FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Reflections from Mandalay

Posted in Mandalay, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 12, 2017

After our relatively short stay in Myanmar it was time to head home on a routing via Bangkok and Abu Dhabi that involved three changes of plane – starting with a short flight on Bangkok Airways into Bangkok. The contrast between the relatively deserted Mandalay International Airport and the perpetually busy Suvarnabhumi Airport was quite something! A couple of hours in the lounge gave me plenty of time to relax and reflect on our trip.

Our Bangkok Airways Airbus A320 arrives at Mandalay International Airport

I was pleased to have been able to get to see Bagan and Mingun on this visit, the places I most wanted to check out after getting my first taste of Myanmar in January. I haven’t exhausted the long list of places that look interesting (including big sights such as Inle Lake, Mrauk U and Pindaya Caves) but I’m more than satisfied with what I’ve seen on my two trips to the country.

On this trip I saw a different side to life in Myanmar than on my first trip, which was mostly off the tourist trail. Visiting the most touristy places in the country, such as Bagan and Mingun, I saw just how much the local economy has become heavily dependent on this trade. That applies to everyone from the ox cart drivers on the shore to the small stallholders selling cold drinks on the street.

Once again I was overwhelmed by the warm welcome wherever we went and the many kind folk that we met along the way, including helpful taxi drivers, generous monks and cheeky street sellers. I hope that charm is not lost as the tourist industry develops here as it makes a refreshing change from other places that I have been.

Arriving at Bangkok

For us the adventure was almost over. Thankfully, our trip home was pretty uneventful and we reached London a little earlier than expected. The only minor blip came when we discovered that we should have visited a transfer counter at Bangkok so that the ground staff could confirm the transfer of our baggage to the second of the three flights (even though our baggage had been checked all the way through to London at Mandalay). In the end they held us at the gate whilst they checked this.

Although we live in London it still took us a good three hours to make the trek from the door of the plane to our front door, but not long afterwards we were back out and heading round to join the family for a traditional Sunday roast!

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Sagaing, Amarapura and the U Bein Bridge

Posted in Mandalay, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 10, 2017

The afternoon took us to Sagaing Hill, a spiritual site that is home to thousands of pagodas and monasteries. It was also the royal capital for all of three years in the mid-eighteenth century!

The ridge is a spectacular sight from the moment that you cross the Irrawaddy River and first catch sight of the gilded domes and Buddhas among the greenery. It’s no less spectacular once you reach the top of the hill and look down. In addition to the major monasteries here there are lots of smaller shrines that our guide told us were constructed in thanks for the shelter provided by the hill during the war.

The view from the terraces of Soon U Ponya Shin Paya

On our tour we took in the sights of Soon U Ponya Shin Paya (including the terrific view from the terraces over the Irrawaddy); the U Min Thonze temple, a curved cave temple built into the rockface housing 45 Buddhas; the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy; and the Htu Pa Yon Pagoda. All are splendid in different ways.

I thought the recent history of the Htu Pa Yon Pagoda was fascinating. The startlingly white pagoda is quite striking for its relatively unusual styling, which is mire common in Sri Lanka. However, it used to look rather different.

The original Htu Pa Yon Pagoda was constructed in 1444 by King Narapati but what we see today is a recent creation – the 15th century pagoda was encased in a steel frame and the new pagoda was built over the top. This is not uncommon in Myanmar – indeed, one of the effects of the 2016 earthquake in Bagan was to reveal a beautiful 11th century stupa hidden within a much later brick structure.

After leaving Sagaing behind we headed on to the Kyaw Aung San Dar monastery in Amarapura, which is remarkable in a different way. Upon entering the monastery your eyes are immediately drawn to a gigantic seated Buddha paired with an equally large reclining Buddha, but step inside the main pagoda and you find yourself in an amazing space decorated with over 2000 Buddhas. Quite astonishing!

Kyaw Aung San Dar monastery in Amarapura

We ended the day at Amarapura’s most famous sight and one of the most heavily photographed sights in the entire country – the U Bein Bridge. At just over 1km in length this teak bridge is the longest of its type in the world, sitting a good few metres proud of the Irrawaddy when I visited but often right up to the level of the walkway during the wet season.

The U Bein bridge was built using the teak columns left behind when the royal palace was shifted from Amarapura to Mandalay in the mid-nineteenth century. It’s a pretty impressive sight but recent studies have shown significant levels of decay among the pillars and a three year long restoration programme is set to begin in 2018. It looked as though some surveying of the bridge was taking place during our visit, though it was hard to tell if this was for ad-hoc repairs or preparations for the major renovations.

