Myanmar Travel Log

Myanmar Travel Log Part 2 - On the bus to Mandalay

We decided to tackle the journey to Mandalay by bus. For no apparent reason, this particular stretch of road sports a whopping four lanes; as a result, our trip on the air-conditioned bus took only a single day. This four-lane highway through the countryside is unique in Myanmar.

Decent roads are not a given in this country; some of them are so primitive they shouldn't even qualify for the term.

Mandalay - Visiting the king's old city

Mandalay: the city wall with moat and king's palace

Picture: the city wall with moat and the former king's palace

At the heart of Burma lies Mandalay, a city formerly ruled by a king. It is located near the Irrawaddy river and the Old Burma Road. The city's history is steeped in the blood and intrigue of the people that ruled over the centuries. Countless temples, ruins and palaces bear witness to the toil and the turmoil that shaped Mandalay's past: the blood, sweat and tears of slaves and forced labourers.

The king's palace itself is located in the centre of the city, surrounded by a massive moat and a high wall. Sadly, the palace (which was made out of wood and covered entirely in leaf gold) burned down during the Second World War. Only a single temple survived -- and for no apparent reason it was re-located outside the palace walls.

Rather controversially, the reconstruction of the palace (as well as some of Mandalay's temples) was achieved with forced labour -- just like in the days of the bloodthirsty rulers.

On the road in Mandalay - Some tips

Mandalay is the cultural centre of the country, which means that there is lots to see in and around the city. Apart from the reconstruction of the king's palace, there are also lots of temples and other complexes that are worth visiting (even if you're just going there to cool off).

Equally impressive is the world's biggest book that is exhibited in one of the temples; it features buddha's teachings on countless stone tablets.

It's best to book a tour with a guide -- either in the car (which is boring) or on a moped (much more fun). We decided to take the latter option after consulting with a group of tourists we met at a leaf gold forge.

Our guide, Myint Shin (aka Mr. Take it easy) shows us around town on his scooter (which is also a nice way to cool off).

Myint shows us many things, among them the stone masons who carve buddha statues from marble; the foundry that casts buddhas in metal; as well as many other destinations around town, including temples, monks and a flower market.

I also made some recordings outside the city. It's hard to record anything in the famous temples, as they are constantly crowded with noisy visitors.

Leaf Gold in Mandalay

Mandalay Travel Log - Leaf gold smith at work

Burma has a lot of gold resources, so it is no surprise that many things are plated or coated in gold. The king's palace, the temples, the buddha statues and even the famous U Bein bridge are all covered in leaf gold.

Leaf gold has been manufactured in Mandalay's leaf gold forges for centuries. The techniques and technologies did not change much over time -- the manufacture of it is still a drudgery. Manual labour is used to make the leaf gold wafer-thin so that it can be applied to surfaces; this process takes many hours and countless individual production steps.

The smiths stand in a row and pound the gold into shape in a steady rhythm.

Sound recording: Several smiths take turns pounding down in a steady rhythm.More recordings from Mandalay

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The U Bein Bridge - once completely covered in gold

The U Bein bridge in Mandalay is the world's longest wooden bridge -- and it was once covered entirely in leaf gold

Picture: Once the sun sets, the crowd arrives -- we were part of it too

I managed to make a better recording at the famous U Bein bridge, the world's longest wooden bridge, once covered entirely with leaf gold.

The U Bein bridge is one of the most often photographed locations in Burma. Hordes of tourists gather every evening to capture a magical picture of the bridge -- preferably without tourists in it.

Sound recording: Burmese village atmosphere near the U Bein bridge.

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There's lots to see in Mandalay

Although there is lots to see in Mandalay, we decide to travel into the mountains after two days -- the heat was just too much in the city. We do, however, intend to return to Mandalay. But I would like to record some singing monks, so I ask Myint. He says he'll look into it and will get back to me.

Traveling on the Old Burma Road

After a pedal-to-the-metal ride down the Old Burma Road in shared taxi, we reach Pyin U Lwin late in the evening. In the dark of the night, we zoom past countless trucks that are climbing up the mountain pass with great effort -- or idling by the roadside, waiting to be repaired between breakdowns.