One thing that is fantastic about Myanmar is the people - everywhere we go you are greeted by smiles and mingalaba! (Welcome or hello in Burmese), saying it back certainly got approval from the locals!
After a nice evening in Mandalay we woke up to floods of rain the next day, after preparing umbrellas, rain coats and flip flops (easier to take off when entering pagodas) we headed into Mandalay to explore.
Our first stop was the Golden Palace - this is currently part of a monastery - but used to be the Kings personal rooms before his death. His son had the whole thing dismantled and transported from the original palace.
It's an impressively carved teak wood building - very atmospheric in the rain! There are celebrated carvings called jakatas with explain the Buddha's previous lives before he reached nirvana. The name of the palace comes from the gold leaf that was used to decorate the inside. It's a shame that its suffering from the effects if the weather as the carvings on the outside show - it also looks like some pieces have been pried off :(
Next up was the largest book in the world! This accolade goes to Kuthodaw Paya - it has pagodas covering all 729 marble slabs telling the Tripitaka canon of Theravada Buddhism in the Myanmar language. Very close by is another in the original Balinese language.
Here I donated some beautiful lotus flowers to the Buddha - Kai told me that meant I could make a wish for something from Buddha.
Kai and Amy are a great addition to our group - they are American citizens but born in Burma (before the name change), educated in medicine and practised in England before heading to the USA to further their careers. Having native speakers here who know all the stories and history is great - they are assistant guides! It also enables us to ask frank questions about the recent history - this would be inappropriate to ask locals. They can also interpret menus and recommend things to eat...
We visited the second most sacred site in Myanmar next - Mahamuni Paya. This 4m tall Buddha image is also off limits to women - however plenty of men have applied gold leaf over the years - it's grown 15cm deep in a hundred years, but has distorted the shape of the Buddha. Also as a nod to technology you can watch them do this on CCTV - great for the women getting a man to do it on their behalf!
The boys had to covet their knees with the traditional longi. We all appreciated Con's t shirt too!
The Paya includes rooms with paintings showing the story of this image - from it's casting under the supervision of Buddha through to its current placement in the pagoda, and some bronze Khmer figures, captured as war booty from Angkor Wat via Thailand. These figures are getting worn out from the amount of rubs they get - the myth is that if you pray whilst rubbing the relevant part of the figures then you can get rid of any ailments relating to that part of the body.
Me sharing my merit - everyone who hears the bell gets to share your merit from recent prayer.
We then visited a gold leaf workshop - Mandalay is famous for its gold leaf and this is the hub where they make it. They start with a very fine piece of gold which they cut into 4 pieces and layer up with rice paper - they wrap this in a wood cover and smash the hell out of it with a sledge hammer! The next stage is getting the thinner 4 pieces each divided by 4 - layering these up and smashing them thin. You can see where this is going! Etc etc until you have gold leaf that is stupidly thin!
The gold leaf is then used as offerings to Buddha - normally applied to a statue as we've seen, or used on your own skin as its meant to have wonderful benefits - that part of my forehead will be beautiful forever.
We stopped for lunch at a typical 'local' restaurant full of local people and this is where sitting next to Amy and Kai helped me a lot. The traditional Burmese meal contains lots of little dishes - a little like a thali as they are usually centred around a curry or at least include a veggie curry if you choose a stir fry or fried dish as your main instead.
We got a lovely soup, a vegetable curry with eggplant, various salads, accompaniments including sauces to add more chilli and rice of course. All very tasty, although Burmese curry is not like an Indian or Thai curry (despite the influences from those countries - particularly Thailand), they are milder and usually tomato based sauce using a lot of palm oil - so richer even if you don't go for a slow cooked meat one.
After lunch we headed to Saigain to visit 2 of the main temples - the monastery complex has a lot more than just 2!
We stopped off to visit a silk weaving workshop - some gorgeous cloth was being made there, but not quite what a back packer needs....
We crossed back over the Ayeyarwady river to see U Bein's teak bridge for sunset. This is the worlds longest teak bridge at 1.2km long and at 200 years old it still sees plenty of action. The bridge was built to enable the villagers working on the other side an easy commute to work! It was full of fishermen, locals, monks, and of course a lot of kids speaking English trying to sell us stuff in a very polite way.
Sunset against the flood waters.
After walking half way we got a boat back to witness the sunset against the bridge. The trifecta of photos was to get a bike, a monk and a woman carrying a bundle on her head - I only managed a bike one!
That night at dinner we came across another idiosyncrasy of Myanmar - waiters calling us all Sir, even the girls! I think they learn the basic English needed for entertaining foreigners (and its certainly more than my very basic Burmese) but without the detail of male versus female titles!
At breakfast the next morning I tried the local noodle and fish soup dish - mohinga - very tasty although a bit too much spice for me in that particular one and I wasn't a hundred percent sure what was in it exactly, but noodles for breakfast is not to be knocked!
That morning we went up Mandalay hill for the views of the surrounding area - you can really tell that it's wet season with the flooded river.
We then took a very luxurious boat to Mingun to see the unfinished pagoda and would have been worlds largest if it had been completed.
Mingun also has the worlds second largest bell, weighing in at 90 tonnes, and its the largest bell in the world that can still ring - very loud when inside it!
The final pagoda of the day was Hsinbyume Paya. This is a very impressive white pagoda - considered the Myanmar Taj Mahal as it was built in memory of the kings wife. The white makes it very different to the other pagodas we have seen and a great contrast for the nuns in their pink robes.
That evening we took in some traditional culture at a music and dancing show, where we five were the only people in the audience - they saw us pull up in the pick up truck and jumped up to get ready!