One of the pleasures of a visit to the U Bein Bridge was a sunset viewing by boat which turned out to be too tempting a photographic prospect to resist. The boats makes a simple loop from the landing point on the western shore, sailing under the bridge twice and then back to their starting point. The spectacle was gorgeous and helped distract us from the mid-journey repairs performed by our boatman and the layer of water that had formed inside our boat!

Sunset at Amarapura

The other more modest delight was a wonderfully improvised bicycle enhancements that I came across on the bridge. I suspect it is not the most comfortable of rides!

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Inwa – remains of a royal city

Posted in Mandalay, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 10, 2017

Our final day in Mandalay gave us the opportunity to take a look at three former royal capitals – Inwa, Amarapura and Sagaing – on a wonderful tour organised by LM Travel. The first stop of the day was Inwa (Ava) which had been the capital between 1365 and 1842 with some interruptions. Situated at the meeting point of the Irrawaddy and Myitnge rivers you can see why this easily defended location appealed for over 300 years.

Reflections of the Shwezigon Pagoda at Inwa

It was natural disaster that brought about the end – an earthquake in the early hours of March 23rd 1839 which was said to have destroyed every brick building in the city and left not a single pagoda standing. It was of sufficient force to be felt across the entire country as reports from Rangoon and Bhamo testified.

One eyewitness to the quake, Mr Spears, described the sight of the riverbanks rent apart by its force, leaving chasms between 5 to 20 feet and clear signs of soil liquefaction. Strong after-shocks were felt frequently in the following days and even when these subsided there was still at least one a day six months on. The continuing impact of earthquakes on Inwa were enough to persuade King Tharrawaddy of the need to move the capital to Amarapura.

Approaching the landing stage at Inwa

A shortish drive from Mandalay brought us to a spot on the banks of the Myitnge river where we could board the small ferry to Inwa (or Ava as the British referred to it). The ferry was a marvelous diesel powered contraption with propellers on a pole that could be lowered or raised from the water. For a former royal capital the wooden landing stage was very modest indeed.

On our arrival we switched to a horse cart, the primary mode of transport here, and set off on the traditional circuit of sights. Not the most comfortable of experiences for passengers, or horse I suspect, especially where road detours forced a run down and up a steep dip or when we had to travel along heavily rutted tracks through farmland. However, it’s balanced by the knowledge that a traditional method of transport hasn’t yet vanished here…

Horse cart is the primary mode of transport at Inwa

The traditional circuit covers four sights – the Bagaya Kyaung, a teak monastery from the final years of Inwa’s time as a royal capital; the brick stupas, monastery buildings and exposed Buddhas of Yedanasini Pagoda; the ‘leaning’ Nan Myin Tower; and the stucco marvel that is the Maha Aungmye Bonzan Kyaung. There are other sights in Inwa that you probably won’t get to see on the most rigid of horse cart tours, including the Shwedigon Pagoda and Nogatataphu Pagoda, though I was delighted by a quick photo stop to to capture the former.

One small regret about my visit to Inwa is that the well-worn circuit of four key sights around the city omits some rather unusual and fascinating structures (the Wingaba Monastery, Myint Mo Taung Pagoda, Lawka Dawtha Man Aung Pagoda and the Kyaung Lain Monastery) that I only read about after my visit. These are only just a little beyond the Bagaya Monastery, though not covered in any of the guide books I traveled out with. It’s a good reminder to do my homework before traveling, even when taking a guided tour!

Maha Aungmye Bonzan Kyaung

The highlight of the circuit was undoubtedly the Maha Aungmye Bonzan Kyaung, a stunning brick and stucco monastery that stuns even in its crumbling state. The building was commissioned in 1818 by Queen Me Nu, wife of King Bagyidaw, and was intended to replicate the styling of the teak monasteries that had gone before. It’s well worth stepping below the main platform to see just astonishingly thick the foundation pillars are – these must have helped it weather the great earthquake of 1839 with less damage than might otherwise have been the case.

Inwa is such an agricultural backwater today that it is quite mind-boggling to think that this was once a royal capital – probably testament to the level of destruction wrought by the earthquake. The buildings that survive are rather magnificent and well worth seeing.

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Marvels of Mingun

Posted in Mandalay, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 10, 2017

One of the sights I most wanted to see on our trip was the Mingun Pahtodawgyi, a massive unfinished pagoda commissioned by King Bodawpaya in 1790 but abandoned on his death in 1819. The pagoda was intended as an unmissable statement by the empire building king, which would have been visible for over 100km in its final state. However, his desire to finish it was said to have diminished after the circulation of a prophecy claiming that the dynasty would die out upon its completion! It would have been the largest pagoda in the world.

