November 9-11, 2015
In the predawn darkness, the small town streets are just barely starting to move… a few women are sweeping the dust off their doorsteps and several gas light burners from roadside stands are starting to light up the dirt curbs with little oranges glows.
We are making our way to the jetty to catch our day-long ferry that will take us up the Irrawaddy river, northbound from Bagan to Mandalay.
From the water, as dawn starts to break, I can make out the silhouette of numerous temples along the cliffs edge and am not surprised they extend past the prolific pagoda-centric town all the way to the river front… this would be a glorious place to pray. As the light slowly creeps in I marvel at the fact that I have now had the privilege of seeing these beautiful temples from land, air and water, giving me three very different, distinct and unforgettable points of perspective.
Further upstream with the morning well under way, life lived along the river becomes apparent… periodic tents line either bank of the wide Irrawaddy with adjoining makeshift docks that are currently empty, fishermen out doing their days work.
Occasional villages appear every so often but mostly it is just expansive beach that gives way to lush hillside before the mountains rise on either side, creating this wide valley. And yet, even out here in what feels like the middle of nowhere, like some sort of exotic navigational markers, gilded gold spires peek out from the treetops often enough to remind you that you that you are still very far from home.
11 hours later, approaching Mandalay at dusk, the gold spires become prolific on the horizon. We are approaching the town of Mingun on the outskirts of Mandalay, and based in the number of temples visible from the boat I imagine this must have been some sort of spiritual gathering ground long ago.
Arriving in Mandalay is a bit of a jolt, particularly following a long day of travel. After spending time meandering through the magical temple-filled fields of Bagan, hiking through the breathtaking mountains of Kalaw and floating through the enchanting heritage of Inle Lake, getting back into the city groove was bound to be less than dazzling, if not downright disheartening.
Mandalay, the capital city of Myanmar, is like the older, wizened and slightly hardened version of the former capital Yangon. Immediately you are struck by a frenetic feel to the streets that was absent down south. The fact that there are no motorbikes allowed on the streets of Yangon contributed greatly to the sense of order there, whereas here, similar to India, the vast quantity of scooters weaving in and out of bicycles and cars, ignoring traffic lights and honking excessively discernibly changes the feel of the city.
Still, unlike India the population here is manageable, and while I saw areas of extreme poverty for the first time in this country, it was comparatively sparse and there was very little begging. Moreover, the people still exuded an amiable, happy demeanor… a consistent thread here in Myanmar.
In talking to many of the locals about the changes happening in their country, it’s safe to say that people here are cautiously optimistic about their future. And although it didn’t directly effect me in any way, I found it fascinating to be here at the time of their national election. It was a frequent topic of conversation and upon our departure from the country several days later, votes were still being tallied, reminding you that this budding, but not-yet-a-full democracy of a country still has a long way to go toward total freedom… which makes me all the more appreciative to have been able to experience so much authenticity, kindness and hospitality during my visit.
We spend our first day visiting the nearby town of Mingun, which we passed on the boat ride here, where a long winding riverfront road takes us to the Hsinbyume Pagoda, a large, circular and ornately white edifice, highlighting the fact that the temples in this region are very different than those in Bagan.
We stop at a few other interesting temples and a beautiful hilltop monastery, but realize we are nearing our pagoda saturation point (no offense, Buddha) and head back into the city.
Walking through a city is perhaps my favorite way to experience it, and so after dinner we stroll through our neighborhood and it is truly a delight, softening me to this city.
We stop and ponder all the new and unidentifiable foods being sold and cooked by the street vendors, and although language might have been an inhibiting factor, these people are quick to graciously offer us a taste and try to explain. They are not trying to sell to us in any way, but only to share, and the sweetness of the gesture is truly heartwarming.
Our hotel is situated about a block from the immense grounds of the Mandalay Palace, a relic building from a bygone era, situated on about 10 square blocks near the city center. Along the canal that runs the square perimeter of the palace, couples sit on benches, people exercise on random ‘workout stations’ and families stroll by, making for a pretty urban picture throughout the day and night.
The next morning: rain! The weather in Myanmar has been so incredibly pleasant that I had forgotten rain was even an option, however they have just now reached the end of their rainy season so I should not be surprised.
Having had our fill of ancient religious buildings anyway, we decide to do something a little different and enroll in a local Burmese cooking class.
The woman who runs the classes also runs the connecting guest house, and our private class takes place on a beautiful covered rooftop where we can cook in the outdoors while listening to the rain fall.
After class and in between bouts of rain, I take a ride to the nearby Kuthdow Monastery for some final Myanmar temple photos.
Now that the rain has abated and its been dry for several hours, we decide to hop on a motorbike and go have a fancy drink at the nearby Mandalay Hill Resort.
As we sit by their pool, the rain resumes and we try waiting it out with another cocktail, but the sky has decided that we cannot leave this country without being properly christened and we have no choice but to scooter back to our hotel in the downpour.
The ritzy resort being what it is, was happy to try and help us out with the best remedy available, and so we humorously don our big plastic trash bags and start scootin. Sorry, no photos of this little faux pas!
Bags are now packed and we order our pizza to go from the cafe next door (yes, we finally ordered a pizza and yes, it was good!) and we are off to the bus station for another overnight ride, this time back to our exit point, Yangon.
I think it is evident from all I have said about Myanmar thus far, that this is a country that sort of stole my heart. I am an ardent lover of kindness and grace, and the people of this country epitomize both, which, knowing some of Myanmar’s history, is a testament to the human spirit here… and it is incredibly beautiful.
Thank you for an incredibly inspiring experience, Myanmar… and mostly for just being you.