Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Mandalay, Myanmar

Posted on April 30th, 2005

View from Mandalay Hill

Typical Myanmar rest stop restaurant at 2:00AM.

Despite having paid extra for what the notorious Mr. China described as the “nicer bus,” there was a conspicuous lack of improvement on the Inle to Mandalay bus over the bus that had delivered me from Yangon. There were in fact five buses leaving from Shwenyaung Junction for Mandalay that evening, mine being the last one. Each of the four buses that came and went before mine looked to be of the same substandard quality, but, encouragingly, they were all half empty. I briefly entertained an inane fantasy where I would have two whole seats to myself, giving me space to relax, put my feet up and having the freedom to maneuver into a variety of less harsh sitting positions, thus increasing the possibility of slumber, but then my bus arrived stuffed like my ex-wife’s bra. I had been duped into paying 800 additional kyat to sit in yet another rattling back-breaker on wheels. The interior was just as cramped, the seats were equally unforgiving and instead of a bony kid invading my personal space, I had a raging drunk who commandeered my shoulder as a his pillow as soon as I sat down. I sat there pathetically wishing I’d had the brains to get on the bus in a drunken stupor too. The only improvement was that through the wonders of higher, cooler altitudes, I didn’t spend the entire night sweating.

True to form, despite it only being 7:00PM, each and every Myanmar on the bus was sleeping like, well like only Myanmars can, and they stayed that way for the entire nine hours. How the hell do they do it??? And it’s not just at night on dark buses where there’s nothing else to do, this goes on at all hours of the day. It’s got to be something in their rearing. By now I had seen Myanmars sleeping deeply in such unlikely places as sharp-edged, hardwood chairs in the middle of bustling hotel lobbies, outdoors on tables in the baking sun, inches from frenzied, smog filled streets, the bone chiseling floors of zayats and once even on top of a towering pile of cargo on a moving semi. These bus seats were like instruments of slow ass-smashing torture, yet these people couldn’t have possibly been more comatose. As usual, I wriggled in my seat, testing every possible posture within my tiny allotment of space and through sheer exhaustion and a sleep-aid, I managed to sleep about 23 minutes.

We rolled into Mandalay at 4:00AM, or rather we rolled into the Mandalay bus station, four kilometers out of the center of town. I had no choice but to accept an offer from one of the lurking Taxi Pimps for a 2,000 kyat ride to my hotel. My taxi ended up being a mini-pickup truck, not much larger than a golf cart, with two wooden benches in the back where passenger were meant to sit. With my ass recently pulpified by nine hours of bus seat pummeling, the thought of even 10 minutes on a wooden bench made me visibly cower. I wanted to complain and demand a genuine taxi, you know with an enclosed back seat filled with actual cushioning and maybe even a seatbelt, but then I looked around and saw that these Flintstone’s era conveyances were the only show going. Not a single vehicle resembling a western taxi was in sight. At the last second my taxi guy found a few more customers and loaded them into the back, urging me into the passenger seat in the cab, which was only slightly more padded than the plank bench and half occupied by a filthy spare tire that had already seen plenty of action.

I arrived at the Royal Guesthouse at 4:30AM without a reservation and uncertain about my chances of finding an upright clerk, but the taxi driver resolutely leaned on the door chime and a few moments later a heroically accommodating, shirtless clerk materialized and went through every courteous facet of checking me in, despite the heinous hour. I just wanted to grab the first room key and get out of his hair, but he insisted on showing me three rooms so I could choose the one that appealed to me most. I selected a scrubbed down double that he offered me for the price of a single, US$7 a night. The man was a saint, or whatever the Buddhist equivalent is. I showered and passed out until 10:00AM.

Having slept through the hotel’s complimentary breakfast, I headed down the street to a café that they recommended where I ordered a western breakfast of eggs, toast and coffee. I cancelled the coffee seconds later when I spied Red Bull on the menu. As I was shoveling all of this down, two trishaw drivers on a break sat down across from me and asked if they could practice their English with me. This all-purpose opening line is almost always a precursor to some kind of offer of goods, services or a recommendation for their brother’s jewelry shop where I could buy and ship home a giant cargo container of precious gems to sell for a massive profit in my home country and sure enough, the conversation was quickly steered to what my plans were for the day. I explained my firm intentions to rent a bicycle and zoom around the city at high speed, noting that I had limited time in Mandalay. They both passionately argued - surprise surprise - that it was in my best interest to take a trishaw, and as luck would have it they were both free for the entire day. I dismissed this option quickly, informing them that I was low on kyat and I didn’t have the money to pay for both a trishaw and the entry fees for the sights, but the not-enough-money-defense has never worked on a Myanmar before and it certainly failed now. I also added matter-of-factly, that a trishaw would be about three times slower than a regular bike, particularly the way I ride. Ignoring these points entirely, they briefly tried to convince me that I wouldn’t have to pay the entry fees for the sights if I was with them, a claim that was so ridiculous that I couldn’t resist laughing out loud. By now I was finished with my food and since these guys were offering nothing more than irritation, I paid and abruptly left.

Bath time

The bike rental turned out to be pure genius. Not only is biking by far the quickest way to cover the great distances between sights in Mandalay, jockeying through the dense, every-man-for-himself traffic conditions faster than any other vehicle including motorcycles, but at a mere 1,000 kyat (US$1.10) for a full day rental, it was also delightfully easy on the budget. Moreover, cycling in Mandalay provided the most intense adrenaline rush I’d had since I’d jumped out of a plane in New Zealand, screaming like a little girl all the way down. The traffic here is particularly lawless in a country where, as previously mentioned, most driving conventions are improvised. Certain death is faced and somehow magically avoided every few seconds while plunging through traffic that would make a New York cabbie weep. The accompanying clouds of floating dust and debris that coat your body, while you suck down the hot, foul, fume choked air makes it look like you really did something at the end of the day. Not like those pansy Rube Tourists in the vans with tinted windows, stereos, air conditioning, cold beverages and genuine seats with seatbelts! Ha ha! Suckers!!! If they only knew what they were missing! OK, it sounds horrific and it kinda was ,but it wasn’t beyond endurance, even for my delicate constitution, and it was liberating to be in charge of a vehicle (of sorts) for the first time in months and I loved it.