The Mingun Pahtodawgyi

Our taxi driver walked us to the small tourist ferry office and left us to wait inside for an english speaking official to turn up. The tickets cost 5,000 kyat per person and oddly required one of our passport numbers, but not both! Once the process was complete we were given a handwritten paper chit and left to wait outside with about 20 other passengers for someone to show us our boat. While we waited, we watched as coach after coach arrived and disgorged their tourists to their respective boats. Mingun was not going going to be quiet today!

Mayan Chan Jetty is a quite extraordinary place at this time of morning with a vast number of boats tied up alongside each other. I couldn’t see anything resembling a proper landing stage – most boats were boarded from the beach and then pushed off using poles to get clear The crews seemed well practiced in this and only once did we see a poor crewman fall in (he quickly swam back to be hauled aboard by his colleagues).

Boats tied up at Mayan Chan Jetty

Soon enough it was time to board our boat (Sam 3) which involved walking up a single plank of wood with two people holding up a pole to act as a hand rail! The upper deck of the ship was equipped with bamboo loungers shaded by a large awning which was a superbly relaxing way to while away the hour long journey, accompanied by a light breeze. Along the way it was interesting to see the small villages and traffic along the river (no sign of the endangered irrawaddy dolphins though). Ahead of us you could see a long trail of tourist boats all heading to Mingun.

On our arrival an ox-taxi pulled up alongside, one of around 15-20 still operating in Mingun. It’s a sight that might not last much longer as business is not great – the ox drivers have seen the local passenger market switch to Tuk-Tuks, leaving them dependent on picking up tourists from the boats. It’s not unheard of for the drivers to wait all day without getting any trade.

Ox taxi in Mingun

The base of the monumental Mingun Pahtodawgyi is astonishing, even in its unfinished state, and the cracks caused by the earthquakes of 1839 and 2012 just add to its already dramatic appearance. The earthquake of 2012 made it too dangerous to climb to the top of the monument (the steps up are blocked off by a metal gate) but it is still impressive to take the walk around the base.

The Pondaw Pagoda near the start of the tourist circuit shows how the Mingun Pagoda would have looked if it had been completed. Even with this help it s still a little hard to get your head around just how tall it would have been – at 490 feet it would have been taller than all but a handful of the highest skyscrapers in London.

How the Mingun Pagoda would have looked had it been completed

As impressive as the Mingun Pahtodawgyi is, Mingun has much more to offer and we continued wandering along the hot and dusty streets to see the great bell of Mingun (a whopping 90 tonnes) that was commissioned by the king in 1808 for his monumental pagoda. The two other pagodas here, the Settawya Pagoda (1811) and Hsinbyume Pagoda (1816), are delightful too and quite different to anything we had seen elsewhere. The only disappointment is the small temple set into the base of the Mingun Pahtodawgyi which looks puny in comparison.

On our walk back to make our return ferry, scheduled for 12.30pm, we stopped off at the remains of the two massive lion-like creatures (leogryphs) that once guarded the landing stage and main entrance to Mingun. Today, only the haunches remain (the heads having ended up in the river after the earthquake of 1839) but their massive size (95 feet) shows that nothing here was in any way average!

All that remains of one of the colossal stone chinthes at Mingun

After completing the circuit we headed back to the ferry, nervously braving the single plank without the benefit of a handrail and then relaxing on the lower deck. The return journey only took 45 minutes and our taxi driver turned up shortly after our arrival in Mandalay.

I thoroughly enjoyed my half day trip to Mingun. If the Mingun Pagoda had been completed it would undoubtedly have been one of the greatest wonders of the world and perhaps this place would have become a major tourist destination much sooner. As it is, I’m glad that Mingun retains its village charm.

Practicalities

Every morning a walk-up ferry operated by the Tourists Transportation Association leaves Mayan Chan Jetty, at the end of 26th street, in Mandalay at 9am for the one hour long journey upriver to Mingun. Tickets cost 5000 kyat per person and you need to have a Passport (although there were two of us they only seemed to want one Passport number – it looked as though the details were entered in a register of some sort). A paper ticket was issued, handwritten with the details of our return ferry time (now 12.30pm rather than 1pm).

Our boat had left a little late, around 9.15am and arrived at Mingun at 10.15am which gave us just over 2 hours to complete the tourist circuit. If I were to visit again, I would seriously consider a private boat as our time in Mingun didn’t really feel enough to take a good look at everything properly. It might also be nice to have an early boat to avoid the busiest crowds for photographic purposes, though we only felt slightly frustrated by crowds at the Mingun Bell.

The Mingun tourist circuit

A board near the point where our boat tied up helpfully shows the circuit to see all the sights and you can buy the Sagaing-Mingun archaeological site tickets from a stall nearby (most folk seemed to have walked in the other direction, so it didn’t seem the most foolproof of arrangements!). On the day we visited the ticket was only checked at the stone leogryphs.

As we worked our way to the farthest point on the circuit, the Hsinbyume Pagoda, we found that the minutes had been ticking down rather more quickly than we would have liked, but it’s worth making sure you have time to do this place justice. It’s a rather unusual pagoda, painted entirely white, which represents the spiritual centre of the Buddhist universe, Mount Meru.

Over the years the sights of Mingun have received varying degrees of restoration. Hsinbyume Pagoda was first restored as early as 1874 by King Mindon, following the damage caused by the earthquake of 1839, and the cone received attention as recently as 2013. There are some restoration works scheduled this year, but we didn’t see any evidence of this on our visit.

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Four days in Mandalay

Posted in Mandalay, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 10, 2017

Mandalay is often omitted from itineraries cramming the sights of Myanmar into a week or two. It’s no wonder when you have such marvels as Bagan, Inle Lake, the Golden Rock, Bago and Yangon to cover, let alone some of the more remote sights such as Mrauk U. However, there is plenty to see in Mandalay and the surrounding area.

The remains of the former royal capitals of Amarapura and Inwa, plus the unfinished pagoda of Mingun, make for terrific outings that more than match the spectacular sights to be found in other parts of the country. First, though there are the sights of Mandalay City itself…

Kuthodaw Pagoda

I’ll start by saying that I found a visit to the top of Mandalay Hill for sunset to be one of the least satisfying sights of our stay, though I am well aware that for many it is the absolute highlight of a stay. I made the long walk up the hillside within a few hours of arriving on our long-haul journey, so perhaps that played a part. On the other hand, I really enjoyed our visits to the religious sights around the hill such as the Kuthodaw Pagoda (often described as the world’s biggest book on account of its 729 engraved marvel slabs covering the Buddhist scriptures, each one neatly housed in its own stupa) and the equally photogenic Sandamuni Pagoda just down the road.

Another highlight among the sites located around Mandalay Hill is the Shwenandaw Kyaung (Golden Monastery), a teak building that was originally part of the palace complex at Amarapura before being moved with the imperial capital to Mandalay as the royal apartments of King Mindon (in which he died in 1878). The re-location of this intricately carved building on the grounds of ‘bad luck’ in 1883 turned out to be anything but as it is one of the few buildings from the palace to have survived the bombing from both sides in World War 2.

Exquisite detail at the Shwenandaw Kyaung

I hadn’t particularly expected to make a visit to Mandalay Palace, a 1990s reconstruction of the 19th century palace complex, but ended up there after our plans went a little awry.

The original palace was constructed in 1858, followed by the completion of city walls and moat in 1859. In its time it was a magnificent sight, with a combination of intricately carved gilded teak and glass mosaic that was said to be unique. The last monarch to sit in the throne here, King Thibaw, was sent into exile by the British in November 1885 following his defeat in the Third Anglo-Burmese War. Under British rule the palace became Fort Dufferin and was adapted to fit this purpose, with features including a garrison church, government buildings, the Upper Burma Club and military barracks.

The first efforts at restoration started in 1901 when the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, saw the dilapidated state of the palace on an official visit and decreed that it should be preserved for future generations. Lord Curzon oversaw the removal of the buildings added under British rule, arranged for the restoration of the palace buildings and the re-building of seven missing pavilions on the walls. Sadly, all these efforts were undone by the incendiary bombs dropped by Japanese forces on the night of April 3rd 1942. The resulting firestorm destroyed most of the palace and what little survived took another battering during the allied liberation of the city. It’s a wonder that any buildings survived.

The poorly reconstructed Mandalay Palace

Today, the vast 1,000 acre complex is a military zone and off-limits to foreigners (including army garrison, prison, sports grounds and even a golf course) with the exception of the reconstructed palace complex at its centre. A handful of interesting survivors can also be seen on the fringes, just off the road from the eastern gate, including the original Clock Tower and Relic Tower.

