Myanmar’s night buses are never punctual. Never. The usual trick is advising us that the 9 hour bus journey takes 12 hours. This usually coincides with you arriving at 3am at your destination. That’s especially handy as most guest houses are locked up for the night or they’re fully booked up until check out time, midday.
Arriving in Mandalay at 4am was another one of these times. We had to wait a few hours for our room to be ready at the ET Hotel so we tracked down a tea shop that was open and feasted on fat fried vegetable concoctions and Indian chai.
Mandalay city runs on a grid system, looks fairly modern and developers are building at a fast rate. Its a city on the up. The streets are busy with cars and bikes but is still no where near the craziness of places like Mumbai or Bangkok. However, the cow and cart from rural Myanmar is no where to be seen.
One million people live here so there’s a big city feel. For Myanmar.
The Palace grounds take up a huge part of the city. It’s surrounded by a pretty large wall and an impressive looking moat. It’s 10$ to get in. A hefty price for something I can witness from the outside. I swerve giving the Government any more money and head to the tourist information office.
As I walk along the road, taking in the sight of the moat and it’s impressive looking Palace, I notice something I haven’t seen here before, a selection of outdoor gym equipment. There’s a policeman hocking up and spitting out his beetle nut. The road offers a row of electronic shops, selling fake branded goods. I see a number of buildings being erected. Dozens of workers passing trays of cement to each other, in some sort of disjointed human production line, they attempt what looks like a very long winded way of getting cement from the ground floor up to the third floor. I was amazed and happy to see prosperous city life in action after my stint in the villages of the Shan State mountains.
The information office tells me the boat to Bhamo is a no go. Government troops have been attacking Kachin troops in the north and tourists are not aloud anywhere near the Kachin area. The Government are still sending planes into the area to bomb the Kachin rebels, even after they themselves called for a ceasefire. Civil war is ugly. Most of the country seems to be at peace but there are still pockets of unrest. The military Government are not exactly a firm favourite with its people but positive steps are being made to move closer towards a democracy and to improve the standard of living for its people. Moving out of the dark ages will take time. People still do not trust the Government. Us tourists are not allowed to witness the darker side of Myanmar. My complaints about politics in my home country of England seem almost pathetic.
That afternoon we take a motorbike taxi ride out to the edge of the city to the old capital of Amarapura. Five people on two bikes. Buzzing with excitement at the prospect of these tiny little motorbikes exploding under the weight of its unfamiliar and larger than usual, European, clientele The attraction Amarapura is a long teak bridge. 1.2km long to be exact and 200 years old. Impressive stuff. The sunset was by far the best I’ve witnessed on my travels. Many monks, street sellers and a fair number of tourists filled the bridge while boats and fisherman filled the river.
Liking to keep up the image of the British abroad, Guy, Nourdes and I sank a couple of Myanmar’s and enjoyed the ambience of the tranquil setting. We even spotted a few white tourists.
Whilst sipping on our freshly cooled lagers, a man with a monkey on a chain, dressed in a wacky too-too, walked past us. He stopped at a table full of drunk naughty looking gangster type Burmese fellas and proceeded to show off his monkey’s tricks. The tatty looking monkey could drink beer, fall over on demand and do a 360 flip whilst balancing on a beer bottle. This fascinated me yet was disturbing. A monkey drinking Myanmar Beer. Wrong. The Burmese laughed and egged on the monkey. Money was made. The monkey received his beer as payment.
My tiny but very reliable Sony point and shoot, decides to infect the lens with a small hair, maiming every shot I take with a dark line. Extremely pissed off. The sunset being the most spectacular I’ve seen yet. The colours better than the camera could handle.
See what I mean? The bridge may look like it is going to fall down but it was well worth the risk. Nice.
Check out this little cutey I picked out with my stalker zoom. Kids were free to roam the bars or sit on tables.
Returning to our hotel that night we attempt to find a viewpoint bar down by the west of the city centre. Fed to the brim with the usual oily Myanmar food and slightly groggy on a few beers we stumble down the road towards our destination. The lights go out and the entire city, including our road is plunged into darkness. Power cuts are a regular occurrence in Myanmar and his was our call to give up, go back and get an early night. With no sleep on the bus the night before and a few beers already inside us, maybe we were being a bit too over adventurous.
Checking the shops on the long walk back while Guy was having a little ‘pit stop’, I was again unsuccessful in discovering any chocolate. I have now come to a conclusion that I will never find any real chocolate here. Until I reach Thailand, I will have to make do with the chocolate flavoured confectionery range. It looks like real chocolate but tastes fake. This product is not enjoyable, merely frustrating for the true chocolate connoisseur.
After a great nights sleep I got up early and walked to Mandalay Hill, north of the Palace. The long walk took me to the two huge Buddhist dragon lion things that greet you at the entrance to Mandalay Hill.
The area is surrounded by restaurants and taxi drivers. A clear favourite with both Myanmar and foreign tourists. Back in the day, this hill was climbed by Buddha. Overlooking the lands he said that in 2400 years time, this land would be the capital of Myanmar. So 2400 years after Buddha said it, they built a city. Voila, Mandalay was born. However, it is no longer the capital.
The hill had hundreds of shops lining the steps up to the top. Food, souvenirs, flowers, books and palm reading are on offer. People live and work on the hill, some families choosing to sleep in their shops at night. There were more stalls than tourists. More children playing than visitors. I have no idea what this ‘love’ garden is about, but it looked nice.
The walk was a pleasant one. The people smiling and happy. Many pagodas and temples broke up the long climb to the top and the view was well worth it. Apart from the hill I was standing on, Mandalay is very flat. The horizon blurred by the mist, it was still good enough to leave me staring at it for over an hour.
Contemplating the huge effect Buddhism has on the Burmese people and their way of life, I looked at the city below. Relaxed, I started my decent.
I am a YES man. This is why I decided I get my palm read. The slightly quirky Hindu dude, who’s parents came from India, got my custom over the others. Why there was a Hindu palm reader tent on a famous Buddhist attraction I will never understand but for less than a quid the happy head-wiggling little fella brought a smile to my face. He was a small guy and spoke relatively good English. I understood the majority of his ramblings and he smiled lots. A winner all round. I love weird things. This was weird.
Here’s what my future holds people…
- Two marriages
- The first will be a two year relationship, lust not love
- My second marriage will be to a foreign lady from a different religion
- I’ll produce two children, a girl then a boy (this prediction was after he said I would have no more children and noticed the disappointed look on my face)
- He even drew my wife. She’s a beauty
- I will play football with my future son
- February holds great luck
- March 2014, when I’m 31, is also great luck too
- At the age of 39, I will become a millionaire. I hope he meant pounds and not kyat
- London is lucky for me
- When I am 41, I will have a problem, I must treat people nicely who are below me . I think that’s what he meant
- After a fruitful and exciting life I will die at 90 years old
Just so you know, I genuinely believe this guy spins shit for a living. But good shit it was. He said nice things and did so with a smile. For less than a quid I was happy to listen to his made up fantasy stories about my future millions.
I made my donation, regurgitated the little Hindi I could remember and skipped down the hill a happy laughing man. A short motorbike ride back to the hotel signaled the end to my short stay in Mandalay. Guy and I said goodbye to Nourdes. Emotional as it was, we knew the big fella had bigger plans and would go to pastures greener. He winged his way back to the UK before hitting the legendary Mardi Gras in Brazil. I however, had not finished with Myanmar yet, I was ready for trek number two. Designation Hsipaw. Just below where the Kachin rebels were being attacked by the military.