Although I have to assume that tourists must be seen on rented bikes on a regular basis, each local nevertheless stared at me like I was riding a yellow, winged hippo and thus reacted like I was a once-in-a-lifetime peculiarity. Every few meters people were yelling and waving at me from the sidewalk or passing vehicles like I was Aung San Suu Kyi. A slow moving pickup truck being utilized as a bus full of rambunctious guys encouraged me to speed up and catch them, which I did, at which point one guy hung out the back to take my hand and they towed me along for about two blocks before the bus took a turn I didn’t want and I had to let go.

My first stop was the train station. Although I desperately wanted to take the boat from Mandalay to Bagan, my next stop, as Toe had enthusiastically encouraged me to do, my tightening schedule had left me with no time to piss away nine hours of daylight on this journey. I was going to have to take yet another form of night transport and the train was my best option. The main misgiving I had with being relegated to the train was that it was government owned and by this point I had developed a healthy loathing of giving one single penny more than necessary to those people. They already had my hefty visa fee, the obligatory arrival fees for the “archeological sight” at Inle Lake (and later in Bagan) and the US$10 departure tax they would collect as I left the country. Moreover, I had almost certainly inadvertently given them more money along the way through a second or third party at some point as they seemed to have their sticky fingers in just about everything. So, I was loath to drop more in the bucket, but it was either that or piss away a whole day on the boat, leaving me only a half day to tour the incomprehensible hundreds of temples scattered over several square kilometers in Bagan. Plus, deep down, I was hoping that the rumors were true and that train travel was a bit more comfortable than being on the bus. At that point I was willing to give up a lot of money and set aside many morals for a little less physical discomfort.

Mandalay’s train station doesn’t have a single word of English printed anywhere on the premises. There were about 20 ticket windows, about 12 of which were open, each seemingly for a different region and class of ticket with lines of people 30 deep at each one. I spent several minutes trying to determine where to go before finally walking up to a closed window, knocking on it to get someone’s attention and simply saying “Bagan?” in a pleading voice. The man directed me around to the side of the windows and actually pulled me into the office to take care of me with much appreciated VIP priority. With that out of the way, I got down to the business of repeatedly cheating death on the streets of Mandalay.

My first stop was a neighborhood just out of central Mandalay that Toe had directed me to where gold leaf is made. Impossibly thin, tabs of gold leaf are a fixture at all pagodas. People buy these gold tabs in packets of 10, 50 or 100, with each tab being about one inch square. Worshipers take these delicate pieces of gold and apply them by hand to Buddha figures and other religious relics as a spiritual offering. The gold leaf supply for the entire country is produced out of several shops in this one Mandalay neighborhood.

Tooling down the bumpy dirt street, I stopped at the first place that I could find, a place called “Gold Rose” at Number 108 on 36th street, between 77th and 78th streets - this is how all addresses in Mandalay are rendered, the between street reference is apparently necessary because the house numbers are totally arbitrary and thus have little bearing on actual location. With there being no mention of this attraction in LP, I was a little surprised to learn that these businesses are indeed a respectably strong tourist draw. I was greeted the instant I dismounted the bike by a “tour guide,” a young woman named Moh Moh.

Moh Moh fed me cold water as I recovered from the kamikaze ride from the train station and gave me some tissues to stem the sweat gushing off of me. This was a slow process and Moh Moh’s English was excellent by Myanmar standards, so I took the opportunity quiz her a bit about general Myanmar topics. I learned that she was a law student who was somehow managing to pay for school through the meager wages she earned leading people through the Gold Rose. Despite being only 20 years old, she reported that she had already had five men visit her home and ask her parents for her hand in marriage. One of them even offered the family a substantial portion of his respectable fortune as an incentive. Though Moh Moh admitted that her family was quite poor, her parents had firmly refused all of these offers, knowing that their daughter had ambitions to work her way up to being one of Myanmar’s few female judges and marrying a man who would no doubt expect her to drop everything to make babies and tend to his every whim was not in line with that objective. While I was probing into her personal life, a very unsteady man swaggered into the shop. Though it wasn’t even noon, he had the look, gait and smell of someone who had been boozing it up for a good eight to ten hours. He made a beeline for me, asked me several questions in Myanmar that were so incoherent that even Moh Moh was at a loss and then disappeared, only to return a minute later with a guitar which he shoved at me, indicating that I should play something. Moh Moh gently brushed him off and leaned into me, confiding “He is one of the owners,” adding with tremendous understatement “I think he is a little bit drunk.”

Hammering gold leaf. Doesn't that look like fun?

Hearing in-depth and well-spoken accounts of a typical Myanmar life was fascinating, and like most Myanmar girls, Moh Moh would probably have been perfectly content to sit and chat with me for the entire day – I was getting dangerously full of my elevated social status by this point - but eventually, perhaps in response to feeling the eyes of one of the sober owners in attendance burning a hole in the back of her head, she suggested that we start the tour. First I was led to the hammering area where four men - two hammering and two resting at any given time - spend their days beating hair-width gold leaf down to microbe-width gold leaf. It looked to be a grueling process. The tabs of gold are first packed into bundles of 400, each separated by a layer of special bamboo paper, which is beaten with a six pound sledgehammer for 30 minutes. Each expanded leaf is then sliced into four pieces, re-bundled into packages of 1,200 and beaten for another 30 minutes. Then the tabs are cut and divided again, re-bundled into stacks of 750 pieces and smashed for an astounding five hours. Despite what seems like pure grunt work, the hammering is actually a meticulous process that is carefully monitored, with adjustments being made depending on subtle variants such as air temperature. Rather then relying on a regular clock, the timing and the hammer strokes are instead tracked by an old school water timing mechanism. A small cup with a hole in the bottom is placed in a bucket of water, which slowly fills until it sinks. The guy hammering must complete 120 strokes for each cup filling interval (a little over three minutes). After the cup has filled 18 times, about an hour, the men rotate from hammering to resting.

