Day 9 – In Mandalay: Gold Leaf, Hills, Tuk Tuk & Mist

20 Mar

Another breakfast, another day.  This time, I took Tom’s recommendation of the bacon, cooked in front of you, and added waffles and honey. Need I say more?

Then we were off again – to another workshop hidden away in Mandalay that made gold leaf.  George explained the process before we went in, as it was very noisy.  Three men were banging away with their large dongs, in a melodic sequence – hitting a book like object filled with bamboo paper and gold.  The book itself got very warm from the constant pounding.  They were on the clock – a water clock to be precise – 3 minutes, three times over (that’s 9 minutes in total – for the Dundonians).  Nearby, they showed how the bamboo paper was made – bamboo is soaked in lime for 3 years! to make a pulp which is then pressed into paper and bashed against brass to ensure that the gold doesn’t stick to it.  They don’t actually make the bamboo paper here – they just buy it in from another supplied.  Nearby, a woman was entrusted with the cutting up of the gold leaf – it’s pounded several times to get to the required (thin) thickness.  Also on offer in the gold leaf workshop were some books on Myanmar, including one entitled “Making Out in Burmese”.  Phrases such as “pah thee ma!” (You whore!) and “ma yah ngee yaht!” (You don’t have the balls!) are obviously popular on Burmese dating scene.  “Baldy” shared a page with “Caucasian” and “White Boy” – presumably as insults.

The Golden Palace Monastery or Shwe Nan Daw Kyaung was our next stop.  Warning signs prohibited overhead drones and scratching.  The monastery itself was another load of teak.  Preserved was funded and supported by the Americans.  Although the lack of workers probably meant that they were all building a wall in Mexico.  The handy shose (sic) rack was ignored – instead everyone seemed content to leave their shoes in the way.  OCD in overdrive.  There were some very intricate carvings, the now familiar no ladies area and some golden pillars and roof.  Split into two sides – in today’s terms, bedroom and living area.  It’s also known as the glass palace (for no apparent reason).  It’s the only palace building to survive the British bombing of Mandalay at the end of the second world war.  King Mindon (second last king) built it in the 19th Century.

Monks with phones and tablets were everywhere, and whilst we were snapping away, the locals were a bit more reluctant to take pictures of us.  Although once we understood that was what they were after, the flood gates opened.  Mostly high school aged kids were posing for photos with us all.  The boys with their highly styled colour topped hair and the girls with their bright outfits.  Outside, some of the group topped up in ice cream, whilst George tried to persuade us that papaya salad was a better choice.

The next complex was “The World’s Biggest Book” in the Kuthodaw Pagoda.  After about 15 minutes of wandering around the huge complex of white temples, several people were asking where the book was!  They had missed the point of George’s explanation – the book is engraved on 729 double sided stone tablets, housed in the small white temples.  The dead language used is Pali (from India) – equivalent to our Latin!  Only the monks can read this now.  The book is actually made up of three different books (similar to the Bible) – rules for monks; parables for teaching; and buddha’s reflections on how to live a good life.

A 124 year old star flower tree was propped up in courtyard and mothers were busy grinding thanakha to apply to their children’s faces.  Nearby, a buddhist monk was leading a chant and repeat service. As we returned to the bus, we were still the centre of attention for kids talking photos – but I fired a few back.  Some of the dogs were jealously guarding one of the white temples.

At the foot of Mandalay Hill we boarded some covered vans for the short journey up the hill.  Thankfully we weren’t in with the locals – we counted 25 in some vans, whereas we were spreading out and filling the space with only 6 on board!  Near the bottom, we encountered a bare foot ‘Merkin who had become lost on the hill and climbed down almost all the steps to the bottom.  His shoes and his taxi driver were still at the top!  He clung on desperately as we negotiated a serious of sharp bends, climbing steadily. Whenever we stopped on the hill (due to other traffic) our man at the back would jump out and place a block of wood under the tyre, to stop us rolling back down.  Is that not what brakes are for?  At the top, the van driver managed to get us to within inches of the tiled floor and we left our shoes and socks in the van, jumping out onto the tiles.  The other group vehicle had more of a dusty, stoney traverse to join us.

