21.03.2012 32 °C
We have arrived at what appears to be a giant bus village. There are people spitting paan everywhere (including on my feet), animals of all shapes and sizes in baskets and buses that look like they date back to the 1970’s. We jump in the back of a pick up and head to our hotel in Mandalay. People keep asking about our accommodation so I’ve included some pictures:
Unfortunately Justin was still not feeling great, but we head out in search of a street stall that sells amazing chapatti and curries. We meet a couple of travellers who have arrived back from a trip further north (or at least as far as tourists are allowed to go out of Mandalay without a license). We chat about their travels, the up and coming elections and ask for advice about Mandalay, whilst we watch the ladies churning out hundreds of chapatti.
Afterwards we head to a milkshake place they recommended and Justin goes in search of a TV showing British football. He doesn’t have to go far. Most teahouses and beer stations are packed with football mad Burmese men watching whatever game (sometimes multiple games) they can. We are greeted with the now familiar: “Where you from? England? Manchester? Manchester United or City? Tottenham Hotspur okay! I like Rooney!” We find out later that people stay up all night on Saturday and Sunday to watch the games back to back. They know teams inside out, they know the scores of every European League match that week and they even know who is going to replace Alex Ferguson when he retires!
As a city Mandalay gets a rough time in the guidebooks and we found that many people were trying to avoid it altogether. On the negative side it was dirty. The air was filled with thick dust and wafts of excrement - nice. On the positive side everyone is very friendly, very helpful and very welcoming. At night there were no streetlights but many of the religious sites were lit and looking down the road could see cyclo riders lit up by the headlights from cars. I enjoyed just wandering around.
I bump into a Dutch couple (and their two year old son) in the hotel lobby and together we rent a ‘blue taxi’ to explore the royal villages around Mandalay. Our blue taxi turns up and the driver looks at Justin and Hans, who are both over 6 foot, and then back at his tiny taxi. This could be interesting.
We hit the road and speed along as fast as the blue taxi will shudder us. We keep being overtaken by beeping, packed to the rafter, buses with everyone (including the drivers) leaning out and waving. They usually swerve violently in front of us a few minutes later to pick someone up before accelerating past us again in a belch of smoke and cheers.
Our driver drops us off at a Marionette (wooden puppet) workshop. Mandalay is Marionette capital of Burma. There is a wide selection of beautifully carved puppets, ranging from tigers to giant genitalia! Tim is scared out of the workshop by a scary possessed looking horse marionette, whilst Justin and I have a good time rummaging through barrels of old marionette heads.
We spend the day visiting three villages on the outskirts of Mandalay. Our first stop is Sagaing Hill. We climb up a set of steep stairs (if an enthusiastic two year old can do it so can I!) to the top to visit a Buddhist temple and cave. On a clear day the views must be amazing. Unfortunately it is dry season and people are burning the crop fields in preparation for the wet season so a haze covers most of the view.
We next head to Inwa, which was the Burmese capital for nearly four centuries. You can only reach it by boat and once on the other side we hire a horse and cart to drive us around for a couple of hours looking at the sites. Tim falls asleep as we bounce off our seats and hit the ceiling of the cart. We avoid the government taxes and wander off to look at some of the sites around the edges:
Finally we head to Amarapura – city of immortality. We wander along the 200 year old U Bein’s Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world. This is evidently the place to be at sunset for chatting, learning English and people watching. This is definitely not the place for stiletto heals, which we watch a number of the local girls desperately trying to walk in:
We head home. Tim is fast asleep and I can feel myself doing a nodding dog impression. There is a massive bang. The brakes slam on and our driver jumps out and runs 50 meters back down the busy road, picks up the exhaust with a blanket (that looks suspiciously like it has been used for this before). “My exhaust fell off.” he sheepishly grins. Tim is still fast asleep.
We head to the ferry port the next morning and stand on deck to watch Mandalay disappear as the massive river winds its way down to Bagan. I had high hopes as I love to travel by boat and we’d heard good stories from people we’d met along the way. My happy mood was soon worn down by the grumpiest group of westerners we’ve met to date. We walked up to the middle deck to find tour groups jealously guarding their deckchairs. Smiles and friendly nods were met with glacial stares from everyone except the crew (we found out later there had been an argument about some of the groups staying in government run hotels). On the plus side it was definitely more comfortable than a bus and it was interesting to watch village life pass us by. We arrived in Bagan three hours later than expected, which we didn’t mind as it meant we could watch the sun set over the cliff temples – our first site of Bagan.