Friday, December 23, 2016

Myanmar, Day 7: Bagan Departure & Mandalay Arrival

We packed and went to the airport to catch an early flight for Mandalay. Before checking in, Angela tried to withdraw money, but the ATM took her card. There was a momentary panic as the airport was crowded, we had no money and we thought we might miss our flight; however, as the airport was really quite small with only one large area to check in and one large waiting area, help arrived within a few minutes. After clearing away the receipts that had jammed the machine, her card was returned. I tried to withdraw money from a different machine and it worked without further incident and we were soon waiting on the orange, plastic, 1970s-style moulded seats. There were no screens or boards showing flight information: we had to wait for the stewards to call out our flight number. We didn't have to wait long, thought, and we were soon on our way to Mandalay.

Clothes hanging out to dry outside the Karaweik Mobile Hotel.
After we landed, I exchanged the USD that I had withdrawn at the airport in Bagan for kyat, and we gathered our suitcases before catching a taxi to our hotel, the Mandalay Karaweik Mobile Hotel designed to resemble a Myanmari royal barge, which, as far as we could tell, moored to the bank of the river, wasn't really mobile, but it was definitely a boat. The lodgings seemed a little dubious, too, after we descended a flight of stairs down to the river, which was flanked with makeshift clotheslines. We checked in without much delay and were soon shown to our room on the starboard side of the vessel. The room was almost entirely constructed out of teak wood like the rest of the boat, and it was really quite beautiful. I wouldn't call it a luxury hotel and we were quite a ways out of the city, but were weren't planning on spending much time there, so after settling in and doing a bit of research, we took another taxi to Marie Min, a vegetarian restaurant near the Mandalay Royal Palace and then, after eating, made our way there.

A typical building at the Mandalya Royal Palace.
Vito enjoying the first of
many lychee-flavored beverages.
Foreign visitors could only enter the Mandalay Royal Palace from one gate as the palace appeared to be a functioning military complex and the uniformed officers took our IDs before we entered. The old, red, wooden buildings were beautiful, but the highlight was a tall cylindrical building around which was constructed a spiral staircase so that visitors could climb to the top for a nice view of the manicured palace grounds. Coincidentally, we ran into Vito's kindergarten teacher, Ms. Tara, at the Mandalay Palace, which was an unexpected surprise. After catching up a bit and parting company, we stopped for a cold drink as it was quite warm, and Vito was discovering that he enjoyed lychee-flavor beverages, which he first tried in Yangon. On the way out, we haggled with a lad with red-stained teeth (whose name sounded like "Shelly" but then not really) who agreed to bring us around to a few more sites and then, additionally, guide us on the following day.

Some of the 729 stupas at Kuthodaw Pagoda.
Next, we took a short ride in Shelly's taxi to Shwenandaw Monastery or The Golden Palace Monastery, which is the only remaining original structure from the Royal Palace and built almost entirely out of teak wood. It is supposedly renowned for its Buddhist wood carvings, but it was a smallish site, crowded with tourists and surrounded by souvenir vendors and, in the end, didn't captivate our attention much. After that, we moved on to Kuthodaw Pagoda, which, unknown to us at the time, boasts the world's largest book, a stone-inscribed page of which is contained within each of numerous little, white, lichen-marred stupas that really weren't so little and surrounded the central pagoda. I thought they were the resting places of monks. The complex was quiet and, getting later in the day, not overburdened with tourists, which made it feel more enchanting and mystical.

Angela and Vito chat
with a Myanmari student.
We ended the day on Mandalay Hill at Su Taung Pyae Pagoda to watch the sunset, which was exceptionally beautiful. With a driver, we could skip the pilgrimage up the stairs and got out of the car very near the top of the hill. The pagoda was peculiar with its numerous arched columns, open-air chambers and colorful and ornately tiled walls and floors, but it was not overwhelmed with tourists and there was plenty of space to spread out and get comfortable. We could walk the circumference of the structure and see a 360° view of the entire area. The was a low murmur as everyone, locals and monks included, seemed to be chatting somberly and enjoying the amazing panorama overlooking Mandalay while candles burned, little bells twittered and tinkled in the breeze and the great brass ones rang out periodically, and incense wafted up to arouse the spirits.

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