The road to Mandalay

Saturday, August 06, 2016
Mandalay, Myanmar
I know...the title is an obvious choice, maybe even a little cheesy, but then again how often in life are you going to be able to say that you were on the road to Mandalay. We left the Shwe Na Di guesthouse bright and early by wading, backpacks held high, through the increasingly rising flood water that is now engulfing the small village in Bagan. Thirty minutes in the back of a Tuk Tuk and we were dropped at the bus station out of town and transfered on to our mini bus bound for Mandalay. We had thought of taking the train again but it would have been a 12 hour journey, leaving at an awkward time and arriving at an awkward time, compared to just the 4 hours on the bus. Despite the train being considerably cheaper (about £6 each) it didn't make sense as our time in Myanmar is limited and as we are now starting to find out, traveling around can use up a fair chunk of your precious moments in this beautiful country.

The road to Mandalay, unlike the romanticism of the Kipling poem 'Mandalay' or subsequent songs is a fairly drab and dull affair, at least overland compared to the old paddle steamers up the river refered to in the poem . The scenery isn't anything spectacular and the journey was 4 hours of bouncing around along pot holed small village roads combined with a boring stretch of relatively new highway for the final section into Mandalay. Once at the bus station in Mandalay we were quickly directed on to the back of another Tuk Tuk and were swiftly whisked around town as eveyone was dropped off at their various digs.

I had read that Mandalay was a fairly dirty dump of a town these days and whilst being ferried to our digs it didn't appear to look any worse than Yangon had, but also looked fairly uninspiring at the same time. The usual grey concrete streets, dogs roaming around, a fair bit of litter strewn about, your standard Asian town or city really so it came as no surprise to us.

Once settled in with our bags dropped off and a quick shower to freshen us up we headed out in search of food and thankfully didn't have to roam to far to come across some great cheap and very tasty local fare just a few blocks away . As we finished our food sunset drew in and before we knew it the streets were blanketed in darkness due to the lack of street lighting. I'm not really sure where that first day went as we did not get a chance to do anything really but to be fair we were shattered from getting up early every day for sunrise in Bagan so a bottle of Mandalay Rum back in our room and a fairly early night was well appreciated.

The following morning we were up early again for breakfast before heading out on a scooter through the hustle and bustle of the town towards Mahagandayon Monastery on the outskirts of Mandalay around 40 minutes ride away. We had given ourselves plenty of time and arranged the scooter the night before but when we headed out to the front our scooter had been given to someone else. A new one was quickly found for us but nobody could get the seat to open so we couldn't put petrol in. Another 15 minutes later and the girl who owned the scooter arrived and put us all right as to how it worked . We would be cutting it fine now to make it in time for breakfast at the Monastery when over 1,000 Monks can be seen queueing for their daily food. With the seat sorted and ready to head off Dani's helmet fell appart and was no good to use....great. Another 10 minutes later and a new one had been sourced and we were finally on our way.

Riding through the centre of Mandalay is quite an experience. The city is laid out a lot like New York or any other American city I guess as it is a grid of numbered streets. 82nd between 33rd and 34th etc etc and I guess its a half decent sised town as it goes up to 90+ in one direction and 50+ in the other. Out of all of those cross roads there are only around 5 that have traffic lights, the rest is a free for all where only the strong willed and most determined win. This was pretty frantic and hairy stuff trying to race across town against the clock whilst negotiating trucks, vans, cars and bikes randomly hurtling at us from either side. Eventually we cleared the main town grid and were speeding down curving smaller roads, the traffic just as busy but at least there were not as many sideways obstacles to contend with .

The Monks queue at 10am together for their breakfast/daily food provided for free by the locals and we arrived bang on 10am down by the river at Amarapura where the famous U Bein teak bridge is located. Amarapura is a former captial of Myanmar and is now a township of Mandalay after the city itself was relocated further along the Irrawaddy river. It was all a bit frantic when we arrived with a gaggle of locals trying to get us on to a boat to go and see the bridge. The bridge is famous and was built entirely from reclaimed teak from the old palace at Mandalay however due to rainy season it was not accessible to walk along with only around 1 foot of bridge visible above the rising water level. After haggling for some time with a local boat owner thinking that the Monks came across this bridge for their food I was kept right by Dani that the Monastery and Monks were nothing to do with the bridge at all and thanks to a very friendly local we were guided back up the road, through a small primary school and into the Monastery just in time to see all the Monks leaving their rooms and forming two orderly queues to recieve their food . I say orderly...I can't really imagine Monks kicking off in a queue as if it's HMV 2 days before Christmas.

