Thursday, September 24, 2009

You think your job is tough?

You think you have a labor intensive job?

This was the view from our hotel window in Mandalay. Construction began each morning around 6 am and continued non-stop until the late afternoon.
Women carried mixed cement, in woks, on their heads, up ladders, to be poured into forms.
Your heart really went out to these hard workers.

There were plenty of men on the work site but the women did all the cement hauling.
It's a sight that's common in Africa as well with women going out early in the mornings to gather branches and other things to burn. It's all bundled-up and carried in a massive pile on their shoulders.


Mandalay was founded in 1857 and is the second largest city in Burma. Forty percent of the monks in Burma reside in and around Mandalay. They are seen everywhere around the city from dawn until dusk.

The city of is named after Mandalay Hill which sit in the north eastern part of the city.
Mandalay most likely evolved from the words Mandala (circular plains), Mandare (auspicious land), or Mandara (from Hindu mythology meaning hill).
No visit is complete without a visit to the temple on top of Mandalay Hill.
Be warned that no footwear is permitted on temple grounds. If you approach the temple from the city base, or the main portal to the temple, it will involved a long climb, barefooted, to the temple above.
You can, however, take a shuttle truck up to the temple and walk down from there.
The one sight not to be missed in all of Mandalay is the Mah Muni Buddha.
It is believed that the Image is one of only five cast during the life of the Gautama Buddha and that the Buddha embraced it 7 times thereby bringing it to life. Devout Buddhists hold it to be alive and refer to it as the Maha Muni Sacred Living Image. The Buddha was originally brought from Rakhine State and is also referred to as the Great Rakhine Buddha.Revered as the holiest pagoda in Mandalay. The image in a sitting posture is 12 feet and 7 inches high. The early morning ritual of washing the Face of Buddha Image draws a large crowd of devotees everyday. It is considered to be the second most sacred Image, after the Shwedagon Pagoda, in all of Burma.
Tourists are encouraged by resident monks to pay tribute to the Buddha by applying gold leaf to the body of the Image. If you're not asked to make a small donation, please offer one.
The Buddha Image has taken on an irregular outline with about two inches of gold leaf applied to it over the years.

In a courtyard of the Maha Muni temple, are six Khmer bronze statues (three lions, a three-headed elephant and two warriors) that originally stood as guardians of Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple. The statues of the warriors are reputed to have miraculous healing qualities. Legends tell that rubbing a body part of either of the statues will cure an affliction in the corresponding part of your own body.
The Great Gong on the grounds of the Maha Muni temple.

In the center of the city is the Mandalay Palace, originnally built for and occupied by the Burmese Royal Family until the British took over the country in 1885. Some taxi drivers will refuse to take you there saying that you should stay away because it was rebuilt with forced labour. We chose not to visit.

A moat circles the entire one square kilometer grounds. Tourists enter through the West Gate.

When You Go:

* Before traveling to Burma, contact a travel agent who can arrange a transit letter for you. You will need this when applying for an entry visa into Myanmar. We used Myanmar Tourex. They can make hotel and internal air reservations for your trip, arrange airport transfers, as well as private tours. A paypal deposit is required after setting-up the trip and the balance is paid on arrival (USD cash).

* Stay away from government run hotels, travel agencies, and airlines. Support the local independent merchants. When shopping in the large tourist marketplaces, the government run merchants are clearly labeled as such.

* Don't miss the Maha Muni Buddha Image, Mandalay Hill, and the local markets in the Chinatown area.

Mandalay time:

Sunday, September 20, 2009

So, should you go to Burma?

Should you take a trip to Burma?

For the past few decades, the debate on visiting Burma (Myanmar) has waged on with many scholars saying that a regular tourist visit would be viewed as support for legitimizing the repressive military regime ruling the country.

On the other hand, there are those who believe that visiting Burma would only help the people there. In many instances, tourists are their only contact with the outside world.

