We arrived in Mandalay bright and early after our luxurious VIP bus from Yangon. We had tv screens so I watched 2 films, played a game and listened to some 2007 chart toppers. At 6am we checked into our hostel which seemed clean and nice but we couldn’t have a bed yet so we started our day early and sorted out our bus out of Mandalay (Thingyan festival/Myanmar New Year has left some people stuck for 5 days so we wanted that sorted ASAP).
We ate the snacks the bus had given us with some tea and coffee and then walked to the palace via Koffee Korner where we read the Myanmar Times over some questionable quesadillas.
The palace has a very impressive size and tourists can only enter via the east gate so we had a long walk just to get there. The palace itself is inside a walled fort, surrounded by a moat and the whole complex is about 1km in diameter. It was the last palace of the last Burmese Monarchy and was constructed in 1859 when the King declared Mandalay to be the country’s new capital (the capital city has changed at least twice since). It ceased to be a royal residence in 1885 when troops from the Burma Field Force stormed in and captured the royal family during the Third Anglo-Burmese War.
We weren’t particularly impressed as most of the buildings were made of wood and were empty and a lot of the gold leaf on the roof was peeling away. Myanmar is one of the world’s biggest producers of gold leaf and Mandalay is the capital of this gold leaf industry so I was a little disappointed.
Right as we were about to give up, we finally found a room with some artefacts etc in it. However we got a little bit distracted by a cute cat that was meowing for attention so we played with her. The room then got even better when we looked behind a cupboard to find her 4 small kittens!
Despite saying we wouldn’t nap in Myanmar, night busses are tough so we went back for a quick catnap after checking in and got speaking to a lovely Italian girl called Federica. In the evening the three of us took a taxi up Mandalay Hill to see the sunset. It was nice but we were distracted by a Monk who started talking to us. We spoke to him for quite a long time about lots of things like how he and his brothers became monks. He has been a monk for 18 years now and teaches the novice monks but one of his brothers lasted only 3 days and the other was a monk for a while but visited home quite often (normally just once or twice a year) and accidentally fell in love with a girl. He also told us about how one of his female friends became a monkess for one week during the new year festival. It is quite common for people to do this in Myanmar as they have 10 days holiday but this year there was outrage when the government tried to change it to 5 according to the Myanmar Times. We asked him about his food routine and the collecting of Alms. He said that they have to take all the food that is given to them (even if it’s not so good) and they have one main meal at lunch time but throughout he rest of the day they are allowed water and a little bit of fruit. He asked us about England and Italy and asked if we would ever become nuns and I politely told him that I couldn’t because I want a family but in my head I was laughing because I could never live off one meal a day. I love food way too much. It was so nice to finally talk to a monk and find out about their lives and views and we were really impressed with his English!
Once the sun had gone down we went to a pagoda at the bottom of the hill called Kuthodaw Pagoda and the interesting thing about this is that it contains the world’s largest book. In the grounds of the pagoda are 729 stone-inscription caves, each containing a marble slab inscribed on both sides with a page of text from the Tipitaka, which is like the bible of Theravada Buddhism.
For dinner we ate at Min Ga Lar Bar which was recommended to us by some other girls in our room. Although we still have no idea what Burmese food really is, we really like the style of eating here. You order one main dish, for example I had pork and dried mango curry with rice, and they serve it to you with a small soup and a selection of sides. We were absolutely stuffed and it was so delicious!
On our last day we enjoyed a slight lie in and then enjoyed our breakfast of fried rice, eggs, toast and jam and watermelon. We weren’t interested in visiting any more of the city’s temples so we hired some bikes and rode to a gold leaf workshop on 36th Street. A man kindly showed us the many steps of making gold leaves and bamboo paper. The gold leaf was the most interesting as the roll out a small cube of gold til it’s flat then cut it into smaller squares and put each square between a sheet of paper and wrap it in leather. It then has to be beaten for 5 hours then cut again then more beating and repeat. It’s a long process but they can beat something like 700 sheets of gold at any one time. I bought a leaflet with a more detailed explanation of this and a small leaf of gold in it.
Afterwards we cycled to find somewhere for lunch with me leading the way. As I mentioned in my Luang Prabang blog, I have been teaching Ammun how to ride a bike on this trip and so I took the most complicated route possible with lots of left and right turns before we found somewhere for lunch to give her lots of practice. She absolutely bossed it and I feel like a proud mother.
Lunch was interesting. My eye was drawn to a restaurant called Mandalay Doughnuts which had decent food but the staff barely spoke English. For a country that only opened its borders to tourists a few years ago I completely understand that a lot of people won’t speak English. What I didn’t understand though was how I asked for tomato ketchup and was given a plastic glove…