I was in Mandalay for four nights before I got around to really looking around the city itself. All told, I spent five nights at the ET hotel, which offered air conditioning, decent breakfast, and good-for-Burma wifi. Five nights is admittedly a strangely long amount of time to base myself given that I never stayed anywhere else in Myanmar for longer than three. I think it was a quirk of my overall timeframe. I spent 17 nights in Burma, and had I been in country a day or two longer I’m sure I would have left Mandalay sooner to spend a couple days in another town, and obviously I would have shortened my stay at the ET if I were in Myanmar for a shorter time.
My first day in Mandalay was a total wash, I was exhausted from the early bus from Bagan and just sat around in my room most of the day and, as I so often did in Burma, went to sleep before 11. My second day was fully filled by my three ancient cities tour. After going to Mingun on my third day, I managed to look around a little bit.
I started at City Park, an amusement park that I saw near the river jetty. I’d heard that June is monk holiday season, so I’d envisioned groups of monks heading off to Disney World and riding Splash Mountain. At City Park, I pretty much ran into that same vision, with groups of young monks riding the log flume. I didn’t ride anything myself. In fact, as the only foreigner in the park and the only person there who was neither a parent nor a nine-year old, I felt pretty awkward and left as quickly as I could.
Later that same day, I ventured to Mandalay Hill, one of the bigger tourist attractions in town. I was a bit weary from walking around Mingun, and I felt like I’ve walked up enough view points in the last couple of weeks, so I just cashed out and payed a motorcycle taxi driver a couple bucks to take me to the top. The walk down took around an hour, so the walk up would have been brutal had I taken it.
At the bottom of the hill, motorcycle taxis were everywhere wanting to take me back into town, but there were a couple pagodas I wanted to check out on the ground. As I was walking to Kuthodaw, one of the main pagodas in town, another motorcycle dude came up to me and rode alongside as I walked. I told him I didn’t need a ride, but he said he didn’t want money, he wanted to be friends. Even in a place like Myanmar where most everyone is exceedingly kind and trustworthy all the time, this made me trust this dude even less. Plus, dude was huge, like Samoan huge.
The dude rode off and I walked into the temple, but shortly after I walked in the dude appeared again. I said that I wasn’t looking for a guide and just wanted to see the temple, and he reiterated that he just wanted to be friends and maybe go have dinner. I managed to shake him again, but I knew there was only one exit from the temple. I thought of my knife, like my hiking boots, sitting uselessly back in Bangkok.
The temple seemed to be closing and a large group of people left, so I went with them. The dude was still around, hanging out on his bike. I followed the crowd until they dispersed in different directions. Half an hour ago, motorcycle taxis were surrounding me like flies, now there were none to be seen.
The dude seemed to drive off again, so I went up to the first roadside stand I saw with a motorcycle, asking the guy there if he were a motorcycle taxi driver. He wasn’t, but he said his friend across the street was. I met the guy across the street, he wanted 3,000 kyat to drive me downtown. I countered with 2,000, he said deal. By the way, you know you’ve lost at haggling if the vendor accepts your first counter-offer. Clearly I could have gone much lower, but I just wanted to get out of dodge.
Later that night, after eating at Nay Restaurant, I took a trishaw to see the Mustache Brothers’ show. This show is essentially the only thing to do at night in Mandalay, and is more interesting for what it has meant than what it is. The Mustache Brothers are political dissidents, and they performed for Aung San Suu Kyi back in 1996. (By the way, I have huge respect for Aung San Suu Kyi and her life’s work, so I hope it isn’t disrespectful to mention that in her picture with the Mustache Brothers in 1996, she was a stone fox. She was in her early 50s then but looked 25. Srsly.) The brothers have been arrested before for their anti-government humor. One of them had been in prison three times. They used to travel the country doing their show, but now they are grudgingly allowed to perform only in Mandalay, and only for tourists, and only if they don’t speak Burmese. They do their show every single night, so it’s well worth checking out should you make it to Mandalay, and it’s clear that the 8,000 kyat the show costs is going to the good guys.
My fourth day in Mandalay was largely eaten up by my Pyin U Lwin misadventure, so day five would be the time to see more of Mandalay city. I perused my Lonely Planet ebook on my iPad over breakfast to figure out where to go. A cute 23-year old British girl named Kirsty sat down at my table. We talked about different places to go, and she liked my impromptu itinerary and asked to tag along. Twist my arm.
We headed downstairs to rent bicycles, then rode south. We started at Mahamuni Paya, home of the most famous Buddha in Burma. I had to wear longyis here over my cargo shorts, a first on this trip, I suppose because of the particular sacredness of this statue. Kirsty had to wait in the viewing area while I walked up to the Buddha itself, since only dudes are allowed to approach it. I didn’t take any pictures, it seemed like it would have been a crass thing to do here.
Next, we rode to Shwe In Bin Monastery, right in the heart of the Mandalay monk district. We walked around the surrounding neighborhood some and came across a couple of monks having tea. They invited us to join them. We accepted, of course, pursuant to one of my main rules in life – whenever wandering aimlessly around Mandalay and invited to tea by monks, I must oblige.
Tea with the monks was quite fascinating, but I’m going to jump ahead and return to this in a later post.
After lunch, Kirsty and I rode to Mandalay Palace, which was quite a long ride from where we are. The Mandalay Palace grounds themselves are huge. When looking at a map of Mandalay, the city doesn’t look that large because one would automatically assume some sort of “normal” palace size, but it’s actually four square miles. Foreigners are only allowed to enter at the east gate, which was conveniently the farthest one away from us.
At the palace gate, Kirsty tried admirably to get out of buying the $10 city ticket, but no luck. She planned to go to the monastery in Inwa later anyway, so she bought a ticket.
The palace grounds were far stranger than I had imagined them to be. It’s pretty much a full-on army base, and taking pictures is forbidden other than at the central palace itself. We had to walk our bikes through the gates, and guys with machine guns assured that we did so, but once inside the gate its kosher to ride.
The palace was used for just a few years by the Burmese kings, and then they were kicked out by the British. In fact, though Mandalay itself looks old in a few places, it’s a relatively new city that was first built in the nineteenth century. The original wooden palace burned down during World War II, so the palace that is there now is a rebuilt.
Apparently, the ten dollar ticket is even less popular than I imagined it to be. The replica palace was empty, I think we saw no more than three other tourists. I understood why once I was there, because while the palace is cool looking, it does have a junta kind of feel to it, likely since it was surrounded on all sides by army facilities that were off-limits to tourists.
Kirsty and I checked out a couple other nearby temples, including a return to Kuthodaw, but this largely ended the sightseeing portion of the day. We went for a beer and then headed to Nay Restaurant, the dirt cheap chapati place that I had now eaten at four nights in a row, which I’m pretty sure is a personal best.
On to a look at Mandalay!
Streets of downtown Mandalay. Unlike Yangon, motorcycles are everywhere here, even available for tourists to rent. Given Mandalay’s lack of stoplights and the local habit of blindly plowing out into an intersection while honking, I decided not to rent a motorbike here.