Just as I was commenting on how back-breaking this type of work must be, I was led into the sealed cutting room where a team of very young girls work 10 hour days sitting on a concrete floor covered in thin bamboo mats alternately dividing the gold leaf for the hammering process and packaging the final product into painstaking piles of perfect square tabs. The girls here were even younger than at the cigar shop in Inle, the youngest being 11 years old. I was astounded to learn that before these girls were put to the precise task of cutting and shaping the gold tabs, they had to go through three years of training, meaning they were starting work as young as seven or eight years old. Moh Moh explained that virtually the entire workforce in the Gold Rose was from the same extended family, so there was no fear of people pocketing a little something for themselves, as they would only be stealing from the family. The girls have to work in a stifling hot, sealed room with no air conditioning or even a fan as any significant air flow would cause the feather-light gold leaf to blow around in an expensive hurricane. A pencil length, flat edged tool made from buffalo horn and some talc to keep their fingers from getting sticky is all the girls use to do the remarkable cutting and shaping of the gold leaf.

Packaging the gold leaf

A true gold leaf

Despite what I assumed to be arduous, eye-straining work, ripe for an early case or arthritis – which might explain why no one in the room was over the age of 18 - the girls seemed very good natured while they labored away, chatting happily and monitoring Moh Moh and I. In theory, the girls earn up to 2,000 kyat (US$2.17) per day for their work, but they never see this money as it is dumped directly back into the family pot to support the household and keep the shop going. I took several pictures before one of the owners came in and offered to demonstrate the making of a true, golden leaf. Doing the work herself, she started by cleaning a small, standard tree leaf and then covering it with a thin layer of adhesive. From there she went to work carving up several of the fragile gold squares to flawlessly wallpaper both sides of the leaf all the way down to the stem. Finally the leaf was soaked in water to keep it moist. Moh Moh explained that these are short-lived gifts, like flowers, as the aging of the leaf and the delicacy of the gold coating eventually result in the gold cracking and flaking away. The leaves have a lifespan of about 10 days at best and cost 3,000 kyat (US$3.25) each.

Finally Moh Moh gave me a short lecture on the myriad of supplementary uses for their gold leaf. In addition to the French using the leaf to cover chocolate and the German’s sprinkling gold leaf shards into products like Goldschlager, Moh Moh told me that some people, Myanmar’s included, consume gold for heath and medicinal purposes. Her own mother took pills covered in gold for her heart disease (don’t let the US pharmaceutical companies hear about this, our drugs are already outrageously expensive without throwing in a little gold into the mix). Not having the first clue about the pros or cons of consuming excessive amounts of gold, I tried to keep an open mind as I took notes and quizzed her mercilessly for details.

Though I was sorry to leave the company of a decent English speaker who wasn’t trying to coerce me into giving them money, I finally excused myself to get on with my day. I had only been there for about an hour, but everyone made a point off seeing me off. Even the girls stuck in the cutting room waved through the windows.

I pedaled furious around my next objective, the gigantic Mandalay Fort and Palace. The compound is about one square mile, surrounded by an imposing wall and a colossal moat filled with water from the Mandalay city irrigation canal. The Fort has been around since 1861, but during fighting in WWII, the palace burned to the ground and was eventually rebuilt in concrete and aluminum using the first of many contemporary, brutal forced labor endeavors that Myanmar continues to utilize to this day. Details are vague, but apparently the palace rebuilding project was so dangerous and grueling for the workers that the west gate came to be known as the Gate of Ill Omen and to this day the mere thought of crossing it makes locals uneasy. I had no choice in the matter, Pinkies are only allowed to enter through the east entrance. While I made the long loop around the Fort, I had a sudden attack of conscious, specifically targeting the morals that I had been forced to selectively suspend in order to make the trip into Myanmar, knowing that a portion of the money I spent while I was there would go to support an abominable regime. The looming issue at hand was the US$10 flat fee I was going to be presented with at the Fort gate. This would buy me a universal attraction pass for the all-star tourist sights in Mandalay, including the Fort/Palace, two pagodas (Kuthodaw and Shwenandaw) and the ancient Shwe Ta Bin Kyaung monastery, all of which were inexplicably controlled by the government. Having just recently handed over US$9 for a ticket on the government-run train wasn’t helping matters. By the time I swerved onto the moat bridge leading to the Fort’s main gate, I had resolved to not buy the attraction pass. I couldn’t bear to give yet more money to these awful people. Instead, I would try my best to “accidentally” blunder/sneak/sweet talk my way into these sites and if all else failed, just be content with exterior pictures and observation. Fuck their $10 fee.

The Fort/Palace was a wash. Several dedicated guards were standing at the ready and derailed my hastily conceived plan to just pump by on the bike without slowing down, a clueless tourist lost in eagerness to see the palace. After parking my bike, I had a go at the innocent-meandering-through-the-gate-accompanied-by-distracted-whistling approach, but that was axed as well. I was kindly directed to the ticket/information booth where non-English speaking women with no information whatsoever simply pointed at a sign demanding the $10. As a last ditch effort, I tried to point at my guidebook and mimed writing and picture taking, as if I were someone on assignment to cover the sight (let’s not forget that even without an assignment letter or business cards, I am still for all intents and purposes a professional travel writer), but they weren’t having it. I shrugged turned around and left, pausing briefly to photograph the ominous “Tatmadaw and the People, Cooperate and Crush All Those Harming the Union” sign next to the entrance. Yikes! From what little I could glimpse through the gate, not a heck of a lot was going on within the fort anyway so I didn’t feel particularly bad about blowing it off.

“Tatmadaw and the People, Cooperate and Crush All Those Harming the Union” You go girl!

Typical street in Mnadalay

I jumped back on the bike and headed for the cluster of pagodas at the base of Mandalay Hill. I don’t know if it was in deference to the heat or due to the fact that most Myanmar’s are riding half busted bikes, but the locals were riding their bikes at a pace only slightly faster than my typical walking speed. I was blowing the doors off my fellow bikers. My shiny, streaking bald head and blinding speed were turning heads in all directions. With the rate that I was moving, people usually only caught a glimpse of my blurred Pinkie ass before I was gone and were probably left to wonder if the government was being forced to cut corners and mount their missiles on purple three-speeds with flowery baskets on the front.

