Mandalay

From Yangon I went north to Mandalay, the main city of northern Myanmar. Mandalay has name recognition like few other places; it elicits images of a distant exotic location and imperial wealth… or maybe the average American might think of the Mandalay Bay casino in Vegas. Which I guess is still imperial wealth. The real Mandalay is a sprawling city far different than Yangon, Myanmar’s main city of the south. Located in the center north of the country on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, Mandalay contrasts sharply with Yangon.

The massive Imperial Palace of Mandalay, 3km x 3km square
The massive Imperial Palace of Mandalay, 3km x 3km square

Mandalay’s sprawling grid makes the city very difficult to traverse by foot, unlike the tight-knit layout of Yangon’s downtown. In addition motorcycles and scooters are allowed in Mandalay, allowing for a far easier flow of traffic than Yangon. Sitting in the plains of the Irrawaddy in the heart of the country, summer days in Mandalay can be blistering, drawing on a greater degree of continental heat than the far more ocean- influenced Yangon.

Maha Muni Pagoda

I’m not sure there’s a term for what I want to describe, but I’ll try to make one. It happens everywhere. In Europe, one is inundated with beautiful churches and cathedrals.  In Istanbul, it’s the plethora of mosques and towering minarets, in Southeast Asia, it’s pagodas. When pressed with so many soaring, staggeringly beautiful religious monuments it can be hard to keep an unconditional appreciation of one to the next. At a certain point they feel almost the same and unchanging in their impressive magnitude.

So I do my best to pick which ones I see. In Mandalay, the must-see pagoda is Maha Muni, known as Maha Muni Paya (Pagoda), or the Maha Muni Image. The Pagoda, like so many in Myanmar, is an intricate towering golden structure, terraced and tapering to its steeple-like top.

Maha Muni Pagoda
Maha Muni Pagoda

What makes the pagoda such an attraction is not its exterior beauty, lovely gardens, or large marble courtyards, but the ten foot tall gold-plated Buddha statue that people line up in the hundreds to worship. The statue is the attraction, an almost otherworldly glittering re-imagining of Buddha that casts a glow from any angle where it is visible. Closed- circuit televisions in the far corners of the Maha Muni complex broadcast a continuous feed of the gilded Buddha.  People by the dozens worship and offer prayers in front of TVs. Myanmar is renowned for its decadent Buddhist celebrations, and Maha Muni is on a plane matched by only a few other pagodas and sites for sheer amount of decadence.

locals worship in front of the gilded Buddha
locals worship in front of the gilded Buddha
Tourist souvenirs at Maha Muni Pagoda
Tourist souvenirs at Maha Muni Pagoda

But I guess that term that I was looking for would be “Pagoda fatigue”.

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U Bein Teak Bridge

Teak wood was one of the driving forces of British Imperialism, a wood renowned for being impervious to termites while also lightweight. Demand for teak in England drove the colonial trade economy between the two cultures. In Myanmar teak is ever present, used for everything from houses and public works to boats. One of the central attractions in Mandalay is the U Bein Teak Bridge, the longest Teak bridge in the world. The bridge spans the Taungthaman lake south of the city and is 1.2 kilometers in total length, narrow, and not always consistent in construction. The lake itself is a shallow , mellow expanse of water with soft lapping waves. I took a share taxi with three other people at the break of dawn to skip the influx of tourists that come to the bridge at peak hours, particularly sunset.

U Bein Teak Bridge
U Bein Teak Bridge

The bridge was wonderfully tranquil during the low hours of sunlight. Aside from the four of us who woke up to make the trip, there were only two or three other scattered tourists and photographers. All other people on the bridge, themselves only a handful, were locals. Despite the bridge’s notoriety and destination draw, it was and always will be a functioning bridge built for normal local traffic connecting two villages on opposite sides of the lake.

In the early light of the morning the few people traversing the bridge were locals passing from one village to the next, oblivious to the innate beauty of their home like so many of us are. Their sense of utilitarianism was simple and amazing in itself; Buddhist Monks walking from one monastery to the next, fisherman casting off the bridge while it was most placid. A few men and women sitting on the benches just enjoying the cool morning air. It was the kind of moment that few locals, regardless of the locale being Mandalay or Mexico City would appreciate for its beauty, as to them it was so normal and functional. The bridge was not an attraction, but a utility to be used. In so being, it made the visit feel so authentic as everyone simply minded their own business and dealt with their own particular task at hand. And that, I thought, added so much to its beauty. Because it was a simple, genuine, moment.

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