The bus dropped us off very close to the train station, before the sun came up. Mandalay is one of those cool cities where they have been smart enough to number the streets, so finding your way around is very simple. We started walking towards the palace, and ignored the touts trying to get us into a vehicle. When we encountered the moat, we took it as a sign we were heading in the right direction. We were surprised to find outdoors gym equipment along the sidewalk, and locals working out so early in the morning. We found a hotel a while later and settled in for a one hour nap before our adventure began.
The day before, while sitting at the lobby waiting for our ride, the internet went out, so we started reading random pages on the lonely planet Janis had lent us. That is how, with incredible luck, we stumbled upon a small town just south of Mandalay called Kyaukse. The guide only had a few lines about this place, and said there is a big ‘elephant dancing’ festival that took place there once a year, the day before the full moon in October. So we asked the hotel clerk when that was, and his answer was… The following day! And we were already heading in that direction, so the decision was pretty much made for us.
We asked then at our Mandalay hotel for directions, and were told to jump on a pick up a few blocks from where we were. We found it without much trouble, and one of the craziest days of our lifes began. The truck kept filling up with more and more locals, until a few took to the roof. I tried following their steps, but the driver urged me to stay inside. Later there were way too many women inside already, so he finally consented to me climbing up into the roof, which meant we got the best possible view and a chance of certain death at a crash (What can I say, I like living on the edge sometimes :P) It took about 2 hours to make it to our destination, and the festival was already on full swing by the time we arrived.
The first thing that got our attention was the insane amount of people piling up on the streets, but we did not see one other white person the whole day, which of course meant WE were an attraction for them, and everyone greeted us, lots tried to shake our hands, take pictures, etc. We pushed our way through the crowds and got closer to the thick of things, where the action was taking place. What we saw then was hilarious. Two men were wearing an elephant costume and dancing around to the beat of drums and other native instruments. A supporting truck was blasting the music out of huge speakers, and the elephant kept dancing like crazy. After about 30 minutes, I was surprised he still had the stamina to keep frolicking, since the day was hot and the costume looked heavy.
We eventually got bored of the dancing and moved on to check out the area. We saw a lot more elephants waiting for their turn to show their skills. Some of their entourages were completely and absolutely pissed drunk, which was a spectacle on its own. This particular group kept shaking our hands time and time again and the elephant gave us a private show that almost took my head off (they were not very much in control of that huge head). It was a crazy spectacle, with piles of people everywhere, all with big smiles and having a great time.
After wandering around for a while, I convinced Tim to climb up the mountain right next to the town, where a bunch of temples stood. The ascend was quite tough and we had to remove our shoes a few times while walking through shrines. To the sides we could spy other religious symbols, along with a golden rock very similar to the one further south.
At one point, after getting about 3/4 of the way up, everyone else was turning left to keep going, but since we like being rebellious, we decided to take a path no one else was going through that went to the right. We arrived at some cool rock formations, and a deserted temple. We separated and I was circling the place, taking in the view and checking out the different statues, when someone called me out. I turned around to see a monk behind bars pointing to my feet, letting me know I should not be wearing shoes while walking around in this place. I blushed and ran away to remove my sandals. I found a toilet and proceeded to relieve myself (I had been waiting for quite a long time) and as I came out Tim was standing where the bars were and calling me in: The monk was inviting us to his cave.
The next hour and a half was possibly one of the most bizarre experiences in my life. This 60- year-old monk (whose face heads this article) barely spoke five words of English, but that did not mean he did not talk to us. He kept monologuing and telling us stories (we think, FYI there are a lot of assumptions below because the communication was hard). He first gave us a bottle of water and a can of coke each. Then he followed it up with a chocolate cake thingy and some biscuits. Later he invited us into his room, where the cave he lives in became even smaller, and asked us to sit on his mattress. The bedroom had an ancient TV and a shrine that occupied the whole wall. He showed us a few different containers with Buddha relics, along with different pictures of him around Myanmar (two of which he gave to us as gifts). He then proceeded to get some money out and giving us 5000 Kyat each (about 4USD). We protested heartly but he would not hear it, and kept pushing the bills our way (that we later on re donated to other monks along the way). After a while we went back to the main room, and he showed us some really old school statues that he claimed came from Bagan, and showered us with some more food and candy. He kept bringing things for us to see and touch, to get a good feel for his life. One of the items was a necklace with a very particular incense smell. He asked us to take a sniff, and then he himself came to us and put his face next to ours, asking us to smell him (it matched the trinket). I found this particularly strange because monks are not meant to touch women (I heard that, even if you touch their robes they need to fast for a few days) and he had no problem touching my cheek with his.
For a long while I tried to ask him “How long have you been a monk for?”. I am not sure what he understood, but he proceeded to change his robes in front of us. He brought a much bigger one, and showed us slowly how to wrap it around your holy self. He then grabbed a plate with fruit, which he put in my hand, and his alms basket. With a gesture he signaled us outside, where he proceeded to explain he would walk past and I was to put the fruit in his container thingy, like it was the real thing. Once I had done it he started grinning and repeated the process, with Tim being the giver the second time around. He did it all for the pictures, while keeping a serious monk face on the whole time and smiling widely after it was done, at how clever he was. The last thing he did was to ask if our throat hurt (we were a tiny bit sick) and when we confirmed, he proceeded to give us some home made medicine, which as a powder you put in your mouth that had a funny taste.
We felt bad for leaving him, as he is possibly very lonely up there in his little cave, but we could not stay forever. However I am certain that I will remember him for the rest of my days…
We left the place with our minds in the clouds, still a bit dazed and confused, trying to come to grasp what we had just experienced and feeling like the luckiest people on earth. We went back towards the main path to find four enormous golden Buddha statues on one side of the hill, and a bunch of holy people taking selfies with and around it.
At the very top of the hill, a pretty big temple complex stood, with shiny shrines of all sizes. We had a 360 view from there and it was magnificent. To any direction you looked, you could count huge numbers of other religious structures on the nearby hills, glistering in the sun, along with a few towns below.
On the way down, we split some of the money our friend had given us and got praised by other of his colleagues when we donated it to them. Some of the apprentices were very young indeed, and looked uber cute in their robes. A bunch of them were queuing up for ice cream, just like regular kiddies
By then we had had quite an exciting day and were ready for the bumpy ride home. We found a pick up easily and climbed straight onto the roof. We foolishly bought our own ice creams before doing so, which was a huge mistake and ended up making a mess. The locals sympathized and we were given tissues to clean up. The truck broke down half way and we were moved to a less crowded one, where we only shared the roof with a few others and had room to stretch our legs.
That night we went for dinner and found two of the guys we had met the previous night on the bus, so seeing familiar faces was a nice way to end such a fantastic day!