So one thing I had decided to do in Mandalay was to get up super early to go so the washing of the Mahamuni Buddah’s face. What is that you ask? Well it is the ceremonial washing/polishing of the Mahamuni Buddah’s face. Legend has it that the Mahamuni Buddah was paraded in front of the fourth Buddah over 2,000 years ago and as a result, the Mahamuni Buddah has great national importance to the faithful.
Now I knew all about the story of the Mahamuni Buddah from Ko Soe when I visited Mrauk U. The original Mahamuni Buddah had been pilfered from Mrauk U in 1784 by the Burmese army and dragged back to Mandalay. The poor folk in Mrauk U were left to construct a replica from the materials used to build the original (so the story goes). To this day, the folks in Mrauk U are pissed about it. This fact seemed to be lost on my lovely hosts in Mandalay as I explained what I knew about the Mrauk U – Mandalay pilfering incident.
Anyway, when I decided I wanted to see the ceremony, I did not realize it entailed waking up at 3:20 a.m. to get to the temple by 4:00 a.m. I somehow dragged my sorry butt out of bed and met Moe Moe and our poor driver at 3:40 and off we set for Mahamuni Paya. The drive was quick as there was no one on the streets and all the shops were closed because only a fool would be up at this hour.
We reached the temple, took off our shoes and proceeded to walk into the chamber area where the room was divided into three sections. One section at the front for the men. The second section behind for the women. And finally the last section was for the “band”, or more aptly described as some monks playing instruments and chanting.
We took our seat in the second section and I quickly noticed that I was the only Anglo in the room. I guess most tourists do not want to wake up this early (don’t blame them). So once seated, I immediately noticed that the Mahamuni Buddah in front of me was behind two gates obscuring our view. I presumed, the opening of the gates would be part of the ceremony.
So as we sat and listened to the “band”, the faithful brought to the front baskets of fruit, flowers, chips, candy and other various offerings. This food part has always puzzled me, because, come on …. what is a gold inanimate object going to do with food? Nevertheless, the parade of offerings continued. And really, the offerings were not only big business (the amount of money spent on this stuff is astounding), but it employed hundreds, maybe thousands, of people. So what the hey.
By 4:20 a.m., the ceremony began. Four “trustees” in white robes made their way out to the front and began the task of opening the locked gates. Apparently, one of the locks was stuck because they were fumbling and yanking on one of the locks to no avail. For some reason this struck me as funny. What would happen if they couldn’t open the gates? Would they use bolt cutters? Would there be a scene? Would they panic if they couldn’t wash the Mahamuni’s face? Unfortunately, these questions would never be answered because … viola … the locks were mastered and the gates were open.
Next up was the parade of offerings. Each of the white clad trustees would raise the offering up to Mahamuni, bow and then pass it to the next fellow. This process went on and on for the better part of 10 minutes.
Finally a monk clad in red appeared and he proceeded to wrap the Buddah around the neck with an orange cloth to protect the rest of the body from the cleaning fluid. After being draped, the monk began to spray a fluid all over Mahamuni’s face. Once the Buddah was sprayed, the monk began the process of using a cloth in a circular motion to spread the fluid over every nook and cranny of the Buddah’s face. This took another ten minutes. Finally, the process of polishing began. The monk was handed a cloth from one of the white robbed trustee’s, he would polish one small area of the face, turn and hand the cloth back and receive another cloth. This process continued for 10 more minutes.
And just when I thought it was over, there was some more bowing and then another cloth appeared. It was astounding the amount of time and energy that went into this process. All the while the ceremony was taking place, there was chanting and bowing and praying all around me. Now, I actually found the whole process quite intriguing, but at the same time, I found myself rather bemused by the reverence given to a gold covered deity. (Maybe that is the heathen in me….)
By 5:15 were back in the car (had to wake up my poor driver) and heading back to the hotel and what a difference an hour or so made. The stalls were open for business, motorbikes were zipping past and street vendors were approaching cars trying to sell their wares.
Once back at the hotel, I went to bed for a couple hours and then we were off again. First (I guess actually second) stop of the day was in Amarapura, the second royal city. It saw prominence in the late 1700s, but saw the seat of power moved to Mandalay in the mid 1800s. The area now is basically a suburb of Mandalay, but it did still have a few sites. We were going to visit the Maha Ganayon Kaung monestary and the U-Bein Bridge.
