Mandalay yes, Mandalaly no.
Throughout my stay in Myanmar I’ve come across several backpackers that seemed to be extremely opinionated about the Burmese city. Some said it was absolutely worth a visit, some others dubbed it as the typical South East Asian polluted and chaotic metropolis.
Of course I felt like I had to go, at least for one day, and come up with my own opinion about it. And, I suppose, both parties were somehow right.
I reached the second largest city in Myanmar on a night bus from Inle Lake. Somehow I didn’t realise that the journey would have not taken as long as I expected and I showed up at the hostel (Ostello Bello Mandalay) at 4.30 AM. Thank God they let me crash on their rooftop bar, where I took shelter from mosquitos and a cold breeze under a pile of pillows.
I woke up around 7.30, and after taking a glimpse of a greyish sea made of asphalt from the rooftop, I got breakfast and quickly planned the day ahead.
The best way to explore the city turned out to be by bike. I rented one for less than 2 euro at the Rain Forest Thai restaurant just around the corner and started to explore.
First stop: the Royal Palace.
Expensive fee to get in, and honestly, not very worth it. I roamed around the dusty, pigeon invaded, run-down complex of palaces for a good hour, trying to find a good spot to capture. And very much failed at it.
Not the best start maybe, but soon my spirit got lifted as I bumped into a small street market selling tropical fish. Very much of a treat for the aquarium nerd I used to be as a teenager.
My next destination was the Mandalay Hill, but I first had to stop to check out the Lonely Planet-unlisted Kyauktawgyi Paya on the way. It was insanely beautiful and peaceful, but I later found out that, scattered all around the city, there were hundreds others that pretty much looked exactly the same.
I took the South East gate and started my bare foot pilgrimage, through a path of thousand steps, to the hilltop. I guess what made this activity great was actually the walk up. it felt very mystical and relaxing. And I lingered watching locals running their small shops and browsing through the never-seen-before items they sold, petting a few sleepy cats, and watching the city from high above.
My new found inner peace was soon after put at test as I found my way through the city on the bike. Chaos, traffic, no signs, massive highways and me, trying my best not lose it and get run over. After what felt like an eternity, but probably was just a matter of 20 minutes, I left the main street to check the gold pounders district out. At first, I thought I got it completely wrong because it looked to me just like any very much average backstreet. That’s when a repetitive pounding sound caught my attention and I immediately start cycling towards its source. There I found a gold workshop and got greeted by the pounders and invited to see a few gold leaves, the most precious end-result of their exhausting work. I loved their pride for what they did and how open they were with me, even if we got lost in translation and had to rely on hand gestures.
Filled with gratitude for this sweet encounter I moved on to the laid back and slightly rural west side of the city. It was like suddenly being in a whole different universe. I appreciated everything I witnessed happening around me but I really struggled to capture the vibe.
As the worshippers were busy praying and chanting in the pagoda next door, I took my chance to explore the ancient Shwe in bin Kyaung, an ancient Buddhist teak monastery. I took shelter from the burning sun in the shades of the big ficus trees around and walked barefoot on the cracking cold wooden floors of the monastery, imagining how the life of a Buddhist monk could be like.
Soon, as I realised how late it was getting, I had to wake up from my daydream and get back on my bike.
One of the landmarks of Mandalay, if not THE landmark. There was no way on Earth I could possibly miss the U Bein bridge at sunset, and damn, it was a crazy race against time because, ehm… surprise surprise, my FOMO took over and delayed my schedule since I stopped to check out the lush, yet pretty touristic Mahamuni Paya. However, to be completely honest, I will never forget racing with my bike across the most diverse districts (including a whole neighbourhood dedicated to the production of massive plaster Buddha statues) of this very debated city in the golden hour, and making it there, with sore muscles, my worst asthma breath and a heart full of joy, just in time for the mesmerising show. It was packed with thousands of visitors: some strolling on the bridge, some watching the show from small boats right in front of it, some others, like me, making their way through the muddy and smelly ground.
Completely worn out, I asked a tuk tuk to carry me and my bike back to the hostel. A 45 min ride that saved me from cycling way longer and getting lost God knows how many times.
I still remember how filthy I felt after a whole day out: a mix of sweat, sunscreen, pollution and dust. After a long deserved shower I returned the bike and went out for dinner at Mingalabar, where I celebrated the achievements of the day with a massive buffet of Burmese delicacies. I might have gotten a bit carried away as I ordered, since it was, apart from a fresh fruit based snack, my first real meal of the day, and I ended up with way much more food than my stomach could possibly cope with.
Just imagine how wonderful it felt to eventually make it under the blankets…
Miranda Sensomat RE, Fujicolor C200 (35)
Canon EOS 300, Fuji Superia 200 (35)