At breakfast we decided to try to find anything but temples, pagodas, and Buddha. Mandalay is a big city; there must be other things to see. After reviewing pamphlets, Trip Advisor, the front desk…we decided it would be a crafts day.
First though, we walked over to the train station to buy a ticket for Margaret’s departure to Hsipaw the next day. It was a little confusing to find where to go, but we eventually discovered the ticket offices in the open air second floor of a hotel, on a bridge over the train tracks. (Yeah, get your head around that) We explained what we wanted at the counter, and the man shook his head and pointed for us to go somewhere else. We didn’t see anywhere else to go, but he seemed insistent, so we walked away and stumbled upon an identical ticket office on the other side of the building. After much discussion behind the windows, someone finally said “sixteen,” which we realized was window #16, and once we got there, everything was rather self-explanatory. Language is really not so much of a barrier when you look at it practically: two tourists show up at a ticket window at a train station. It doesn’t take language to realize they are most likely hoping to buy a ticket. All the tourists have to say is “Hsipaw,” and all the counter agent has to convey is the price. Except…. there was a little more to say, and thank goodness our agent was able to convey it. First class was sold out, and the only seats available were coach, it was a 12-hour journey, and it departed at 4:00 am. Margaret decided to take the bus instead.
Then we walked to the gold leaf craft shop. We arrived soon after two tour busses arrived, so the small place was filled with tourists from England. It was noisy the whole time we were there, while two men banged away at their tiny pieces of gold flake, making them molecule-thin. An employee came up to me with a bunch of samples and explained the whole process of making gold leaf and also of making bamboo paper (which is made exactly the same as other paper, as far as I could tell). The gold flakes are pressed between layers of bamboo paper, then bound into a packet. The packet is then pounded for hours, periodically opened to split the flakes into smaller pieces, then bound up again and pounded some more. Eight hours total for each final flake of about 2 inches squared. Inside the show room I found a few lacquered bamboo boxes, embellished in gold designs. Continuing to test what I had been told (look, I just don’t trust that the stories told to tourists are always accurate), I asked if they made the lacquered boxes here in Mandalay. “No, the boxes are made in Bagan.” This pleased me, since I had purchased a box in Bagan, believing it to be a local product. From my casual investigation, it appears to be true.
Margaret and I were sitting on a bench in a corner, looking at the map and trying to figure out where to go next, when the buses pulled away. The banging of the men with hammers ceased immediately. Ha ha ha!
Our next stop was miles away so we hired a taxi. The hotel front desk had told us that the wood craft shops were near the Mahamuni Buddha Temple, so we asked the taxi driver to take us there, just to give him and easy landmark to aim for. We had no plan to visit the temple at first. But our driver brought us to a quiet street with a less popular entrance, and the quiet was inviting. We decided to step inside and check it out, since we were there anyway. It was a good decision.
The entrances to many temples have people selling things on both sides, and this place was no different. Small Buddha statues, jade jewelry, textiles, and paintings were offered. This one held multiple palmists, which we had not seen previously. Margaret bought jade bracelets and I browsed.
The temple proper was surrounded by pillars encased in jade in myriad mosaics. It was specatacular, all green and glistening in the sun. Just inside, we found the Mahamuni Buddha. Like we saw at the Golden Rock, worshipers bought gold flake and applied it to the Buddha while praying. Again, only men were allowed to do this. Women sat in rows outside, praying. And for the benefit of the people outside, there was a livecam going the whole time, so we could watch our men apply the gold. We continued on and realized this was a large complex with museums and other holy sites. We explored bronze sculptures on display, magnificent art, artifacts, a giant gong, several giant bells, and additional pagodas. There were at least four separate museums with different categories of collections. One appeared to hold manuscripts, and looked something like a library, with books, parchments, and even dusty old cassette tapes.
Interestingly, very few foreigners were there, which could have explained the amped up excitement of the local visitors. Many more group photos were taken. We were delighted when a super happy monk begged us for a photo with him, then demanded (with a sly smile) that his shy, blushing sister also get a photo with us. (Margaret has the photos of this, or I would show you.) Twice more we bumped into the same monk and his sister, and it felt like we were old friends after awhile.
Bronze figures on display were originally from Angkor Wat in Cambodia and were taken to Thailand. After winning a battle in 1599 when the Thai king attacked Taungoo (in the Bago region of Myanmar), the Taungoo king presented these bronze figures to the Rakhine king in gratitude for his assistance, and thus they came to live in Myanmar.
We were both so glad we randomly decided to tour that temple. It was one of our best stops of the trip!
