Tuesday, March 28, 2017

MY WORSHIP DAY AT MAHAMUNI TEMPLE

Finally Mahamuni temple! Since it was one of the reasons for going to Mandalay, it deserves it's own post here. 

Ever since visiting Wat Thai Watthanaram in Mae Sot district of the Thai province of Tak in 2005, I had planned to go visit the Mahamuni temple in Myanmar. The temple in Thailand features a copy of the famous Mahamuni Buddha image, which was built for Tai Yai people who cannot go visit the original Buddha image in their home country. 

So I set out early by motorcycle taxi to go to the Mahamuni temple, which is the third member of Myanmar's sacred triumvirate, next to Shwedagon Pagoda and the Golden Rock. I could not get myself to visit the temple at 4am though, which would be the time of the day when the ceremonial washing of the Buddha's face is performed, but I was still early enough to beat the tour buses. 

I first had to find a locker for my backpack and then find the counter where the thin gold sheets can be bought as part of the donations to the temple. There is actually security with an airport-like device which man only can pass to get in front of the Buddha itself. The long hallway to the east which is part of the official entrance way is filled with hundreds of local worshippers, mostly women and children. 

And finally I was able to step up the stairs to the left of the Buddha and apply my gold sheets onto the surface of the Buddha. Many people seem to just go up to have their photo taken by someone who sits in front of the Buddha, however, I find the sight of a smiling and Victory-sign signalling tourist too inappropriate for such a place. I chose to apply my gold leaves to the back of the image and went back down the stairs on the other side. 

It is still a busy and hectic place due to the all the people streaming in and out, but to the sides of the Buddha and in the shrines around the main pagoda are plenty of places for worship, prayer or even a meditation. The chanting of a few monks is heard over the loudspeakers all over the complex. 

I spent a half day inside the temple complex and later on I also saw some tourists with their local tour guides, but mostly it was a quick visit for them. I did try to go to every hall and shrine, visited a Buddhist museum (at least it looked like one), a photo and art exhibition  and witnessed a procession for a novice-to-be and also visited the Ananda temple on the same compound. 


 


















 

Monday, March 27, 2017

MY MANDALAY WALKING TOUR

Shwenandaw
I only really had one walking tour in Mandalay. On my first day I had a motorcycle taxi drive me to my first stop in the city, which was Shwenandaw Kyaung, or Monastery. This teak wood  Golden Palace Monastery with it's fine carvings was great to see in the early morning, before all the tourist shuttles arrive. I still had it almost to myself when walking around and inside the teak wood building. An hour later, there was already a line forming at the entrance booth. This was also the place where I had to pay my initial 10.000 Kyat ticket for the Archaeological Zone in Mandalay. 


Atumashi
An attempt to visit the next door Atumashi Monastery failed initially because I did not have the ticket yet, and they only sold it across the street at the Shwenandaw Monastery. The Atumashi Monastery didn't look as old as it actually was. It dates back to A.D. 1877. It's a huge building with a huge empty hall inside, with the exception of a beautiful Buddha image. 

From Atumashi it's just a short walk north to reach the "Golden Book", the mid 19th century golden stupa of Kuthodaw Pagoda. Unfortunately the pagoda was under renovation and all scaffolded. The 729 marble slaps which contain the entire 15 books of the Buddhist Tripitaka are of course not readable for us tourists, so most people will just take a quick look at the long lines of mini-pagodas which contain the marble slaps. There is a lot of "selfie-craze" going on right at the entrance with the first view of the marble slaps, so walking off a bit will bring much more peace and better photos! 


Kuthodaw
Given that this was my first day in Mandalay I also had my first experience with the "NO SHOES" policy inside the temples. And unlike Thai temples, where you just drop your shoes upon entering the prayer halls, you have to leave your shoes (and socks) outside the temple grounds here in Myanmar. My soft western feet are certainly not made for walking on pieces of broken stone or hot tiles, so I had my first few "ouch-effects", and of course I worried about my shoes "getting lost" while I am on picture hunt inside a huge temple. 

