Our final adventure in Myanmar led us to Mandalay, a city loaded with history and natural catastrophes. Indeed the city suffered from a number of earthquakes, the last one occurring in 2017. It’s also there that King Thibaw was defeated by the British in 1887.
Britain then took control of the north of Burma and extended what was known as the British Raj. There’s a wonderful book about the history of Burma, from that period up to the coup in 1962, written by Amitav Ghosh, entitled The Glass Palace. Of course, it’s a bit romanticised but you do learn a lot about Burma and the far east. I strongly recommend it if you enjoy reading.
Back as a Ploughman
But enough of meandering and let’s get back to our story. We were quite curious when leaving Bagan as we were to take the only Burmese motorway, What a treat! However, before reaching the fast road we had another spell of Burmese potholes. Fortunately we met a nice farmer ploughing his field to plant peanuts. The plough was made of just two separate wooden boards with some sort of metallic “claws” nailed underneath. My wife and I did try to operate it at the farmer invitation but I don’t think either of us will ever reincarnated into a good Burmese ploughman.
After a couple of hours’ driving, we finally reached the motorway. To describe it you should imagine giant cement slabs, sandy hard shoulders and sand tracks that lead in and out of the highway with a scorched landscape on either side. But that was in the dry season. I imagine that it must be really slippery during the monsoon. However, we reached Mandalay in no time according to Burmese standards. We stayed not far from the harbour, but more on that later.
We first paid a visit to the longest book in the world — the Kuthodaw inscriptions shrine made of small white stupas with engraved stones — before going up Mandalay Hill for sunset. It’s a famous place with monks and Burmese students who go up there just to speak English with the tourists. It’s really lively and unless you’re mute, you’re likely to start a conversation.
We also went to the Mahamuni pagoda, a famous pilgrimage centre because of the Mahamuni Buddha in the pagoda. People have put so much gold leaf on the statue that the Buddha’s body looks more like a gilded version of Hulk than a holy image. Incidentally, this was an opportunity to meet an interesting party of pilgrims. We also visited a temple in Sagaing where we met a very friendly old woman. Her family told us she was 93 and was still in good health as she was a good Buddhist. I could not resist taking her portrait.
The harbour on the banks of the Ayerwaddy was absolutely amazing. We spent part of the morning watching the ballet of young men and women loading sand, going uphill, unloading and piling it up some ten metres higher, not far from the road. The Ayerwaddy sand is one of the purest you can find and is good for building.
This is how it works, a carrier loads sand from small boats into a basket. It then goes atop the head and the carrier starts going uphill. When they arrive halfway up they transfer the basket to another carrier who goes up the hill and unloads it onto the existing pile of sand. The banks are also homes to families of fishermen. At night the banks of the river are bustling with life with petrol vendors, small outdoor restaurants lining along the pavement that border the harbour and, of course, an unending ballet of small lorries, motorbikes and cars.
Opposite Mandalay harbour lies Sagaing harbour which specialises in teak wood. I was truly amazed by the young carriers who look so small compared to the pieces of log they carry.
Sagaing market is full of charm and colours. People go about the stalls slowly. The rhythm is not as hectic as the market in Yangon. People take their time to buy fruit, vegetables or thanaka that make Burmese women skin so special. Some even find time for a nap.
We ended the day at U Beinn bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world. The place is really crowded and you have to shoulder your way to a boat that will take you to admire sunset from a wooden boat.
Previously in this series: