Saturday, 2 May 2015

Mandalay (Part 2)

Saturday 1st May 2015

Back in September 2012, I met a train driver in Myanmar called Htein Lin. That meeting was described in the post By Train to Naba. He and I have corresponded by e-mail since then and on 30th May 2014 I spent the day with Htein Lin, his wife and two daughters, described in the post Mandalay Briefly.

We'd agreed to spend some time together on 1st May 2015 and we met up at the Sedona Hotel. The day was a holiday and also a Full Moon in the month of Kason, making it a very auspicious time for a visit to Mingun, home of the 'Unfinished Pagoda' and other important locations.

My first visit to Mingun was during my first visit to Myanmar in 2008, described in the post Round the World Five - Day 6. I went to Mingun a second time in 2010, described in the post Back to Mandalay.

This time, we went by taxi. Now, Mandalay is on the East Bank of the Ayeyarwaddy but Mingun is on the West Bank, a few miles further north. To cross the river, it's necessary to set off going south to Sagaing to get to the only road bridge in the area. So, it's a fair journey and there seemed to be many people apparently making the same journey. We stopped on the way and the driver was despatched to obtain canned drinks from a shop. Apart from the usual carbonated drinks like Coca Coloa and Sprite, energy drinks in 250 mL cans seem popular. There are a number of brands - Red Bull is widely available but, this time, we had 'Shark' (something to do with the drink having 'bite', I think).

A number of the pagodas we passed were soliciting donations from the passing traffic. A public address system is set up at the roadside and an excited male voice exhorts the traveller to generosity. A number of collectors, often young women, stand at the roadside holding out a metal offering bowl to catch the donations. One pagoda we passed was making ready to distribute a free lunch.

After a number of hold-ups on the narrow roads, we arrived at Mingun and parked near the unfinished pagoda. There's a small shrine inside the single entrance at the front and, having removed footwear, we joined the visitors making an act of worship inside. There's a charge levied by the Conservation Department and some work was apparent. Proper brick steps with a handrail now allow visitors to climb to the top of the Unfinished Pagoda in relative safety but we didn't accept the challenge.

We did closely examine the Mingun bell, along with crowds of excited Burmese. It claims to be the "largest uncracked bell in the world", since Moscow's Tsar Bell, whilst larger, has an 11 ton piece broken off and displayed alongside (I described a visit to the Tsar Bell in the post Inside the Kremlin).

We went into a large elderly persons home maintained by donations. My friend explained that he had been a donor here for some time and we went inside one of the ladies' dormitories briefly. The English are reputed to respond generously to appeals for help but, in Myanmar, it is a natural part of being a Buddhist.

There are a number of art galleries at Mingun but there were also a lot more souvenir stalls than I'd seen on my previous visits, all thronged with Burmese enjoying a day out. We took lunch at a large restaurant with views of the Ayeyarwady River and my friend ordered food for me exactly to my taste (steamed rice and non-spicy vegetables).

Then, we set off back south to Sagaing and its road bridge. Approaching Sagaing, we passed the large Wachet Jivitadana Sangha Hospital, opened in 1984 and, apparently, with American connections. Sagaing has a special place in Burmese Buddhism and there are numerous pagodas, monasteries, nunneries, meditation centres and study centres scattered across the hills. It also has narrow, twisting streets which took some time to negotiate as the traffic was still heavy.

When we reached the main road leading to the bridge, we turned away from the bridge towards nearby Ywa Taung. My friend knew that I'd been keen to find more information about the Diesel Locomotive Workshops at Ywa Taung. We drove to the main entrance knowing that the works was completely closed for the holiday. Having made a photograph, we then went to the home of the Divisional Mechanical Engineer, Khin Maung Htun. He graciously received us and gave me a lot of information about the activities of the workshops, using a Powerpoint Presentation. As soon as I can, I'll write a separate, technical post about the Workshops.

We then crossed the road bridge back to the east bank of the river and drove back to Mandalay after a very enjoyable day out. We had soft drinks in 'Planters Bar' at the Sedona Hotel after which I said 'goodbye' to Htein Lin and his family.

I was not quite finished for the day. My friends in Mandalay, the Ko Hlaing and Ma Khaing Family, came round to the hotel. Their charming young daughter is growing up fast and has an amazing command of English. She and I had a walk around the outside swimming pool and she asked questions about everything we saw. I'd last seen the family a year earlier, as described in Mandalay Briefly.

All my posts on my 2015 trip to Myanmar can be found here.

[Actually first posted 6th May 2015, but timestamp amended to place posts in event order]