Our plan was to only spend 2-nights in Mandalay. With a late afternoon arrival and mid-afternoon departure, that translated into only a day and half to see the city sights. In reflection, we could have benefited from more time in the city but with a jam packed schedule, we managed to hit quite a few of the high lights.
If you’ve ever been to any Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia, you are familiar with the tradition of pilgrims applying small pieces of gold leaf onto Buddha images and other religious icons. The tradition flourishes In Myanmar and in some cases; is taken to the extreme. At the Phaung Daw Oo Pagoda on Inle Lake, there are small Buddha images covered in so many layers of gold leaf that the small statures are unrecognizable as Buddhas appearing to be just a series of gold balls stacked on top of each other.
Our first stop of the day was at the King Galon Gold Leaf workshop, one of the main sources of these small squares of micro thin gold.
As we approached the workshop we could hear workers hitting heavy hammers down hard on the small leather wrapped squares of gold in a distinctive rhythm. Guide Soe Soe explained the process of starting with a piece of metal about the size of a postage stamp and pounding it into a thinner piece; cut and put back into another leather wrap and pounded again into an even thinner piece. The process is repeated progressively until the gold has reached the desired degree of thinness. When you consider that the price of gold is currently at roughly $1350 USD per ounce while the packaged 1-½ inch square of gold is being sold for about $1USD; that bit of gold has been pounded pretty darn thin.
At that point the gold thins are taken from the grimy pounding room into clean climate control rooms where neatly dressed young ladies trim and package them for sale.
It was appropriate that our next stop was the Mahamuni Buddha Pagoda / Temple, the home of one of only five images of Gautama Buddha created during his lifetime (according to legend in 554 BC). As you might imagine, this is one of the most revered Buddha images in all the world and a significant percentage of the visitors take the opportunity to pay homage by applying gold leaf, like that made at King Galon workshop to the image themselves.
Men and women kneel in front and on the side of the image in respect but only men are allowed to climb the steps up to the platform where the Buddha sits. Virtually all that do climb take the opportunity to apply the small squares of gold leaf, which has made the most easily reached parts of the statue so thick with gold leaf that the image is hard to recognize.
We found the dress code at Mahamuni Buddha Pagoda to be the most strict we encountered anywhere during our 2+ weeks in Myanmar. We were wearing the same clothes that had not been challenged at any other religious site but ladies had to cover shoulders and even the 2 men in our group wearing shorts that fell below the knee were instructed to put on longyis before entering the sacred area of the temple.
You likely won’t find any mention of the Moe Hti Aung Si Monastery and Meditation Center in any guidebooks or even online but our visit there turned out to be one of the highlights not only of our visit to Mandalay but to the whole of Myanmar. It is located in the southern area of Mandalay in Pyigyidagon Township and is one of the very few monasteries we have ever visited that included both monks and nuns in one center.
During our visit there, it was obvious from their interactions that Soe Soe had a close relationship with the monk in charge of the monastery and had received permission to bring small groups to visit the Center. The lack of contact with visitors is probably the biggest part of the reason this monastery and meditation center is not better known to western tourist.
As we approached the Center complex on foot, we saw monks, nuns and longer term visitors who were boarding at the center walking through the grounds in silent meditation. Soe Soe hurried us past them to a waiting spot near the entrance to a building explaining that we had to be there at a certain time. Soon nuns and monks began gathering in lines and rows under perpendicular covered pathways leading to the building entrance; nuns to our left and monks straight head. At precisely 1030 am a monk took a large hammer and hit a hanging hollow log wooden drum and were witness to a silent procession into the building.
What we were watching was entry into the dining hall for lunch.
We didn’t enter the room but did observe a few minutes of pre-meal prayer before we were taken to a room behind where the monks & nuns were lunching and were served the same lunch that the monks and nuns were served by the local village ladies who volunteer to cook and serve the meal.
You can more about this most memorable meal in greater detail towards the bottom of our Mandalay Restaurants page.
After our meal we walked around the grounds first meeting and talking to some of the young nuns and then walked over to an area that included the dorms and class rooms for the young monks. Soe Soe asked one of the young novice monks to demonstrate the proper way to prepare his robe for going out into the streets and collecting alms.
We were so impressed with the way we were treated by everyone we met at Moe Hti Aung Si Monastery from this novice monk to the pretty young nuns that we talked to after our meal to chief monk in charge of the Center. We asked Soe Soe if we could make a donation to the Center and he advised that they preferred to receive school supplies rather than money so the next day, we made a stop at a school supply store, which he delivered on his next visit there.
