Thursday, March 15, 2007

Myanmar: Mingun/Sagaing: 30 January 2007 (Written 13 March 2007)

Many visitors stay in Mandalay for the primary purpose of being able to visit the four ancient cities nearby: Amarapura, Inwa, Sagaing, and Mingun.

Amarapura is most known for its teak bridge, being the longest in the world at over 1.2km, Inwa is an ancient city on an island, Sagaing has dozens of monasteries and pagodas scattered through its peaceful lanes, and Mingun has a beautiful unfinished pagoda which is 40m high, even whilst being only a third of its intended size. Both Amarapura and Inwa are included on the US$10 government ticket for Mandalay, which I was doing my best not to have to pay, so I opted to visit Mingun and Sagaing instead.

On the 30th, we awoke early and found, as one often does, that the one time we were looking for a taxi, we couldn’t find one. Whereas other mornings we would be approached by twenty taxis when we were just trying to take a stroll somewhere, the one day we really wanted a blue taxi, all we could find were trishaws and buses. We did find a trishaw driver who spoke some English and was determined for us to find his taxi driver friend. We followed the trishaw down a complicated array of twists and turns and did find his friend, who was seated in his old blue taxi, with the door open, legs hanging out, chewing heartily on a betel quid, red liquid oozing around his teeth. We quickly negotiated and off we went.

The early morning ride through Mandalay was fantastic; the soft golden light on hundreds of monks and nuns parading barefoot with their alms bowls, the trishaws still enjoying the cool morning air before the stifling heat of the high sun, and the city coming to life gave a sense of a land frozen in time. The road quickly deteriorated, and clouds of dust were blown into our faces as we passed through. The view of Sagaing Hill from across the river, with countless golden peaks jutting out of the lush green landscape was remarkable. Continuing on, we passed through the old dusty roads of Sagaing, winding up and down hills, with our trusty blue taxi stalling and choking at times, before arriving safely in Mingun.

Most visitors to Mingun take a government boat from Mandalay, which we had chosen not to do, and having arrived earlier than the boat, we were alone. Mingun Paya is certainly awe-inspiring, a white arch surrounded by perfectly arranged brick walls towering above. Its location on the bank of the river undoubtedly contributes to its ambiance as well.

I had actually started not feeling well, probably the cold nights in buses and Inle, and just overall exhaustion from the previous month’s travel through Cambodia and Laos, so I skipped the other sights in Mingun and we proceeded to Sagaing Hill. Seemingly interminable stairs through pagodas and statues led to the top, with fantastic views, and a beautiful colorful temple. As I circumambulated, a painter caught my eye, with lovely watercolors of countryside images, with monks and nuns amidst villagers in serene landscapes. He was a very shy man, and obviously passionate about his work. He was also a land-mine victim, with no arms, and painted with his mouth. I don’t know what specifically happened at the moment as I walked away from him with a painting in my hand, but I crumpled in defeat and the tears came. I think the combination of exhaustion, and the multitude of emotions I had been experiencing throughout the past week just brought me to a breaking point, which happened at that specific point in time. As I struggled to breathe regularly and not be obvious about my crying, a woman selling tanakha looked at me and she smiled, and her smile said a thousand words without even opening her mouth. It was such a sad look of understanding in her eyes, with an expression that told me, don’t worry, it’s ok, even when it’s not, and there was even a sense of gratitude in some way, or perhaps I imagined it.

I decided to go back down before Ricard and Pascal so I could gather myself, and as I slowly went down the stairs, two young girls came and linked arms with me, smiling, without saying a word. They took me to a pagoda so I could get some water, and indicated I should wash my face, then smiled gently and said goodbye. It’s these seemingly tiny actions of hospitality by the people of Myanmar that just went straight to my heart.

I was really finished with my sightseeing for the day, but we stopped in Amarapura so Pascal could go see the bridge, and I just hung out with the driver and his endless betel quids. We arrived back in Mandalay and I took a nap because I had plans for the evening.

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