Mandalay is not a beautiful town. The city center is loud, busy, and ugly. The enormous palace ground has an authentic moat and wall, but the interior is mostly an army camp now plus a hastily built imitation of a few of the old buildings. The city doesn’t really have much in the way of tourist infrastructure – along the moat you’d expect souvenir shops and cafés but you are more likely to find tourist essentials such as shops selling air conditioners, buckets of paint, steel rebar, mattresses, and bathtubs. There are green and shady neighborhoods that look deserted and undeveloped, and others that are rather poor. I have walked all day and found a few gems, like the Ein Daw Yar pagoda area that looks more like a pleasant green village attached to an enormous market, where I sat and talked to locals for hours. English is surprisingly well spoken, and usually people didn’t learn it in school, but by reading books and talking to tourists, memorizing a few new words every day. I hear German and French as well.

Of course I also did the temple tour. The Mahamuni temple with its gilded interior contains a three-meter Buddha to which pilgrims have attached so much gold leaf over the centuries that it’s now 20cm thick. Mingun across the Ayeyarwady river has a 150m unfinished stupa, built from solid brick to support a height that was never reached; it has enormous cracks from an 1838 earthquake. Kuthodaw pagoda has 729 chedis, each housing a tablet of Buddha’s writings. On top of a hill is a mirror-tiled pagoda with great views. And around the pagodas hawkers sell bottles of “cocacolawaterverycold, so I am afraid Myanmar isn’t immune to Western brands after all…

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