(Continued from last week, The Magic of Myanmar Part 1)
Republished - Feb 2012
I’m not sure if it was the suitcase crashing down on my head, or the cold and hunger on the train that did it, but when we arrived at our hotel in Mandalay, the Emerald land Inn, it did indeed feel like we had walked into a giant gem. The room was spacious, comfortable and had a bath. Sold.
I had been warned that Mandalay itself was no supermodel of a city, but upon our first stroll around the neighbourhood the following morning the walk along the old king’s moat was impressive. However, this is also where we left the splendour of that morning’s walk behind, as the rest of what we saw was like any other messy booming town in this part of the world.
But all was forgiven by dinnertime when we found the Chapatti Stand. The name is in no way misleading, the teeny weenie stools surrounding the teeny weenie tables really are part of a street corner stand with a whole team of people of all ages actively involved in the process of getting food to the tiny tables.
Once we had perched ourselves at the Alice in Wonderland style seating arrangements, the banquet began. Spices and chapatti’s were being dipped in all manner of sauces and it truly was a feast. Just when I thought there was no space left for even another idea of a bite I spied, out of the corner of my eye, a vat of crème caramel. It somehow found its way to our table and capped off a most satisfying food experience. The fact that we were climbing Mandalay Hill the next day put a halt to the spiralling calorie count.
Our second day in the former capital city started with a visit to the Mandalay Resort Hotel, which lies at the foot of Mandalay Hill. We were given a tour of the lavish hotel and spa and in the latter I experienced a Burmese beauty ritual like no other- I had my face painted with Thanatkha, a powder produced from an aromatic tree bark and worn by both men and women, young and old. Applied in all kinds of artistic forms, stripes, circles, large and small- it acts as both make up and sunscreen.
Face-paint in place, we set off to climb the famed Mandalay Hill and admiring glances were found at every turn. By this stage I had forgotten that I had pale yellow stripes on my face but I soon understood that I had turned into local human catnip.
Barefoot we set off on our task of burning off chapattis although I think we would have needed to do the climb twice, as the half hour walk didn’t entirely cancel out the crème caramel self-reproach. But the view did.
Close to the top of the hill is a huge standing Buddha image that looks out towards the royal palace with its outstretched hand pointing in that direction. At the very top of the hill the view is panoramic, with Shan hills to the east, Mandalay Palace to the south and the Ayeyarwady to the west.
On our descent Kayti received a phone call from Richard Mayhew, the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel General Manager. Would we like to have Christmas Eve dinner at the hotel tonight? It then dawned on us that it was the 24th of December. We looked at each other sheepishly. Weren’t we trying to avoid Christmas this year? But there would be so much lovely food and wine…
And just like that, a couple of hours later we found ourselves seated at an ornate poolside dinner party, with baubles and lights in the trees, karaoke on stage and flowing wine. We took a photo of ourselves, trying to look like we weren’t having a great time and trying to frame it so that the flashing reindeer statue in the middle of the pool wasn’t in shot.
Our last day in this part of Myanmar was dedicated to visiting the former capitals that lie outside Mandalay, and in order to do so we climbed into the back of a minute taxi and headed to Sagaing.
Named for the trees that hang over the river and home to 500 stupas, even more monasteries and nunneries, and some 6000 monks and nuns- meditation is big in Sagaing and the atmosphere welcoming.
Exactly how welcoming became clear when we made our way up to the top of Sagaing Hill. The view of the area’s 500 stupas and the river were truly lovely, but the real treat was the super friendly monks who wanted to be photographed with us and talk football for hours. The mere word “Chelsea” would spark a tide of protest and support in equal measure, with passers-by looking on in curiosity at this highly animated exchange occurring.
I have always been lead to believe that women are not allowed to touch monks or make any physical contact at all. But that lot were completely unfazed, bunching up to allow the ever-growing numbers of them squeeze into the shot resulting in equal amusement from both parties.
Back in our taxi it was time to drive to the ancient city of Inwa. Tourists are ferried to the town, which is cut off from roads by rivers and canals, by boat and once there nearly all visitors get around on a pre-priced horse-cart system. It all felt very controlled and didn’t leave much room for manoeuvring. One can make one’s own way around by bike and follow your own itinerary but we were not prepared so it was the back of the horse-cart for us on the good old tourist loop. The landscape itself was very inspiring though- ruined pagodas scattered around a raw setting create a very particular atmosphere, and it has certainly stayed with me.
U Bien, the world’s longest teak bridge, was our final stop for the day, so we made our way to the penultimate royal capital, the town of Amarapura. Built in 1849 the pedestrian bridge was constructed over 1000 teak posts and at first sight it certainly promises a unique experience.
Set on Taungthaman Lake, local fishing scenes unfold in the distance, while children splatter about in the water playfully as adults work the fields, your shadow reflected on the green water follows you as you cross the bridge, making this experience one filled with more Kodak moments than a wedding.
The sound of loud music lured us to the other side, Taungthaman village, where we were greeted with the most peculiar and wonderful pageantry ever- young children making their way to the pagoda for their first stay.
Of course we didn’t know this at the time, we just thought the ornate costumes, make up, decorated water buffalo and massive trucks covered in loudspeakers with hoards of people singing and dancing on them were just another everyday scene in this wonderfully curious country.
In a way, we were right. We had stumbled upon the most delightful and bizarre moment completely by chance, and it imbued the Mandalay experience with a very enchanting touch. But it was time to return to our bijou of a guesthouse, and get some rest for the 5am wake up call that would mark the start of our trip to Bagan, by boat the following morning.
Emerald Land Inn No.9 14th Street PyiGyiYanLone Quarter, Mandalay email: emerald-land [at] myanmar [dot] com [dot] mm
The Chapatti Stand corner of Street 27 and 82
Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel No. 9(416.B) 10th Street, www.mandalayhillresorthotel.com
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