I screeched to a halt in a cloud of dust in front of Sandamani Paya, a fairly prominent pagoda and not one of the places with government goons shaking people down at the entrance. I recovered from my frenzied two kilometer sprint with a lemon soft drink at a beverage stand near the entrance and then headed in for a closer look. Despite being prominently listed both on my Mandalay map and in LP, I was the only person there and therefore the center of attention. A little boy with postcards came racing out from his hiding place and stuck to me for the duration. It turned out he wasn’t selling postcards at all, but simple yet pleasing art pieces that I hadn’t seen before, composed of colored paper and bamboo glued onto 3X5 pieces of cardboard, creating various typical Myanmar scenes. Even though the kid prematurely resorted to the maddening “Please, I am sooo unhappy and hungry” soliloquy, I dug the pictures if only because they were the first original souvenirs I had seen in days and bought a few to give to some friends back in Bangkok. After that, the boy dropped the hard sell and was content to show me around, pointing out things that I should photograph and making sure I saw the highlights. He begged me to follow him out the rear entrance to his sister’s drink stand and as much as I want to meet his sister, it was in the opposite direction of where I needed to go and I had just downed a lemon drink anyway. I declined, retuned to my bike and headed for Kuthodaw Paya.

Sandamani Paya

Look into the distance, there are hundreds of these stone tablets. This is just one of dozens of rows.

Perhaps all that exertion and sweating had left my blood sugar a little too low, because it completely slipped my mind that Kuthodaw Paya was one of the sights that the government had hijacked until I was strolling into the place and one of the ornery ticket checkers appeared out of nowhere, jabbering at me and grabbing at my arm. I instantly realized what the issue was and ceased my advance, but the woman was still going a little overboard with her duties of restraining me, keeping an iron grip on my arm with undue pressure. I would have just turned around and left but this gruff display and my dislike of unnecessary physical contact, particularly from rough strangers, tweaked a minor fury in me. Using my free hand I wrenched her hand from my arm with a conviction that gave her pause and sternly informed her that I would not be paying her f*cking fee and furthermore if she touched me again, I would be taking her right hand back to Thailand with me to be marinated in pepper sauce and served as a delicacy to Japanese tourists. Clearly she didn’t understand enough English for the crux of this message to get through, but I think my tone conveyed the point quite well. Keeping her distance, she indicated that I was to leave immediately, but of course I wasn’t going anywhere until I’d gotten a few passive-aggressive jabs of retribution. I took my time, casually poking around the entrance with her hovering over me, grumbling in Myanmar what I assumed to be vile things not fit to be uttered in the presence of a Buddha figure and poised to hog-pile me if I tried to make a run for the pahto. I snapped a few decent exterior photos and even carefully zoomed all the way in for a shot of the giant gold Buddha statue deep inside the pahto. It was a fairly entertaining test of wills in retrospect, which I shamelessly milked as this beeotch had easily been the most outwardly rude person I had met in all of Myanmar and I intended to give her a good dose of her own attitude. Finally, I’d had my fill and returned to the bike with her grumblings following me out the door. “Tua-doh-may (goodbye) bitch face” I called back.

Before cycling away, I stopped at a public restroom outside the paya to attend to the small amount of liquid in my body that wasn’t already making a streaming exit in the form of a river of sweat down my back and, upon completion of this task I was met outside by yet another women, demanding money for the pleasure of peeing into a hole in the ground. It appeared as though she had been sent after me by the lady at the gate, who was observing from a distance, determined to get something, anything out of me. Ultimately she only wanted 50 kyat (about a nickel), but the notion of being targeted and harassed by government stooges for money out of pure mean spirited principle sent me into an unattractive tizzy. I threw a tattered, wadded up 50 kyat note at her and told her next time I would just go around the corner and piss on the wall of the paya. A trishaw guy that was eavesdropping nearby burst into laughter and, I believe, translated my sentiments to the toilet police, but I was already on my bike and pedaling away.

Just around the corner from Kuthodaw was Shwenandaw Kyaung an impressive all-wood monastery that was formerly a wing of King Mindon Min’s (second to last king of Burma, circa mid- 19th century) palace. It is one of the few examples of this style of Burmese wood architecture to survive WWII and a no-go for seething, penny-pinching, anti-government tourists. I was detained here for a long time by some of the souvenir girls who entertained me with a nice balance of flirting and questions about life in the U.S. while trying to lure me into buying the usual crappy keepsakes that I had already seen 17 times that day. I eventually excused myself and walked next door to Atumashi Kyaung (Incomparable Monastery) which LP describes at “disastrously restored,” but it didn’t seem too bad to me, at least from the outside. Although it wasn’t on the list of gummet controlled sights, it too had a ticket checking booth out front, so I couldn’t get inside to see what had gotten that LP writer’s knickers in such a twist.

Shwenandaw Kyaung

Souvenir girls

Atumashi Kyaung (Incomparable Monastery)

At this point a vague memory kernel from a candid paragraph in LP poked itself into my higher consciousness about how these hated government ticket checkers promptly abandon their posts at the exact stroke of 4:30PM, like all dedicated government employees, leaving the door wide open for freeloading tourists to walk in and make themselves at home. Checking my watch I discovered that it was already 3:30, so I decided to hang around and test the theory. I went across the road for a minute to check out the largely unimpressive, an therefore free, Kyauktawgyi Paya and then settled down and lingered over a toddler-sized bowl of noodles with another lemon drink and a bottle of water in a café housed in a sagging shack that was blasting horrific Myanmar music videos on a TV in the corner.

At 4:45 I returned to Shwenandaw Kyaung only to find that the entrance was still manned by sharp-eyed heavies who were taking increasing interest in my presence now that I’d slowly cycled past their post about four times in 90 minutes. It was the same story at Atumashi Kyaung. They must have gotten wise to that comment in LP, because they were still ensconced at 5:00PM and showing no signs of packing up for the day, so I gave up and headed for the base of Mandalay Hill.