From the Monastery, we drove to Amarapura, which had once been the capital of Burma First stop there was the iconic landmark U Bein Bridge, which connects to a small Island in the Taungthaman Lake. At a length of approximately ¾ mile the U Bein is reportedly the longest teak wood bridge in the world. The bridge floor planks show breaks and gaps and more than a little bit of wear and good portions of the hand rails are no longer attached but it’s an interesting way to get some exercise.
Some in our group of 4 only walked part way while others made the entire length and then turned around. U Bein is an excellent place to people watch tourists like the Mexican fellow wearing a big black sombrero and carrying a Mexican flag that we encountered.
This writer was one of those that didn’t make it all the way across but I did enjoy a cold coconut water at one of the many restaurants at the beginning of the bridge while watching fishermen smoking cheroots while standing waist deep in the water and boatmen crossing the lake in their crafts that are reminiscent of the gondolas of Florence.
One of the things that Mandalay is best known for are its universities and we remained close by the bridge in Amarapura for our next stop at the Maha Ganayan Monestary University. The students there were slightly older monks than the novices we had seen at Moe Hti Aung Si Monastery school. We saw quite a few of the young men hard at study and others in meditation. We noticed one monk in particular who was in mediation walking back and forth across a courtyard wearing a top robe in the saffron (orange) color seen more in other parts of Southeast Asia over top of his maroon colored robe most common among monks in Myanmar. We also noticed the open air kitchen where preparation of the next day’s meal was underway; hundreds of pounds of cooked chicken lying uncovered (except for the flies) cooling on a bamboo mat on the floor.
If you’ve read any of the reports on this web site you are likely aware that we have a special interest in textile weaving and rarely miss a chance to visit a weaving village or workshop when we travel. So while we were in Amarapura, we took the opportunity to look in on one of the other attractions the city is known for; silk weaving, with a stop at the Thein Nyo Weaving Workshop.
To be honest, while we saw some exquisite hand work being done this place had more of a “factory” than workshop feel. Part of that was that it was the room had a concrete floor and solid walls with few windows and lacked the “charming atmosphere” we see in so many local weaver workshops. This was also the first place we had seen (and heard) what we think was a spring powered shuttle that flew across the loom (without the weaver having to throw it) and landed on the opposite side with a loud “clack”. This innovation speeds up the process and allows weavers to produce significantly more textiles than those who throw the shuttle. Additionally, the rhythm of the “clacks” made on simple patterns sounded almost machine like.
One additional feature to the room that caught our eye was a giant warp being loaded with very colorful threads. We have never seen anything like this in any of our visits to hand weaving workshops. The product of such a warp would be enormous.
We ended our visit to Thein Nyo with a stop of the showroom. As a gross generalization, we found the prices to be higher than many other workshops but the quality of some pieces to be very high.
Our next stop of the day was at the U Min Thonze Pagoda on top of Sagaing Hill. This complex features a wide terrace leading to a gilded façade of manmade “caves”. As you enter through one of the caves, you are greeted by a long corridor with 45 seated Buddha images along one wall and a larger porcelain Buddha at the end of the hall. Each image has been donated by a family in remembrance of a family member. The face of each image is unique to all the others.
There were clear blue skies and no rain on day we were there and we encountered quite a few local tourists, including several very friendly groups of young monks enjoying a visit to the caves and a walk along the terrace. The panoramic view from the hill top terrace is truly inspiring beginning with the tops of nearby pagodas and leading well past the Irrawaddy River. We could see quite a few of the pagodas that we had spotted on our river cruise into the city from the day before.
Shwenandaw Kyaung (teak wood) Monastery
Shwenandaw Kyaung (Golden Palace) is one of only 2 remaining teak wooden monasteries in Mandalay. It was originally built in Amarapura, but when the capitol was moved to Mandalay, the building was dismantled and reconstructed as a part of the new Royal Palace. It remains one of the few elements of the Royal Palace that has survived a history of earthquakes and fires. The stilted structure features some amazingly ornate and detailed carvings depicting Buddhist legends. Along with some interior panals, we were particularly impressed with the door carvings.
At the end of a full day of touring with our guide Soe Soe; we made a rest stop at Ya Mon Naing, a large indoor/outdoor restaurant down by the banks of the Ayarwaddy River to relax and watch the sunset. You can read a review of that experience on our Mandalay Restaurants page.