Mandalay's Hopes and Sorrows
I took a peek through the morning clouds down at Mandalay as we were about to land. This city, the second largest in Myanmar and made famous by Kipling's poem of the same name, looked disappointingly barren and abandoned from the air. We'd caught a pre-dawn flight by Air Mandalay, taking 90 minutes from the capital of Yangon. Upon entering the surprisingly modern airport, our passports were thoroughly checked, something unusual for a domestic flight, and our details were cross-examined from a report. It seemed to us that once you are in Myanmar as a foreigner, your every move is monitored at all times.
Once we completed the complicated immigration process we were met by our guide, a middle-aged man in a traditional white-cotton jacket with a mandarin collar and a dark blue sarong, that is locally called longyi. He beamed at us as we approached him.
"Welcome to Mandalay! My name is Thaung Sein. But please, call me Mr. Diamond. Thaung Sein means 'diamond' anyway. Our driver today is Mr. So-So." He spoke with a heavy Burmese accent and obvious humor.
Mr. Diamond informed us that the drive from the airport to Mandalay would take about one hour. The landscape changed from the green in Yangon to brown. Apparently mountains surround Mandalay, being in the middle of the country. There is little rainfall and farmers can only grow maize, potatoes and watermelon.
On the Mandalay-Yangon 'highway', it finally hit us that we were in the countryside. The 'highway' was no wider than two meters. Dilapidated huts dotted the roadside and it was obvious there was no running water or electricity. Skinny white buffaloes struggled with wobbly legs, pulling heavily laden wooden carts. Mini-buses the size of an average sedan could load more than twenty people. Every now and then there was a broken down bus or truck parked by the roadside. The 700-km journey between Mandalay and Yangon could take up to two days.
Tall teak trees with their palm-sized leaves lined the highway and everywhere we looked there was a crimson-clad monk, barefoot and gaunt looking, asking for a donation or food from the local people. Some of them were as young as six or seven years old. They all held exactly the same alms-bowl, a fine specimen of black Burmese lacquer - the size of a basketball.
Just as we were admiring the rural scenery, our van broke down. Mr. So-So informed us that one of the cords that helped the air-conditioning had broken. We tried to look nonchalant about it but with the summer heat we simply could not travel without air-conditioning. As Mr. So-So repaired the van, we stepped out to stretch our legs. Many buses roared by and passengers waved at us friendlily. A couple of young monks rushed by with their heavy alms-bowls and happily yelled 'hello'. When we asked a particularly cute one if we could take a picture of him, he shouted in perfect English without stopping: "I don't have time! I am late!"
"What are they late for?" I asked Mr. Diamond.
"At 11 o'clock they need to go back to their monastery and have their meal. Talking about it, we are late too. I want to take you to a monastery for a visit." He looked at the van anxiously.
Minutes later he beckoned us to get into a local taxi. Just imagine a normal DHL truck without the backdoors. Now shrink the image by two-thirds. That was the local taxi. It was so small that my husband had to fold his six-foot three-inch frame and sat with his knees protruding into the open back. We were on our way to Amarapura, 'the city of immortality' - the old capital of the Mon Dynasty.
We were just in time to witness the eleven o'clock meal at the famous Mahagandayon Monastery. There were over 1,000 monks in the monastery. It was considered the best monastery in the region for providing religious studies and general education for young men. Many poor families who cannot afford school send their boys to the monastery so at least the boys can learn how to read and write.
One thousand monks, mostly garbed in the crimson robes, while novice young monks wore white, lined up near the dining hall with their alms-bowls in hand to receive generous scoops of rice from the village donors. Poor as they were, the villagers continuously donated food to the monks in the hope that the Buddha answers their prayers, and their reincarnated lives will be better than this one.
Once they were seated the monks began to eat. Curries and vegetables were already on the table. It was hard to imagine that one thousand people were eating at the same time because there was no noise and it was forbidden to speak during the meal.
"They eat a lot," I chuckled, "but they all look so skinny."
"Every day they get up at four and they have their first meal at five. Then they go to their respective gurus to study. Afterwards they eat again at eleven in the morning. This is their second and last meal of the day."
No wonder the donors were generous with the rice. The monks still looked thin.
Mr. Diamond, as resourceful as he was, took us to visit the kitchen. A few cooks were stirring curries in huge iron woks while others were slicing pork and fish.
"How come these monks are allowed to eat meat?" I was astonished.
"Why not?" asked Mr. Diamond, equally dumbfounded.
"I thought all Buddhist monks are supposed to be vegetarians."
"Buddha never said that!" Mr. Diamond looked genuinely surprised. "Buddha said that if you are hungry and you are given meat to eat, that is not sin. But when you are not hungry, even if you eat vegetables, it is a sin. Buddha's last meal included pork."
In the dormitory we saw bamboo beds without mattresses or even bed-sheets. An average monk's possessions include three sets of robes and books. In a country with such political turmoil and economic difficulties, a monk's life is probably the best escape from reality. The young novices may miss their family and the older graduating monks may face an uncertain lifetime of poverty and unemployment, but for now, all they have to worry about is studying religious books.
