Monday, December 24, 2012

Mandalay: Mahamuni Paya and U Bein's Bridge

When I had lost my way on the road back to Mandalay the evening before I had been planning to backtrack past the bridges to go visit yet another, much smaller bridge, U Bein's bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world, whatever that means. As it turned out, I wouldn't have had time for it; it was more distant than I thought, and the visit required a walk of over a km over the bridge and the same distance back.  But I had had so much fun on the motorbike, and was by now so comfortable with it, that I couldn't wait to take it out another day. 
My destination was U Bein's bridge. If I'd wanted to miss breakfast and see something interesting I could have arrived there at dawn to witness the parade of monks crossing the bridge to fan out on the other side with their begging pots. I recall the monks in Luang Prabang going out in that way along the streets where I was staying, and all the ladies that positioned themselves on the roadsides with their bags of chips sitting there waiting for them, then from a kneeling position, putting a bag in each pot as the monks filed by, all at the crack of dawn. This monk thing is an amazing social system. You can see how it works here in Burma. And also you can see how normal people get swept into this system and how, since they are normal people, they would be a formidable force to demonstrate against the regime.

But today I slept till disturbed by street noises and went down to have my breakfast and try and connect with wifi (no way for me) and then, oh yeah, I needed to check out, so back upstairs, pack, bring my stuff downstairs, leave it behind the desk. It was about 10:30 a.m before I finally hopped on the motorbike and hit the busy streets of Mandalay.

The LPG advised to avoid U Bein's bridge at 11 a.m because that was when the tourist buses appeared, so to delay my arrival there I decided to visit the Mahamuni Paya (temple) beforehand. I could see it on my map but on this road I had passed several times before and not realized it was there. I knew it should be a prominent pagoda, so I stopped at one on the way, a picturesque one, but not many people around, so I stopped my bike near where some monks were going over a chart planning whatnot and asked them where I was. They took time out to focus on my maps and eventually pinpoint for me where I was. I had to backtrack to where I wanted to go.

When I found the place I discovered it was at an obvious dogleg in the road, and all those workers off to the side I had passed twice before, so focused on my driving, were making Buddha statues, getting themselves covered in fine white dust in the process. Other tourists were taking photos of the workers, covered in white dust from using mechanized hand tools on the stone they were articulating. When I take photos of people I make sure they know what I am doing, like maybe even ask first, and then pause to show them what I have done. When I showed these workers what they looked like at their trade, they gave me the thumbs up. They really liked having their pictures taken and seeing the result.

I did the same thing in the passages leading to the Buddha statue in Mahamuni paya. This statue is continually being covered with gold leaf from devotees who pass behind it and apply the leaf. Men only can do this and the anti-women stricture is getting some washback now from women in Myanmar. I didn't know exactly where I was when I approached this place. First, I noticed that there were signs saying that foreigners were charged camera fees. I had just taken a photo when I saw the booth and the fee collector there so I holstered my camera and made 'no photo' gestures, and he acknowledged my passing by smiling broadly and saying “yaaa!”. Yaaa indeed! That's Burma, a wink and a nudge nudge.  

So I rounded to where the devotees, mostly women who could not apply the leaf, were sitting before the Buddha, and here the guards caught me and told me to set my shoes aside (I had strapped them to my day bag). 

Finally I was taken in tow by an old monk who took my hand and led me to a side alcove and then directed me to take photos. He was a pretty good director, but demanding. 

He wanted me to take a picture of the ceiling, 24k gold. I included some of the Buddha in the shot, and he said NO, the ceiling, so I took that and showed him. Satisfied he took me to the next station. He was good at telling me NOW (no people obstructing the Buddha, quick). He was so sweet, none of this was coercive. He just wanted me to get the best shots. As we parted he asked me how old I was. Nevermind that but he was 82. He said he was my elder brother. What a memorable old man, again, a product of the social monk system.