Maha Ganayon Kaung is a working monastery comprised of numerous buildings where monks live, learn and work. Unfortunately, the monastery has become a huge tourist trap for the very reason that the eating halls are open air and from 10:30 to 12:00 each day the monks line up in two rows to receive their final meal of the day. I told Moe Moe I was not interested in staying around for that. I had sat on a street in the middle of Luang Prabang in Laos and watched monks collect alms from the locals in the neighborhood and that felt like a huge intrusion even though I was the only tourist in the area. Nevertheless, I did not want to be part of that scene again.
Instead, I visited the hall where the food was prepared in massive vats, saw the classrooms, and saw the home of the founder of the monastery in its preserved condition dating to the mid 1900s. While we walked around, the scene was rather peaceful and quiet, but suddenly there were hordes of tourists out of nowhere. Apparently, the buses arrive around 10:30 solely to watch the alms process. I told Moe Moe it was time to leave. There were rows of tourists lined up to watch the procession and I found it completely disgusting to think that many of the monks, who are just young novices, will be subjected to camera toting tourists who have no respect for the feelings of these people or the tradition that the alms process represents.
So with that, we were off to U-Bein bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge constructed in 1800 across Taungthaman Lake. After the rainy season, the lake is high and Moe Moe told me that this year, the lake actually rose above the bridge level. However, now, it was well below bridge level and so we set out to cross the entire 1300 meter bridge. I don’t think Moe Moe was particularly pleased by my desire to walk the entire distance across and back given the heat already building at 10:30 a.m., but what the hey there was a least a breeze.
We made the track in good time, enjoyed the views and walked with university students crossing the bridge to go to school. (We left the tourists in the dust who seemed intent on only taking a short stroll and back). All in all, a thoroughly good time.
Once back across the bridge, we got back in the car and made the drive to third royal city, Sagaing. It was believed to be the capital back in the 14th century and then at least one other time after that, but eventually became the spiritual capital rather than the royal capital. It is home to hundreds of monastaries, temples and stupas. As we crossed the new bridge over the Ayeyarwady River I saw Sagaing HIll literally covered in temples. It was an astounding sight as the sun glinted off the gold painted stupas.
We made our way up Sagaing Hill past young novice monks (boys dressed in red or white and girls dressed in pink all with heads shaved) walking along the side of the road between monasteries and back and forth up the hill.
Our first stop was Shin Pin Nan Kain Pagoda. Unfortunately, the driveway was blocked so we had to hike three blocks straight up hill and I do mean straight up hill. By the time we took off our shoes off and made our way up a series of stairs, I was soaked and dying of heat and humidity.
Nevertheless, I made it to what I thought was the top of the pagoda, which was home to 45 identical Buddah statutes. Why 45 you ask? Well the 4th Buddah was “enlightened” for 45 years before his death so 45 is symbolic in the Buddhist religion. Now the Buddahs were nice to look at and all, but for my money the real star was the views over Sagaing. Simply spectacular. Although I was done in by the climb, Moe Moe told me there was another staircase so off we set. The views at the very top were even more spectacular. Definitely worth the sweat.
Fortunately, on the way back down, I found a vendor and bought a fan for 1,000 kyat. Best investment of the day!
Our second stop was a short one minute drive down the hill to the most important monastery of Sagaing: Pon Nya Shin Paya. The important figure for this temple is a toad. Why you ask? Because Sagaing Hill resembles a toad, which apparently harbours superstitious blessings for the faithful and was the basis for the creation of all the temples and monasteries in the Sagaing area.
Unfortunately, the temple and the import were kind of lost of me. I was dying of heat and I did not see anything particularly exciting about this temple. (I was templed out!). While I love looking at the ancient temples and stupas, the temples I had seen so far were pretty uninspiring. Although, I will say the view from the temple was pretty special.
At this point, Moe Moe wanted to know if we should stop for lunch. Unfortunately, the heat and humidity had drained me, and I was simply not hungry. Fortunately, i brought along some electrolyte powder so we stopped for some water and I powered up.
The afternoon promised to be more enjoyable as we were going on a boat ride across the Ayeyarwady River to the little town of Mingun. I made Moe Moe promise me … No More Temples for the day and with that we set off for the jetty.
On the way, we took a detour to the Jade Market. I had been given a tip by Brian Bedford, the brother of my college friend, Dave Bedford, to visit the Jade Market. He told me the best time to go was 6:30 a.m., but I had been too tired to stay up until 6:30 a.m. this day, so I would have to make the best of it and visit in early afternoon.
