Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Ho Chi Minh, Vientiane and Mandalay - what do these cities all have in common? People don't stay. Tourists generally land at the airport of one of these bustling hubs, maybe stay long enough to see a temple, museum or market and then quickly jet off to their next destination. Three years ago I was told to give Bangkok a chance, and now I have a sense of returning and comfort whenever I arrive at Suvarnabhumi. It was because of this and similar experiences that I decided to give Mandalay a try, staying for more than a day.
I had some down time in Korea before leaving which allowed me to actually do a bit of research and book accomodation. I generally don't like booking ahead, afraid the real gem is a place not advertised on the internet, but after reading about Dreamland Guesthouse I knew I was making the right decision. Dreamland doubles as an art and music school and studio, not only are the halls filled with artwork, but each room was designed, painted and decorated by students. The guesthouse is family owned and full of love, reception was staffed by university aged siblings, just as helpful as they were friendly, available to answer any and every question you may have. The rooms were spacious and clean, providing all the essentials, but my favorite part was the rooftop seating area, offering sweeping views of Mandalay in every direction.
I arrived in the early afternoon, but after the trek from the airport it was alreayd late afternoon. Despite the distance (35km), transportation logistics from the airport are a breeze; with a choice between shared taxi (4,000kyat) or private taxi with/without aircon (12,000kyat/15,000kyat), signs are posted, tickets are official and best yet no one is trying to rip you off. Past airport experiences in SE Asia were filled with guessing games of who was honest or if you were getting ripped off, so this was a breath of fresh air. By the time I left my hostel to explore my decisions were simple, food and a massage - then back for a much needed night of sleep.
I woke early and was glad of it, allowing me to start exploring before the heat of SE Asia swallowed me whole. I chose to take my chances on the roads and rent a bicycle from the guesthouse (1,500kyat) to take myself north where I could explore the must sees of Mandaly. I took a chance on a local shop for breakfast (something I may have paid for a few days later, laid up in bed in Bagan) but it was delicious at the time. Traffic was relentless and I questioned my own sanity a few times, however once my bike was parked and I was on my way up Mandalay Hill (via motorbike because I couldn't deny the old man of 2,000kyat) I was content. The views from Mandalay hill were breathtaking and while I took loads of pictures, I think there were many more taken of me. Still new to tourism, Myanmar is one of the countires where every local wants to be your friend, take your pictures and learn about where you're from.
Most of the sights in Mandalay are focused in the same area, near the hill, s after coming down I made the rounds: Kyauktawgyi Pagoda, Shwenandaw Monastery (old teak structure), Atumashi Monastery, Kuthodaw Pagoda (the oldest book in the world), Sandamuni Pagoda and finaly The Royal Palace. A combo entrance ticket ($10) is required for Shwenandaw Monastary and Kuthodaw Pagoda, also good at a few other sites, which may or may not be worth it, depending on your level of interest in history and architecture. Although these places were filled with buddhas, stupas, gold plated walls and other impressive architecture the highlight for me, as always, was the people. Not only did I appreciate the friendly smiles and hello's from everyone I passed, but there was one person in particular who made my day.
While wandering around Kuthodaw Pagoda I was approached by a group of giggling girls who wanted their picture with me; after taking the picture for us I started chatting with a young monk. He was eager to learn about me, where I came from, what I thought of his country and of course where my boyfriend or travel partner was. He shared thought provoking words about Buddhism, was pleased to hear about my past meditation experiences and encouraged me to continue the practice. Upon discovering I was starving he led me to his friends samosa stand outside the temple, one I had spotted on my way in, but quickly dismissed. Little did I know that the samosa was actually served chopped and mixed with various veggies, making a delicious, fresh salad. Although our time spent together totaled just under an hour, it stands out as something I will remember from my entire trip in Myanmar.
By the time I returned back to the hostel, after watching the sunset over the Palace and battling crazy traffic, I had two new roommates, one of which, Ursinawas a girl I had connected with via Couchsurfing. The three of us decided to venture out together for dinner, opting for local fare at the night market, another excellent decision. Although there was no English on the menu or spoken, the owner tried her best to explain our different options, going as far as to invite us into her small kitchen space and show us different ingredients. In the end we had three delicious soups and one fried rice, all for a mere $7. We didn't find much of a nightlife until the random party trucks drove by, blaring music accompanied with groups of dancing young boys. The first passed us while walking, but the second was stopped, so of course we were waved over and encouraged to join, a random yet thouroughly entertaining end to the evening.
Having seen the major sites of the city on my first day I wasn't sure where my second would lead. I considered renting a motorbike to go further afield, but given the traffic and some past experiences I decided against this. Instead I wanted to spend more time in the city and opted again for a bicycle and thankfully Ursian was on board. We started with the free breakfast at our hostel, something I apparently missed the day before, and then made our way north towards Zecho market. I was hoping to buy a Longyi, traditional clothing in Myanmar, and also just wanted to check out the area. Traffic everywhere in the city is crazy, but around the market this was multipled, cars, bicycles, motorbikes and people everywhere. Despite walking in a few circles and almost getting lost we had a successful visit, purchasing a Longyi for msyelf and some sweet snacks for later in the afternoon.
From the market we rode through old neighborhoods, eventually making our way to the Irrawaddy River. After walking, renting a bike to explore is my favorite way to experience a city. You're moving fast enough to avoid the calls of taxi drivers and salesmen, but slow enough to appreciate the stares, smiles and curious glances of locals. The ride along the river was twofold, offering beautiful views, but also a look into poor slum villages and garbage riden pathways. After the heat took a beating on us we turned back in towards the city, in search of food. We somehow wound up with the biggest most delicious platter of fried noodles, despite the owners English vocabulary being very limited.
While in the city we decided to visit one more temple so we cycled over to Mahamuni Temple, with perfect timing as they were playing music and washing the Buddha at 4pm. Our final goal for the afternoon was to catch the sunset, personally I was hoping to find a place more intimate than U-Bein bridge, where most tourists paid a taxi or motorbike to drive them. Looking at our map we chose a small road between two lakes, hoping there'd be a coffee shop where we could stop and get a waterfront view. The ride there was gorgeous with the sun just beginning to dip into the horizon, and we were in luck, finding the perfect coffee shop with lazy chairs on a lake-side dock.
Wrapping up two days in the city I couldn't have asked for a better ending. The sunset was gorgeous, coffee was (too sweet) good, and best of all there were no other tourists within, at least, a mile radius.
Opening its doors to tourism in 2012, Myanmar is like a toddler just learning how to walk, but oh is it learning quickly. Where WiFi and ATM's were once non-existent they're now common place. As the country quickly adapts my only hope is that the people do not, maintaining their fresh, friendly demeanor.