Though I hadn’t seen the inside of several of the large-draw attractions in Mandalay, I was certain that none of them could compete with Mandalay Hill in overall allure. There are hundreds of griddle-hot, foot scorching steps to be negotiated (barefoot all the way) to the lofty summit, but it’s all worth it. The climb takes you through several pleasing plateaus with ornate gold, white washed and mirror shard encrusted pathos and stupas, though some of these were hard to appreciate while you danced around the intrusive food, drink and souvenir stands. You almost had to stand on your head to frame these guys out of photos in some places. Worse were the people who were camped out with their wares, chairs, tables, mats and tarps actually being displayed on or covering statues and relics. Some of the more bold vendors had install themselves as permanent residents on Mandalay Hill, building shelters off to the side of the stairway on the slope of the hill. Where’s that heavy handed military regime when you need them?

My waning patience for money grubbers was worked into an even thicker lather during the climb. Though this is a mild constant in all of Myanmar, people in Mandalay in particular are all equipped with three English sayings; “Hello!,” “Come from?” (as in “where do you come from?”), and of course the infuriating “Money!” which is usually delivered in a rude, demanding tone with hand outstretched as if it were a foregone conclusion that you would be giving them something. This practice exceeded all reasonable tolerance on Mandalay Hill. I peeked into one of the pahtos along the way and was eagerly invited in by a few guys and a monk that were hanging out inside. They led me to an unimpressive Disco Buddha at the back and indicated that I should photograph it. Although I already had about 100 megabytes of Buddha photos on my camera’s memory card, I respectfully complied and then the ugliness began. All four of them, even the fricking monk, simultaneously started in on me, saying “Money, money, money!” some with their hands out and others pointing that I put money directly into a bowl on the Buddha’s lap. What did it for me was the goddamn monk, his hand out, pumping it as he repeated the word “money,” with earnest eyes, while tactlessly invading what little personal space I’d been able to maintain while in Myanmar. This was the most aggressive, startling and overwhelmingly shameless display I had seen in all of Southeast Asia and I promptly lost it. I turned it around on them, yelling “MONEY, MONEY MONEY!!” flailing my arms and advancing on them. This bought me a little personal space, but they didn’t miss a beat on the money refrain. As I ripped out a pathetically small note, 100 kyat I think, I looked directly at the monk and said “Ask just once! Not 10 times! Not ‘money, money, money!’ Understand?” He nodded as I tossed the note to one of the other guys, who looked at it incredulously like I’d just robbed him, but I was already storming out of the pahto muttering curse words in three languages.

I was not a happy tourist after this. As I stomped up the stairs, which is not soothing when you’re barefoot on searing hot brick, when I came upon people/vendors/loiterers instead of singing “Min-gla-bah” (hello) with my usual big smile, I just stared at them frostily, teeth audibly grinding, balls of fire for eyes, daring them to accost and hassle me. No one took the chance and I got to the top without further incident.

Before the climb

Half way up Mandalay Hill.

The topmost stupa, though only being fractionally more elaborate than all the others leading up to it had a photo fee which I passed up and later quietly defied at sunset. The height and vantage point of Mandalay Hill provided many nice photos opportunities which ended up looking like absolute shit as my camera tended to read way too much of the smog in the air and less of the landscape detail beyond and I couldn’t figure out the correct combination of settings to dampen the effect. As I was struggling with this conundrum, I was approached by a young man who either didn’t read social signals very well or was supremely bold (I was still seething with palpable fury). He started with the usual “where are you from?” and “how long you in Myanmar” jazz which was the standard perfunctory leading to “I am an official tour guide [cue flashing of cheap laminated ID] and you need me or else you will not see good things.” Needless to say I was not in the mood for this and replied to his questions with one word, curt answers or flat out ignored him. But he persisted and after a very long time, without him mentioning anything about products or services that he was offering, I realized that he truly was just a kid out to practice some English. Unfortunately, these kids use the same opening line as the touts which can be a huge liability when approaching a fresh-faced, Ugly Tourist like myself. I also noticed that the kid had a friend that was obediently trailing us, who didn’t speak a word of English and was just along for, I don’t know, yucks or something. I drew this guy out with my now well practiced Myanmar phrases as we made our way back down the hill to the city where we cordially parted ways.

After a furious, death defying ride through rush hour traffic, I returned my bike five minutes before the shop closed. I dined at a traditional Shan restaurant just four blocks from the Royal Guesthouse, ignoring the lurking trishaw drivers out front who were adamant that the nearest decent Shan restaurant was 30 minutes away and would I like a ride? Through yet more miscommunication, I unintentionally ordered a lavish feast which my newly gumball sized appetite would have never been able to accommodate if it weren’t for the fact that I hadn’t eaten anything substantial since breakfast. The total bill for two plates of meat/vegetable combos, potatoes, rice, an orange soda and a giant bottle of water was US$3. While gorging on my spread, which was embarrassingly larger than some of the meals at tables with four people, I monitored the Myanmar evening news, which was muted on a TV directly above my head. Teleprompting technology hasn’t reached the Myanmar news industry yet, so the newscasters have to read stories off paper in their hands, never looking directly into the camera. The stories and footage were almost exclusively comprised of regal looking military guys sitting around in comfortable chairs, being briefed on ambitious public works projects and then touring the related sights and factories. Perhaps I misinterpreted this because the volume was off, and I don't speak Myanmar anyway, but one telling shot appeared to show someone explaining the workings of a complex machine to a high ranking military guy who then turned to the camera and appeared to explain the exact same thing again, like he was some kind of authority on the subject. I bet that particular video editor is now cooling his heels in a palace dungeon somewhere. This footage seemed to confirm that not only were the military guy running Myanmar over-confident, power-drunk, pompous twits, but they were also not too bright. That’s a bad combination in any social circle.