Now the Jade Market is a wholesale market where dealers make their purchases. Foreigners were permitted to go into the market and so that is what we did. We wandered around and watched some of the carvers and polishers at work. Unfortunately, we were there too late to watch the buyers barter and examine the jade, which was disappointing, but you can’t do everything. Eventually we found our way to the stand of Kan Pwint Jade & Jewelry Shop. I found the owner and told him Brian Bedford sent me. He smiled, greeted me with a warm handshake and immediately began to show me some of his jade pendants. I found some lovely stones, and after a bit of back and forth decided on one stone and was given a very good deal. Thanks Brian!
With a series of thanks and smiles, we said goodbye and made our way to the jetty for the boat trip. We picked up some food for the ride across including some cakes, crackers and Fanta (big seller here).
Climbing aboard our little boat turned out to be a bit of an adventure. Moe Moe was a little leery of the one board walkway we had to traverse from one boat to the next before we reached our boat. The men on each boat held a bamboo pole for us to grasp as walked the plank so to speak, but it nevertheless made her nervous. I later found out she could not swim.
The boat trip turned out to be lovely. The water was calm. It was sunny and warm. The breeze was perfect. The views while not remarkable, were still nice. As we neared Mingun, I could make out the remains of Mingun Paya on the hillside, a never completed stupa. Our little boat pulled ashore, we climbed down the little wooden plank and made our way into town.
First stop the ruined Mingin Paya. Apparently construction began in 1790 and was abandoned in 1833 when the king died. So only a third of the stupa was completed. If had ever been finished, it was going to be the world’s largest stupa. The stupa has severe cracks all over the place from an earthquake in 1838 and in 2012.
We walked around the structure and then made our way across the street to the Chinthe Ruins, built in 1799. The two lion/dragon like statues were built of brick and stucco and were supposed to guard the Mingin Paya. All that was left though was the back haunches and the tail on each.
We wandered down the dusty road past art studios and a myriad of vendors who wanted to sell me more fans and t-shirts than I could ever use in a lifetime. We stopped at Mingun Tipitakadara, which is a building dedicated to the memory of the “Great Sayadaw”, a man who recited 16,000 pages of Buddah’s teachings word for word. He is apparently in the Guinness Book of Records for the man with the best memory.
We left the building walked down a narrow alley and pathway to the Mingun Bell. The bell was built in 1808 and was for many, many years, the world’s largest bell weighing in at 90,000 tonnes. I gave the bell a couple good wacks and the sound was amazing. That was a fair bit of fun.
Now our last stop caused me a bit of consternation. Although Moe Moe had promised no more temples, she insisted that it was worth my while to at least see the Hsinbyume Paya. And I will say I am glad we made the visit. This temple was perhaps the most uniquely designed temple I had seen. The temple was built in 1817 and consisted of 7 wavy terraces signifying the 7 mountains around Mt. Menu, one of the holiest sites in Buddhist culture. It was a really beautiful design.
Unfortunately, my visit left me more disturbed than appreciative. As I was standing there, a little girl who could not have been more than 4 years old (maybe 3) approached me with a t-shirt and followed me around for the better part of 5 minutes holding the shirt up and saying $5, $5. I tried to shoo the kid away only to have her return and repeat the pitch. It was sickening that someone had taught her how to say $5 and wave a t-shirt at me. I had hoped the Burmese would avoid this kind of exploitation, but unfortunately, it was all around me. (I won’t even recount the story of the little one who approached me on the streets in Yangon with no shoes on and waving roses at me to buy for $5 or the kids pounding on my car window wanting money. Reminds me a lot of India.)
The poor little child finally scampered back to her mother who said something to her and off she went again to try to get me to buy. I walked about a half a block away from the scene to finally get her to leave me alone. Heartbreaking. Sad. And completely disgusting.
I found Moe Moe sitting under a tree talking to a local shop keeper. She asked us if we wanted coconuts and that sounded like a fine idea to me. So a few minutes later were were enjoying coconut water from the coconuts and loving the fact that the heat had abated somewhat. Two chickens kept us entertained as we relaxed in the shade.
After the coconuts, we started our trek back to the boat. Along the way, we ran into a man who was an artist and wanted us to have a seat and chat. It turns out he simply wanted to practice his English. He brought out some peanuts and we sat munching and chatting with him. He was most interested in talking about the U.S. election. Ugh. I just want it to end I told him, and God help me as a woman if Trump wins. (Not a fan of Hillary, but as a woman, she is the lesser of two evils.)
So after some less than desirous discussion about politics, we said goodbye, walked to the “beach” dodged a lot of trash and made it back to the boat at the sun was beginning to set. I was exhausted from the incredibly long day, but very happy I saw the face washing ceremony, which other than the U-Bein bridge, turned out to the be highlight of the day.
And, as a bonus for the day: I finally got my sunset as the boat pulled into the Mandalay jetty.