The Su Taung Pyae Pagoda at the top of the hill was reached via an escalator – three of them in fact.  Bare feet and metal ridged escalators do not go.  Another one on the list.  Some careful stepping saw us reach for the top for the normally spectacular views.  George pointed out the important things that could be seen, such as the end of your nose, the golf club and the prison. Unfortunately the haze was too bad to see the rest of Mandalay, but we did wander around the tiled pagoda, spotting the monks and nuns (wearing pink) and lots of tourists – all mostly local.  It’s the thing to do apparently.  We saw the plaque dedicated to the Gurkha soldiers who lost their lives in a night attack on 8th/9th March 1945 to recapture the hill from the Japanese.  Cassandra was sitting peacefully by a pillar when she had a baby plopped down beside her before the mother retreated to take a photo.  Must be the power of ginger.


Down the stairs we went, making sure to follow George and not to the bottom.  We passed more stalls, this time selling weasel shaped coconuts, barbecue food and fruit.

Moving on to the Mandalay Royal Palace area, I asked to take a picture of the Tatmadaw (military) guarding the Oo Teik Gateway, but they weren’t up for it.  The palace walls and gate were fantastic – 2km long on each side, with a moat separating the complex from the rest of the town.  We drove through the military area – with houses, schools and sports facilities.  The band was practicing and the rest of the army were there to watch.

The Great Audience Hall in the King’s Palace housed a replica of the Lion Throne (Sihasana) – the main throne of 8 (largest, highest, grandest).  The real one survives in the national museum in Yangon.  The rest were destroyed in the British bombing campaign of 1945.  It is noticeable that there is no blame attached to the British here – the signs never mention which country did it!

After several more golden rooms, I reached the rather plainer Queen’s Palace.  The King had lots of Queens – given as presents from neighbouring areas as a sign of friendship.  By this point, I had reached my holiday pagoda limit, but did manage to summon the energy to climb the slightly rickety viewing tower for a view over the whole complex.  It’s HUGE!  I do wonder what they would have done without teak or gold.

George gave us our lunch money (rather than force us to have the set menu), and I managed a very decent lemon chicken and chips, despite having literally less than £1.80 left afterwards.  Thankfully, we then found a currency exchange that was open and 4 of us desperately pilled in.


Back on the road, and we arrive at another jetty, with a slightly more rudimentary approach to getting on and off the boats.  Kids were keen to “help” us down the slippery slope to the plank of wood that we had to cross.  Two men stood with a bamboo pole as a hand rail to give some hope of not falling in. Unfortunately, we had several boats to cross, enough planks, but not enough hand rails.  H&S fail.  The area the boats were in was close to slum conditions.  Trucks were loading cement and lime onto the working boats nearby.  The cludgie at the back of the boat was a sure sign that this was a permanent home to some.

The boatmen distributed photo books to browse through, and on the return journey offered bananas and nuts for free, as well as drinks to buy.  No jetty to get off at – just a bank of earth and a plank.


This was the dodgy pagoda – aka Pa Hto Daw Gyi.  It was currently 50m, but had never been finished.  The King had originally planned it to be 150m high.  He died, and no one wanted to finish the expensive project.  A game of football in the dirt proved interesting – with some wearing longyis.  As did kids climbing trees like goats.  The dodgy pagoda was severely damaged in earthquakes in 1838 and lastly in 2011.  It looked like it was going to split in half at any moment, with several sections in need of duct tape or cable ties.  The dogs and the kids seemed to get on well here.

We hurried past the Mingun Buddhist Home for the Aged and saw the Mingun Bell – the second largest bell in the world at 90 tons.  It is the largest working one though.  16 feet and 3 inches at the bottom, it was originally destined for the unfinished pagoda.


We hurried back to the boat, to discover that our faithful boatmen had taken on another job, but they safely took us south again to Mandalay.  The kids were there again to help us up the slope, but were hoping for money in return.  Don’t they know I’m Scottish?

Back on the bus we avoided the rollercoaster and the ferris wheel and headed back to the hotel.  Whilst Cassandra eyed up the cake display, I joined Graham, Rosemary, Claire and Julia for food on the terrace.  I say food – I asked for an American Cheeseburger.  I think they went to the US for it. Mandalay rum, however, filled in the gap.

I managed to drop my room key on the terrace, but persuaded reception to let me in anyway.  They stuck a tea bag in the electric supply to keep the room powered all night.  Thankfully Graham had handed in the card, so I avoided the 25,000 kyats (£15) fee for a replacement.

5am alarm call!  This isn’t going to be pretty …


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