Surrounds of Mandalay

After Inle Lake we took an 8.5 hour “bus” (read: minivan with uncomfy seats) to Mandalay. It was quite a long arduous journey during the day where I got a lot of reading done. The good thing was that it was never a full bus so Callum got to lounge in the back by himself and I had two seats to myself so I could curl up a bit and had options in terms of sitting positions. I think when booking trips from point to point it pays to actually book in advance as then you have the control over what kind of vehicles you book. We tend to just show up at a place, book a tour for the next day, and perhaps book a bus or train out of there the day before we want to leave, taking the advice and assistance of the people at our guesthouses or hotels. In Myanmar, people are most concerned with the cheapest option and don’t “get” that we would be willing to pay twice as much (and sometimes more) for something better and more comfortable. I 100% believe we could’ve found a better bus than the minivan we took, but, we were at the mercy of our hotel manager who made the booking on our behalf.  The language barrier makes it difficult to convey our comfort preferences, so we just deal with what we are given.

Once in Mandalay, we checked into the worst smelling room I can think of ever being in. And there wasn’t much we could do about it. I am not sure how anyone could stand the awful odour emanating from our room and find it difficult to describe.  It was like mothballs but incredibly intense. I ended up buying some sandalwood incense and a lighter and tried to consecrate the room and bless it so that I could breathe for the two nights we had to stay there.

This motivated me to leave our room and go see the sights of Mandalay…the main thing to do is to actually leave Mandalay and visit some places outside of the city, including Sagaing, Anamarapura and Inwa. On this touristic day trip that every single tourist goes on (seriously, you start recognizing people from place to place) you see a plethora of pagodas, Mahagandayon Monastery, and the U-Bein bridge, the crossing that spans the Taungthaman Lake near Amarapura in Myanmar. The 1.2-kilometre bridge was built around 1850 and is believed to be the oldest and longest teak wood bridge in the world.
I had already begun to get a bit sick of seeing pagodas, and this before Bagan, where there is the highest concentration of them in the world! So my commentary on the three or four that we saw on our tour will be minimal. One of them was built out of wood which was different from the others and therefore we spent the most time there, as it was unique and worth a look.

The monastery we found ourselves at was very strange. There were so many tourists lining the streets all waiting for…something. As our driver for the day didn’t have the best English, we were a bit unsure of why we were lining up with all these other tourists. Slowly we began to realise that people were waiting for the long progression of over 1000 Buddhist monks, nuns and novices to walk quietly with their alms bowls towards their silent meal. The food they eat is gathered from the tourists lining the streets who proudly give away their offerings to the monks. Tourists (mostly Chinese ones) have selfies taken with them as they walk past, which seemed to me a bit disrespectful. Since everyone else was taking pictures, I did too, but I didn’t feel great about it. I always understood that you’re not supposed to photograph monks. These ones didn’t seem to mind though.

Next, the tourists crowd around the open windows and doors of the dining hall and take photos of the monks eating their meal. It felt very much to us like we were spectators at a zoo. Look, they’re dressing themselves in their maroon robes! Look, they’re walking! Look, they can feed themselves! It was a bit strange. We decided to walk away from the proceedings and viewed the grounds which were silent and empty of people, noting the different buildings the monks live among. I felt like an intruder still and after taking a few photos here and there, we decided to find our driver again and leave.

We returned to U-Bein bridge for the late afternoon in order to see it at sunset. It was swarming with cockroaches (readers of previous posts will remember this is our term for other tourists and the sheer number of them) so we decided to sit under the bridge rather than walk across it, in order to people watch and better enjoy the view.

The next day we rented bicycles from our hotel and rode through several stressful minutes of busy roads and traffic towards the Mandalay Palace, which is a large square complex of about 400 hectares in the center of the city. It has high walls on all four sides as well as a moat and can only be entered by the eastern entrance by tourists. Once arrived we were told in broken English that tourists weren’t allowed to have bikes. Not really knowing what we were trying to see once crossing the walls, I have to admit I was a bit outraged as I saw everyone else entering in cars, motorbikes, and bicycles. But for some reason we weren’t allowed.

We figured out that the walk in was only ten minutes or so before arriving at the entrance to the palace grounds. We were hot, sweaty, tired, and to be honest, not super impressed with what was before us. We spent what we felt was an appropriate amount of time people watching and even climbed up a watch tower which gave us a good view of all the buildings which made up the palace grounds. Royalty hasn’t lived there in over 130 years and most of the buildings aren’t the originals, due to destruction during WWII. I felt like the destination was worth seeing since we had the time, but could be missed if tourists didn’t have any time to spare. The whole site seemed much more important to local tourists rather than foreigners, and indeed, if you look at reviews on Trip Advisor, many people find it boring, but the Burmese regard it highly.

Of all the places we went, I would say in general that Mandalay could be a miss. The main reason it gets so many foreign tourists is that it is easy to fly into from Thailand. So, visitors to the country would experience Mandalay as their first city in Myanmar and might not even make it down to Yangon, preferring to see Inle Lake and Bagan only. To me, Yangon is a must, but Mandalay is not.

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