At the conclusion of the third Anglo-Burmese war, the then ruler of Burma, King Thinbaw Min, and his wife, were exiled to India, never to return. While the execution of the annexation was done on schedule, by some accounts to assist a domestic election campaign in Britain, the aftermath did not go so well, with numerous bloody uprisings. The Brits wore the locals down, and Mandalay continued to be a major city in upper Burma during the colonial period. Damage was done to the original palace both during the annexation period, and during WWII. As a result, a replica palace was constructed. While the sunset from Mandalay Hill can be pretty and there are some interesting aspects to the replica palace architecture, life in the palace, the rules and procedures for when a concubine has a child, and then the banning of concubines at the insistence of Thinbaw’s Queen, for me, the highlights were the feeding at Mahagandhayon Monastic Institution and the fisherman near U-bein bridge.
More than a couple of times I was a little squeamish during my travels through Myanmar. Those ever present questions in your head: is this real life, or a show for tourism? ; if this is real life, is it intrusive? ; does tourism create high quality sustainable jobs? ; and of course, how does tourism impact the environment. The question of intrusiveness definitely arises during a visit to Mahagandhayon monastery, reflected in articles like this: Myanmar monks feel the pressure of tourism. So while I snapped my fair share of pics, the amazing scene that it is, and the interesting background to the activity, I am definitely open to a conversation about it.
Tourism can be one bland temple experience after another, watching people make offerings to a Buddha image, and bending over in prayer. While I understand that aspect of faith, there is something special about being in the presence of people who live the word, and live a life dedicated to the faith. Even more so at Mahagandhayon, because this is a monastery where the best and brightest of the monks from across the county come.
The background to the feeding ceremony that occurs every morning, is a commitment the monks have made to not buy or grow food themselves (the rules for nuns are a little different). The exact reason for this appears to escape the Western mind, but explanations include: giving the non-monks an opportunity to gain good karma and develop a better heart by donating to the monks; making sure the monks have some regular contact with people outside the monastery; and ensuring that the time of monks is not consumed by such activities as farming. Whatever the real reason(s), due to the status of Mahagandhayon monastery, it is a great honor to donate to the monks, and donors have to put there name down up to a year in advance for that honor. When it is their day to donate, their name is shown in the feeding area.
The event starts with the ringing of a bell. Then one thousand monks walk out of the monastery, some already lined up, and pass by tourists on their way to the feeding area. Young novices wear white, and on the day I was their they collected food, candy, and money from the tourists they past. The non-novices also were handed food and money as they passed. Giving monks candy seems a little strange to me, even young novices, but since that day I have come to realize just how much candy is an ever present part of life in this area of the world, so hey, maybe not so strange by local standards. After the procession, monks sit to eat, theoretically, and mostly, in silence. A few snickers here and there are to be seen.
Some tourists make their way back to the “kitchen” area. It is an impressive exhibition of cooking at scale. Huge amounts of food, huge appliances, and as I came to experience all over Myanmar, wood-burning as the primary source of energy.
While there is no getting around the feeling that the presence of so many tourists make, and the photographing of people who may or may not want their image taken, all-in-all, I would have to say, it is an opportunity for tourists to stop and think about what is going on here: Monks humbling themselves before the local people, the local people enlarging their hearts, the symbiotic relationship between each, and what it really means to be dedicated to a life of faith, by some of the most regarded students of Buddhism in the country. I don’t put this in the category of many other tourist shows I have been to, and to be sure this is the real thing, but I certainly would understand those that would rather walk around the monastery in the afternoon and strike up a conversation. For me, it is just another example that Buddhism, as experienced in parts of Asia, is not just a philosophy, it is a way of life.
In terms of U-bein bridge, the claimed longest Teak bridge in the world, it apparently is quite a sight to see at sunset, but in the sunny middle of the day, it is just a 2+ km walk, and depending on how prepared you are for the sun, a comfortable or uncomfortable one. Luckily, there are a number of covered areas along the way to stop for a breather and break from the sun. I did enjoy snapping some picks of fisherman at work, and the sights of food and other purchasables at a market along the way was also pleasing.
Mandalay has some interesting wood carved buildings and I did take the time to enjoy some delicious street food as well – especially some grilled/fried quail egg thingy that was filling and cheap; one of the few times I have been brave enough to venture into street food in Myanmar. Both are part of the experience, as is viewing the sunset from Mandalay Hill, but to me, the highlight was Mahagandhayon monastery, and a daily part of life, that may have evolved into a bit of tourist circus, but has roots in an interesting practice and relationship between monks and community.