Inside the Mahamuni Paya, in the southern stretches of Mandalay sits a 2000 year old Buddha statue, and everyday worshippers lovingly press new layers of gold leaf onto every inch of its surface, save for the face. The layers of gold, now about 15 centimeters thick, leave Buddha swollen with lumpy growths of gold tumors. Midas-itis. The statue can only be seen through two narrow passages, so a TV screen has been hung on a wall with a live feed of the gold pressing, so worshippers without a direct view have a place to prostrate themselves before the image of Buddha.
In the passageways leading into the surrounding markets toil an army of religious craftspeople. In one stall a gong maker is testing tones and reshaping gongs that aren’t quite right. Next to a room full of unfinished marble Buddhas a metal worker is tracing lines into sheet metal: the ornate fiery fringe that adorns so many buildings and relics being reduced to simple traces before me.
A short bike ride up the canal from there had me squeezing my way through a packed jade market, in a sprawl large enough to fill the city block and flanked by probably thousands of parked motorbikes. Aside from the initial extraction, every step of jade production was represented in one place. The first row featured long rows of raw jade, from huge unfinished cuts down to swept up shards, all laid in piles for surveyors to inspect with flashlights and magnifying glasses. Much like the fruit hawkers, the jade venders kept their product shimmering with generous splashes of water. Down the way, an endless row of young men using pedal operated grinders to smooth rough jade into their desired shapes, and on the far end of the market, the finished product: rings, pendants, bracelets, and lovely statues, all made of jade.
The city palace sits in a perfect square wrapped with an imposing moat, totaling at least 10 kilometers in length. The ominous repetition of turrets and quantities of time it takes to circle the palace grounds set high expectations for what’s inside, but after security permits you into the walls it’s hard not to be somewhat underwhelmed. The vast courtyards don’t permit foreigners to explore, but the state of neglect throughout discourages the thought. The palace itself is fairly impressive, but merely a reconstruction of the original, having been destroyed in the fighting between Japanese against English and Indian forces in World War II. I spent more time admiring a case of the king and queen’s jewel encrusted betel spittoons than anything else.
Hovering over the palace to the north is Mandalay hill, overlooking the otherwise flat city. A stepped concrete path leads to the top and a pair of colossal nat guard the entrance, warding away evil spirits and signaling the ground as a holy place (nat are spirits from pre-Buddhist animist cults, now absorbed into a few version of Buddhism; in this case they look like scary dog-lions). You have to leave your shoes at the entrance to proceed to the top, where a towering standing Buddha waits for you, pointing at where one day a great city would be built.
Seven hundred and twenty nine whitewashed pagodas orbit Kathodaw Paya at the base of the mountain. Each pagoda houses one giant stone slab etched in tiny Burmese script: Buddhist literature, the total of which boasts to be the largest book in the world. While I was there, one of the pagodas also housed a young couple making out tenderly, with a leering peeping tom hanging onto the edge. He shot me a violent sneer warning me not to give him away . Outside the gate a lady waits with a birdcage, offering visitors a chance to pose with a bird in hand before sending it sailing away into the air triumphantly. It’s a seemingly lovely sight until you notice that every other bird chucked skyward floats drunkenly into the side of a wall to certain injury – maybe death – and that every bird in the cage is drugged to placidity enough to sit calmly in a human hand.
That night I thumbed out some extra kyat to see a show (where the hell did all my money go? I have to change money again?). The Moustache Brothers – only two of the three are in fact mustached – received international attention when two of them were jailed for making a joke about the military regime at a show for Aung San Suu Kyi, and again for illegally giving food to monks at a demonstration. The brothers are now free, but it is illegal for any citizen to employ them, so they run the show out of their own home in English to tourists. It was in the format of a traditional Burmese vaudeville show with a generous helping of political satire, featuring folk dancing, slapticky stand up, and video clips of mostly American celebrities voicing their concern and support for Burma. Lu Maw was the only brother with English enough to run the show, and his wife had a fair amount of stage time demonstrating dances she spent years perfecting. She had one of those odd permanent smiles that seemed like it wouldn’t falter even in child labor. The show was interesting enough, but I found myself coloring the show more positively because of their history and bravery in face of the government; without those qualities, I think I would have interpreted the show as rubbish. Burmese humor doesn’t seem to translate well to English, the show lacked any of the polish you’d expect from a family of lifelong entertainers, and the performers all seemed tired, passionless, and past their prime. I think everyone – excluding the government – would be happier if the show was in Burmese for Burmese.
The name Mandalay evokes images of exotic tropical loveliness to the western ear, but that’s because of a stupid casino that has nothing to do with Myanmar. Ultimately Mandalay proves to be a pretty typical Asian city, a noisy dusty sprawl of cheap apartment buildings without much to make it unique to itself. In one packed day, I’ve done what seems to be just about everything there is to do for a visitor, and I’m looking forward to moving on.