We spent two full days in Mandalay, Myanmar. Mandalay is located approximately 400 miles from Yangoon and, with a population of one million, it is the second–largest city in Myanmar. The city, located in central Myanmar, was founded in 1857, and is a relatively new city by Myanmar standards. Mandalay was founded by King Mindon who built the “Golden City,” a stunning palace almost entirely made of teak wood, surrounded by a brick wall and a moat.
Later, King Thibaw handed the Kingdom over to the British in 1885 and he and his Queen went into exile. The British made Mandalay a trade outpost. In 1945, the British shelled the Palace during World War II believing that Japanese soldiers were hiding there. The Palace, being made of wood, did not survive. All that remains today is most of the wall and the moat. The military is housed inside the walls today.
Mandalay remains the last Royal Capital in Myanmar, and it remains a very important Buddhist center, with over 500,000 monks and nuns located there. There are temples, monasteries, Buddhist Meditation Centers and stupas dotted throughout the hills around the city. The city is only 260 ft above sea level, and it is located along the banks of the Ayeyarwady River, providing a scenic and beautiful backdrop for the city. We spent our days there visiting some of the most important sites in and around the city.
Monastery Lunch Procession
We began our visit to Mandalay by watching 350 monks line up in a procession to receive their lunch at the Mya Set Kyar Monastery. We watched as the monks silently proceeded in front of us with their rice bowl, napkin towel and seat towel over their shoulders, make their way to the lunch hall. It was an absolutely incredible sight, watching 350 pairs of sandals line up outside the hall and then to be able to watch them begin to eat lunch. Monks eat two times a day, early morning and then before noon. Then they must attend classes, prayers and meditation in the afternoon and early evening. They also each have responsibilities including caring for their own wash and cleaning portions of the monastery each night. Then the routine starts all over again in the morning. It is compulsory for all boys to go to the monastery and stay for at least a week once in their lifetime. They can chose to be a short-term monk or they can stay. If they are unhappy at any point in their lives, they can leave the monastery for an ordinary life.
After the monastery, we made our way over to the Set Yardidhar Nunnery. We watched the young girls gather for lunch. Unlike the boys, it is not compulsory for girls to enter the nunnery. They also can chose to stay or leave at any point in their lives. Several of the girls were studying for a big exam in order to enter the University. A few of them were chanting to Buddha for good luck on the exams. We met the head nun and she blessed us with good fortune. She was very sweet – a far cry from the Catholic nuns that used to frighten the living daylights out of me at school! LOL.
Maha Muni Pagoda
We visited the Maha Muni Pagoda, thought by many to be the most important religious structure in Mandalay. The Maha Muni Buddha inside the temple is 13 ft. high and coated with layer after layer of gold leaf, now several inches thick. The Buddha has grown considerably over the years, as Buddhist monks continue to add gold leaf to the Buddha’s body, making the Buddha look contorted and oddly proportioned. The Buddhists believe that the Buddha is inhabited by Buddha himself, so much so, that each morning, one of the monks there washes the Buddha’s face and brushes his teeth!
We also went to the Sagaing area of Mandalay. The Sagaing area is considered to be the Buddhist center for the country. There are 600 monasteries, temples, stupas and caves all dedicated to the memory of Gautama Buddha. We visited the U Min Thonze Pagoda (meaning 30 caves), a cave set up with 45 Buddha Statues lined up in a crescent moon-shaped complex. It is a glorious sight to see. The caves are located at the top of the hill and it is a great location for a panoramic view of the city. From there, you can see several monasteries with the hillsides host to numerous covered steps and colonnades leading to them. Over 5,000 monks live in the Sagaing area.
We took a boat down the Ayeyarwady River to the village of Mingun. There were children playing and eating ice cream. There were colorful street vendors displaying local arts and crafts such as wood carving, weaving and painting. Street food stands were everywhere with vegetable tempura, rice flower pancakes with fresh coconut and a myriad of snacks for tourists and local people to partake. The village life there is simple, but rich. The people greet you with warm smiles and pure happiness. There are a few key things that you should visit while you are in the village.
This village is home to the largest intact, ringing bell in the world. The Mingun Bell measures 12 ft. high, 16.5 ft. wide and weighs 87 tons! We also visited the Mingun Pahtodawgyi Stupa, an unfinished stupa, started but never finished, by King Bodawpaya in 1790. The stupa is nicknamed the largest pile of bricks in the world. The King used prisoners of war and slaves to build the project. The project took a heavy toll on everyone who lived in the area. Legend has it, that in an attempt to stop construction, a group of local people played on the King’s deep superstition and started a rumor that once the stupa was finished the Kingdom would die with it. Another version had the King dying. In any event, it worked, because the King slowed down construction so the prophecy would not come true. When he died, construction stopped completely. The stupa would have been the largest in the world if completed. It is still a formidable structure with large cracks penetrating portions of it, evidence of earthquake damage.
Hsinbyume Pagoda – The Great White Wave
Located on the northern side of Mingun is the Hsinbyume Pagoda, modeled after the Buddhist mythological mountain, Mount Meru. It does not look like it belongs in Myanmar. It is painted white and it has seven concentric terraces laced around the pagoda to represent the seven mountain ranges going up to Mount Meru. Honestly, it looks like it belongs in Morocco. The pagoda, originally built in 1816 by King Bagyidaw, was badly damaged by the earthquake of 1836. King Mindon restored it in 1874. King Bagyidaw built it in honor of his first wife who died in child birth. This temple was built after the Taj Mahal in India, which had a similar love story attached to it’s construction. It is said that King Bagyidaw used the Taj as inspiration.
The Shwenandaw Monastery – The Teak Wonder
Back toward Mandalay, very near Mandalay Hill, is the Shwenandaw Monastery, made entirely of teak wood. The monastery was built by King Thibaw Min, who dismantled it as part of the Royal Palace and relocated it adjacent to the monastery after his father King Mindon Min’s death. He thought the King’s spirit was haunting the rooms because his father had lived and died in these rooms in the original palace. He donated it to the monastery in honor of his father. The building was at one time heavily gilded in gold, but today, very little of the gold leaf remains. However, one can get a sense of how grand the palace was as this is the only remaining building from the Royal Palace that was not destroyed by fire. The monastery is laden with wood carvings on it’s walls and ceilings that detail Burmese myths and legends, and is an excellent example of Burmese architecture.
Kuthodaw Stupa – The Largest Buddha Bible on Earth
Located at the base of Mandalay Hill, the Kuthodaw Stupa was built during the reign of King Mindon in the 1870s. There are 729 stone inscription caves, each containing a marble slab inscribed on both sides with a page from the Buddhist Bible or the Tioitaka (the entire Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism. It is called the biggest book because it is the largest Buddha bible in the world. He wanted the teachings of Buddha set in stone for preservation sake.
Sunset by The U Bein’s Bridge
We took a row boat off the shores of Lake Taungthaman to position ourselves for the sunset over the longest and oldest teak bridge in the world. The U Bein’s Bridge is 3/4 of a mile long, and was constructed in 1850. The bridge was built from wood salvaged from the remains of the Royal Palace, making the materials that the bridge is made of older than the bridge itself. There are 1,086 pillars that stretch across the water to support the bridge. In recent years, several have been replaced because they were damaged and rotting. The atmosphere around the bridge right before sunset is electric. Tourists and local people alike clamor for a position on, near or under (by boat) the bridge at sunset. The sunset was spectacular, as an orange fireball appeared to drop below the surface of the clouds. It was a magical day to end our two days in Mandalay.
Next stop, Lake Inle in Myanmar for a little rest and relaxation. More on that tomorrow!