We spent the morning of our final day in Mandalay exploring Mingun. Mingun is a small village just across the river from the city – we hired a small boat to take us – and if politics and health had allowed, Mingun might have become the site of the largest pagoda ever. Back in 1790, the reigning king decided to build the largest temple in the world, but he died after only the base was complete. The sheer cost (and probably lack of interest) amongst his heirs meant that construction stopped at the same time. A massive earthquake later split the base, which means that it was probably an excellent thing that the temple never was completed, as the earthquake would certainly have destroyed it. The king also had a giant bell cast, which is the largest ringing bell in the world today (a larger bell that does not ring is in Russia).
We had a good time – we climbed to the top of course and the kids loved scampering all over. As usual, we were asked to be in tons of photos with the locals. We also explored a nearby temple – white and impressive, that once again, was a perfect playground for Daniel and Eitan. The one street at the temples is a market for local art – every store has paintings and many of them were excellent.
We happened to be there at the same time as a local festival, and so after our temple visit we took a local taxi to the nearby village. The place was packed with people and it was very raucous, with loud music blaring and people obviously in a very good mood. Nat festivals take place from time to time at different locations – this was one of the smaller ones – but the people were obviously very involved. There was dancing on stages and for the first time, people were much less interested in us!
Our guide felt that it was in fact a bit too hectic and she asked a local policeman to accompany us through the crowds – I felt very uncomfortable with this, but it did mean that we had a bit of room and were able to move around through the throngs of people. We didn’t stay long – Gal developed a stomach ache and soon was insisting we go back. A local village in Myanmar isn’t the best place to feel ill but our police escort did take her to the bathroom at the best house in the village, and while we waited the local police chief invited us in for tea. Despite all our concern about local authority, they were very kind and anxious to do their best for us.
Returning back to the hotel, I continued touring Mandalay with the boys. We first visited the jade market – a huge area where we saw massive blocks of jade, people carving jade, selling jade, haggling over jade, and more. It was obvious that many of the buyers were Chinese and Burmese jade is probably the finest in the world. After taking in the fascinating market, we then went to the famous Mahamuni Temple, the second most revered temple in Myanmar, where a monk was given the job of looking after us. I had to dress in a longyi (I was wearing shorts which were regarded as unacceptable) and then we were taken right up to the most holy place in the temple – to sit at the feet of the solid gold Arakan Buddha image – an unbelievable honor. There the monk explained to us exactly what was going on, while the rituals continued all around us. Men were coming up to the Buddha, praying and sticking gold leaf on to the image. Women were not allowed near the Buddha and had to watch from afar. I was amazed at how we were taken care of – the monk spoke perfect English and his whispered explanations were so revealing about local belief.
Leading us down from the Buddha, we carried on wandering around the temple precinct. The temples in Myanmar are not only for praying – people find a spot to sleep the afternoon away, stalls sell stuff and there are constant crowds coming and going. We saw an amazing display of looted objects from Angkor Wat in Cambodia. FIrst apparently stolen by the Thais back in the 1400’s , they were then taken in turn by the Burmese after defeating the Thais a hundred years later. The statues are made of bronze and are said to have healing powers – if you rub the affected part of your body against the same area on the bronzes, you should get better. We saw people taking this very seriously.
We made a few more stops around Mandalay – the wooden monastery (which we did not think was anywhere as interesting as the wooden monastery at Inwa), the “largest book in the world” which turned out to be thousands of marble slabs (not what the boys wanted to see – they wanted to see a real giant book), and the former palace (which was destroyed in WW2 and rebuilt a few decades ago – easily missable).
That evening we collected Gal and Hilit and set out for Mandalay Hill. The hill towers above the city and seems to be a favoured jogging spot – it’s a long, steep and twisty road, and we saw plenty of people huffing and puffing their way up. I’m a runner myself and I think the run up the hill would be fantastic exercise and good training.
At the top of the hill, there’s a temple (of course!), but mainly people come up to watch the sunset, which is incredible – the city lies directly below, with the river next to it and mountains beyond. Being the rainy season, we could see many flooded paddy fields as well. This would have been spectacular enough, but as we were watching (along with probably every other tourist in Mandalay that day), we saw a black thunder-cloud rolling in very quickly. I went off to buy the kids ice cream, when there was a massive clap of thunder, so loud that it made many people scream and caused Hilit to fall off her chair. We then saw flames, flying sparks and smoke just above us on the roof of the temple – lightning had struck the pagoda umbrella which had turned black, after being gold just a moment before. This was about 10 feet from where we were! A policeman jumped on the to roof to inspect the damage, while the rest of us started running down the stairs to get away.
By now it was raining torrentially, and we were sodden by the time we reached our waiting car. Amazingly, ten minutes later, the sun was out , the rain had stopped and it was as if nothing had ever happened.
(PS: I am now custom-designing trips to Myanmar. Click here for more details).