As I write this I am sat on an 8-hour bus journey from Mandalay to Lake Isle. I have been in Myanmar for just over 48 hours now and it hasn’t disappointed. It took me about 23 hours to get here because I flew through Dubai and Bangkok! If you think having 1 connection is rough try having 2. To be fair, it wasn’t all that bad and the 5 hours in Bangkok actually proved to be useful when I went to the check-in desk for Bangkok Airways flight to Myanmar and they asked to see my visa! “I have a visa..” I told the girl on the check-in desk “but it is an e-visa so it is on my phone!”. Turns out you needed to print a copy to show them at the desk.. so that then involved a trip to Bangkok’s Airport police which, FYI, is the only place in Bangkok airport where you can print something off! OK, so lesson learned on that one. Anyway back to Myanmar because that is what you are really here to read about.
I got to my hotel around 3 pm which gave me enough time to go out for a little bit of a wander to get my bearings and get a few essentials (water, snacks etc). I’m staying downtown right next to the largest market in Mandalay. This market is HUGE (I think it covers around a square kilometre)! Not only is it HUGE but it’s also hectic, noisy and the smell is a mixture of raw meat, spices and open drains (delightful I know). This onslaught on my senses was way too much to handle on 3 hours sleeps so I plodded my way back to my room, downed as much water as I could to rehydrate after 3 moisture sucking flights and crashed at around 6:30 pm!! I know how to party!!
Waking up the next morning slightly more refreshed I decided that I wanted to tackle the market head on to reclaim my honour from the previous afternoon’s defeat. After speaking to the hotel staff over breakfast I found out that it was actually a national holiday so even though the market stalls would all be trading, most of the shops would be closed and there would be fewer people on the street. Perfect.. ease myself into this. The thing you noticed the most is just how lovely the Burmese people are! Sure I got a fair few stares, some teenagers pointed and laughed (that gave me school flashbacks!) and most of the street dogs take one look at you and make a run for it but most people are so happy and smiley with you. I got so many smiles and respectful nods from locals! When you are used to the moodiness of London streets, having people smile back at you is a real novelty! I wandered around the streets snapping a few pics whilst scooters and cars honked their horns and screamed passed my shoulder. The cool thing with the local markets is that each stall only sells one or two things. So there is a street that just has Onion stalls… like thousands and thousands of onions and they don’t all sell different types of onions either.. no no.. they all sell the same type (They are what the UK would call Shallots)! There is a street with just vegetable stalls, one street with fish products, one with meat products and so on! Wandering down one of the main streets (this one sold fruit – just in case you were wondering) I spotted the top of a pagoda so I headed towards it. Like in many Asian countries you need to remove your shoes and socks when entering these compounds but when you go in you go from a crazy world of noise and scooters to peace and quiet. The Mahar Thaka Thiha pagoda was a short walk from my hotel and had shaded prayer areas where you can sit and meditate, or pray to whichever spiritual being you choose! It was lovely! I sat in the shade for a while before heading back through the crazy market to the hotel for a lunch of Burmese Pot Noodle (well you have to try the local cuisine don’t you).
In the afternoon I had booked myself onto a half-day sightseeing tour. I was hoping that there would be a few of us in the tour group and having an English speaking tour guide would be handed, especially if I wanted to get some portraits of locals! Sadly what I thought was a sightseeing tour turned out to actually be a private car with a driver and sadly I was the only one who had booked it that afternoon. The driver simply had a list of sights he needed to take me too. So off we went… He would drop me outside of a pagoda, point in the direction of the entrance or ticket booth and then wait until I had finished wandering around before whisking me off to the next sight. The conversation with my driver really got going after visiting a few places when he started saying to me “No Shoe, No Shoe!” Which meant that the place I was going in to didn’t allow you to wear shoes or socks so I should take them off and leave them in the car… this then led to me asking the profound question.. “Shoe…. Or no Shoe?” Every time we arrived at a new sight – Connect with locals… check! All in all the afternoon was lovely. I visited Mandalay Palace, Kuthodaw Pagoda and best of all my driver rushed me up to Mandalay Hill just in time to watch the sunset. It was beautiful! Once I had taken about a thousand photos of the sun going down over Mandalay it was back to my hotel for some fried rice with pork, prawn spring rolls with sauce (the sauce turned out to be Tomato Ketchup!) and bed! Day 1 in Mandalay – Survived!
On Day 2 I decided to walk down to the Jade Market. A local guide had told me that it was in walking distance and that it was a major tourist attraction – Sold! Also, getting to the Jade Market involved another wander through the huge market and more chance to snap some pics. This time I was a little more bold with taking photos of the people on the stalls and no one seemed to mind me taking their photo. At one point a group of older men were looking at me and hysterically laughing which I can’t help but feel was at my expense but I guess a white(ish) male with a backwards baseball cap and a fairly sizeable camera isn’t a common occurrence in those parts so it must look pretty funny to them. I made it down to the Jade Market after about 45mins and if I am going to be completely honest with you. I didn’t think it was all that. The Jade market consists of two parts. The outer part is where all the chunks of raw Jade (Jade is a green coloured stone in case you were wondering) are bought. Everyone sits with these small pen flashlights which they use to shine into the rock, to see how pure it is I am guessing. The chosen Jade is then cut, shaped and smooth on machines. Some of the machines were electric and some were foot-powered, like an old sewing machine with a foot spindle that turns the mechanism. The inner part is where the finished Jade stones are sold and hundreds of sellers sit at small single-seat desks with their stones on paper towels waiting to haggle prices with the buyer. The inner part of the market it jammed packed with people and not a place you want to be when you have a large Lowepro camera backpack on! I lasted all of about 5 minutes in there before I got the hell out! I wandered around the market for another 10-15mins before I decided to head back to the market near the hotel.
