Thursday, March 15, 2007

Myanmar: Mandalay: 29 January 2007 (Written 12 March 2007)

Mandalay. Almost every piece of literature I’ve ever seen that has anything to do with Mandalay starts by commenting on how this city has somehow achieved a romantic, fantastical place in the minds and hearts of everyone who hears its name, whether or not they know anything about the place. And so it is.

I perhapshad a bit more background knowledge about Mandalay than the average Las Vegas gambler who stays at Mandalay Bay. I had been reading about Myanmar for months beforehand, both in novels and guidebooks, as well as poems and personal experiences of recent travelers to the country. So, I knew that it’s not a city that everyone falls in love with, that it’s been recently rebuilt in large part with Chinese- style impersonal concrete buildings, that there is nothing actually beautiful about it, and it was perfectly understandable to only stay a day.

I fell in love with it.

The bus journey from Shweyaung was better than I expected. Pascal had kindly taken care of the tickets with Ricard the previous day, trying to make sure that we had seats in the front of the bus. We did, and I sat next to Pascal, with all my warmest clothes close at hand, and Ricard sat in the window seat across from us. As soon as we were in the bus, a karaoke video blasted at full volume, and I turned to see all the Myanmar people fixated on the screen, watching the bright neon lights, the well-dressed, young beautiful singers with perfect hair and makeup. What you see on the screen and what you see in real life, the passengers in the bus with tattered clothes and sandals, plastic bags for suitcases and sitting in the aisle because there aren’t enough buses, makes you wonder how these parallel universes can coexist so easily, without any questioning, discontent, or clashes – or at least how they can keep it so hidden.

I quickly fell asleep as we headed into the mountains, and after our brief stop for a meal, I didn't wake until our arrival in Mandalay at 3am. The representative of our hotel was there, and we piled into a motorcycle taxi to go the 7km into town from the bus stop.

We had a leisurely morning and decided to walk to Shwe In Bin Monastery. Our hotel was very near Endawgyi Pagoda, and the morning prayers started by 4.30am. Stepping into the street downstairs, the golden dome loomed above us, a constant reminder of the land we were in. The first thing I realized was that despite its population of 2 million, being the second largest city in the country, it was just a big village. Monks by the dozen were walking around collecting alms, trishaws weaved through the streets lined with endless merchants selling onions, garlic, tomatoes, and potatoes alongside noodles, samosas, endless kettles of tea, and the ubiquitous betel nut stand was never out of sight.

Almost every person we passed called out Hello or Mingalaba to us, and huge smiles surrounded us. It was completely unexpected, given my conceptions of how the larger a city is, the more impersonal and unfriendly it becomes. When we were within 1km of Shwe In Bin, numerous people came out of their homes or shops to indicate that we were going in the right direction. They were so welcoming, and so proud that we had come all this way to visit their monasteries.

Shwe In Bin is certainly worth visiting. An old teak monastery, its dark wood is meticulously carved with such fine detail that you could easily spend hours walking around it continuously. Dozens of columns support the structure, and although it is not so astounding in its size, the atmosphere is so grounded that I found myself lingering there.

As we left and walked towards the river, I stopped to watch a group of monks playing a board game with cowrie shells in the shade of one of the many green, leafy trees in the area. We smiled and as I was walking away, one monk came to me and spoke to me in English.

He invited the 3 of us to accompany him to his monastery, New Monsangein. We obliged, and followed the deep red robes winding through the streets. He told us it was the largest monastery in Mandalay, but it didn’t really sink in until we entered the gate with the big clock tower, and all around me was a sea of maroon. Everywhere, only males, head to toe in crimson and brick colors, all turning their heads to unabashedly stare at us. Many were extremely shy and once they realized that we realized they were looking at us, they turned away, but others smiled brightly and waved. We wandered through, a bit flabbergasted by the 2700 monks surrounding us, and every step was surreal as we were led by 3 monks, one of whom spoke very good Japanese. They invited us to watch the Pali lesson which would take place at 1pm. 15 minutes before the lesson began, dozens and dozens of monks gathered in the classroom building, coming from all directions, a steady stream of these religious men. They were chatting or quiet, smiling or pensive, and all neatly discarded their shoes at the door of the classroom, which can hold 1000 students. They sat and immediately opened their books, chanting and murmuring, all the while sneaking glances our way. The energy that filled the room was unlike any I’ve ever experienced in any place of religious gathering that I’ve been to thus far.

We left the lesson and took refuge under the shade of a large tree in the courtyard, where we could have a good view of all the bustling activity of the monastery. More curious monks cam to say hello, and we discussed the tenets of Buddhism in Myanmar as opposed to in other countries, as best we could given our language difficulties. The young monks, between the ages of 20 and 25, were so eager to discuss and help us understand their belief system. We decided to move along, and a small crowd of monks followed us along to make sure we were on the right road to our next destination, Mahamuni Paya.

