buzz the streets, people ride around town piled high in bench-lined ancient Japanese pickup trucks, large trucks transport goods stacked to unlikely heights, and one has to be careful of the constant barrage of decrepit motorcycles. It is Burma in its essence, but the tropical paradise one would imagine is nowhere to be found. I have no idea what the Las Vegas casino developers thought when they blessed their casino resort with the same name, but one thing is sure, they have never set foot here.

Barring the disillusion of the name, we enjoyed our time here. We’ve spent a day walking around, trying the various cuisine which made its way here. We ate a Nepali breakfast, snacked on little triangular samosas and paratas on the side of a quiet alley, and had a delicious dinner of Chinese style sweet and sour chicken and hot sauce with fish. To beat the heat, there was always a fruit monger selling sweet cooling watermelon or a stall with fresh squeezed juice.

The highlight of our walk around town was Mandalay Hill. It sits on the side of this flat city, studded with pagoda, payas, stupas, chedis, and other shrines. We started our climb after the unforgiving sun has stopped pummeling everything with its blazing rays. One set of staircase later, we arrived at a shrine. We walked on, and another shrine. After a couple more Buddha statues, stupas, and staircases, we were convinced we arrived at the top and enjoyed the view of the city sprawling out underneath. A monk motioned for us to continue up. Behind this shrine was another staircase leading higher up. We continued, and as we approached the next stupa, we were convinced this was the end. It continued on like this for maybe another ten times, each time thinking we have reached the zenith. Once we did reach the final, real authentic top of the hill, it was all worth it. A polished shrine stood in the middle of the peak, with the obligatory serene Buddha statue inside. It was decorated with colorful tiles and colored mirrors which made it shine and glitter in the setting sun.

Weronika and I went to visit the Mustache Brothers for one of their nightly performances. These guys used to run a well-known dance and theater show that traveled all around the country. However, their humor would not abide by the boundaries the junta spelled out, and they got in trouble. And quite a bit of trouble they got themselves into, being outspoken critics of the ruling generals. One of the brothers, Par Par Lay, has been arrested three times and has spent over five years in prison, doing hard labor. His brother carried on the show with his wife. Now they are all free from jail, but even though now they are barred from performing in public, they continue to hold nightly performances in on their makeshift stage in their small living room in Mandalay. The show is an eccentric mix of critique against the government, verbal illustration of life in Burma, as well as a fine introduction to the dance and theater arts which used to be so popular in this country before the advent of television. Even though some of the material may not be as entertaining to western tastes, I recommend going to support a very brave family in their fight against oppression.

The following day we hired one of the ubiquitous little blue Mazda pickups to go touring the towns around Mandalay. We visited Amarapura, which was once a capital of Burma. There we stopped by the Maha Ganayon Kyaung monastery, just as a few thousand red robe-clad monks lined up to enter the large hall where they will have their main meal of the day, a little before noon. Afterward, we visited the Sagaing Hill, which like Mandalay Hill, is virtually encrusted with pagodas. After a bit of walking around and getting our fill of pagoda’s for the day, we continued on the Inwe, which was at one point a capital of the Burmese kingdom for almost 400 years. What now remains are a couple of stupas, portions of the city wall, and a fantastic three story tall tower which is all that is left of the palace. The views from the top across banana trees and the flat green landscape overgrown with vegetation was very serene. We finished the day on the teak U Bein’s Bridge, which spans Tangthaman Lake for over a kilometer.

The last day we decided that we were craving good coffee and pizza. What better place to go to than an old British hill station town. Pyin U Lwin, set in the hills, about two hours ride from Mandalay, it has a cooler climate and very pleasant architecture. We endured a cramped ride in an overcrowded pickup truck, which broke down completely partway there. We finished our trip by piling into another pickup truck. We had our much-deserved coffee and a burger, and took a ride in a colorful horse-carriage to the botanical gardens, where we strolled around before heading back to Mandalay and catching a bus to Kalaw.

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