After waddling back to my room, despite my distended stomach, I performed my bimonthly, buck naked, good look at myself in a full-length mirror and realized in horror that I had noticeably shrunk. On a certain level this was expected. It had happened the previous year in Europe where higher prices, smaller portions and miles of daily walking had trimmed me down to an enviable body type in just a few months and I was quite happy with the leaner me. Now however, without realizing it, my Asian diet, perhaps in concert with the fabulous heat and mild, but regular exercise, had taken me beyond lean and I was now looking downright skinny. Ribs I hadn’t seen since my early 20s were on display. My abs, which weren’t all that bad to start, were now defined enough to be used in a physiology lecture. Most alarming was the loss of muscle mass. Before I left the U.S., 20 years of intensive juggling and some half-assed free weight work had given me the physique of a college wrestler (upper body only, albeit with a thin layer of bacon cheese burger and cider fat covering everything). But now a noticeable amount of that hard won muscle had silently evaporated. My body had pared itself down on its own accord to the physique of a professional soccer player. Holy dairy cow! I really did look like David Beckham! I stared at myself uncomprehendingly for several minutes, examining myself from various angles, before I resolved to start eating more substantial food, maybe the occasional pizza and hearty slab of beef, and resume my long ignored rudimentary hostel room calisthenics. While I liked the definition, I feared that inaction would result in further loss of muscle mass and my selective vanity would simply not stand for that. I finished my time in front of the mirror by clearing my eyes and nose of an alarming amount of black gunk that was absorbed from subjecting myself to a full day of unprotected travel through the emissions free-for-all that are the streets of Mandalay, then collapsed into bed.

The next morning I was up early and back on the bike. I had a lot of ground to cover. I intended to hit Mingon and Amarapura, two “ancient cities” on the outskirts of Mandalay and tack on visits to two more religious sites that I may or may not be required to sneak into, so I needed to utilize every minute of daylight.

I raced down to the river jetty for the 9:00AM boat to Mingon. The one hour, upriver ride was nearly as diverting as Mingon itself. A simple but fascinating world existed on the Ayeyarwady River. We saw several, small fishing settlements constructed entirely out of drift wood and bamboo, built on otherwise desolate sand bars, boats with sails seemingly sewn together out of sheets and old clothing and, my favorite, a mysterious barge-like vessel, lashed together out of dozens of pieces of wood, with three people ostensibly living on it in a simple thatch shelter.

Mandalay's riverboat jetty. Picturesque, no?

A sandbar settlement


What the hell is that thing???

We had some bumbling troublemakers on our boat. For some reason this 30 foot boat had a knife edge water balance, meaning that even leaning over too far to get a closer look at something produced a surprisingly steep tip. If one or two people switched sides, the tilt would be downright dangerous. There were about 10 of us on the boat and we initially arranged ourselves so as to balance the thing out, but this shaky situation was in constant flux thanks to an oblivious gay couple who were totally consumed with photographing everything we passed. They were never able to make the connection between their movements around the boat and the resulting sickening angle the boat would assume, despite the frantic whistles and gestures from the captain, so the rest of us did our best to compensate.

As you approach Mingon, the enormous, eye catching, never-completed Mingon Paya entirely dominates the town’s otherwise sparse skyline of one and two story dwellings and shacks. Even unfinished, the Paya is unfathomably large and captivating from any distance and I felt compelled to head straight for it, but there was much tap dancing to be done before I could ogle that highlight. As one would expect in an tiny, ancient town with a few indubitable tourist draws, Mingon’s main industry is to suck tourists dry. There was a reception party of touts, souvenir pushers, tour guides and “taxis” (see the picture below) anxiously awaiting our arrival on the riverbank. The first few steps off the boat was like charging through a professional football defensive line. I was able to break through this hectic congestion with only a young girl and a teenaged boy on my tail. The girl gave up on trying to sell me decidedly girly hand fans after a minute and was just content to follow me around and cautiously flirt for most of my visit. The boy, Wen, gave me the standard line about being a student wanting to practice his English, but it was clear by the way he made a point of leading me around and carefully explaining everything we saw that he was going to want a “present” at the end. He was harmless and his English was actually quite good, so I allowed this.

Approaching Mingon


One of countless art galleries


After a quick pass through town, we headed for the Mingon Bell. Very little of Mingon proper is not devoted to tourist targeted restaurants, shops or art galleries. According to Wen, during high season (December through March) about 150 tourists blow through town each day, dropping enough money into the local economy to allow everyone to live like hogs, but now only weeks into low season they were only seeing 30 Pinkies tops. Consequently everyone was desperate for my business. For his part, Wen did a fabulous job of leading me through alleys and shortcuts that kept my profile low and the harassment to a minimum.

Mingon Bell

Mingon Bell's house

Having bulldozed right out of the jetty area, leaving my boat mates to be devoured by the welcome committee, I had the Mingon Bell pretty much all to myself. Cast in 1808 and weighing “about 90 tons,” the Mingon Bell is the largest uncracked bell in the world and the second largest bell all-around (the largest, incidentally, is a monster in Moscow, three times the size of the Mingon Bell).

Next we did a loop around a pair of gigantic, ruined lion brick statues. The front ends were sheared off and laying in a pile of unrecognizable rubble. The butts, strangely, were nearly intact.

They don't make 'em like they used to.

"I like big butts and I cannot lie..."

Water pumping station

An old men's home

After this, it was paya time. Wen built up the suspense marvelously. We first stopped at the Simpume Paya, then the Satoya Paya, respectively, which were increasingly larger and flashy. Wen dutifully pointed out the areas in each paya that the government had repaired, a new Buddha here, new floor tiles there, as a “gift” to Mingon. I was tempted to inquire if the government had also bestowed something a little more practical for the people of Mingon, like free primary education, but even an innocent, snide conversation like this could mean trouble for the Myanmar participant if one of the government’s reputed moles were to overhear, so I held my tongue. After disappearing at the Bell, the fan girl, Wei Wei rejoined us at Satoya Paya. Girls/women are not allowed to enter the inner sanctums of these temples and Wen reminded Wei Wei of this as we entered, but she snuck in and shadowed us the entire time anyway, managing to deftly duck around a corner or into an alcove every time Wen looked back to see if she was there. It was hilarious.