Outside we went to a wood crafters shop, which held some pretty cool wood carvings but was not really set up for tourists like the gold flake place. No craftsman was around, no evidence of the work being done, just a very dusty showroom with one young woman and a baby on site. I found it amusing that the baby’s blanket, crib, and diaper pack were in the center of the showroom.
Across the street we found marble crafts, which weren’t even mentioned by the hotel front desk or in any of the lists of things to do that we found during our morning search. There were many shops selling marble statues (mostly of Buddha), crowding each other on both sides of the street. This is clearly a major craft in the area and I’m surprised that we hadn’t heard of it before stumbling onto this part of town.
We were hot and tired at this stage. Our plan had been to grab a taxi to our next stop, but there were none in sight. I can’t understand why, but there are simply very few tourists here, among all the marble and wood and the wonderful Mahamuni Buddha complex. That explains why there were no taxis. We thought to start walking to the bridge. Why not? But soon we had to stop for a rest. We picked one of the millions of tiny little shops beside the road to sit under an awning in the shade. There was a woman rolling up betel leaf packets in the front. A dirty little boy in the back sat on the floor beside a cooler. I went to the back and tapped on the side of the cooler, and the boy opened it for me. I bought a soda for 500 kyats (38 cents), and we sat there while the women and children from other nearby stalls drew close and chatted happily around us, though we couldn’t speak to each other. I gave some of my mandarin oranges to the kids. Would you believe it? While we sat there, the happy monk and his sister showed up and stopped at the stall next to us. We all laughed at seeing each other again.
The soda was finished and we were ready to go when a taxi pulled up. The woman had laid down for a nap, and the taxi driver obviously knew her, because he went right to her betel stand, grabbed what he wanted, and said a few things to her and she nodded. M and I asked him “Taxi?” he nodded, and we asked “U Bein bridge?” and he sort of hesitated, then nodded. So we climbed into the back.
The driver turned the taxi around and began heading north, and we were pretty sure the bridge was south. We found the photo of the bridge in our itinerary, and tapped on the window to show one of the men in the cab where we wanted to go. The driver nodded with great assuredness, but did not change course. We waited until we were confident again that we were going the wrong way. We tapped on the window to get the driver to pull over, which he did. We showed him U Bein bridge on the GPS. He nodded – clearly no hesitation that he knew what we wanted. He spoke quite a bit, but obviously we didn’t understand anything until he began pointing to the bags of goods in the back with us. OH! He needed to make another trip first! The man in the front was a passenger, not his buddy. We dropped the man off at the hospital, with all of his goods, then turned and headed due south.
It was a rather long trip and Margaret and I realized we would never have made it walking. It was a good 5 miles south of where we stopped to rest. Once we arrived, the driver would not accept payment, which puzzled us. We tried multiple times to pay him, but he wouldn’t accept it. We thought maybe his plan was to wait for us and then get a larger payment by returning us home, so we used sign language to say we would be back and we would meet him at that spot. We hoped he understood.
The U Bein Bridge is 3/4 mile long and believed to be the longest teak wood bridge in the world. Tilapia are farmed in the lake, but due to recent growth in industry along the shores and tributaries, there is a wastewater pollution problem. Thousands of fish are dying, impacting the fishermen and causing a rotten fish smell that we noticed along portions of the bridge. In 2016, the government of Myanmar designated Taungthaman Lake an environmental conservation area and began making plans to clean it up.
The popular thing is to see the bridge at sunrise, but we were there at midday. Still, there were plenty of tourists. This, unlike the Mahamuni Buddha temple, draws the masses. People hawked their wares all over the parking lot and the roads up to the bridge, and for a good portion along the bridge as we walked it. I was very excited to see my favourite snack of Myanmar – sliced green mango in chili powder – sold here, and I bought some within minutes. M’s tummy was still upset and she didn’t share the spicy treat with me. In fact, she was still feeling poorly when we had walked all the way to the end of the bridge and back, so we bought a coconut to drink the milk and fill up on natural electrolytes.
We searched and searched for our taxi driver, but he was nowhere to be seen. We were disappointed because we wanted to pay him for that very long ride earlier. We couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t accept payment – he was a taxi driver after all. Maybe it was because the shop owner said good things about us. Maybe they appreciated that we had befriended the monk. Maybe he regretted the confusion about delivering the guy to the hospital before taking us to the bridge. Finally we hired another family that was thrilled to get our business. There was a man sleeping in the back of the taxi and the son thumped his leg to wake him up. We showed them our map of where the hotel was, and they happily carried us north again through the entertaining streets of Mandalay.