Mahamuni Paya is one of the country’s most important monuments, and probably the second most visited one by locals after Shwedagon Paya in Yangon. It is a Buddha image, which is covered in gold leaf, and every morning at 4.30am men brush its teeth, and throughout the day people come to cover the statue in more gold leaf. Women cannot approach the statue but instead stay in pathways leading up to the statue, kneeling and praying, or as often happens in Burma, chatting away with friends. Mahamuni Paya can be accessed by a variety of entrances. Walking barefoot, you pass through indoor chambers with vendors selling everything from photos of Aung San Suu Kyi (often as a child with her father, Aung San) to tanakha (yellow makeup/sunblock/lotion made from the tanakha tree) to pots and pans. You emerge to the central area, where the Buddha image is, along with plenty of exhibits of General Than Shwe making donations and being blessed by monks. There are several other things to visit in Mahamuni Paya, including tablets engraved with teachings of the Buddha, and a number of small temples.

Given that we had walked across the city and stayed on our feet the majority of the day, we took a moment to stay in the shade, then went to the exit, where I was first introduced to a formal chinlon event. Chinlon, known as sepatakuro in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, is played with a small woven wooden ball, and the ball is passed with the feet amongst the players, making sure not to touch the ground. I had seen the game played by children and men along the road, but I had not yet seen an organized event. There was a very small stage area, circular, with seats ringing the outside of it, where we sat, and to our left there were musicians with small drums, an instrument resembling a xylophone, and something like a tambourine. The players, with green and yellow uniforms, had sweat dripping down their faces as they ran around the circle in a frenzy. I marveled at the fact that this could be happening on the same grounds as where normal men laid sheets of gold on an ancient Buddha.

We then went to Mandalay Hill, well known for its views over Mandalay. As we descended from our motorcycle taxi, 5 novice nuns came walking in our direction. I hesitated with my camera, and one girl, probably 6 or 7 years old, with a cleanly shaved head and untainted pink robes, beckoned me with a solemnity and assuredness I have never seen in anyone that age, and urged me to take their photo. She looked into my lens with such determination I wondered what events had transpired in her life to make her this way at such an early age, or what deep convictions she already held.

As we approached the first set of stairs going up to the peak, a group of 15 or so locals sat, resting. As I went nearer, they were staring, and 2 of the youngest, novice monks around 7 years old, gaped with mouths wide open until I smiled, waved, and said Mingalaba. They smiled but immediately became shy. They were still staring, all of them, so I asked if I could take a photo, they nodded, and they instantly started squealing with delight and politely pushed each other aside to get a glimpse of themselves in my small LCD finder.

Mandalay Hill has several pagodas and temples on the way up, and the concrete stairs seem endless, especially after our overnight bus journey and many hours of walking during the day. From the top, a vista of the Ayeyarwady River, and behind it, the Shan Hills which melt into the distant skies, gives you a sense of how vast the expanse of this country, and how rich it is in natural resources. We stayed for the sunset then descended.

The corner of 27th and 82nd St. If there is one place I ate in Burma which breathed the people, place, and life of the country, it was this place. The Chapati Stand. A pair of women busily rolled out chapattis and passed them to the boy who had the grill, flipping the thin pancakes and acknowledging so subtly the orders that were being placed that you could hardly detect the nods or grunts of communication. The tables were along the entire corner of the two streets, low plastic tables with wooden stools, and on the other side of the corner, the tea station, with huge pots of hot tea, large cans of condensed milk, buckets of sugar, and the strong delightful scent of freshly brewed tea wafted over the whole scene. The waiters, young boys who paid attention to fine details of every customers’ request, whether it’s that the man wanted condensed milk but no sugar, the women wanted her tea not as strong, or the young couple wanted their biryani after the chapattis, nothing was forgotten.

We ordered a pretty standard meal of keema curry, chicken curry, biryani, lentils, and of course, chapattis. Both Pascal and Ricard had claimed not to be hungry just minutes before, and had only come along because I was hungry and vocal about it, but as soon as the food arrived they were consuming more speedily than I was. The food was fresh, hot, and absolutely delicious. And of course it was, by the sheer volume of people coming to eat there; as soon as a table paid and got up to leave, it was replaced by new people. People arrived by motorcycle or trishaw to take food home with them, and many of them also took tea, poured expertly into plastic bags that could then be emptied into teacups once safely home.

Feeling fully satisfied for the first time since I had left Japan, we slowly made our way back home, walking towards the golden dome visible from several blocks away, and I fell into a deep, sweet sleep with dreams of this land I had so quickly been captivated by.

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