After visiting the austere environment of the monastery, our hotel seemed like a dream that an average Burmese citizen would never have the chance to enjoy. To us, it was only a 3-star property, but we were satisfied.
The hotel was right in front of Mandalay Fort, which is a perfect square complex of 2.2 km on each side with eight-meter high walls. A moat of seven meters wide surrounds the fortress and every hundred meters or so there is a gate tower. On each corner, an impressive guard-tower fortifies the grounds. It used to be the palace of King Mindon in 1857. Sadly, the king only enjoyed his immense palace made of teak wood for a short while. The British conquered Mandalay in 1886 and turned the palace into their military headquarters. Later the Japanese occupied the same compound during World War II, which proved to be a clear target for destruction. The palace was then bombed clean by the Allies and the only evidence of its former glory is in the form of the Golden Palace Monastery located separately from the fort. It was entirely constructed of teak wood and the intricate carvings were amazing. It was named so because several centuries ago, the palace was gilded in gold. Inside one could still see the remnants of the former grandeur. The weather and natural elements had stripped all the gold outside. Perhaps it was by pure luck that it was moved out of the palace to become a monastery; so it survived the war. We could only fathom the glory of bygone splendor when kingdoms were smaller and weapons more rudimentary.
Mandalay is the Buddhist center for Myanmar. There are more than 700 pagodas in the vicinity. The famous Mahamuni Pagoda had a legendary story behind it. After Siddharta Gotama attained his enlightenment and became a Buddha, he visited the old kingdom of this region 2500 years ago and preached for seven days. In order to show his gratitude, a king made a replica of the Buddha to be worshipped in his absence. The bronze statue was cast and the Buddha touched the statue's head and chest to infuse it with his sacred aura. Therefore it is believed that the Buddha image in this pagoda can be looked upon as the real replica of Gotama the Buddha himself.
In fact, the statue only came to Mandalay in 1784. But the legend is still alive, as every morning monks would wash the statue's face and teeth as if it were a real person. When we went into the pagoda, several men attended the massive 12-foot statue. Mr. Diamond took my husband to the back and I was told to sit in front with the other worshippers.
"Sorry, no ladies allowed."
I sat on the marble floor with the other local ladies and looked up. The statue was sparkling and had an entirely golden face. The body seemed to be undulating with layers of gold. For years, worshippers would purchase gold leaves and apply to the body to attest to their faith. Therefore the original 6-ton bronze statue now weighs a whopping 12-ton from all the gold deposits on its face and body. But only men are allowed to touch the statue. So with a small donation of 500 Kyiats (about $8.50), my husband proudly put some gold leaves onto the Buddha.
Back at the hotel, we were the only dinner guests at the hotel's restaurant. A typical Burmese meal consists of lentil soup, curries, Chinese stir-fries and rice. It seems to be a juxtaposition of Indian and Chinese cuisine, but the curries are mild. Everywhere we went we were served this kind of meal, obviously considered special and lavish for foreign tourists. We dared not to imagine what the locals would eat on a daily basis.
The hotel hired a troupe of local performers to entertain us. Three men were on the instruments and two lovely girls danced and sang with at least four costume changes. Another boy performed only as a clown. We thoroughly enjoyed the performance. The melody was happier compared to Indonesian dances and tunes, and more down-to-earth than the elaborate Thai style. Burmese marionettes are also very famous and we were shown many types of puppets.
Ninety minutes into the show the performers began to take longer breaks and looked at us more frequently. My husband and I had no idea what we should do. If we left in the middle of the show, it would definitely be rude. But since we were the only guests, were the performers waiting for us to leave? We had finished our meal thirty minutes ago and flashed our cameras perhaps five times too many times, just to be polite.
The show went on and finally, after more than two hours I called the waitress over.
"Are they waiting for us to leave?"
The answer was yes. These poor performers probably had driven for an hour to get into the city to perform for a few dollars and we, the insatiable tourists, simply wouldn't go away. We gave the troupe a big tip and were overwhelmed by their politeness and hospitality.
Myanmar was easily the poorest country I have visited. In the capital Yangon, we saw many beggars and mothers pushing their babies into our car windows in exchange for money or trying to get their children a better life. In the countryside, the living conditions were very basic, but every pagoda in the villages was clean and gleaming with gold. Religion, in every form, seems always to have a strong hold among these poor people.
We were amazed by the religious history and the remarkable ancient wisdom in their architecture, but it was the simple friendliness of its people that touched us deeply. This was the first country that we did not see one single McDonald's or KFC, and were not annoyed by incessant mobile phones ringing. But perhaps our selfish wish for Myanmar to remain as it is cannot be justified, as this is a country that desperately needs basic modern necessities, such as running water and electricity. And it is inevitable that, with such changes and modernization, another culture will begin to be unequivocally and irrevocably, lost.
* * *
This article was first published on www.orientaltales.com
* * * * *
Published on 5/9/08