We were not quite sure, if we should take a boat or a bus to Mandalay. For sure we did not want to spend another night in a bus so soon. We have not unlocked the secret how to sleep undisturbed in a bus yet. The boat would take a whole day and the one offered by our hotel seemed rather pricy for our pocket (32 USD per person). But then again, we would take it on 25th, the Christmas day. It felt like we had seen enough of pagodas – sticking around in Bagan for another day was not necessary. After a day of doubt we opted for the , that would take us to Mandalay in 12 hours.
We had to wake up early. The alarm was set at 4:15 am. Around the same time I got whatsapp messages from my mum. We were getting up, but my mum and brother in Latvia were about to finish their Christmas eve and go to bed. Hotel had arranged us a taxi and a little breakfast box (we were a bit sad that we will not be able to enjoy the good breakfast again). By 5 am we were on the boat, by 5:30 am boat was ready to depart. It was still dark, quite cold and breezy. We had found chairs on the open deck covered by roof. Seemed that we had been quite lucky, as we witnessed a scene of tourists fighting over the few seats that still were free. We got some blankets and could snooze for a while. With a cup of warm tea in hands we watched the light coming through, creating beams of light in the sky. It looked like those children drawings, where the rays of sun are piercing the horizon.
The time on the boat passed by slowly and was market by meals. Around sunrise we got a breakfast box with some pastries, banana and boiled egg. In the noon we were offered lunch – fried rice and noodles (veg and non-veg) and fresh salads with sweet and sour sauce. In the afternoon we were served a piece of cake, tea and coffee again. When we were approaching Mandalay around the time of sunset (5pm), we were offered a drink that looked like a juice. We saw the suff poring drink in the glasses from a big water barrel. It looked a bit suspicious and some of the tourists refused to take it. But we decided to try. It was a juice, but it had some booze added. We could not define which, but it sure tasted good. So good that we went for a second glass. It was a perfect timing for an aperatif, as we were going under two huge bridges crossing the river. Pagodas were shinnig brightly in the sun light and enourmous Buddha was meditating on a top of a hill.
Soon reached the port and we had to get off. We had arranged to share a taxi with someone from the boat. The taxi turned out to be a small van with an open back, where we had to sit on the floor. Another bizarre vehicle on our list.
The Golden Dream Hotel exceeded all our expectations. The room was well furnished and cleaned every day (even though it is a norm in most of the hotels, you don’t see that happening as often as you might wish). We had well functioning AC, a desk, a coffee table and extra chairs. All that for a bit less than 23 EUR per night. As always in Mynamar – breakfast included in the price.
We doubted if we should go out for dinner, but we could not resist treating our selves with a good meal. Especially because we knew that our families will be having delicious Christmas dinners. We chose Bistro At 82nd – a Western run restaurant with Western standards and prices. We did not regret our choice. Salmon and Myanmar Sauvignon Blanc, as well as mousse au chocolat and meringue with lemon sorbet were excellent. (Yes, yes! Western food again… but we crave that a lot lately). That was our Christmas gift for one another.
Su Taung Pyi Pagoda
The next day we rented a motorbike from the hotel. We knew that we do not have much time and Stijn had some work to finish. Out of the wide range of sites and activities Mandalay offers, we chose to go to Mandalay hill in the morning and visit the classical U Bein Bridge around the sun set. The sites are located in two opposite ends of the city, but we did not mind. It was a nice chance to drive around with a motorbike, we enjoy that a lot. They only down side – getting a thick layer of dust on you clothes and body.
It was a Saturday. Seemed that it is the moment when most of the local people go to Mandalay hill. One of the reasons could be cultural curiosity, other religious motives (there is Buddhist temple), but another reason, that could not possibly come into our minds, was mountain biking. Part of the hill was blocked by mountain bikers and their fans. I did not know that it was a popular hobby in Myanmar.
