From the rooftop of Bagan View Hotel, the sun crept slowly over the mountains to the east as the early morning haze started to dissipate, and then we saw them. 1 then 2, then the numbers grew as the swarm of hot air balloons slowly drifted past, west to east. It was a special sight, and with only a handful of us on the roof it was a very peaceful way to start our day.
From balloons, to breakfast and then to the bus, we were on the world famous, road to Mandalay. The road to Mandalay is not poetic, nor indeed, is it whole. The rain would surely wash some of it away in the next wet season and the tolls are many and often! If nothing else, the road highlighted how poor the country is. The ramshackle carts, pulled by cattle (or the infamous scabby horses), trundle alongside the main road, the rubbish is thrown in the ditches that carry away with the wet season rains and shanty houses make up the majority of the villages. After a 4 hour drive, with a half an hour tea break, we rolled into Mandalay and our hotel, The Hotel Nova and met our guide. Normally we would pop in the name here but he spoke so softly neither us, nor the lads, could pick him up. After being given half an hour to freshen up, we rejoined our guide in the lobby. While we were waiting on the lads, he asked us what we were doing tomorrow, after telling him we fancied the royal palace and seeing the jade market, he quickly rubbished those plans and told us to visit Min Kun (his home village) instead and see the white temple and an old ruined pagoda. Katy had heard of the white temple but not the village or the pagoda. He said he could get us a good deal for the 4 of us if we all wanted to go. When it was discussed with Mexicans they were quite keen to go ahead and so he started to organise it as we drove to our first stop of the tour, Mahamuni Temple. Before we could leave the car however, we were given a price for the tour for tomorrow and forced to make a decision before we got out of the car. It didn't sit right with either of us but we didn't get a chance to discuss it with each other and the lads were very enthusiastic so we agreed at the price of 50USD to go to the jade market, see a monk ceremony, the white temple and the pagoda.
We were taken through a shopping mall (of course) to the temple where we saw the side of a Buddha who had been built in the likeness of Buddha himself by a king of Arakan (a former kingdom in Eastern Myanmar) who met him in 554BC. That kingdom was then invaded in the 18th century by the crown prince of the Konbaung Dynasty (the last dynasty and 2nd largest in Burmese history) and moved the Buddha (in 3 pieces, which our guide didn't tell us) to Mandalay, which would later become their capital. Men are allowed to enter the temple proper and attach gold leaf to Buddha for good karma which has meant the original 6.5 tonne bronze Buddha is now a whopping 12 tonnes! We have now adopted the policy from temples that prohibit women: No Katy, No Party.
We were then taken to a museum that was adorned in paintings depicting the creation of the statue, from Buddha meeting the king of Arakan and then it's journey to Mandalay (note, paintings clearly depicted African elephants, not Asian and Buddha was whole for the entire journey). After seeing some of the bronze statues that were stolen from Angkor Wat after a war with the Khymer, we moved on.
The next location was a 'Gold Leaf Making Workshop' (factory is and isn't the right word here) where we watched the traditional process for making gold leaf which equated to 6.5 hours of man hours to make wafer thin gold. A gold square is melted, stretched to 5 feet long, cut 20 times and beaten relentlessly 3 times with bamboo paper used to separate each wafer of gold. It was interesting but it felt like we were being shepherded around the points of interest to the gift shop, where we definitely ended up spending the longest.
We then moved on to Mandalay Palace, a stop that hadn't been on the original itinerary, and after paying our entry fee (for foreigners only) we were given yet another whistle stop tour. The palace was the last home of the royal family of Myanmar and, along with the King's residence, there is a further 78 homes, for his 78 wives of course! What we should add here (which our guide failed to mention), this isn't the original teak palace (even though our guide pointed out 'original' features), the original buildings, apart from the watch tower and royal mint, were destroyed during WWII by allied bombing when the Japanese used it as a supply dump. The only original building now left had been dismantled and moved during the reign of the last king of Myanmar.
Once we had left, our stomachs had started to rumble, as none of us had eaten since breakfast and lunch hadn't been scheduled, so, through the power of peer pressure (towards the guide), we stopped off at a food court where we had a strange, not quite bread, not quite pastry, roll...thing. It was edible and kept us going.
After 'lunch' we moved on to the Shwenandaw monastery, the only surviving building from the original palace that had been moved when the king believed it to be haunted by his father. Sadly, (and in protest) we didn't see inside, as women were not allowed (and when our guide didn't tell us this, we were pretty peeved (original word is redacted)) but the external carving on the teak was very impressive.
The penultimate stop was to the UNESCO world heritage site, Kuthodaw Pagoda also known as 'the world's largest book.' It was utterly fascinating to see the 730 white cave-like enclosures arranged in rows, housing marble tablets that were inscribed, on both sides, with the Buddhist scriptures and other Buddhist texts. They are all numbered and so, if one wanted to (and could read Burmese) you could walk and read the teachings. It was absolutely fascinating although our guide still struggled to explain what way someone would walk to read them sequentially!
We headed to the top of Mandalay hill for our final stop of the day (after paying the 1,000Kyat foreigner only fee) and ascended the 3 flights of escalators to the top. We spent 45 minutes at the top watching the sun set over the mountains and wandering the hilltop Pagoda.
When we got back to the hotel, after winding our way through the rush hour traffic, we had dinner on the rooftop. When we returned to the room, we experienced our first blackout! We both definitely remember the power going out when we were younger but it has been a while since then. Our entire block had gone out which made the scene ever eerier.
The next day Katy was unwell so we spent the day having some down time and went for a wander in the streets to get some 'fresh' air rather than on the tour our guide had been keen to get us to go on. We headed to the Jade Market in hope of finding some jewellery as an early birthday gift for Katy, however in true Katy fashion, the only bracelet she liked was 2000USD!
Tomorrow we head to Inle Lake in the south of Shan state.