I was up at 4:30am and took the taxi to the airport to catch a flight to Mandalay. The very name conjures up images of timeless exoticism and tradition, poetry, song, Kipling….and Robbie Williams. The taxi ride from Mandalay airport to town was 12,000 kyat and on the way in through the traffic-choked streets and past grey soulless buildings, I wondered if I’d set myself up to be disappointed by my high expectations. Hotels, as in Yangon, were difficult to find. I tried a couple – to no avail, fully booked. I found a place called Mandalay View Inn – a quaint place set in a little garden off a busy road and near some key sights. Mya, the manager, was very friendly. There was only 1 room left – a Superior – at $78. Fine. I said I’d stay 2 nights, the second in a standard room, with a total price of $160. I was allowed to pay by credit card – a rarity in Myanmar. The credit card payment facilities were not at the Mandalay View, however, they were at the high-end sister hotel a few blocks away – Hotel by the Red Canal – a wonderfully appointed hotel that sat opposite what seemed to be a narrow tricking stream rather than a canal. They even had a pool here, and I was invited over for welcome cocktails by the pool that evening, which was a nice gesture. My credit card worked, surprisingly, so I celebrated by hiring a bicycle from the Red Canal and setting off to Mandalay Palace, a gigantic royal city of old that the British turned into a governor’s residence, to begin a day of sightseeing.
I crossed the moat and entered the grounds via the East Gate, and found myself in the leafy, shady palace grounds, boasting over 40 timber buildings, all reconstructed in 1990, decades after a fire had burned it down during fighting in WWII in 1945. Much of the palace grounds are out of bounds as they are used as an army training camp, but there was still much to explore. It was eerily quiet and the buzz of insects was all I could hear on this sweltering day as I wandered through the maze of buildings and overgrown courtyards. The place seemed neglected, forgotten, seldom visited. There was a spiral watchtower which I climbed to enjoy an ariel view of the grounds, and then I hopped back on the bike and rode away.
I visited a teak monastery, the Shwenandaw Kyaung, dating back to 1880, which was very impressive both outside and in, with intricately carved panels. Then I pressed on to a Buddhist temple, Atumashi Kyaungdawgyi, a place full of stupa-dotted terraces. As I wandered around I met a few people – a woman whose face was smeared with thanaka – a yellowish white cosmetic paste that also prevents sunburn, a vendor selling crisps with her child, and an old woman here, Kathy, a former English teacher who sits there day after day chatting with tourists. She speaks impeccable English, and is neither beggar nor vendor, but has a bad leg that means she can’t work anymore. She lost her husband many years ago and sits from morning until night, a lonely old woman looking to chat. She has amazing eyes that twinkle with wit and laughter, and I stopped and chatted with her for a while, and she gave me some fruit. When I left I said I’d be back one day, I don’t know why, and she said she’d be in the same place and would never go anywhere else unless the authorities try to move her on. I felt a bit sad leaving Kathy, but she told me that as soon as her leg was better, she’d be looking for work again. Burmese tourists were amazed to see her chatting to me in English, and many stopped and just watched us….meeting such people, talking to them, getting to know a bit about their lives…this is what makes travel so interesting.
I cycled to the foot of Mandalay Hill and wolfed down some egg-fried rice to give me some energy for the climb to the top of the hill for sunset. The hill is 760ft and you need to climb a covered stairway for 45 minutes. I was at the south of the hill, so started between two giant ‘chinthe’ (guardian lion-dogs). I strode up and made it to the top in 20 minutes. The views from the top were incredible, Mandalay, flat as a pancake, spreading out below. I lingered for a while and then headed down and cycled back to the hotel alongside the moat – clearly a popular spot for young couples and groups of friends to hang out. After a quick shower and change I cycled to Red Canal for a cocktail ‘party’, a tame affair with only two well-dressed older couples present and me, gathered somewhat awkwardly around the swimming pool while the ‘bar girl’ served us drinks of our choice and a band played some traditional music. After a time, the older couples invited me to join them for a chat, and they were all lovely, well-spoken people, who spoke passionately about their travels around South East Asia thus far. I soon left and cycled back down the dark streets and found a beer garden that served Chinese food. A large bottle of Tiger and some special fried rice later, and I was ready for bed. Mandalay had been pleasant, if not what I had imagined, but the people I had met so far had made it memorable.