The brave ones take the stairs at the bottom of the hill, but we were lazy enough to drive as high as possible, and do the last part of the stairs, that took us to the temple and pagoda located at the top of the hill. Most of the galleries of the temple are decorated with coloured mirror frescos. The shapes of the mirrors are similar, but not identical. That gives the ornaments an artistic touch. The temple and pagoda were fairly interesting, but our biggest attraction was people watching. Millions of selfies taken each minute. Some families had hired photographers. One of my favourite scene was were a photographer made a 3 or 4 years old kid pose in all kinds of unnatural poses, like reclining on the floor near a small altar with Buddha.
From the top of the hill we could see the Mandalay city, but I am sure that early morning or late afternoon are much better for doing that. In the middle of the day the air was filled with dusty fog or smog and the hard sunlight made the colours of the city fade.
On the way to our hotel, we stopped at Cafe City for a coffee break. We wanted to have a small bite, but did not know what. The menu offered quite wide range of snacks, salads and main dishes, but we ended up ordering an interesting dish – cheese cake pizza with bananas. And it was good! A sweet, thick pizza base with a layer of cheese/curd and bananas on top. Enough for two.
U Bein Bridge
In the afternoon we had a longer drive down South to the U Bein bridge. It is a high wooden bridge crossing a lake in Amarapura. It is supposedly one of THE places in Myanmar. Wikipedia says it is possibly the oldest and longest teak wood bridges in the world (if you are into bridges, here is what Wikipedia has to say about U Bein). It serves both practical and tourist attracting proposes. When we arrived the place was full with locals and tourists on the bridge, and photographers on every good view corner on the land. There is a little island, that is covered in fields and trash, mostly left by visitors and guests of the few cafes that on the island. While tourists and locals were looking fo the best spots to see the sun setting behind the bridge, the life on the island continued as usual. Men and buffalos working on the fields and fishing in the lake, women collecting fishes in big bags to bring them to local vendors on and under the bride.
Just before the sun was about to set, the boats full with tourists lined up one after another. So did the photographers, ready to catch the perfect moment. U Bein is probably the second most photographed site after Bagan.
The second most photographed site but probably one of the most crowded places. Bagan is a spread out with many temples and pagodas, but here all tourists flock together to one specific place. Exactly like we did, to get the best sunlight at the best moment which is at sunset like Lonely Planet suggests. The effect you can guess and see in the photos: crowds of people all standing at the same spot. Those who want to pay for the boat go line up next to each other where a tactical game of manoeuvring for the best spot is held. Others find a good spot on the shore of the island. Some other couldn’t care less and sip from their coconut juice.
Is it still worth to visit this place? Yes of course, but show some respect for the surrounding area and next time, try to come here very early in the morning before anyone else is here.
We did not stay until dark, as we still had to find our way back to the city on a motorbike on dusty and dark roads.
For dinner we decided to try some local cuisine. That was not much of a success. Each of us ordered a dish, but we got at least 6 other side dishes. Most of them were too spicy or fishy for us. We still have to adopt our sense of taste to Myanmar cuisine.
We had doubts whether to stay in Mandalay a day extra or head towards North. After some long thinking we decided to leave Mandalay the next day (Sunday) and go to Pyin Oo Lwin, which was on the way to Hsipaw.
The day before we had lost our direction a bit and ended up finding our way back through small streets just near the hotel. We saw many local people here conducting their daily rituals just next to the narrow paths. Before we left Mandalay, we went for an early morning walk around the block. We found a small market full with fruit, vegetable, meat, fish and flower sellers. It was a local market and we could not remain unnoticed. Where ever we passed, a burst of smiles and giggle accompanied us. Very beardy white man followed by a very white blond girl in a local Mandalay market, who would not find it amusing!?:) Most of them were smiling and laughing, but they got very shy when Stijn wanted to take a photo. You might notice in the photos that woman have painted their cheecks. Most of the women, some of the kids and rarely men have their cheeks coored with thanaka. A paste made from grinding certain type of wood and mixing the substance with water. It is used as a protection from sun, but most of the cases it looks more like a facial decor.
We wondered around the passages filled with morning light and interacted with the people present in the market. It was the nicest thing we had done in Mandalay. The city palace and 100 temples of Mandalay will be for our next visit.