After quietly observing this spectacle for half an hour we took a slow wander around the Monastery before being stopped by a Monk named Aeyarwadi for a good lengthy chat about anything and everything. Now not that I have had too many conversations with Monks, just a handful of times, this guy is hands down the funniest most interesting one I've had the pleasure of speaking with. Turns out he is an Arsenal and Leicester City fan (I know, jumping on the bandwagon) and comically decided he should now be refered to as Jamie Vardy, last seasons top scoring Monk. His English was excellent, the Monastery here being a teaching Monastery and he originally hails from Bagan where we had just left the day before. He explained all things to do with 'Monk Life' as he liked to refer to it as and he had us in stitches for the 45 minutes we spent with him. Explaining how he doesn't like his fellow Asians very much but loves Westerners including Putin and Trump (a joke again I'm sure), his dream to go and see Arsenal play . How not every rule of Monk life has to be applied to the letter of the law and if a mosquito lands on him he will take the little blighters life rather than being bitten and how he shouldn't really go to the pub to watch the football but that it's not a massively important rule and he goes anyway to keep up to date with the Premiership. The guy was a real character and after bidding our farewells and spending another hour roaming the grounds we became lost trying to navigate our way back to the scooter only to be greeted by him again and guided back out via the same school we passed on the way in.   

What I found strangely interesting whilst at the Monastery was that during the morning queue for food there were a lot of young kids from the primary school begging food from the monks. They did not beg from a single tourist, just the monks. I did not see a single monk aknowledge any of the children as it must be a daily occurance and they must have their reasons but I found it strange that they did not target the tourist population at all .

After saying our farewells we were back off towards the driving chaos of central Mandalay. We were undecided how long to stay in Mandalay. There didn't seem to be too much to keep us entertained or interested and we only had two nights sorted where we were staying so one full day to explore but after checking the trains to our next destination of Hsiplaw we found that they left at 4am and we were still struggling from the previous 20 hour train ride, and multiple 4:30am starts for sunrises in Bagan. We popped back to our digs and booked one more night as we decided we needed to take a rest day or we wouldn't have the energy to enjoy the rest of the trip or the 4am train journey which is supposed to be one of the most scenic rides you can take.

After popping back to our digs and sorting that extra night we took a spin around the outside of the palace towards Mandalay hill and the Kuthodaw Pagoda. The palace itself does look fairly impressive set in massive grounds with a high wall and moat surrounding it but we couldn't justify the cost of £10 each against our small budget having already shelled out £10 that day just for the scooter hire to get us out and about for the day .

Kuthodaw Pagoda was very quiet when we arrived and we were pleasantly and strangely surprised to find out that the locals parking their bikes outside were being charged for parking where as tourists were not. A refreshing change I thought, not sure why, but not complaining either. I thought the Pagoda itself was pretty cool. It's known for housing the worlds largest book within it's 729 stupas and it's not quite the book you would expect. Not some massive heavily bound ancient book that you would imagine seeing on the set of Harry Potter or in some huge Biblical epic of a film but instead the worlds largest book is inscribed on to 729 heavy stone tablets that are housed under each of the white stupas, quite impressive to see. From there we spotted another couple of temples nearby and took a spin round to check them out. What we thought was a temple was actually Shwenandaw Monastery which looked very nice and very old, almost a Japanese feel to it as it was very ornate and constructed of intricately carved wood . Unfortunately there was a £6 entrance fee each and we simply couldn't afford to spend that despite how great it looked so we enjoyed it from the outside instead. With the sun starting to lower it was time anyway to make the climb up to Mandalay hill for sunset so we headed off in the hope that the rain clouds would part and we would be treated to a beautiful sight from the highest peak around.

Mandalay hill is very well known, at least in these parts and certainly during the British occupation of Burma. It sits at the North end of the city providing views all around. Farm land and agricluture to the North, the city to the south, the river to the West and the mountains to the East. It was a really nice viewpoint to take everything in and although the sunset wasn't the worst I've ever seen it also wasn't the best so before it became completely dark we made the decision to go back down while we could still see the road ahead.

We had a place in mind for food that night and as we hit the city I headed off across the busy grid that consists of a mix of one way streets and two way streets crossing each other . The riding was horrible. The government/council despite the fact there are street lights in place do not turn them on. Most likely that they don't want to foot the electricity bill. As night falls Mandalay turns into a dangerous dark place to ride a bike round. You can not see a thing at all and around half the bikes and cars for some reason decide not to turn their lights on either! We crawled our way around, circling where we were headed to due to the fact of the one way streets hampering our progress until eventually we found the place we were looking for. It looked really good, but when we arrived looking like two sweaty goats from a full day out on the bike and everyone else was all dressed up nicely for a good meal we checked the menu to find out it was a little over priced for our budget so headed back down the pitch black streets to the great place we were at the night before. It was close to where we were staying and after yet more sublime local food we headed back to get some well earned rest....washed down with another £2 bottle of whiskey of course!

The last day in Mandalay was a fairly slow uneventful one. We changed a few more of our brand new crispy dollars in to Kyatt, walked around to the train station to buy our tickets for the early morning train to Hsipaw and then headed off in search of two local markets we had read about. The markets were unfortunately very small and disappointing so we didn't hang around long before heading back to grab an early night. We would need to be up at 2am in order to get sorted and leave in time for the only daily train to Hsipaw departing at 4am so we tried to grab as much rest as we could. It felt like a shame to spend this extra day in Mandalay when there wasn't much to see but we were really struggling from lack of sleep and needed to recover or else we risked sleeping through the sunrise and scenic train journey ahead of us.

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