What became very evident is that religion defines this city, manifesting itself in a few slightly quirky ways at some of the place we visited.
The first of these was a snake temple just south of the city that tends to three very large Burmese pythons who had slithered their way into the monastery back in the mid-1970s. Their luck was in as it seems they checked in to a reptilian 5-star hotel! The monks believe they are the reincarnations of previous abbots so every day for the past 40 years they have been ritually bathed, fed and massaged on a daily basis.
After paying our respects to the pythons we moved on to one of Myanmar’s most important religious sites, the Mahamuni temple. Pilgrims go to pray to the giant Buddha statue housed within, with male worshippers placing gold leaf on its body to demonstrate their devotion. The statue is adorned with so much gold that its once clearly-defined body is now a mass of golden blobs more than 6 inches thick. The only area untouched is its beaming face which is washed by monks, and has its teeth cleaned, in a ceremony every morning. Women are not allowed to touch the Buddha but it seems that gold leaf pasting is a popular spectator sport for all.
Another must see religious sight is Mandalay Hill. Spectacular views of the city can be enjoyed from Sutaungpyei Pagoda on its summit. This holy site is said to have been climbed by Buddha who prophesied that a great city would be built here, where his teachings would flourish. Now it has become common for both locals and visitors to follow in his footsteps up the 1,700 steps that wind their way to the top. This pilgrimage is enlivened by conversations with novice monks keen to practise their English, enterprising stall owners and even palm readers. Making the journey is every bit as worthwhile as the destination itself.
A visit to Mandalay would not be complete without a sunset stop at U Bein Bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge and Mandalay’s most photographed attraction. One would think with such exposure it would be heaving with tourists, but it remains a popular spot with Burmese out for an evening stroll and is therefore a great place to people-watch and talk with the locals as well as watch the sunset over the lake.
However, we are about to embark on a 3 day trek through the mountain ranges surrounding Kalaw, so perhaps I could just have one more piece of sugar cane jaggery…