When you think of the road to Mandalay you think of images of glittering pagodas jutting up out of steamy jungles, fishing boats making their way up and down broad, languid rivers and leopards stealthily making their way through the silvery moonlight. Turns out, the road to Mandalay is actually rather bumpy poorly maintained asphalt through dry uninspiring scenery.
There are actually a couple of roads to Mandalay; there is also an expressway which would have got us there in a fraction of the time. We assumed we would be taking the most direct route, so you can imagine our disappointment when our bus carried on along the back road rather than taking the on ramp onto the expressway. I don’t think the toll was huge, but judging from the lack of patronage we observed during the occasional glimpses we got of the road, it was clearly out of the reach of most Myanmar motorists.
However, taking the back roads does give you much more insight into how the majority of people live. Most people live in woven bamboo houses, often adorned with tarpaulins sponsored by Myanmar Beer. The weave is done in a variety of different patterns, which I guess allows residents a way of making their house a bit different from their neighbours.
We arrive in Mandalay after our long sweaty bus trip and not long after, it begins to rain. It’s the beginnings of the monsoon, which is slightly early. It starts slowly, leading us to believe that the monsoon is like South East Asia, where you stay mostly dry but with the occasional afternoon interrupted. We should have read George Orwell’s excellent first novel Burmese Days earlier. Then we would have known what was coming. The book paints a vivid description of the unrelenting heat in the lead up to the monsoon, and then the monotony of the seemingly neverending rain.
Burmese Days is available virtually everywhere in Myanmar where you might find Western Tourists – every tourist attraction and every souvenir stand. We bought ours from a small boy at the top of a Bagan temple. (We bargained him down to 3000 kyat from his opening gambit of 10000, but I still think he got the better of that transaction).
A spectacular thunderstorm that night gives way to a dry morning the next day, and we venture out. For somewhere that receives more than its fair share of tourists, strangely Mandalay only has a handful of car taxis. Our hotel arranges for a couple of motorcycle taxis (ie a couple of guys with scooters). We know our mothers won’t be happy, but our other option was a push bike which was an unappealing proposition in 40+ degree heat. Not being particularly experienced on the back of a scooter, we are unsure of the etiquette. Do you hold on to the driver? onto the seat? Is there some handle you are meant to hold onto that they haven’t told us about? (In case you’re interested, Keelie went with holding onto the taxi driver’s shirt, Myles didn’t hold on at all).
Luckily the motorcycle taxis get us safely to Mandalay Hill, where once again we walk a very long distance in bare feet in order to survey the city from above. It’s so hot that everyone around us seems to have decided to sleep wherever they are. The view is quite spectacular, with the whole city visible. Despite being a byword for the ancient and exotic East, Mandalay isn’t an ancient city. It was only founded in 1857 and suffered quite badly in WWII, first when the Japanese captured it from the British in 1942 and again when the British captured it back in 1945.
Aside from Mandalay Hill, the main feature of the city is the large central palace/fortress, surrounded by a moat. The Burmese military still occupies most of the site, advertising the fact with signs sporting propaganda slogans like “crush all those harming the union”, curiously in English. (One part of the site houses a reproduction of the royal palace that was destroyed in WWII, but feeling a bit worse for wear after our hike up Mandalay Hill in 45 degree heat, we decided to give it a miss and head back to the safety of our air conditioned room).
A recent influx of Chinese immigrants has changed the ethnic and economic character of Mandalay, but I don’t think all that much has changed since Orwell described Mandalay in Burmese Days as “a rather disagreeable town … dusty and intolerably hot”.
We spend our last afternoon just outside Mandalay at the U-Bien bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world. I don’t know how many other teak bridges there are in the world so it’s hard to know how impressed to be, but nevertheless it is remarkably picturesque.