One Fine Day in Mandalay

May 15, 2011

I awoke at sunrise, had a quick breakfast, and stepped into the already bustling streets of Mandalay in search of a trishaw to taxi me to my destination. After haggling with a driver for a reasonable price, we began our slow journey through the concrete, traffic, and smog of the city. Bicycles, motorbikes, cars, and pickups whizzed past in a frenetic whirlwind of movement. As we approached the river, our surroundings gradually became leafier and more peaceful. Monks soon outnumbered ordinary residents, and we arrived in a neighborhood where monasteries lie in wait behind every corner.

I eventually wandered into the grounds of a monastery that clearly had an enormous student population. I decided to find a spot in the shade in which to sit and soak up the unfamiliar atmosphere of this intriguing place. It was obvious that I did not exactly "fit" into my surroundings, so many who walked past observed me with polite curiosity before moving on. To my surprise, however, one young monk directly approached me and began speaking in English. He introduced himself as Zawminaing. After the usual questions, he asked me if I would like to join him on his way to meet with his friend, another monk who resided at a neighboring monastery. I briefly considered the possibility that this was a scam. But on some instinctual level, something told me that I could trust this stranger. So, I accepted his proposition and off we went, making our way through a dizzying maze of pedestrian-clogged streets and alleys.

It was a challenge to keep up with his fleet pace, as my overloaded senses continually begged me to stop, absorb, and photograph my surroundings. But I resisted the urge, and I found that the stranger was leading me towards a magnificent temple that shone above the intense mid-day heat. He stopped to explain that this was the sacred Mahamuni Pagoda, one of the most revered in Mandalay and all of Burma. We happened into the temple just as an elaborate ordination ceremony was taking place. Men applied gold leaf to a giant bronze Buddha, and beautifully-costumed children led a procession around the image. Beautiful to look at, yes, but some of the kids were not too thrilled about their role in the proceedings!

We departed the temple and again began weaving through busy passages until arriving at another monastery. Slipping off our shoes, we entered a wooden house where young monks lay sleeping on rattan mats below clotheslines of drying red robes. I was ushered into another room while Zawminaing went to locate his friend. As I waited, I pinched myself in disbelief at the day's unexpected turn of events. Here I was, in a country which until recently I'd have difficulty locating on a map, sitting in a Buddhist monastery that no tourist has ever heard of, about to converse with monks! When they entered the room, Zawminaing introduced me to his friend, Maung. Sitting on the floor, we all began to chat in simple English, and I felt a wave of positive energy wash over me. Words can't describe what a powerful feeling it was to connect with these kind people who come from such a different background and place. Amazing experiences like this are what motivates me to keep traveling and learning about the world.

Zawminaing and Maung

That afternoon I had been planning on visiting "U Bein" Bridge, a popular site for tourists and locals alike. When I told this to Zawminaing, he insisted on accompanying me. We made our way back out onto the street and climbed onto a pickup headed towards the bridge. As there was no sitting space inside the crowded vehicle, we stepped onto the rear bumper, gripped the roof-rack, and held on for dear life as our transport raced through the chaotic street scene. Getting around the Burmese way may not always be safe, but it's definitely an adventure!

Nerves tested and adrenaline spent, I hopped off the pickup and followed Zawminaing once more as we headed towards the bridge. Over a long lunch, I learned about his life as a monk and his aspirations for the future. Zawminaing is serious about his faith, and is studying hard to become fully ordained. He hopes to become a monastic teacher and eventually live and work abroad. In the meantime, I was happy to help him practice his rapidly-improving English. Unfortunately, he could do little to help correct my abysmal Burmese pronunciation. And I thought Arabic was a difficult language!

From the restaurant, we made the short walk to our destination. The U Bein is the longest bridge made of teak wood in the world. To cross it on foot feels like a timeless ritual. When students are released from their afternoon classes in nearby monasteries, hundreds of monks take to strolling the bridge alongside locals and curious tourists.

As the sun lowered to the horizon, a golden glow was cast over the ancient wood and the lush surroundings. I simply can't imagine a more stunning backdrop for sunset.  

It had been the most memorable day yet of my time in Burma. But the following day would prove to be every bit as unforgettable. Zawminaing decided to extend his study break and be my tour guide for the day. At seven in the morning he was already waiting for me outside the front door of my hotel. For the next twelve hours we transported around Mandalay, stopping in neighboring towns and visiting temples.  

Mingun Temple
The Temples of Sagaing
Kaunghmudaw Pagoda

The sites were impressive, but what I will remember most is the manner in which we got around. If I had visited these places by myself or with other Western tourists, I likely would have ended up in comfortable buses and paid several times the local rate. But with Zawminaing, I experienced moving about in the city exactly the way locals do. For one leg of our journey, we shared an auto rickshaw with several other Burmese. Of course, they were shocked at the unlikely sight of a Westerner and a monk touring around together, and I enjoyed making them laugh by demonstrating my meager Burmese vocabulary. The passenger compartment was not designed for someone my size, so the entire trip I was forced to slouch my neck and hope my head didn't ram the ceiling on the bumps! In addition, the vehicle was seriously underpowered for this particular task, so on several uphill segments a comical drama ensued. A few times we lost the battle, so some of us hopped out to lighten the load. The driver could then un-grit his teeth and make it up the last stretch!

The Little Rickshaw that Could

As the moon rose in the dimming light, my sense of adventure gave way to feelings of exhaustion. We had spent hours in brutal summer heat, braved numerous uncomfortable journeys, and climbed up and down countless stairs on the way to visiting temples. While we waited to catch a final pickup back to the city center, my body was aching from head to toe. When a pickup finally pulled over to allow us to board, the vehicle was so overcrowded that I barely had enough space to plant both of my feet on the rear bumper and grip my hands on the roof-rack. There must have been a dozen other people hanging off the bumper with me. Knees wobbly, I suddenly realized just how dangerous and crazy of a situation that I was in. Thankfully, I made it back okay. But most Burmese have no other choice but to deal with these precarious conditions everyday.


Zawminaing and I sat down for tea and I let out a sigh of relief. It had been an exhilarating, remarkable, and ultimately, overwhelming day. I could feel my immune system breaking down and knew that I would be sick for the next twenty-four hours (an intuition honed by months of backpacking, perhaps). But this was a small price to pay for the amazing experiences I'd had, and the unlikely friendship that I'd made. I gave Zawminaing a book as a token of my appreciation and wished him all the best. For many years, I'd hear the word "Burma" and negative associations would spring to mind. But now, those thoughts will be replaced with positive memories of the kindness and generosity of a stranger that I met on one fine day in Mandalay.


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