The events in this post occurred in December 2016.
“Our next stop is one of the most famous temples in all of Myanmar…” our guide chirped as he adjusted his sunglasses. I stifled a groan, which instead emerged as a weary sigh. I liked our guide well enough. He was cute and very friendly with me, the only solo traveler on the tour, but every girl has her limits for how many temples she can handle in a day.
For the past week, fellow Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Sam Geary and I had toured dozens of temples in Yangon and Bagan. Sadly, we parted ways in Bagan, with Sam leaving to join another friend in Chiang Mai while I continued on the tourist circuit through Myanmar. Thus far, for a city with such an evocative reputation, Mandalay had yet to strike me. I missed having a motorbike in Bagan, zipping around with Sam and staying up late drinking with the guys at Bagan Poem Tattoo. Plus, I also had developed an acute crush on a waiter at the Moon Vegetarian Restaurant in Bagan. His olive-toned arms were sleeved in intricate tattoos, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the tattoos continued through under his longyi…
Alas, I continued onward and now was alone in Mandalay. As I usually do when I am playing the tourist in a foreign city, I signed up for a full-day tour. The van came to pick me up from my hostel early in the morning. It was already full of other pasty, sweaty tourists with wrinkle-resistant nylon clothing and cameras strapped around their necks. I tried to make some small talk, but most other folks were from other European countries. They could speak English to be polite, but I didn’t feel overly inclined to insert my awkward American tongue into their German conversations. No matter, there was plenty to see out the window as we drove on.
For a single-day tour, we made an impressive number of stops. Definitely tourism of the hit-shoot-run variety, which was fine by me. We saw a white temple, a big temple with the largest number of monks, a temple on a hill, a teak temple, temple ruins (which we traveled to via horse cart, to keep things spicy), oh, and how could I forget the other temple ruins with a watchtower? If I had a dollar for every temple I saw I could’ve paid for the whole trip, I swear.
Temple saturation aside, the day tour also included a stop to a woodworking studio (hidden behind a large, dusty gift shop) and a weaving factory. Both were, naturally, catered toward putting on a show for tourists, which again was fine by me. The handiwork truly was impressive.
However, my favorite part of the tour was definitely the final stop: U Bein Bridge. This teakwood bridge is over three-quarters of a mile long, stretching over Taung Tha Man Lake. If you’ve ever seen a photo of Myanmar with the silhouette of people walking on a spindly bridge in front of a sunset, this is the place. It was crowded with locals walking hand-in-hand, obvious sweethearts on a date, tourists snapping photos of monks, monks snapping photos of tourists, children weaving between everyone’s legs, and nursing mothers peddling their wares precipitously close to the edge of the narrow, one-lane bridge. Just like in all of the iconic photos, the sunset was magnificent. I loved it. It was dark when I returned to the hostel.
My other days in Mandalay were more casual and self-guided. I spent a morning enrossed in From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe, a book I bought in Yangon at the recommendation of the turbaned shop-owner when I asked for a novel about local life. Pascal, the author and narrator, studied at Mandalay University, and I marked my map with his footsteps as I read. That afternoon, I set out on bicycle to explore the city with the book as my guide.
I cruised through the Mandalay Royal Palace, an extravagant compound inside the square moat at the heart of the city. A parade of brilliantly-clothed people and lavishly decorated pick-up trucks halted my progress as I approached Mandalay Hill. Grinning girls waved at the gathered crowd, dancing in their glittering traditional costumes as the deep bass of techno music made the earth itself tremble.
After a simple lunch at the base of the hill, I hefted my water bottles and began the climb. Through fields and forests and up many flights of stairs, I came across many pairs of young Burmese lovers, sitting on benches and holding hands, laughing together as they shared a screen on a cell phone, presumably watching YouTube. Pascal had described the hill as the stage for many lover’s trysts, and it seems the place still holds the same appeal.
At the top of the hill, Su Taung Pyae Pagoda awaited in glittering glory. Even though I was approaching my maximum quota of temple tours, Su Taung Pyae did offer expansive views of Mandalay and spacious, manicured monuments of devotion. Many locals come to pay their respects, dressed in their best, and they carried on with their prostrations while barefoot tourists walked quietly around them.
Thankfully, my bike was waiting where I had left it prior to my ascent. I took a winding way back, opting to ride through neighborhoods instead of hugging the palace’s moat. Through doorways and on front steps, I glimpsed the quotidian elements that form the mosaic of life in Myanmar. Old men in faded t-shirts and checkered longyi sitting and quietly smoking a cigarette. Young children chasing each other in the street, familiar faces of characters from Frozen flashing silent smiles. Women with glossy black hair tied into elegantly messy buns bent over a broom, sweeping the front porch. Emaciated dogs stopping every few feet to scratch, paying no heed to the traffic flowing around them.
Upon arrival back at the hostel, I was reminded by the cheery red-and-green sign in the lobby that today was Christmas Eve. A party was planned to start in a few hours, with a dinner buffet, drinks, and bingo (among other games). I hastily showered the day’s grime off and gussied up in my backpacker finest. The hostel’s receptionist, a 20-something Italian, played Emcee for the evening’s festivities. I stayed up late, won a round of Bingo, and drank way too much Myanmar lager. At one point, some of the hostel’s other guests came down to tell our rowdy group to quiet down. We giggled at that, whispering conspiratorially for a few minutes and hushing each other before the volume rose again. Around 2 a.m., I stumbled off to my own bunk and fell into a dreamless sleep.
The following day, Christmas, I had plans with a few Bingo friends from the night before. We all slept in and, in the early afternoon, set off on bicycle to wander the city. One person had heard of a gold workshop, so we followed along and got a quick tour and a long sales pitch. Later in the day, I took a cab with two other girls from the UK to see the Moustache Brothers, a family performance that combines traditional dance, screwball comedy, and harsh satire on Myanmar’s totalitarian government as well as critical commentary on other global events, including Trump’s then-recent election. Their performance had the stiff and perfunctory air of a performance that is done many times daily, every day, for many years. Was I happy I went? Sure, it was something to do. Would I go again? Probably not.
The following day I packed up in preparation for taking a night bus to Inle Lake, which had the dual benefit of allowing me an extra day for sight-seeing and reducing hostel bed costs for a night. To pass the day, I walked to a large market with a few folks from the Bingo crew. Many of the goods on display were similar to markets in Thailand and Indonesia, though there were rather prominent condoms and virility pill displays that struck me as unique. They were marketed toward the local people, and I can only imagine how the curlique script would translate into English. I hardly want to speculate. Perhaps the biggest point of pride occurred when I asked a fruit vendor “Bai lau lay?” How much? I pointed at a bag of apples. She responded, holding up fingers for emphasis. “Chay-kee!” Expensive! I responded in mock horror. She laughed, amused by my attempt at her language and playful bartering. She then took off the foreigner tax and sold me the apples at a quarter of the price she originally offered. I thanked her and glowed with pride. Those late-night lessons at Bagan Poem Tattoo finally paid off!
At last, dusk fell and it was time for me to leave Mandalay. The city ultimately grew on me, though I still missed the charm of Bagan. A rickshaw took me and two other guests with the same itinerary to the bus station, which was a ways out of town. The depot was sprawling and dusty and chaotic in a way that I had rarely experienced. It was a relief to find the bus, which had passengers who were evenly split between tired locals and uneasy foreigners who kept shifting under the weight of their bulging packs. Once my own pack was safely stowed, I boarded the bus and watched the sprawl of Mandalay fade away in the twilight. The rocking of the bus lulled me into sleep until we pulled into Inle Lake the following morning.