The Thadingyut festival last October 28 offered a chance to visit Mandalay, the cultural center of Myanmar. From Yangon, it was a grueling 9-hour trip by bus, with a pitstop at Km 115 for pee break and some hot drinks (read: 3-in-1 instant coffee mix). When I bought our tickets in Yangon, I was given three choices: regular aircon bus at K10, 000; special aircon bus with toilet at K18, 000; and the roomy VIP with three lines of seats. A miser, I selected the regular bus. Leaving Yangon with my wife at 9am from Au Mingalar bus terminal, we arrived 6am the following morning in front of the railway station where most buses offload their passengers.
Breakfast was a problem. No restaurant was on sight although the place was teeming with people. I cannot risk eating in the sidewalk teashops because the tea maybe boiled hot, but I was not comfortable with the way the cups and other utensils were cleaned after they were used. We ended up buying sweet grated coconut pudding (bucayo in the Philippines) and Coke, a dangerous mix for sweet people like me. Anyway, I thought the amount of sugar intake will be used up when we start our walking tour.
First stop was the palace at the center of the city. I reviewed the map, the entrance to the palace is at the 19th street. I looked for a taxi, preferably with a driver who can speak English to bring us there. We found one who seemed helpful and can speak English. Not knowing my location and how far we were, I asked how much and he answered K5, 000. I reluctantly entered the cab because it seemed too much. In Yangon, the average fare is K1, 500 and the amount he was charging means the place is far. My hunch was confirmed as we drove and found out we were just several meters from the walls of the palace. Worse, he brought us to the 19th street on the western side of the wall closed to tourists. I avoided argument, we got off and decided to leisurely walk to the other side. I felt bad being scammed on my first day in Mandalay.
The palace was surrounded with a wide moat and a wall of red bricks. It was early morning and the fog still covered the trees along the walls. We walked along the wide tree-lined sidewalk meeting people jogging. We also saw groups doing aerobic dancing. Along the road, we passed by the Methodist Church where YMCA was located. Next was the St Mary’s Anglican Church. It was nice to see Christian churches along the main road. The Cultural museum was also along the road but we could not visit it because it was closed.
We entered the East Gate, and inside the compound was the reconstructed palace of King Thibaw, the last king of Myanmar. The original palace was burned and destroyed during World War II. I imagined the events vividly described by Amitab Ghosh in his book The Glass Palace about the last days of the kingdom. When the palace was vacated by King Thibaw, it became the seat of the British colonial administration and later on the headquarters of the British Army. Now, the rest of the palace grounds are barracks of the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar Army.
From the palace we did a quick drive to the jade market. The place was full and we cannot find a parking place. We got off and snaked our way in the midst of motorcycles and parked cars. The market was divided into two sections. For the wholesalers and big transactions, slabs of jade were displayed inside a section for jade traders. Outside the wholesale area was the place for the smaller items and for those who want to buy souvenirs. On the sides were workers polishing jade and crafting small items while you wait.
The gold pounder’s workshop was the next. Pounding gold is an industry in Myanmar. The gold pounders work six hours to make a set of very thin gold leaves. Devotees buy gold leaves to stick to Buddha statues whenever they visit pagodas, one way of gaining merit. The Buddha at the Mahamuni Paya considered to be the main religious site in Mandalay has accumulated 6 inches of gold from the devotees visiting it.
This merit-making practice lends credence to the ‘Golden Buddha’ story in the Philippines during the time of President Marcos. The story goes, in the final days of WWII, General Tomoyuki Yamashita was the custodian of plunders from Asian countries and was moving these to Japan. Unable to do it as the Americans were fast approaching and will catch up with him, he buried the treasures in different parts of the Philippines. It spawned treasure hunters who devoted their lifetime searching for these famed treasure.
Rogelio Roxas, a treasure hunter was said to have unearthed a golden Buddha with a detachable head and inside were precious stones. If it was true, the Buddha may have come from Myanmar, a statue with gold leaf lining and precious stones – ruby, emerald and sapphire all of them found in Myanmar. The house of Rogelio Roxas was raided and the Buddha confiscated from him. He filed a case for the return of the golden Buddha, and after a long wait, a bronze Buddha was presented in the court, which Roxas denied to be his Golden Buddha. Up to now, there are still people who are spending their lifetime searching the fabled Yamashita treasures.
Mandalay Hill is a religious site, where the standing Buddha statue pointing to the city was located. I often read about the Buddha in travel guides and articles about Mandalay. I was expecting an iconic image like that of the Christ the Redeemer in Brazil or the statue of Liberty in New York harbor, in an open space with an astounding view. What I saw was a big Buddha statue indeed pointing to the city but was housed in a cramped building made of GI sheets. There was no view and worse, people were living and sleeping around the area, producing piles of garbage and it smells. Later I thought the statue was not for tourists but for the devotees, justifying their protection of the Buddha.
We almost forgot it was Thadingyut, the festival of lights. We only remember it when back at the hotel, the night was serene with hundreds of candle lights all around the place.
The next day, the last place of interest visited was the U Bein Bridge, the longest teak footbridge in the country and maybe in the world. The bridge was more than 30 minutes from the Mandalay city center. The problem was it was a holiday and people were also visiting so we arrived at the bridge and wade in an ocean of people just to reach the bridge. The iconic bridge was sturdy because despite the heavy load, there was no sign of it cracking. There were signs of being old but it can carry the burden of several hundreds of people walking over it. We walked a quarter of the bridge, shoot pictures, took a refreshing drink of young coconut and went back to the city for another 9-hour trip back to Yangon. Myanmar cultural center, check.