Satoya Paya

Satoya Paya again

A new Buddha (in front of a perfectly good old Buddha) through the generosity of the Myanmar government (cough)

Simpume Paya

Finally, it was time for the big kahuna, Mingon Paya. After leading me into the main entrance to admire the single, surprisingly plain Buddha, Wen sent me off to climb the steps to the top on my own, saying that he’d stay back to watch my sandals which I was required to leave at the base. After just a few steps, I knew the real reason Wen was hanging back. Even at 11:00AM, the jagged, red brick that was used to build the Paya was hot enough to brand cattle. My velvety city-boy feet were nowhere near calloused enough to take this kind of abuse and I spent most of my time on the Paya racing from shaded spot to shaded spot, marooned on the precious few tufts of grass that had managed to sprout through the brick and mortar and dousing my sizzling feet with drinking water from my day bag. When I wasn’t tearing up too much to see straight, the views from the top of the Paya were amazing. You could see the entirety of Mingon’s modest sprawl, tiny, rickety shelters and low cement buldings, with a smattering of trees and other determined foliage providing minor shade from the sun. Looking inland, the landscape sputtered into the usual, arid plain of dust and shrubs. No wonder everyone in Mingon was grappling for tourist business. There was no way anyone could eek a subsistence living off the land immediately available to them.

Mingon Paya

Same, but from a slightly different angle.

Wei Wei

Having covered the highlights and still with nearly an hour to kill, Wen led me to a restaurant off the main strip to eat a mountain of chicken fried rice and pass the time out of sight of the hoard of touts. Wei Wei sat nearby with a friend that had recently appeared watching me eat, speaking only once to ask if I would ever come back to Mingon. I told her I’d be back when she was 18 to marry her, but I don’t think she understood, which was probably for the best. Sarcastic humor doesn’t always translate well in these parts and I’d hate to have a girl whiling away her young adult life waiting for me to return and whisk her away to my castle in the west.

I waited until people were boarding the boat before I emerged from my hiding place and ran for shore. The masses were all over me again, offering me crappy knickknacks and pleading for me to change their dollars back into kyat at an insulting rate of one dollar to 1,000 kyat. Not only would I lose significant money (80 kyat on the dollar) on an exchange like this (a scam these people were likely well aware of), but my stash of kyat was starting to get dangerously low. I managed to leap onto the boat unscathed and with our downriver course, we were back in Mandalay in just 15 minutes.

It was nearly 2:00PM now and the clock was ticking. I had two religious sites to visit and a second ancient city, Amarapura, 11 kilometers bike ride away to tackle. I was on the bike and pumping away moments after the boat docked.

I had planned my route to Amarapura carefully so that I would pass within two blocks of the all-wood Shwe In Bin Kyaung (monastery), just a hair outside of central Mandalay. Even though this was reportedly one of the places where I was supposed to face a ticket checking goon squad, there was no one around. There wasn’t a booth or even an abandoned chair at the gate, that might have suggested that the overseer was simply taking a hasty bathroom break. I walked right in and soon surmised that I was the only tourist there which was fine by me in that I had full run of the place, but a shame in that the monastery’s location was probably cramping its attendance and it was most definitely worth the effort to see. Though it was markedly smaller than Shwenandaw Kyaung, Shwe In Bin, built in 1895, was no less impressive in its wood-carved adornments, trim and styling. Nearly every non-floor surface was decorated in a blinding medley of religious images and superb bordering and embellishments. It was eerily quiet, so I tip-toed around accordingly, snapping photos and trying to take in the intricate wood work.

Shwe In Bin Kyaung

With my 11 kilometer ride to Amarapura weighing on my mind, I only spent about 15 minutes snooping around the monastery before I was back on the bike, pedaling frantically south out of the city. With my blazing speed on the bike, no local map and the fact that Mandalay’s sprawl never really ended I became a little disoriented as to my exact location. After about 20 minutes of riding I stopped at a café to chug a lemon soda and ask directions to Amarapura only to be informed that I was standing in it. I was really moving on that bike.

Amarapura, “City of Immortality,” was briefly the capitol of Upper Burma before the fickle and superstitious king had the entire palace dismantled and moved piece by piece to Mandalay on the advice of some astrology hack. I managed to execute an all-Myanmar conversation with the collected people at the café, explaining that I wanted to see the sights of the city, but communications broke down during the directions part. A guy who happened to be biking in the same direction kindly offered to lead me to the main attraction, U Bein’s Bridge, a 1.2 kilometer long wooden bridge that connects Amarapura to a small village which plays host to Kyauktawgyi Paya. No sooner had I locked up my bike by the bridge, a student-wanting-to-practice-English-cum-tour-guide latched onto me and insisted that I tour the temples near the Bridge before making the crossing, something I intended to do anyway. I cut to the chase and informed the guy that I was down to my last few kyat (I only had 1,000 kyat notes anyway which I was not going to hand over for 20 minutes of sketchy “guiding”) and that I would not be able to give him anything for his efforts. He assured me that was fine and led me around for a short while, trying to make himself useful, dolling out just a few bits of minor trivia about the collection of temples, including the “2000 Buddha Pagoda” and the regrettable practice of thieves, Indians according to him, beheading Buddha statues in search of treasure.

A reattached Buddha head

2000 Buddhas

When it came time to part at the bridge, despite my clear warning of having no money to give, he predictably went into his spiel anyway, saying how he desperately needed money for school. My patience was wearing thin for this particular act and that these single-minded, money grubbing Myanmars refused to take to heart my assertions of having no money to spare. I sternly reminded him of my declaration of having no money to offer when he first approached me and that he chose to ignore this wasn’t my problem and then walked off. Much to my consternation, he persisted following me several hundred yards out onto the bridge and hassling me while I tried to take pictures. I finally confronted him and told him that unless he want Thai baht, he wasn’t getting anything. He hesitate at this and then agreed to take baht. Just to be done with him, I gave him 20 baht (50 cents) and as he pondered what the note might be worth in kyat, I left him.

U Bein’s Bridge

Nuts drying

Once I was rid of that unpleasantness, the walk across the bridge was actually quite nice. It was getting to be late afternoon and the dipping sun was providing suitable mood-lighting for pictures of the half dry river bed which was being cautiously developed with a few thatched houses and utilized for farming and grazing. The bridge was surprisingly quiet, just me, a handful of tourists and a fair amount of locals out for strolls. I was so consumed with my surroundings that I didn’t see that the bridge was barricaded at the ¾ point until I was almost on top of it. As I stood stunned and puzzling over this, a monk with two apprentices in tow joined me. The monk explained that they were making repairs to the bridge and that if I really wanted to get to the paya I was going to have to cough up a few hundred kyat for a boat ride. My paranoia over my dwindling kyat situation ruled this out immediately.