By now it was coming onto 11 a.m and I figured I'd missed the tourist buses, so I motorcycled down the road toward Sagaing and found the turning signposted U-Bein's Bridge. This took me down some back roads where people didn't speak English, and I'm sure I was misdirected, because when I came to the lakeside I was directed back north up the beach. 
It was a pleasant drive in sand tracks alongside simple beachside shanty dwellings, with cloth dyers hanging their wares out colorfully to dry near the marshes, and now and then someone would point the way without my asking, because they knew where I must be going. Soon I was back on tarmac, and a few minutes later someone motioned me to park where there was a concentration of roadside vendors and food stalls, and from here I went on foot across the bridge, a walk of perhaps a couple of kilometers on the famous longest teak bridge in the world, and you can imagine the foot traffic there, before I arrived at the other side.

The other side connects with south Mandalay so there are motorbikes there (their noise is a ubiquitous sound in Myanmar) but apart from a gaggle of restaurants and trinket stalls catering to tourists, there isn't much that's western once you've taken a few steps into town. 

A short walk takes you to Kyauktawgi Paya, and when I arrived, there was a Brahma bull tied up in front by the nostrils that just hated to have his picture taken. There were people in the leafy grounds surrounding the pagoda playing board games and selling snacks. The temple was airy and its window niches were filled with Buddha statues. 

There was an old monk there with ears that stuck out like Alfred E. Neuman who kindly told me to leave my shoes outside the room where the main Buddha was (I often carried them when I entered holy places, usually that was ok). He exuded warmth, and offered me to partake in what he was eating (which I respectfully declined :-).

I walked back across the bridge, photographing nuns and young ladies carrying trays of something on their heads, with that gold cosmetic smeared purposefully on her cheeks, and at the other end I went on a walk to a monastery that LPG told me was there, Maha Ganayon Kyaung. No one challenged me when I went inside. The young monks were chanting prayers and those walking about ignored me. A lady about to unlock a shrine told me to follow her but when she started her prayers I took my leave. There were some crumbling stupas around, one that had a badminton net tied to it (secular and non-secular worlds collide).

After this pleasant visit I got back on my bike and motored off around the lake. Here I passed the stupas and pagodas that could be seen ethereally from the bridge across the lake which U Bein's bridge crossed, but I didn't stop at any. Instead I continued to Kandawgyi Pat road which was a causeway across another lake, Kandawgyi, that had restaurants on it catering to people out for lavish or romantic meals in bungalows on stilts over the lake. I was thinking to eat there but no place appealed to a lone biker except for one that advertised free wifi, so I called in there, but then realized I'd left my laptop with my things at the front desk of the hotel I'd already checked out of. So nevermind that, the place didn't appeal to me anyway, too much rap catering to youth with plebian tastes, and I motored back into town.

I was keeping my eye on the time now. I had a bus to catch to Lake Inle. I had been starved of Internet though so I went to an area of town where LPG said Internet was good and found a place with reasonable connection. I then went back to my hotel thinking to park the bike and walk to a nearby beer station, but in the end I decided, it's near, what the heck, just ride the bike there. That was a good move because I couldn't find the place I was looking for so I had to think where had I passed any of Mandalay's many beer stations lately? For some reason I remember seeing one on 31st St. I couldn't remember the cross street but driving around blocks I found it (please try and visualize the streets here clogged with trucks and beeping vans and other cyclists, plus things darting into the road like space invaders, only my task was NOT to him them). Finally I found the place, on 82nd Street, just one block off my hotel on 83rd (though a not inconsequential ride back through night-time traffic from 31st to 25th where my hotel was, and this after a couple of beers). I had a fried rice pork (turned out to be pork sausage, still tasty) and soup the establishment brought for free, and again with eye on time, declined to have a third beer, but got the check and motored off across town.

Back at the hotel I collected my things and asked about taxis. One of guys there said he would ask his friend. The friend agreed and I was bundled into his car, an old rattletrap that went about 5 blocks and died in the middle of traffic. The driver explained that his gas gauge was broken and he'd been on a long trip already that day. He tried to call in another car and driver but in the end ran back into town to try and buy gas in the market. He soon returned with a few liters, put it in the car, and resumed the journey. Well and good till we arrived at the bus station and traffic was not moving due to poor infrastructure there and trucks trying to move around the narrow, clogged, and darkened roads, and other drivers trying to put themselves in any breach of traffic they could find, blocking everyone else from both directions. Eventually my driver parked and suggested we walk. He at least conducted me through the mayhem to where my bus was, and soon I was aboard for the ride to Lake Inle.

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