Mandalay- the city of pagodas, temples and… pagodas. We stayed in the center and following Callum’s idea we decided to explore the city on bicycles. Good move otherwise at the end of the day probably we wouldn’t feel our feet. The first day we walked through the Palace complex, rode through Mandalay temples and golden pagodas. Perhaps the most beautiful was Shwenandaw Monastery all made of teak wood smelling of pure history. As I mentioned, it’s difficult to find any descent food in Myanmar but after about 1 hour of pedaling we found something for us. The rule in Burma is one: always choose a full restaurant where, if possible, the waiters speak English. It usually means the food is good and they know what Europeans need. As we noticed from the beginning, it was very easy to meet monks dressed in their red clothes, especially in the tourist places. In Mandalay Hill we understood why. “To practice English”, revealed one of two monks who accompanied us during the sunset. Both of them were from the far north and none of them wanted to come back home (the situation there is very unstable). As normally the schools are payable, being a monk is a good opportunity to move out and get a free education and practice English with tourists was a part of it. They were so curious and friendly that it was difficult to say goodbye even though we knew that they already captured someone else.
Two days were enough to see the city. The second day we split (sometimes it’s absolutely necessary): my goal was to speak to my family, Callum’s- doing as less as possible. If you think after half a year of constant traveling you still feel like on holiday you are wrong. We realized that during this couple of months we’ve had only few days when we literally did NOTHING. And believe me, this NOTHING is really important in order not to get crazy and keep enjoying the whole journey. “Nothing” is a difficult word for a person who has ants in her pants though (I’m definitely one of them) so I included a short bike trip to the south of the city in my schedule. I visited Carver’s street full of white Burmese faces emerging from dense marble dust. All of them worked hard in order to create new Buddha statues. Sitting Buddha, sleeping Buddha, meditating Buddha… the more the better. Many Burmese people travel to Mahamuni Pagoda where I could see hundreds of golden leaves being stuck to the Buddha’s legs. Even though I’ve never really taken Buddhism seriously, thinking of it more as a philosophy than a religion, in Burma I understood that it’s as serious as other beliefs I’ve known.
If you think Mandalay is full of temples then you should go to Sagaing. A town located by Ayerwaddy river, 15 km down the south, is full of hills covered with nothing but golden pagodas. And even though we could spend there hours visiting each temple we saw just few as each one looked exactly the same to us. On the way we met a local retired policeman who invited us to his place. We left our backpacks there before our 1-hour walk to Sagaing Hill and understood where the white cream put on every Burmese face comes from. Although I was sure it was another “Fair & lovely” whitening cream it is actually a natural sunscreen made of Thanaka wood. Well, even if people of Myanmar are dark they make sure they don’t become darker. White skin obsession got here as well.
In Soon Oo Ponya Shin Pagoda we met and had a chat with a couple of Polish who traveled for 2 weeks in Burma. After leaving Sagaing we met them again by U-bein bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world. The Taungthaman lake was quite touristy but you could still feel the unique atmosphere of this place and see the life of the local people who didn’t seem to care about hordes of tourists walking through the bridge. The sunset gathered crowds but we managed to find a piece of grass with our Polish friends. It was good to speak my mother language again, sometimes I forget how much I miss it.
As we didn’t plan any 5-star hotel that night, we had to find some 5-star bush or a descent monastery. Fortunately some friendly monk allowed us to sleep in his room so the first option was out. As we noticed later, he was a quite cool and liberated monk. He had Facebook, smoked cigarettes and although he didn’t drink, he didn’t mind us to have a beer. Unfortunately, he didn’t understand a word of English but he enjoyed staring at us for the whole evening instead which was quite uncomfortable. He was cute though and we were sorry we couldn’t thank him when we were leaving an empty monastery the next day.