The road to Mandalay was considerably better than the ones we'd seen in Bagan - a wide, smooth stretch of tarmac that gently curved through the countryside. This was 'The Chinese Road', named for its financial backers rather than its ultimate destination. The transition from rural to urban came quickly as we entered the city and found ourselves in a modern looking metropolis, the traffic density rising as we got further in with, in contrast with Yangon, hordes of moped & motorbike drivers greatly outnumbering the cars, buses & trucks. There seemed to be a fairly anarchic approach to driving with vehicles weaving here & there to get through the traffic, I didn't see any actual collisions but it felt like the potential was always there.
The city grew taller & denser around us while the cacophony of car horns rose in intensity to match. Then quite unexpectedly our coach turned and passed through an archway set in the shopfronts, through a short tunnel, and emerged into a green oasis on the inside of a city block - our Mandalay hotel. In short order we found our rooms, freshened up after the journey, and reassembled for our day in Mandalay proper.
Back on the bus we crawled through the traffic for maybe two and a half blocks before getting out again - on the street side. Once we were all safely on the pavement Lae led us into the Zegyo market, a truly enormous indoor centre where hundreds of small stalls stretch off in all directions. The part we saw specialised in textiles and there was an almost infinite selection of materials and finished clothes displayed for sale. In sharp contrast to many of the marketplaces we visited there was almost no hawking or calling out to us, apparently this is primarily for wholesale selling rather than capturing passing trade. After crossing the road - a fairly daunting experience - we found ourselves in a very similar place in the next block, I have no idea how far it might have extended.
As with virtually everywhere we went in Myanmar the retail experience was one of lots & lots of small shops, there were hardly any larger businesses. Where there was a big shopping building it would invariably turn out to be a collection of much smaller units, each one apparently independently owned & run. Ironically most of these small shops would turn out to be selling exactly the same things, there was a powerful entrepreneurial urge but not so much into choice & innovation.
Emerging onto the pavements we found them filled with street stalls selling goods, food and meals, overspill from the shopfronts, and hundreds of parked mopeds. A thin passageway remained for pedestrians but one person pausing to make a purchase could cause an immediate logjam which even the locals had trouble navigating. At one point I observed a woman pull up a heavy manhole cover and lower a bucket on a rope into the hole, as if into an urban well. The bucket came up filled with pretty clear looking water so I guess this was just that - a city water supply of sorts. After a couple of blocks we braved the road to get back onto the bus and slowly made our way back to the hotel.
The next excursion was to the Mahamuni temple who's claim to fame is a golden Buddha statue to which male devotees continually add layers of gold leaf. For me the result leant more to excess than aesthetics and when I heard that the inner area was reserved for men I decided to show solidarity with my sisters and remain with them outside, which caused a few raised eyebrows. There was a one dollar fee for 'foreign photographers' (which we saw in a few places) and although this was a trivial amount I took it as an opportunity to put my phone away and just enjoy the space.
Appropriately enough we then visited a gold leaf workshop. A potted description & demonstration of the processes involved led us swiftly to the gift shop but although a couple of small purchases were made it wasn't very compelling. If anything it came over as needlessly primitive, the last vestige of an industry that's ripe for automation.
Keeping with the luxury good vibe our next stop was at a licensed jade & jewellery store - there's so much fake & low quality stuff around that tourists are encouraged to use these 'official' outlets that provide guarantees of authenticity. The items we were shown were undoubtably beautiful and great bargains but I've never been one to spend much on personal jewellery. Luckily the shop had a 'cheap & tacky' section (they may have phrased it differently) where I found some nice jade studs, they were happy to sell me an unmatched pair which suited me just fine.
The last of our day's activities was to ascend Mandalay Hill which towers over the city and the surrounding plain. Rather than take the pilgrimage route of climbing the 790 feet from the foot we were driven up most of the way and then took escalators for the final section. Once again this didn't sit well with me and, in hindsight, I'd have been happy to forego the other Mandalay attractions and take my time making the ascent on foot. Oh well, maybe next time. The pagoda at the summit was a bit glitzy for my tastes (it reminded me of old Las Vegas casinos) but the views were spectacular although, as in Bagan, very hazy - presumably because of the season. And once again we witnessed a sunset.