Walking back along the main road I saw a tall clock tower on the other side of a tall wall. Checking google maps I saw it was a monastery and a lot of the monasteries in Mandalay are open to tourists. So I walk into the compound to find hardly anyone around. A few puzzled looks from monks who were bathing in a courtyard but no tourists, no security guard, no signs that I was meant to be there. So at this point, I assumed that maybe it wasn’t open to the public and I had just wandered into a private area! I start to leave when I see a monk who is clearly going about his daily monk business. I try to ask him with a mixture of English words he might now and dramatic arm gestures if it is ok for me to be in there! He stares are me blankly. I try again, this time with new words and even more dramatic arm gesturing at which point he motions for me to follow him. I thought that maybe there is an open part of the monastery and I have accidentally walked into the private area and he is going to show me where to go but then he tells me to “Sit” and points to a table with a bench around it. So I did what any other super polite tourist in Myanmar would do…. I sat! The monk wanders off and I am sat there for about five minutes. Monks walk past me in wonderment of this random person sat at their bench! Random thoughts started racing through my mind… Am I in trouble?!… Do they think I am here to join??… will I ever get to taste the chickeny goodness of KFC ever again!!!! Sorry got lost a little there. After what felt like 3 lifetimes, the monk reappears with 2 or 3 other monks and says “This my friend, his English is very good!”. Next thing I knew more monks arrive and I ended up sat chatting with 5 or 6 really lovely and excitable monks! They were asking me all sorts of questions… How long was I in Mandalay, Where am I from, How old am I? Where am I going next? If you ever visit Myanmar or any Asian country with practising Buddhist monks go chat to them. 99.9% of the time they will be so happy to practise their English with you and would happily keep you chatting for hours if they could. Now, when I first got to Mandalay I had asked the receptionist to translate a couple of sentences for me into the notebook I have. I asked her to write down. “Hello, I am a photographer. Please can I take your photo? Thank you”. I thought this would be useful when asking for portraits. So I decided I’d showed this translation to the monks and when they read it several of them started to laugh. Which I wasn’t sure meant that I could take their photos or that I couldn’t! One of the younger Monks, Dan, said that he wanted to show me the main teaching room of the monastery and then took me into the main area where they sit and memorise the religious texts! It was incredible. Dark wood and gold paint covered the walls. Dan proudly took me around the room and showed me their honourable teacher and the statues! It was so nice. We were then joined by a group of other monks who were heading to their studies. Once again they all asked me where I was from and how long I was in Mandalay. It was at this point I asked if I could take a few portraits of them and they jumped at the chance. Dan then asked me if I had visited the Shweinbin Monastery nearby which is very famous in Mandalay. I said that I hadn’t so he asked if he could take me. He disappeared off for 10 minutes to get ready whilst I laughed and chatted with the monks and when he returned with his friend they both led me through the grounds of the monastery to a beautiful monastery carved out of dark wood! The monks asked me lots of questions about my life and at one point Dan asked me if I had a religion. How the hell do you explain the concept of being Agnostic to a Buddhist monk!! Badly it turns out! The guys were so lovely and so kind. They showed me carvings and told me the names of the gods they represented (I’m sorry Dan I can’t remember any of them now). Dan also showed me some religious texts that had been written on strips of palm leaf! Something that no other tourist would have got to see! From there the guys wanted to show another monastery. This was the largest monastery in Mandalay with around 400 monks living there. I honestly felt a little bit like a celeb walking around the streets and sights with two monks! I could see other tourists looking at me as if to say “where do you go to get on the monk tour??”. So we reached this huge monastery and the monks are telling me about how they have English lessons in this building and Palace Studies in that building when Dan points to a tall building and says “Do you want to climb?”. Err yeah ok!! So they walk me around the side of the building to a staircase and up we walk to the roof of the building which looks out over the whole of Mandalay. So there is me, two young Buddhist monks, standing on top of a monastery in Myanmar and I am just like.. “WHAT THE ACTUAL F@!K”. I can’t think of too many days that have topped that. After that I followed the monks back to their monastery, so I knew roughly where I was, we swapped facebook invites (that’s right I am now friends with a Buddhist monk on Facebook) and I said goodbye to them. Genuinely it is hard to put into words just how lovely these two monks were. So selfless and kind. To think, living in a country like England we aren’t happy unless we are earning £100k a year or are on the property ladder or have any number of other meaningless things. But these 2 monks, who were only 22 and 23, have very few possessions but are still so happy and caring! Ok, I’ll stop gushing now.
After my time with the monks that was it for me for the rest of the day. Nothing was going to top that. So I headed back towards my hotel. Taking time to explore down a few side streets where it is a little bit quieter and there is more shade. Back at my hotel I downloaded my memory cards and edited some of the pics I took.
So now I am heading down to Lake Inle for a couple of nights before coming back to Mandalay for a few more nights and then…. VIETNAM!!
Thank you for taking the time to read through this blog. I hope you enjoyed it!
Until the next time
My two new friends!