Myanmar – Discovering Mandalay and a 117-year-old Viaduct

Burma. Literally.

This southeast Asian country probably has the most potential in the region for the adventurous traveler to access sights and cultures that haven’t yet been overrun by package tourists and boozing backpackers (it’s ok if YOU are the boozing backpacker but, when you’re aging (I’m not getting any younger here!) and need a break, this is a good direction to head…).  At this stage of my Asian tour (8.5 months in by the time I landed in Mandalay) that’s exactly what I planned to do.

I was feeling a little burned out towards the end of my time in Laos – it’s lush rice terraces were beginning to meld in my mind with those of Northern Vietnam and Yunnan, China. I’d been spoilt, and these once awe-inspiring vistas were becoming a bit old hat. Thankfully, and surprisingly, within 10 minutes of landing in Mandalay, watching the landscape zip by the windows of the shuttle bus, I was overwhelmed by a renewed sense of enthusiasm for my trip and the unknown adventures that could be just around the corner.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited on a shuttle bus from an airport, and I said as much to anyone on that bus who was unfortunate enough to be sitting near me – whether they spoke English or not!

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It’s hard to put my finger on what exactly it was that lifted my spirits so immediately.  It just felt like I was closer to India and further from Vietnamese jungles.  This was true geographically, of course, but there was just something in the air that refreshed my whole outlook.

Myanmar was on the cusp of the upcoming monsoon season and the heat was intense at the end of the 5-month long dry period.  The hospitality of the staff at my first hotel was greatly appreciated (cold drinks on arrival, the room pre-cooled in anticipation of my arrival) and foreshadowed the friendliness and kindness I would enjoy from hostel workers and locals across the country in the weeks to come.

Monks on their way to collect their daily alms. Every boy is expected to spend at least a few weeks as a monk between the ages of 7 and 13 and can stay at the monastery for as long as they wish.

I’d spoken to a lot of travelers about Myanmar in the months prior to my visit and, while I’d received great suggestions (many of which I followed), there were very few tips to be had on visiting Mandalay itself, the last royal capital of Myanmar.  So, I rented a scooter from my hotel and spent two days driving like a madman all over town!  Westerners on motorbikes are quite a rare sight in this town, so I generated a lot of smiles, waves and “mingalabas” (hellos).

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One temple that interested me was the Mingun Pahtodawgyi, which has massive fissures crossing through it from an earthquake in 1839.  It was actually left unfinished (const. started 1790) prior to the earthquake, due to a prophecy stipulating that it’s completion would bring about either the destruction of the country or the death of the king.  A bell was also cast for this site, the “Mingun Bell”, which has spent more than 100 years as the largest functional bell in the world (finally surpassed permanently in 2000).

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I had two targets for my second day of exploring Mandalay; visiting the Mahamuni Buddha Temple and seeing the “World’s Largest Book” at Kuthodaw Pagoda.

The Mahamuni Buddha is a famous pilgrimage site for Burmese (and other) Buddhists.  According to tradition, this is one of only 5 statues that were made in the image of Buddha while he was alive.  Men (only) can approach the statue of Buddha and press gold leaf onto it.  Thousands of layers of this gold leaf have resulted in a gold coating of up to 15cm, distorting the image slightly.  When I visited, women were handing their gold leaves they’d purchased to men who would apply it on their behalf.  From my own observations, all religions, even Buddhism, have at least this one thing in common – suppression of women.

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The “World’s Largest Book” is a copy of the Tripiṭaka (Buddhist scriptures) inscribed on both sides of 730 large marble tablets, each housed within a small stupa surrounding the Kuthodaw Pagoda, unveiled in 1868.

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Whilst visiting the site, I happened upon a university class being run in the open air.  A student was presenting to his peers (in English), the origins of the Burmese national dress, the longyi.  I’d purchased one earlier in the day to visit the Mahamuni Buddha and was fascinated to hear about its origins, the influence of Scottish tartans on its patterns and the various ways that it is worn (differently by men and women) depending on the activity (farming, swimming, walking) and level of formality (from casual to wedding dress).  It’s a very versatile garment and I made good use of mine during the rest of my time in the country – the accidental crash course helping me impress the locals with my dressing skills! Plenty of pictures of me in my longyi in the next post ? (Yes, this was the first time my fashion sense impressed anyone…)

Lastly, I made a trip out to Hsipaw, a town popular with trekkers. I’d done enough trekking for the time being and, as such, didn’t do much but go for a jog to a nearby waterfall, where I had a quick (and refreshing!) swim.

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The main reason I went out to Hsipaw was to catch the train back!  The Gokteik Viaduct is on the route between Hsipaw and Mandalay, and was once the largest railway trestle in the world.  It was completed in 1900, is 689m long and is as much as 100m above the ground. At the time of its construction it was considered a masterpiece of engineering.

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I had a wonderful time on the train.  The fantastic view slowly rolled by, the colourful local vendors passed food and drinks through the windows whenever we reduced our speed to a slow jogging pace and I met other travelers (hey Vikram, Malaika and Martin!) who quickly welcomed me into their group for a few cheeky whisky and cokes.  It was the perfect end to my introduction to Myanmar – I was (almost) fully prepared for the deep dive off the tourist trail that the next week would bring.

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