This is Myanmar: Mandalay

I arrived in Mandalay airport and was immediately approached by taxi drivers offering their fares to get into the city through mouths full of apparently decaying red-stained teeth. I could barely focus on what they were saying, all I could think was, “What the hell is up with their teeth?!” This was my less than great first impression of Myanmar. (I would later find out that this is betelnut and most everyone chews it here, causing lots of red mouths and red spit left on streets. It’s probably my least favorite trend in this country.)

Leaving behind that welcome, I made it into the city to my extremely budget hotel at US$19 a night and immediately set out to try to see as much as possible; I would be leaving on the noon bus for Bagan the next day. On my way to find a local bus to the somewhat faraway temple I wanted to see, I made it just to the end of the street before I got sidetracked by a different temple, which ended up being a precursor for the rest of the day: large, ornate, shiny, and gold. Myanmar temples are built to impress, in scale and decoration.

I kept going and quickly learned that Mandalay is not a city meant for walking around. I guess it could be if you don’t mind walking on the street with all the bikes and cars. It’s hectic, and the main street to get to the buses is one of the busiest. I dodged people and vehicles and finally made it to the right turn only to find the other busiest street in town and no easy way to figure out what pick-up truck (aka local bus) would take me where I needed to go. So when a mototaxi dropped his price down to 1,000 kyat each way (US$1) I said screw it, why not. He ended up driving me around all afternoon to every sight I wanted to see in Mandalay for 5,000 kyat.

Just like Battambang with Sokoma, Moo ended up being more of a guide than I expected he would be. He also loved the US: “USA number 1!” He showed me pictures of his family, taught me a few words in Myanmar, and helped clear up some confusion: “This is Myanmar. I am Myanmar person. I speak Myanmar language.” Burma means nothing to Moo.

When we got to the Mahamuni Paya, Moo played tour guide as he took me through the temple and told me some of its history. Since it was a Sunday it was packed with locals praying to the giant Buddha, who was being given new gold leaf by the men (women are not allowed in the sanctuary). Weekends have become my favorite way to see places of worship; they’re being used like they’re meant to be. The complex was impressive but I preferred the next stop.

Shwe In Bin Kyaung is a quiet monastery constructed in teak wood, with beautiful carvings inside and architectural details outside. I was greeted by two friendly monks who told me a little bit about the monastery as we walked around. We drove past Mandalay Palace and its giant moat/wall fortification on our way to Kuthodaw Paya and Sandamuni Paya, an impressive array of carved marble slabs telling the Tripitaka canon in what is called the “world’s biggest book.” Each slab is housed in its own white mini-paya, which are arranged in rows around a large gold stupa, creating a stunning landscape of pointed white peaks.

The tour ended at Mandalay Hill for sunset. The barefoot 760-foot climb to the top took me past pagodas and shops. No shoes or socks are allowed on pagodas; you can imagine what my feet looked like by the time I reached the top. I joined dozens of people waiting for the supposedly beautiful view over the sprawling city. I could barely make out the buildings below underneath the haze. The sun turned into an orange ball of fire and then disappeared beneath cloud coverage, never to reappear. So much for that sunset. The way back down I chatted the entire time with a few friendly novice monks who were on the hill purely to work on their English. They were excited to meet an American – they understand our accent more easily since they hear it so frequently in movies – and we talked about their studies, literature, traveling, Myanmar.

Moo dropped me off at my hotel and I thanked him for a great day. I wandered to the night market, typically a reliable place for cheap food stalls, to discover that in Mandalay night market means some ill-lit tables of books and clothes set up alongside and in the middle of the street, with lanes for the traffic to keep driving through. I found a stall though that some locals seemed to be enjoying and had my first multi-dish Myanmar curry meal. Sadly the chicken curry was the most disappointing part – a questionable drumstick – but when combined on the rice with all the sides it was pretty tasty. There’s some weird flavor though that I am not a fan of; I have yet to figure out what vegetable it is but it turned my face into something unpleasant.

That night I reflected on my introduction to Myanmar. Mandalay is a tough city – busy, dirty, and clear poverty scattered throughout – but I was happy to have stopped there. As I rode around on the motorbike I realized that this is what people had meant when they said it was Southeast Asia before development really happened. I felt like I’d gone back in time a bit, and really crossed over into a world so unlike my own. There was something sadly fascinating about it.

This first city also showed me something that would soon be solidified in my impression of Myanmar: the people are some of the kindest, friendliest, most helpful, and genuinely wonderful people I’ve met. I’ve never had such great interaction with locals as I have in this country, and that alone makes it worth visiting.

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