Closed for repairs, d'oh!


When I turned to head back for Amarapura the monk stuck with me, a development I wasn’t too thrilled about. By now I was darkly assuming that everybody in Mandalay who even looked sideways at me was after me for something. I expected the worst and figured he’d hit me up for change at the end of the bridge, especially when he mentioned right off the bat that he wanted to practice his English with me, which to me was now well worn code for “I want a handout for doing almost nothing,” but it never happened. Instead of trying to provide some kind of superficial service in lieu of the solicitation of spare change, he went to work on me with his English, initially asking me detailed questions about grammar, before moving on to questions about life in the U.S. Kusala’s innocent, placid curiosity won me over and I ultimately became very involved in the conversation, particularly the part where he asked me to compare life in the U.S. to life in Myanmar. Obviously this particular subject could have persisted until Buddha’s return to Earth, so I just tried to stick to general bullet points. Things got muddy when it came time to explain the concept of McDonalds to him – no one I met in all of Myanmar had any idea of what McDonalds was, the absolute pinnacle of ignorance-is-bliss if you ask me – but by this point we were standing back at my bike with the sun getting dangerously low, so I had to give up. I jumped on the bike, begging forgiveness, saying that I had 90 minutes to ride 11 kilometers and hopefully visit one last paya before my bike was due back at the shop. He asked which paya and I replied “Mahamuni Paya,” which he eagerly informed me was the paya where he lived and studied. I said I’d give the guys there a shout-out for him, wished him luck and was gone, racing the setting sun back to Mandalay.

On the way into Mandalay, I took many rolling pictures of teeming pickups-cum-local buses, piled high with men on top and stuffed to bursting with women underneath (women never ride on top of pickups, as it is insulting to any men that might be sitting below). Without exception, each time the passengers caught me snapping pictures, they all called out and waved to me, like they were on a parade float. I also swerved into a few Buddha-making shops I had passed earlier, clicking several pictures while still sitting on the bike of the rows of half finished Buddhas sitting out, fashioned out of wood, marble and metal.

I got back to Mandalay before dark, with nearly an hour to spare before my bike deadline. Considering the time carefully, I decided to could risk playing beat-the-clock and swung around heading for Mahamuni Paya. Though I had already seen several payas that day, this was a Toe Recommended site and so far the man’s advice had been spot on, so I was eager to make the extra effort. I don’t know what the occasion was, it was a Tuesday evening, but Mahamuni was absolutely hopping with worshipers when I arrived, more than any paya I had seen outside of Shwedagon in Yangon. I made the rounds, taking pictures of the huge five ton gong – which, if it weren’t heavy enough to make the whole house collapse in on itself, would have looked smashing in my old living room – and the small collection of peculiarly out-of-place Khmer bronze figurines that had been laboriously hauled to Burma 400 years ago as war spoils, before I returned to the bustling area around the central Buddha figure. This Buddha is especially popular in Mandalay, having been carted to its current resting place from the western Rakhaing State in 1784 and is reputed to have been cast as early as the 1st century AD. After hundreds of years of being wallpapered in gold leaf by worshipers, the details of its features have long since been caked into a hopelessly nondescript series of lumps, aside from the untouched head. The crowd of worshipers facing the front of the Buddha stretched back half way to the entrance. The men and monks were predictably up front, in the actual Buddha chamber while the much more numerous women were lined up behind the chamber for several meters. I made several attempts to take illuminating photographs of this spectacle without using an intrusive flash and succeed in getting mostly blurred crap. A couple of women with a baby that had been softly following me around for several minutes were joined by two monks and some kids, all curious to see what I was working at with such diligence. I decided to give them the digital camera orientation, which never fails to win ‘em over, but my small crowd was strangely unimpressed, or perhaps they were just baffled into silence by my space-aged technology. I suddenly recalled that good ol’ Kusala was from Mahamuni and I tried a shameless name dropping with the monks, but they had absolutely no idea what I was taking about until I scrolled about 100 photos back in my camera and show them the snapshot I took of Kusala at which point one monk show vague recognition. I think these guys do just a little too much meditating.

Mahamuni Paya

Suddenly I became aware of the completely dark skies and I realized that I had about 10 minutes to return my bike, so I hastily left my groupies and cruised the streets of Mandalay in total, terrifying darkness, through a sea of questionably safety-conscious drivers back to the bike shop.

I gorged on a forgettable Chinese dinner while reminiscing on my action packed Myanmar travels. Though I had only been in the country for six days by this point, it felt like weeks, due in large part to the fact that I had been reluctantly awake for the lion’s share of the trip - I silently thanked whichever Myanmar government stooge that had approved the import of Red Bull, without which I’d have already collapsed into an exhaustion fueled, sobbing nervous breakdown. My time with Toe and the comforts of Motherland Inn II seemed like an eternity ago. Not surprisingly I was noticeably starting to hit empty, travel stamina-wise. The high pace, repeated bouts of night travel, the physical beating I was taking on said night travel and the resulting sleeplessness, was wearing me down on all fronts, most notably my patience for people and my tolerance for noise and crowds. I pitifully hoped that Bagan would offer up the opportunity to amass a little extra sleep and recuperate from my draining big-city sensory overload.

I check out of the Royal Guesthouse – despite me arriving at 4:30AM the previous day, they only charged me for one night! Wonderful guys! – and after some extended, shameless loitering in their lobby, I went out and made the day of one of the 10 or so glum trishaw drivers sitting out in front and appointed him usher me and my bags to the train station. Predictably, the 10:00PM Mandalay to Bagan government-run, and therefore inexcusably inept, train service left after 1:00AM and I was devastated to see that my US$9, “Upper Class” ticket that LP promised would get me into a reclining bucket seat, only bought me half of a maliciously designed wooden bench, with a bread slice-thin pad for my comfort. This indignity and the rattling, spine grinding train kept me miserably awake and in pain for the entire nine hours to Bagan.

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©Leif Pettersen 2012