Sunday, February 15: This morning, Alex and I leave our hotel in Kunming at 9 a.m. and head to the airport. Alex is returning to the USA via Beijing, and I’m heading on to Mandalay, Myanmar. Our flights are within a half hour of each other, with Alex due to leave ahead of me, so we check him in first at China Eastern. His first leg of the flight is considered a domestic flight since he’ll be going to Beijing. I’m going to Mandalay on China Eastern as well, but mine is an international flight, so I have to go to another check-in counter. After checking in and having a snack in a restaurant, we part ways with big hugs. He heads to the domestic departure terminal, while I go to international departures.
I start getting texts from Alex as it gets close to his departure time at noon. He says there is no sign of anyone at his gate and there has been no word about boarding. He only has about a 2 hour layover in Beijing, during which time he has to get his suitcase from the baggage claim, go through customs and then check in again at another terminal for his flight to Virginia. As the time ticks by, he becomes increasingly panicked as he doesn’t want to miss his flight and have to stay a night in Beijing. He’s ready to get home. I advise him that there isn’t that much of great value in his suitcase, so if things are terribly delayed, he can simply ditch the suitcase and head to the next terminal in Beijing with just his carry-on.
Meanwhile, as I’m worrying about him, my flight, which was due to leave after his, is also delayed, but only by a half-hour, so when I board, he still hasn’t. Of course I worry about him, but I figure he’ll work it out and if necessary, he’ll spend a night in Beijing. He’s in touch with Mike from here on out anyway, so I take off into the wild blue yonder in a business class seat. I don’t know how I happened to get this seat, but I’m pleased as can be to fly in style. The sad thing is that the flight is only 1.5 hours long, so I don’t get to enjoy it for long.
I’ve been traveling throughout China and so have seen all kinds of Chinese landscapes from the air, but I’m really fascinated by the landscape in Myanmar. I really wasn’t sure what to expect.
I arrive in Mandalay at around 2:00 and go directly to the airport money exchange with my $1,000 in brand new large U.S. bills. I’ve read the best exchange rate for the Myanmar kyat (MMK) is at the airport, using brand new U.S. bills. For my $1,000, I get 1,031,000 kyat in 5,000 bill denominations, all rubber banded up into two stacks of 500,000 each, and some smaller bills in another rubber band! They have to give me a plastic bag to carry all my money in. I guess this is what it feel like to be a millionaire! 🙂
As I am walking to the money exchange, some young men approach me and ask if I’d like a shared taxi for 4,000 kyat, or about $4. Well, I’ve never taken a taxi anywhere for $4, especially not from an airport, so I tell them yes, I’ll take the shared taxi. In our shared taxi are two Canadians also teaching in China, and like me, traveling to Myanmar on the winter holiday, and a really cool Italian girl from outside Milan. Funny thing, she’s an Italian English teacher, just as we are. We have a taxi full of teachers.
After about an hour drive into town, and after dropping some of the others at their hotels, I get dropped off at the unpretentious Mandalay View Inn. I’m a little disappointed at first sight. The proprietor is a grizzled, toothless old man who seems a little strange, but the young ladies who work at the hotel are really friendly and make me feel right at ease.
I alight in my room briefly and then head out immediately to try to make something of the afternoon. The hotel staff recommends that I catch a motorbike to scoot me around to a few temples and then head to Mandalay Hill for sunset. I always love to ride a motorbike, so we agree on 10,000 kyat and we’re on our way, zipping through the dusty streets of Mandalay.
Our first stop is the teak monastery Shwe-nandaw Kyaung, or Golden Palace Monastery. According to World Monuments Fund: Shwe-nandaw Kyaung once served as the northern chamber of Mandalay’s Glass Palace. It was built by King Mindon in the 19th century; he died inside of it in 1878. The chamber was later moved to its current location and refurbished as a monastery in 1880 by King Mindon’s son, King Thibaw, who believed the building was haunted by his father’s spirit. It is of great historic importance as it is the only apartment of the former royal palace that survived the bombing of Mandalay during World War II.
The building is almost entirely constructed of intricately carved teak, which was once completely gilded inside and out, as was almost all of King Mindon’s Golden City. The outer gilding is now mostly washed away, and the untreated teak is darkly tanned by the sun. However, much of the gilding still remains inside (Asia for Visitors).
At first I’m a little surprised and put off by the crowds of western tourists, especially Europeans, at this spot. There seem to be a lot of tourists my age, which is highly unusual. It is the high season in Myanmar in February, so I guess I’ll have to brace myself for crowds in my travels over the coming two weeks.
Inside the monastery, I spot this young Burmese lady standing in a pool of light and I snap a picture, a very blurred one at that. Immediately, a blonde American woman with mannish features and a huge camera in her hand snaps at me: “I paid for this model!” I say, “Sorry!” but immediately I’m really not sorry and regret saying it. She probably paid the model about 1,000 kyat, as that’s about all the girls ask for. If it were me in that situation, I would never yell at someone who happens to take a picture of someone I paid a small fee to photograph. Later, I see this American woman in many spots throughout Mandalay and even in Bagan, and I’m annoyed by her arrogance and her pretensions of being some kind of privileged photographer.
Standing on a tier of the monastery, I can see the gate to Mandalay University, the second oldest university in the country, and the largest university in Upper Myanmar. The university offers bachelor’s and master’s degree programs in common liberal arts, sciences and law disciplines.
In this same area, I go into Maha Atulawaiyan (Atumashi) – KyaungDawgyi. This unusually shaped temple is a series of diminishing stupa-dotted terraces over an arched base decorated with peacock motifs. When built in 1857 by King Mindon, it was built of teak, covered with stucco on the outside, and it housed a famous Buddha image clothed in royal silk clothing with a huge diamond set on its forehead. However, the image was stolen following the 1885 British takeover, and the monastery was gutted by fire five years later (Lonely Planet: Atumashi-Kyaungdawgyi). The building in place today is a 1996 reconstruction by Burma’s Archeological Department, who used prison labor for the reconstruction (Wikipedia: Atumashi Monastery).
Finally, my moto-taxi driver, who can’t speak English and has had other people translate for us when necessary, asks one of his friends at this complex to let me know that we need to move a little faster if I want to make it to Mandalay Hill by sunset.
I hop back on his motorbike and soon we’re on our way to Naha Lokanarazein Kuthodaw Pagoda, also known as the World’s Biggest Book. This pagoda was built by King Mindon in 1859. The inscribing on the 729 marble stone slabs of the Buddhist Canon (Tripitaka texts) was started in 1860 and completed in 1868. The contents of the 729 monoliths of the white marble stone slabs are as follows: 3 books of Sutta Pitaka on 410 marble slabs; 5 books of Vinaya Pitaka on 111 marble slabs; 7 books of Abhidhamma Pitaka on 208 marble slabs; and the inscribing history of all marble slabs on 1 slab.
According to Lonely Planet Myanmar (Burma), “another 1774 similarly ensconced marble slabs (collected in 1913) ring the nearby Sandamuni Paya with Tripitaka commentaries. Collectively these slabs are often cited as the ‘World’s Biggest Book.’ When King Mindon convened the 5th Buddhist Synod here, he used a team of 2,400 monks to read the book in a nonstop relay. It took them nearly 6 months.”
I’m in awe of the long lines of stupas housing the marble slabs that reach in every direction like an army of soldiers standing solidly in formation.
I can see that the sun is getting ready to set, so I rush along back to my motorbike driver and we zoom off toward Mandalay Hill, where we climb the hill via a series of switchbacks, the wind whipping our hair about our heads as if we’re a pair of Easy Riders. 🙂