The restoration generated a wave of condemnation as it was mostly built using forced labour – every family in the city was compelled to provide free labour for at least three days a month during the project (one 50 year old shop-owner described being forced to work in 35 degree heat to dredge the 6 mile long, 11 foot deep moat around the palace).

It’s not the best reconstruction that you will ever see, with concrete and corrugated iron roofing in place of teak, but it does give a vague sense of what this would have been like – especially if you climb to the top of the watchtower. There is some hope that this might change, as King Thibaw’s descendants would like to restore Mandalay Palace to its former glory.

There are some fascinating and grim stories to be told about the history of Mandalay Palace, including the large-scale massacres of the royal family ordered to protect King Thibaw’s position and the mystery of the disappearance of the most precious of the royal family’s jewels. It could make for a compelling tourist centrepiece with full restoration and the right presentation, but not as it stands today.

Mandalay Palace: A walled city within the city

Another sight to have undergone reconstruction is the Atumashi Kyaung, the largest religious building constructed by King Mindon (1808-1878) in Mandalay. The monastery built over a period of 18 years, from the laying of the foundation stones on 22nd May 1859 to its completion on 29th November 1877, but under British rule was converted into military barracks and burned down in 1890.

The reconstructed monastery re-opened in 1996 and is a bit of an oddity, housing a tiny Buddha where once a huge Buddha with a precious royal diamond once stood (another jewel to have mysteriously disappeared under British rule). Thankfully, the original stairways, archways and balustrade with their beautiful stucco carvings have survived and these more than made up for the poorly reconstructed structure built on top.

Stucco carving at Atumashi Monastery

Other sights we visited in Mandalay included the Kyauktawgyi Temple, the Mahamuni Temple (the most important Buddhist sight in the city) and Shwe In Bin Kyaung (a lovely teak monastery from the 1890s). However, the most interesting sights are those nearby at Inwa, Amarapura and Mingun of which more in the next couple of posts…

Practicalities

Our trip to Myanmar started and finished at Mandalay International Airport, giving us more time in the city than I might otherwise have planned – approximately four days – and left us all too familiar with the hour long drive between airport and city centre. In our time in the city we stayed in two hotels, the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel and the Link 78 Mandalay Boutique Hotel. Taxis were easily obtained and absolutely essential to get between most places (getting around on foot was quite a bit trickier than I imagined).

The first of our two hotels was the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel which was superbly located for all the sights around Mandalay Hill but a long way from anything else. The hotel is a few minutes walk from the entrance to Mandalay Hill and within 15 minutes walk of the various religious sights that surround the base of the hill (Shwenandaw Monastery, Atumashi Monastery, Kuthodaw Pagoda, Sandamuni Pagoda and Kyauktawgyi Temple). Mandalay Palace is roughly 25 minutes away on foot.

Our second hotel, the Link 78 Mandalay Boutique Hotel, was a wonderful oasis of calm amidst the bustling streets of downtown Mandalay at the end of our trip. It’s a smart, stylish place just a short walk from the central railway station (the top floor restaurant looks down on the station). Service was very efficient and incredibly helpful. The only downside to our stay was that some taxi drivers were incredibly confused by the similarity in names to The Hotel 78, Mandalay, and got very angry when we explained that this wasn’t the hotel we wanted!

A five day Mandalay Combination ticket (10,000 kyat) is required to visit Atumashi Kyaung, Mandalay Palace, Shwenandaw Kyaung and Kuthodaw Pagoda. We picked ours up at the Shwenandaw Kyaung. It was checked everywhere except for the Kuthodaw Pagoda.

Mandalay Palace doesn’t tend to feature highly in recommendations and hardly encourages visits with its awkward arrangements for access. Firstly, only one of the four entrances is open to visitors – the eastern gate, roughly half way between downtown Mandalay and Mandalay Hill. Next, you have to surrender your passport at the military guardhouse immediately in front of the gate (they give you a numbered ticket to wear around your neck and then write this number on a sticker that they attach to your passport). Finally, you have a 15-20 minute walk from the gate to the palace complex with signs along the way warning against entering the restricted military zones on either side.

The Shwe In Bin Kyaung monastery is rather underrated but that worked in my favour. It clearly isn’t ever overflowing with tourists but I was one of only two visitors on the afternoon that I visited. One of the monastery guardians kindly took it upon himself to lead me round, pointing out sights that I might easily have missed such as the workshops where restoration work was taking place. There is no charge for admission. To keep things simple I arranged for a taxi to take me to the monastery, wait a short while, then take me back to my hotel.

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