Kuthodaw Monastery is nice but I actually liked the nearby Sandamuni temple more. While you can't really walk inside the long lines of their 1774 marble slaps, which are also covered with mini pagodas, the main golden pagoda was not under renovation and elevated a bit. From up there the view onto the huge temple ground is great, specially with the backdrop of Mandalay Hill.


Kyauktawgyi
From here it is a short but dusty walk over to Kyauktawgyi Pagoda, which is very very picturesque and it features a 900 tonne Buddha image in the center. Again, none of these monasteries were too busy or too touristy.  Mandalay Hill, or rather the long climb up the Hill starts here. I did it on a separate day, since it would have been too hot to walk up. So, I actually came here again the next day and started an early walk up the hill on it's southern route. 

Again, shoes off!!! and better take them with you, since you most likely will not walk back down but take a taxi back to the city. The walk up the hill with it's 1729 steps (more or less) was nice, not too hot and all covered. The views on the other hand were almost zero. There was so much haze, or dust, over the city in the morning that I could hardly make out the moat and the palace down below. That was a bit of a disappointment. I am sure the views are better later in the day, but the number of tourists and the heat will increase. 


Mandalay Hill
Coming back down from the hill was not as easy as I thought, since I did not arrange my own transportation. So I found myself crammed into the back of a pick-up truck with many locals. Nobody really spoke English including the driver and the guy who collected the "fee" of 1000 Kyat. Those pick-up taxis will drive you back to the hotel or any other destination for a higher fee, but I just wanted to get down from the hill and enjoy a few ceremonies in front of Kyauktawgyi Monastery.  

In theory all of this would be walkable on one day and even the Palace itself would be possible to visit that day, but the sunlight will be so bright that photography will be an issue, hence I grouped these things into three different days and visited the palace in the afternoon of another day.  



 

















Sunday, March 26, 2017

MY MANDALAY - MYANMAR

To be honest, after all the excitement that I would finally be going to Mandalay, I did expect something very different from the second biggest city of Myanmar. A glittery, cultural Pearl of Asia...or something like that. I expected something like a Chiang Mai or Luang Prabang. But besides all the outstanding sights to visit, Mandalay itself has little to offer to a tourist at first sight!

It was surprisingly under developed and amazingly dusty! Though my hotel was in the heart of Mandalay, the streets were not paved, or just gravel. No sidewalks at all. After arriving and "exploring" the immediate area around my hotel, I already knew that I can forget all my plans about walking around the city!  The "modern" shopping mall "Diamond Plaza" has surprisingly little to offer in comparison to other shopping malls in Asia. One of the buildings was almost empty while one entire floor was dedicated to jewellery.

On the other hand, Mandalay is surprisingly natural and unspoiled from tourism. There are tourists for sure, but they concentrate in the sightseeing places and their hotels. On the streets I found them to be a rare sighting!

There are plenty of markets and not your touristy Sunday Walking Street or Night Market experiences like in Chiang Mai. They are real markets with real people. For a photographer it is heaven on earth!!

I decided to take motorcycle taxis everywhere in the city. At first I paid 4$ per ride, but those were the trips organized by my hotel. I later learned that the going rate is 2-3$ per ride and it seemed to not really matter how far I went. I am not sure if that is still the "tourist" price and if locals pay even less. Due to the dust, walking just became such a nuisance, that I limited it to the absolute minimum. Seeing other tourists on their rental bicycles and the traffic around them (though limited) I did not want to risk my life. Specially after walking through the nearby Mandalay General Hospital every day, I did not want to see myself being treated in there, even just for a minor accident.  Same goes for renting a motorcycle myself. The motorcycle taxi drivers all went really slow and they all offered a helmet, so with the few dollars I paid per ride, it was the most economical way to get around the city and the various sites.