After a bumpy six hour bus ride on dirt roads and the occasional pot holed paved road, through river beds and streams (that’s right, through), past dusty villages, past people walking seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and across what looked like high desert, we arrived in Mandalay. We step off the bus to a dozen or so animated and desperate looking taxi drivers and baggage handlers. They jokey for position around the door of the bus looking each departing passenger in the eyes with hands in the air yelling, “taxi,” and other unintelligible words. Our feet stomp onto the dirt road below where a dust cloud from previous foot falls and commotion is already head high. Disoriented from the dozens of buses parked at odd angles, while waving away the dust cloud and fumes, we begin to acknowledge the heat when suddenly, rain begins to fall lightly. We quickly arrange a taxi with no haggling because of the Belgian couple who offered to split it with us. A small blue Lego looking 1960s Mazda pickup truck pulls up and the four of us cram into the covered truck bed when the rain stops. Welcome to Mandalay.
We find accommodations and wonder right away if we should have taken a friend’s advice and skipped this city. Bagan was incredible no matter where you were or what you were doing. Mandalay, we thought, might just be the place that finally breaks us. It looked like it would require full submission and a massive communication and exploring effort. We settled on an out of the way guest house partly because it was across from a monastery, which at the time was reciting prayers over a loudspeaker. Little did we know those prayers lasted ten consecutive days and were shared with neighbors 24 hours a day. We had arrived on day six.
Mandalay rewards those who explore her streets with a smile, patience and understanding. Walking down busy, unlit, dirt and paved roads without traffic lights, a third of all vehicles operating without headlights, all while avoiding breaking an ankle or stepping in something undesirable, leaves you with an impression that a determined traveler is the ideal here.
Hour two after arriving we’re walking across a 200 year old teak bridge, saying, “Mingalaba,” to anyone and everyone, receiving smiles and laughs all around. A twelve year old girl tags along with us practicing whatever English she knew. “Hola” and “Buongiorno” were also in her repertoire. We wave at a couple of monks down on the wetlands below. Hundreds of monks, traders, couples and workers are all making their way to and from who knows where. We’re close to the other side of the bridge where we planned on visiting a well known pagoda when three people stop us, two monks and another man. They were the ones standing by the river on the grasses below. For the next hour and a half, we pluck apart the English language trying to understand and be understood.
We laugh, sing (we wish we could post the video), and answer questions like, “What does, a dime a dozen mean?” and “What do earthquakes feel like?” In turn, we ask questions like, “Do you want to join us for dinner?” and hear, “We don’t eat dinner.” We ask about the significance of why people don’t accept things with the left hand and why we should never point with our right hands, only to hear, “It does not matter what you do, so long as you do good things.” The two monks and their friend looked to be in their late teens, two of them are 26 and 27, and the third is 18. Always smiling, unless struggling to understand, and ever thoughtful in their simple responses, we instantly liked one another and agreed to meet the next day at their monastery.
We arrived just in time to see a hundred or so monks under umbrellas process to lunch at 10:30AM. Since they had been up since 4:30AM, it seemed like the perfect time to get a bowl of rice and some vegetables. We helped them practice English, met a few of their classmates, got a tour of the monastery grounds, and laughed into the afternoon. A pre-arranged taxi to a few notable sites was waiting for us, otherwise we would have stayed all day. Kind, smiling, and humble these were people we were sad to leave, but we promised a postcard.
That afternoon, while sweating our way up Saiging Hill in search of the view of the Ayerwaddy, we crossed paths with another lovely outgoing woman we decide to spend the following day with. We explored Mandalay during the day, conversed about the different places we’d been, and played cards while having some drinks at a strange little bar at night. There was a singer upstairs, but apparently we were the entertainment for the evening. Twenty laborers, done with a hard day’s work, were in small groups just staring at us. Still, for eleven beers at less than $8, we weren’t complaining.
Grimey and dusty, stellar ancient beauty and scenery, relentlessly staring eyes, non-English speaking one minute, and friendly and yearning to practice English the next, this is the way of Mandalay, and we liked it.
*Travel Tip: We stayed at the Peacock Guest House and it was lovely. They have two types of rooms so make sure to ask about both if you are on a budget. If you need to use a credit card the Hotel by the Red Canal is lovely with superb food and is also connected to a cheaper option (Mandalay View Inn) where you can stay for $25/night and use your credit card. A tour outside of Mandalay to see the outlying areas should cost about 15,000-20,000 Ryat. If you don’t want to go to any shops, be sure to state that in the beginning. Inwa was our favorite and we wish we had more time there. And go eat Indian at Jay’s Cafe on 27th and 82nd….cheap, tasty minced mutton, biryani and chapati.