Mandalay, Myanmar – a colonial step in time

January 20, 2013 in General

Arriving in Myanmar was other-worldly.  Golden domes dotted the landscape for as far as the eye could see, and there seemed to be a strange hush over everything as we landed at Mandalay airport.  The sun beat down on a bone-dry landscape, and for some reason I felt as though I had arrived in Africa.  A fine layer of dust clung to my skin as we disembarked.  The quiet was broken by the sound of a fighter jet roaring down the runway behind us, and then the eerie stillness returned.

Heading down the street in Mandalay

Taxi drivers clamoured for our attention once we had passed through customs, providing a stark contrast to the silence of the tarmac.  Young men tugged at our sleeves, offered to carry our bags, pulled us towards their cars, all shouting over one another to convince us they were the best.  The one who spoke the best English won out in the end.  The others fell back with crestfallen looks on their faces.

We ended up packed into a van like sardines for the 50 kilometre drive to the Mandalay township.  Ten minutes up the road we had a flat tyre, and bumped over to the side for some air.  An old woman stared past us disinterestedly as the driver gesticulated and tried to explain what was wrong to a young man with a diesel generator.  Chickens scratched in the dirt.

Once we were on the road again, it was a slow drive.  It appeared we were supposed to drive on the right-hand side of the road, but all the vehicles I saw were left-hand drive.  Motorbikes seemed to be immune from the right-hand rule, and zoomed up and down both sides.  Our driver sat on his horn if he thought they were too close for comfort.  The horn was also used instead of the indicator.  When approaching intersections and roundabouts he would begin honking, and wouldn’t stop till we had safely passed.  If you want to be noticed and avoided in Myanmar, make as much noise as possible.

The Garden Hotel, Mandalay

The hotel was a blast from the colonial past.  Men in sarongs bowed and held the door open for us as we entered, and called us “sir” at the beginning or end of most sentences.  The lobby was dark teak, and appeared to date from the late 19th century colonial era.  I felt like a British traveller arriving in the colonies, and shook my head.  It was surreal.  The upstairs hallways were white ceramic, and adorned with pictures from old nursery rhymes such as “Humpty Dumpty” and “Hey Diddle Diddle”.  I wondered if the building had been a nursery or hospital in the colonial days.

The Mandalay Royal Palace

We paid a local 18,000 kyut (about $NZ12) to drive us around for the afternoon.  Our first stop was the Mandalay Royal Palace, which occupies a huge area in the middle of the city.  A wide moat and double wall runs around the perimeter, and any trip in or around Mandalay means running up against a palace wall at some point.  Each wall stretches for kilometres, and the only way around is around.

The palace itself was almost deserted.  Pigeon poop was scattered sporadically over the floor, and a thick layer of dust coated the carvings and doorways.  Very little work has been done to maintain the interior, although it is impressive nonetheless.  The gold paint looked amazing from a distance, but on closer inspection was flaking in many places.  Visitors were free to poke around as they pleased, and I didn’t see any guards.  The odd placard in English gave us a few titbits of information about the palace and the purpose it had served.  It seemed a sad reminder of former glory days.

The world’s largest book

Our next stop was an intricate teak Shwenandaw Monastery, followed by the Kuthodaw Pagoda.  While there we were treated to the world’s largest book.  (Of all things to find in Myanmar.)  Turns out in 1871 King Mindon ordered the Buddhist religious teachings to be inscribed on large blocks of stone.  One stone block constitutes one page of the book, and each block is housed in its own gated enclosure.  The book goes on, page after page, for several acres.  I was interested to find a monk’s habit lying behind one of the enclosures, and even more interested to notice a pair of ladies panties lying nearby.  I thought monks were celibate?

A shrine to love on Mandalay Hill

Mandalay Hill was our final stop.  Steps ran up the side for what was around a forty minute walk, and shrines were dotted along the way on every landing.   Old women pressed postcards towards us, and stray dogs sniffled.  Sam (a friend I’m travelling with in Myanmar) gasped with horror as he noticed the haemorrhoids on one particular dog.

“Oh wait,” he said, pausing with relief.  “Maybe that’s just the vagina.”  Things gay men say.

An enormous Buddha looked out over the city once we reached the top.  The gaudy LED lights around his head seemed a bit tacky.

On the way back down, Sam asked “do you think this is a local cruising zone?”

“Probably not,” I replied.

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