Monday, February 16: Today, I hire a driver named Meemo for 35,000 kyat, or around $35, for the entire day. He drives me to Amarapura, meaning “City of Immortality;” it was the royal capital in Myanmar for less than 70 years, beginning from 1783. In February 1857, King Mindon began building Mandalay as his new capital city, as per a prophecy. With the royal treasury depleted by the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852, Mindon dismantled the palace buildings of Amarapura, moving the pieces by elephant to build the new capital in Mandalay. The city walls were pulled down for use as building material for roads and railways.
Meemo first takes me to some nameless pagodas in Amarapura. They surely do have names, names known only to the locals. As they’re not really on the tourist circuit, Memo doesn’t introduce me to them by name but merely lets me explore as he accompanies me. I find them quite beautiful and, happily, deserted. Only some monks are here, sweeping up leaves and cleaning the grounds.
Afterwards, we go to Taung Min Gyi Pagoda, where the big Buddha there is being repaired amidst columns of glittering mirrors and tiles.
We head to Maha Ganayon Kyaung, a sprawling monastery where over a thousand monks queue up every day around 10:30 a.m. to collect lunch in stoneware rice bowls. Meemo tells me where to stand for a good view and leaves me with the crowd of tourists lining the street, all snapping away at the young monks collecting their only meal of the day.
According to Myanmar Travel: Mandalay: Amarapura: This magnificient monastery, founded in 1914, is one of the largest monasteries in Mandalay. At times there are more than 3,000 monks living and studying here. At 10:30 every morning, hundreds of monks wait in long queues for their Swan (meals). At the same time, hordes of tourists stand watching and photographing them.
You can see the tourists lining the sidewalks. It feels intrusive to me to be here taking pictures of these monks going about their daily business. However, this is one of the tourist spots and if the monastery didn’t want to allow tourists, I’m sure they wouldn’t. Maybe they benefit by donations of some sort.
The monks disappear into a dining hall, where they happily eat their meal. There is no privacy for the poor young monks, as the tourists are standing all around the building, gawking and trying to capture pictures of them through the open doors and windows.
Inside, around the perimeter of the dining hall, the donors for today’s lunch walk contemplatively around, heads bowed and hands together in prayer.
Outside, poor Burmese mothers sit with their children, hoping for donations (for photos) from tourists. I give this woman some kyat, knowing the struggle that many Burmese people have eking out a living.
As I’m leaving, I find this stray monk walking quickly to collect his meal, obviously running a little late.
After we leave the monastery, we head to a silk-weaving factory and then to Sagaing. I’m amazed by how many monks I’ve already seen in Mandalay, and I’ve been here less than 24 hours.