…continued from: Travels through Myanmar VI – The Seamstress
Mandalay, Hmmm, what to say about Mandalay…
A city that many travellers dream of visiting. A name that brings up thoughts of the exotic. Palm trees swaying in the breeze, bamboo stands lining the roads, Kipling, Buddhism. Sitting on the veranda, a slight breeze whispering through the air, sipping …some kind of exotic juice or drink (my preference would be Mandalay Beer)… George Orwell, elephants wandering around the streets, red robed monks wandering through the golden spired stupas throughout the city.
My first impression to those thoughts would be Whhhhaaatttt? Reality: Hotter than …well, it’s hot, and humid. Dust everywhere, thrown up by the chaotic traffic of old trucks, motorbikes, tuk-tuks and any other type of vehicle made before 1980. The sidewalks choked with those vehicles, used as parking. The air thick with smog and pollution. Horns blaring. Exhaust fumes being inhaled at every twist and turn. Central Mandalay …not a tree in sight. It’s all concrete and pavement. Not a very impressive first impression to say the least. The Mandalay in Vegas – don’t know where they got that idea from, but it certainly wasn’t from the real Mandalay, that’s for sure …thank god.
From there, yes, it did get better, at least a bit. Mandalay is more of a city that needs to be delved into, absorbed and explored to really appreciate. A small corner restaurant that doesn’t look too promising turns out to be one of the best, as well as cheapest meals of the trip. The morning markets, lively and fun, with tanaka covered faces smiling at you from every angle. A pagoda here, a pagoda there. As you wander the city, you start to notice the smaller things, the underlying thought that this is the “most exotic” city in the world. It’s not the city itself, it’s the people, the location, the mentality and history. Sitting on the Irrawaddy River, overlooked by stupa covered hills, parts of the city seemingly overrun by red robed monks, ancient teak monasteries filled with even older relics and furniture. A smile here, a smile there. An ice-cold soda, or beer, served by a ten-year old smiling waiter. A dinner prepared, cooked and served by a ninety year old woman, always smiling.
Yes, it did get better. Maybe not the exotic city of legends, but an exotic and interesting city none the less. Get out of the “city center”, and the roads turn to dirt, the kitchens are all relocated outside, the rush hour traffic turns from diesel fumes and noise to bicycles and sandals, and things only get better.
As for sights to see, Mandalay has way too many to list here. Head up to Mandalay Hill. Take a winding stroll up the stupa and pagoda studded hill to take in the views over the city. Stroll around Mandalay Palace in the morning …six miles around (gulp) … the “tourist” entrance is the eastern entrance, trying to get into any other will only get you an appointment and conversation with one or more AK wielding guards. I actually recommend this by the way. I had some great conversations playing stupid. Nothing to stupid, but just a walk up to the group of military, asking the ubiquitous question “Go In Here?’. It always started with a grinning military man in full uniform politely saying no as he waved his AK around. A question here, a question there, and more times than not I would end up talking about where I was from, what I thought about Myanmar, drinking tea, exchanging laughs. Gotta go …another mile and a half to the next entrance.
Break…the REAL crab cake up above there. Head to Amarapura and U Bein Bridge for those…Back to Mandalay Palace…If you do go into Mandalay Palace, realize a few things. The palace grounds encompass a huge area but your only allowed on the road into the very center where the actual palace is located. Guards line the road from the entrance to the palace. You would think they are testing nuclear weapons in there. The palace itself, it’s a rebuilt shell of its original self. A shame really. It gets worst. The palace was rebuilt by forced labor in the late nineties… I know, you’re in Mandalay. A once in a lifetime opportunity here. That is one reason I don’t say “don’t do it”. If you go in, just be aware, and don’t have too high expectations. It’s rebuilt, yes, it may not be right, I know, but hey, the original palace ruled this area of the world for hundreds of years and was the center of Indochina for a period, so your walking through history and the center of an empire, no matter what the present government has mutated it into. If you do go in, don’t miss climbing the “Tower” at the southern end of the compound, where you can look over Mandalay to the mountains beyond and enjoy the cool breeze up above it all.
Done with the Palace and hills. Looking for a little comedy – The Moustache Brothers are world-renowned. Dinner on the sidewalk for people watching – the Chapati Stand on 82nd and 27th street …maybe people watching at its finest, and cheap too! A large and clean pool in a quiet lush garden setting in the city centre, the Mandalay City Hotel. Don’t miss the Jade Market. I am serious about this one. Situated in the south-western section of the city, right next to the Monk District, this market is crazy. Every and any form of jade can be seen or bought here. From raw rock jade to intricately carved masterpieces, I have never, ever seen anything like this market. This is almost its own city inside the city. Not because of its size, but just how it is. Intertwined with pool “halls”, bars, restaurants and everything else, jade dealers can actually spend a lifetime here living, trading and hawking. Some shady characters here. It can be intimidating. Child labor running rampant. You wanna check your ego and attitude at the “door” (chain link fence is more like it). This place is serious, with serious dealers dealing with serious money sporting serious protection and serious firepower. Some shady, heck, all out rough-looking characters can be found in the middle of the market here. Again though, hey, everyone is nice enough. Smiling and accommodating. The outskirts of the market mainly family type businesses, with children running around and a great market atmosphere. Just like any other travel destination, know where you are. No BS here. Right around the corner …streets full of monks. Thousands. Red robes everywhere. Monasteries. Ancient teak buildings. Houses of wicker. Teak bridges crossing meandering streams. An all around great and interesting part of Mandalay. This is where things can get “caught in time”. Walk into an 800 year old monastery and right into an open air type room filled with 1000 year old relics. Nothing behind glass or anything like that. Open to the elements. Still in use …built to last. Gotta love it.
Tired of Mandalay. Head out. Inwa, Sagaing, Amarapura, Mingun. All capitals of centuries past within a few kilometers of Mandalay. The longest Teak bridge in the world, U-Bein Bridge, Amapurma. 500 temples overlooking the Irrawaddy, Sagaing. An earthquake cracked, photogenically endowed, Paya, Mingon. An ancient city that ruled the Burmese Kingdom for four hundred years, accessible by horse cart …Inwa. It seems there is no end to the history, as well as fascinating sites around Mandalay. It’s an area that needs to be explored, still. Thats it. At first sight, a dust bowl of crap. Delve a bit deeper, and it’s a city of legends, imagination and fascination. But you have to leave sometime, and all too often, as was my case, too soon…
…to be continued.
Next Edition: Travels through Myanmar VIII – Munchkin Banana Pirates