Our Ayeyarwaddy cruiser captain
We'd been told that novice monks might approach us to practice their English and after asking a couple of them if I could take their picture (we were urged to always ask permission before taking photos, not just with monks) we began talking. As we exchanged basic information and simple questions we were sheepishly joined by more and more novices, clearly approaching complete strangers was quite a challenge and seeing their friends with an affable tourist made it easier to take the plunge. Eventually I had seven young men in maroon & orange robes around me and although we didn't touch on the illusion of self or the nature of existence we managed to have a thoroughly enjoyable time glimpsing each others' worlds.
Next day began with a very early start to catch sunrise over the U Bein bridge, a three-quarter mile teak construction that crosses the Taungthaman Lake. The bridge itself was very impressive but it was nice to just be out at dawn, seeing the world waking up and the early morning activities of the locals.
After returning to Mandalay for breakfast we drove out to the Ayeyarwaddy to board a cruiser, we'd be visiting sites up- and downstream and taking lunch on the boat itself. The city had been busy & crowded so it was great to be back on the river, slowly chugging along and taking in the sights of other vessels and the activity on the banks. There were cruisers, from the size of ours to big multi-story floating guest houses, small passenger carriers, big coal barges and a host of others. The wide Ayeyarwaddy dwarfed all of them without a hint of congestion but we had a steady stream of companions passing us by. There was barely a ripple on the surface and no suggestion of rolling motion, we might have been on a lake rather than a mighty river. A fine time to unwind and take it easy.
Nuns singing before eating
First landing was at Sagaing where we transferred to a small open-backed truck for a bumpy ride to a Buddhist nunnery. As we arrived we followed the sound of voices to a small temple where a group of young nuns (possibly novices) were singing. They had shaven heads like the male monks but wore a thin pink garment that covered them from neck to ankles & wrists over the usual orange robe. At other times we saw nuns with a folded piece of matching pink material on their heads, presumably protecting newly shaved scalps from sunburn. After singing the nuns joined a much larger group who lined up to receive their lunchtime meal, the rice came as no surprise but it was accompanied by a commercially wrapped cake thing which was definitely unexpected. After sitting down at long, low tables they sang again, presumably some form of grace or giving thanks for the food.
From the nunnery we drove to the Soon U Pone Nya Shin pagoda, high on a hilltop with views over the surrounding area & river below, before returning to the boat for lunch on the Ayeyarwaddy. This turned out to be a splendid traditional meal (rather than the sandwich buffet we were anticipating) and some peaceful digestion time was spent as we chugged upstream towards Mingun, our second landing spot.
Mingun had lots of big things - as we disembarked we were met with two buffalo-drawn taxis (definitely tourist-only), then passed between two huge lion statues which, like several things in the area, had partially collapsed as the result of earthquakes. Next up was the Pahtodawgyi pagoda, an enormous brick structure that was deliberately left unfinished as prophecy had predicted dire consequences should it be completed. It was a staggeringly imposing structure, especially as an earthquake had left it with huge cracks down several of the frontages. we then saw the Mingun Bell, a 90-ton bell cast in 1810 (by the same king who constructed the unfinished pagoda) that could still be rung by striking the outside with a hefty piece of wood.
Passing through the town we found another chinlone game in progress. This was more organised than the previous example with (at least) two teams decked out in matching strip with numbered shirts, an accompanying band and an enthusiastic commentator who's microphone was plugged into a loud, harsh PA system. A small crowd (including several monks) sat watching and provided cheers & applause for particularly impressive kicks & moves.
The last sight in Mingun was the Myatheindan Pagoda, a beautiful white structure sat in splendid isolation at the edge of the town. It was said to be modelled on a mythical Buddhist mountain and the shapes & proportions were very pleasing, both to observe from outside and to wander about within. Definitely one of my favourite Myanmar pagodas.
Tomorrow we had a long (six hour) drive and had to prepare our own packed lunch as there was no suitable place to stop en route. The bus pulled in at a bakery on the way back to the hotel but nothing tempted me - we'd been promised a stop at a mini-mart in the morning so I hoped I'd find something there.