It says a lot about Mandalay that we left feeling positive about the place given our arrival into the city. 4:30am and we were all questioning why the journey (including the enforced half hour stop at a government food park in the middle of the night) was long enough to warrant being made overnight. We foolishly decided to walk the few blocks towards guesthouse street and it wasn’t long before we were confronted with packs of dogs getting fierce over territory. One of the hairiest experiences yet, I had to get the umbrella involved a few times to keep them from biting at our legs and it was happening on every corner. Thankfully we flagged the only car driving around at that time and they happily took us to a guesthouse for an inflated price. Having had close calls in Laos and a friend being bitten in Vietnam we are wary of dogs especially in packs at night, most cower from the strange looking white bipeds but some take a more confrontational approach spurring the others on. And it wasn’t just the dogs that were a little surprised to see us, when we ventured out to the market the following morning (to purchase a longyi, we’re converted) we were attracting stares from all sides. One thing becomes obvious after a while here, the country is a real melting pot of ethnicities, religions and creeds. Walking down the street the faces reflect Myanmar’s geographical position as the buffer zone between the Indian continent and the South Eastern peninsulas. Heavy Indian influences – we both agreed it felt like being back in India when we first arrived, but with certain Thai/Khmer customs and nuances that we found a pleasant mix. Not least because the Indian obsession with tea runs deep here and Thai eating culture also pervades especially in the cities – both fine by us. That being said its mighty hard to find yourself wanting to sit down and enjoy a steaming hot cup of tea when it’s 50 degrees outside and air conditioning is a (very) rare commodity, at least on our budget. Other notable things include the Burmese languages’ particularly elegant form of Sanskrit, turning even benign road signs into works of art. Burmese women’s use of a certain paste that is rubbed primarily on cheeks but in the case of children, plastered everywhere as a form of sun protection, doubling as face makeup for the adults. And finally the obsession, shared with India, of chewing the betel nut, which leaves it’s mark on the countries teeth, pavements and the occasional travellers’ shoe (not cool.)
Despite stories from other travellers that Mandalay was a bit of a non-event we warmed to it more than Myanmar’s other metropolis, Yangon. True, there isn’t a great deal to keep you occupied in the city itself for too long, we spent our first evening climbing the steep slopes of Mandalay Hill over looking the huge city fort, it’s moat now offering protection from the sprawling, ever advancing city creeping up around it. Once you’ve seen the fort and climbed the hill the list of “attractions” grows thin but the people, like everyone here in Myanmar are helpful, friendly and smiling, managing to hold onto their amiable outlook despite residing in a bustling city of over a million people. As the night drew in we befriended a lovely monk atop the hill who we chatted to for a while. He explained he had moved to Mandalay from Yangon and found the alms (tradition of offering food and money to monks in the early morning) were taken much more seriously here as well as suggesting the city had superior history and culture. The people here love their city and it was hard to argue as we watched the sun set on another stifling day in Mandalay.
The following day we got up early, which is not optional if you plan on getting anything accomplished. You rise early, or the sun beats your plans for the day into sticky submission. We rented a motorbike and set off in the direction of the worlds longest teak bridge. I know you can barely contain your excitement but first it’s worth noting how delighted we (mainly me) were to be able to rent a motorcycle. Unlike in Yangon where the government for some inexplicable reason have banned motorcycles, causing traffic chaos and making walking down the street an infuriating task, stopping every few seconds to let cars past, in Mandalay bikes are relatively easy to come across even for tourists compared to the rest of the country – I had to settle for a scooter, again. With our new found freedom of the roads we got to our destination and were even able to park directly under U-Bein bridge which for reasons I can’t explain made me very happy. The 1200m bridge goes over a peaceful lake in Amarupara, dotted with water buffalo grazing knee deep in the water plants and fisherman deeper still casting their nets. We journeyed over the bridge to the small village at the other side, stopping halfway for a pint of cane juice and grabbing a Kilogram of juicy lychees still on the branch. It would be an understatement to say I rather enjoy the lychees here.
Bridge traversed we had a quick attempt to peek around the Virginia tobacco leaf warehouses but the friendly security guard looked nervous and we didn’t want to get him in trouble, we settled for a photo. Next up was the ancient town of Inwa, and after an hours drive with the road ending on the banks of a lazy brown river we spotted the ferry who’s driver assured us the boat was capable of taking us and more importantly our bike over to the other side. Despite his assurances I still sat on the bike for the short journey across – second notch for crossing water while on a motorbike. It was peak temperature by the time we got to a completely empty Inwa, we were happy to just sit in the shade and appreciate the ancient temples in front of us, the silence broken by the occasional jingle of horse and cart behind us.
While waiting for the ferry back I stripped off and took a swim in the river much to the amusement of the locals. Before heading back to Mandalay we took one last detour to explore over the other side of the main Ayerwaddy river and browse Sagaing Hill. Visiting a few temples along the way, getting the soles of our feet burned by the tiles (major temple design flaw – painful when hot, slippery when wet) we eventually made it to the top which is dotted with temples and the surrounding hills are peppered with peaks of golden pagodas glinting in the sunlight. I had a sit down in a crumbling little temple catching up with Buddha while Sarah explored the hill.
Bus tickets secured on the journey back we now head to the hills, Hsipaw to be exact, for relief from the heat, rolling green landscapes and strawberries! Yum, jam.
Thaw me naw.