In recent years, the shift has been "to go". And if you want to experience a diverse culture and fantastic, jaw-dropping sights, you must go.

For many years, we debated these very same points, and when we first visited Burma in 2006, we wondered why we had not gone sooner.

We entered Burma, as many western tourists do, from neighboring Thailand. As independent travelers, we had arranged our accomodations, aiport transfers, and internal flights with a local travel agent in Burma over the internet.

The Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda houses an enormous Reclining Buddha.

Street food in Rangoon (Yangon). As adventurous as we usually are, this is one place where we didn't sample the street food. Skewered animal organs? On the street? No thanks.

Alan with an apple vendor on the street in front of a bank.

You cannot exchange money at a bank in Burma. And never exchange money at the airport. In most instances, you can purchase just about anything using dollars, so bring plenty of small bills.

Dollars must be free of any markings and excessive wrinkles or tears. Money can be exchanged at most hotels at very unfavorable rates. For the best rates, go to the local markets.

When You Go:

* Change only as much money as you think you spend. It's virtually impossible to change it back into dollars, and is useless outside the country. You will however receive a better exchange rate with larger bills ($100s). In Rangoon (Yangon) your best bet is exchanging with merchants at the Bogyoke market.

* Crime against tourists is rare since the penalties can be severe. Pickpockets do exist so be aware in crowded areas.

Rangoon time:

Friday, September 18, 2009

Shwedagon Pagoda - the mighty pagoda

Resting in the heart of the Rangoon (Yangon), on Singuttara Hill, is the majestic Shwedagon Pagoda. It alone is worth a visit to the bustling city of Rangoon.

A boy points the way to one of the four entrances to the Shwedagon Complex. No footwear, including socks, are allowed to be worn throughout the complex, which include the long covered walkways leading up to the temples and pagodas. These boys are glad to sell you plastic bags for your shoes. Do not leave shoes unattended at the entrances unless you want to walk barefooted back to your hotel.

A pair of chinthe (mythical lions) stand guard at each of the four entrances leading to the complex.

The Shwedagon Pagoda, according to legend, is believed to be around 2,500 years old. However, archaeologists estimate it was first built by the Mon people sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries, during the Bagan period. The pagoda emerges from legend into history in 1485, which is the date of an incription near the top of the eastern stairway that tells the story of Shwedagon in three languages (Pali, Mon, and Burmese).

As in most Buddhists temples, worshippers circle clockwise through the complex.

The massive pagoda stands 321.5 feet high and is a dominating structure which can be seen from many parts of the city. Enshrined in the pagoda are relics of the last Buddha (Siddhartha Guatama) as well as the previous three Buddhas. It is the most sacred Buddhist pagoda for the Burmese people.
The gold on the surface of the stupa is made of genuine gold plates (9272 one-square foot each)and is attached by traditional rivets. The tradition of giving gold began in the 15th century with the Mon Queen, Shin Sawbu, who was said to have given her weight in gold for the temple. The Burmese people today still carry out the tradition, although not with their weight in gold obviously.
The crown or umbrella is tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. The diamond bud at the very top is tipped with a 76 carat (15 gram) diamond.

If you visit the Shwedagon complex in the late afternoon, or early evening, the place will seem a bit deserted. When the lights come on, an eerie feeling comes over the complex. Although it may seem like an ideal time to visit, it's during the bustling worshipping hours during the day that make it the most interesting time for a visit.

At the base of the main Shwedagon Pagoda are 64 smaller pagodas with four larger ones at the corners (entrances) to the main complex. There are also four Sphinxes with six leogryphs on each of them. The perimeter of the base of the Pagoda is 1,420 fee and its height 326 feet above the platform.

Projecting beyond the base of the pagoda are Tazaungs (images of the Buddha) where offerings can be made.

The Pagoda Complex is open daily for worshippers and visitors from 4 am until 10 pm.

Tourists pay $5 USD to visit.