No sooner has I arrived in the big city was I scampering away from it. We were heading upcountry to see life outside the capital, starting with the ‘old’ old capital of Mandalay.
A draining and very cold bus ride took us away from Yangon towards the north. We thought that the strength of the air conditioning would make out inevitable pitstops warmer and more comforting, but it was a chilly night. The fact that the place, well away from a city, advertised free wi-fi (we didn’t even bother) kept our spirits up. I also remembered that where I had been a week before was also significantly colder than this.
The word ‘Mandalay’ conjures up notions of magnificence and splendour. Alas, I can inform you that Las Vegas has not been entirely truthful. Myanmar’s original does no possess the lavish hotels of Sin City, as the picture below shows you. I did move rooms, but that was only so more of us could squeeze in. Accommodation here, simply put, is overpriced, difficult to obtain and not up to scratch at all. Even my worst Indian abodes topped this, or at least the shabbiness was reflected with a low price. This prison cell was $12. A similar one in Yangon was $22.
We had arguably seen the most beautiful part of greater Mandalay before even arriving at this guest house. We had arrived at the bus station at 5.30am and, after a quick samosa, zoomed towards U Thein Bridge in the southwest of the region. Zoomed is not being used correctly; I would have been terrified at zooming along those roads.
You certainly cannot zoom along the rickety wooden bridge. It is a charming sight, made even more alluring by the sunrise we were witnessing. This was like going back in time. The only noises were of water gently lapping and animals noisily gesticulating. Some were fishing in boats, others were using their livestock to plough the land. The absence of a motor for either job resulted in a peaceful, calming atmosphere.
We shuffled slowly along the bridge, chatting to monks and other locals. Once they got over the shock that we were trying to converse with them, they were thrilled to engage in conversation and inform us about their way of life. Along with the stunning sunrise, it was a beautiful start to what turned out to be a lovely day.
Though we had to pay a taxi driver to take us to it, we did not have to cough up any kyat to see the bridge in all its glory. Charging money at tourist attractions is one way that the current regime hopes to subsidise itself. Many tourists will thus boycott anything which will line their pockets. These can be things ranging from trains to the national beer.
It is a difficult dilemma. Places such as the Shwedagon pagoda, for example, are true wonders of the world that would be unappreciated and potentially fall into permanent disrepair if no money was injected into them. It is also a place of religious significance that transcends and has long outlived this regime.
I drew my line, however, at the Mandalay Palace. This large complex does predate the current government, but was rebuilt in the 1990s using forced labour. It is a glorification of a regime that has not aided its people, and the vast majority of the complex was restricted even if you stumped up the $10 needed to enter. It is difficult to have a firm line on this – think of who built the pyramids, for example – so you have to make a personal judgment based on what you know and what you have lived through.
Mandalay’s other highlight, Mandalay Hill, is free to climb up, discounting the K200 spent storing your footwear at the bottom. After a long hike to the top, we admired the views of the city before settling in for some quiet time in the shade offered by the highest pagoda. Due to our lack of sleep, emanating from the cool bus ride, we ended up napping.
We did awaken in time to see the Sun set over Mandalay. It was not as spectacular as the sunrise, but was still a pretty picture to behold. Whilst watching the Sun disappear for another day we were talking to a group of young monks and students. These young men rise to the summit as often as they can in order to practise their English with people from around the world. It is testament to their desire to learn that we ended up talking in idioms, often with hilarious consequences.
One monk was by far the funniest and most enthusiastic. He was actually setting up jokes with the punch line being an often inappropriately used idiom, for example:
‘I had a problem with my stomach, so I had to wash. I showered myself…with affection!’
We have called him IdiomMonk and will strive to get him a gig at a comedy festival if he keeps improving.
After some curry, two of us decided to end our day in the most relaxing way possible. Unfortunately, a Myanmar massage is somewhat different to a calm, soothing massage. Bones were clicking all over the place. This tension and wide-awake feeling was compounded by the fact that English football was being shown on the television. It felt good at the end, but the neck aspect of the massage was particularly intense.
We had a short yet lovely time in Mandalay. I had low expectations before arriving but, accommodation aside, they were all surpassed. It is a shame that my time is constrained so I have to move on sooner than I would like. Nevertheless, Mandalay will bring back happy memories.
Love you all