Mandalay: the ugly town you can't avoid
We had been told by other travellers that Mandalay was rather ugly and they were right! The city is polluted, crowded and not particularly beautiful. However Mandalay is the second largest city in Myanmar and serves as a base to visit the neighbouring sites of Mingun, Amapura and Sagain. Some people visit those three sites in one single day but we decided to take our time and visit one site each day.
Mandalay itself has its own attractions: the royal palace, many temples and a hill with a 360° view of the city and its flat surroundings. The city is also known for its marionnette shows and for the "Moustache Brothers
", a group of comedians who dared mock the dictatorial government. All in all we stayed five days in Mandalay and did not get bored at all.
On the first day we visited the huge unfinished temple of Mingun located along the river. We took a slow boat to reach the site and were welcomed by a hord of souvenir sellers and ox cart taxis. Although unfinished, the base of the building is so large that it is worth the visit. An earthquake shook the building but it is still standing despite a big crack. You can climb to the top and get a fine view of the sourrounding river and hills.
As it took us only a morning to visit Mingun (the temple, the second biggest suspended bell in the world and another very nice "cream cake" like temple), we spent the afternoon climbing the Mandalay hill.
On the second day we visited the site of Sagain by "blue taxi". A blue taxi is a little vehicle with two rows of benches facing each other in the back; it's cheaper that a regular taxi. We shared the cost with Quentin and Marie whom we met in Kalaw a few days earlier. The four of us were making a merry little bunch of Frenchies. To be frank, we were disapointed by the Sagain site, it consists of temples scattered on a few hills. Maybe we had already seen too many Buddhas and temples on top of hills... Some temples had more character than others though.
The last site we visited was Amapura, where you can admire the longest teak bridge in Myanmar ( >1km long). It's actually an ideal spot to watch the locals pass by: group of monks, people riding their bicycles, vendors with tray of food on their heads, groups of youngsters...At sunset, we hired a boat to watch all this busy crowd from a better viewpoint. During the day we visited the neighbouring village of Inwa by horse cart. The lush countryside and green rice paddies were very nice. Night life in Mandalay: pupet show, Moustache Brothers and Patrick's birthday
It was the 4th of February and it was Patrick's birthday so we celebrated the event with a nice meal at the restaurant. We were a bit sad that we hadn't made a bigger celebration but Saoyuth found the excuse that cakes and candles were hard to find ;-) Well, next year we'll make a big party at home :-).
One evening we attended a puppet show in Mandalay. Puppetry used to be an art at the royal court but lost its popularity overtime. With the booming tourism, there is a revival and performances are held everyday. The performance we saw combined tradidionnal music, puppetry and traditional dance. It was beautiful and much more lively than one can expect as the puppeteers sometimes took part in the show, interacting with the audience.
On our final day, we've visited a couple of temples in Mandalay and went to see the "Moustache Brothers" in the evening. They are famous because they used to criticize the regime.
Two of the three members were sent to forced labour (seven years!) for a joke on Independance day. They are now on the government black list and are not allowed to perform anymore in public, althought the government seems to tolerate their private shows for foreigners which are arranged at their house.We were about 10 people to attend on that evening. The show was a mix of dances performed by family members of the Moustache Brothers and jokes. It was not really what we expected and much less cynical. It felt like the three of them were rather tired and had to maintain the show for a living. It remains an interesting cultural experience in a country where expressing one's opinion is not allowed. Long boat trip down to Bagan
It was time again to pack our bags and move to one of Myanmar's most exceptional site: Bagan. We caught the slow boat the next morning at 5h30 AM, so had to wake up at 4! The boat ride was nice but very long (16 hours)!
One of the most interesting thing during the trip was the hord of food vendors rushing onboard at a stop around lunchtime. Competition was stiff, so it was crucial for them to present their tray of food to tourists before anyone else. It became even worse when another (faster) boat arrived and stopped just by the side of ours.
Vendors on our boat tried to sell their goods to passengers on the other boat! Some threw their bananas expecting money to be thrown back! Usually, they got the bananas back... The rest of the trip was a lot more quieter, taking a nap on the hard floor or chatting with fellow passengers. Patrick made the most of his ability to do nothing without being bored, while Saoyuth found it rather long.