Creaky, teaky and sleepy, Shwe In Bin Kyaung was the most memorable place that we visited during our time in Burma. It provided a soothing, tranquil oasis among the dusty bustle of Mandalay, and our visit happened to come in the middle of one of those great days during which everything just works out, no one lost their temper and we were all still on speaking terms by dinner time.
If you have never been to Mandalay, you might have the wrong idea of what kind of place it is. Tellingly, Kipling had never been to Mandalay when he wrote his famous poem and I am sure if Nelly the Elephant had known the reality she might have taken her packed truck to Goa instead. We had a couple of days to seek out the wonders of the city, but all the lukewarm feedback that I read about most of the popular sites took the wind out of my sails. Then after we tried and failed to find a taxi to take us up Mandalay Hill, we decided to just go for a wander instead. As always, this was a good decision.
It turns out that Mandalay is quite a good place to go wandering about. We wandered into a little noodle shop for breakfast before dandering in a southerly direction towards Shwe in Bin Kyaung. The roads in central Mandalay are largely just numbered, so it is relatively easy to find your way about. Away from the main roads the traffic isn’t too bad, so crossing over doesn’t require the Bangkok or Delhi-style exercise of walking out and just praying for safe delivery. We stopped in at the friendly Unison Tea house for a rest and several cups of their delicious sweet tea, before we ventured on, suitably refreshed and caffeinated.
The monastery is found in a quite pleasant part of Mandalay, slightly out of the main part of town, down some leafy streets and next to a river. On our first pass we managed to miss Shwe In Bin Kyaung as it keeps itself to itself behind a big yellow wall, but after I spotted some amazing carved wood poking out over the top, we retraced our steps and a passing monk directed us to the unassuming entrance. Apart from an unfortunate red, sweaty guy who appeared on a bike, we were the only people there. Inside was a delight – less shiny-white golden glittery-ness and more dark and broody thoughtfulness. Shwe in Bin Kyaung is a perfect counter to the brighter, flashier Burmese religious spots like Shwedagon Pagoda, more suitable for those of us who get sore eyes in the face of all the standard guilding and whitewashing that tends to go on.
Shwe in Bin Kyaung is a place to take your time in. You could march around it in a few minutes, snap a couple of wooden figures and be on your way, but those that take the foot off and properly investigate all the nooks and crannies will be rewarded with a corresponding drop in blood pressure. There is something magical about the feel of warm, well-worn teak wood under bare feet that I can’t explain. I can only say that the day after our visit to Shwe in Bin Kyaung, the kids and I had all drawn up plans for the magnificent teak wood houses that we were going to construct when we finally stop roving about.
After a good 45 minutes of strolling around and taking in the details, we recommenced our wandering in the general direction of our hotel. We soon, however, began to fade in the rising heat when, just at the point that the moaning begins and temper fraying starts, we spotted a bar serving big frosty glasses of Myanmar lager. Two richly deserved beers and two cokes were quickly produced and the nice man behind the counter switched the TV from the sports channel to cartoons just for us (it never ceases to amaze me how long kids will watch cartoons in a foreign language). A couple of big plates of noodles were slurped up before we left and after a few stops to exchange pleasantries with curious local people, we found our way back to the hotel to collapse in the air-conditioned luxury of our room.
I don’t have any top tips for Mandalay because we just didn’t see enough of it. I do have a top tip for travel in general. Get out and walk as much as you can. Initially, we walked everywhere because we were skint and we didn’t want to pay for taxis. We got lost, we got sore feet and we got snarled at by more than one surly dog. We also met people, stumbled upon interesting places and ate fabulous food. Walking around gives you a different perspective and puts you right in the picture, rather than just gliding past behind the security of window glass. Most importantly of all, walking everywhere means that when you find that little place with wobbly tables, inscrutable menu and little plastic chairs, you will really, really deserve that frosty glass of beer. Just like your own little Ice Cold In Alex moment, it will have been well worth walking for.