Myanmar - Mandalay

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December 1st 2016
Published: December 3rd 2016
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Suzanne here...

There are three sensible ways to get from Bagan to Mandalay - train, bus or boat. The train was tempting, but it is slow and unreliable in Myanmar. Bus was the most sensible option, cheapest and quickest, but nothing special. Boat was by far the most expensive and the longest journey. So naturally that's the one we went for. In the end we decided to make a day trip of it, with the drop off at Mandalay almost an added bonus at the end. After all, how often were we going to get the opportunity to sail along the Irrawaddy river?

We arranged a taxi to the jetty with our hotel (5000 kyat) for 4.45am. Another early start which naturally I struggled with. We'd picked RV Panorama, booking online as it wasn't the company our hotel used. But I'd read some good reviews before we'd left the UK and Pie and Charlie had also recommended them. It was $45 each, including breakfast and lunch. The Bagan to Mandalay route is less popular than the reverse and there were only six passengers including us, on a boat that we guessed could take at least 50.

As I lay slumped in my seat below deck David went up to investigate. After a while he came back saying the sunrise would soon begin and, crucially, that there was coffee on deck. That soon got me moving. Over the next hour we watched the sun come up and drank numerous cups of coffee. Breakfast was served at 7am, suprisingly good scrambled eggs and toast.

It turned out to be an absolutely lovely trip. We'd been warned that the scenery on the boat trip wasn't exactly thrilling. I suppose this is true, it was all very flat. But still, I couldn't get over being on the Irrawaddy. There were obviously temples everywhere. At any given point you could see three or four golden stupa's in the distance. There were also fishermen, people swimming, people washing their clothes, and just rural life in general. The sun was shining and we had plenty of space to move around. All in all a thoroughly enjoyable and incredibly relaxing trip. Lunch was also very good. In fact our only complaint was the cost of drinks. A bottle of beer was 5,500 kyat, over twice the price we have been paying. Luckily we'd brought along a small bottle of whiskey, and the staff seemed to have no problem providing glassss.

We arrived at Mandalay 12 hours later at sunset to the obligatory clamour of taxi drivers which we always ignore, it's all just a bit too full-on. It was only a 30 minute walk to our hotel. One taxi driver followed us and offered a knock-down price which we still stubbornly refused. Then regretted our hastiness as we trudged through the dark, traffic-filled, chaotic streets. My ribs were hurting too. Foolish. It was a bit of a slog but we found our hotel and got checked in by 6.30pm.

Hotels in Mandalay are expensive so we'd gone budget. Hotel A1 was a good solid choice. It's nothing fancy or stylish and even slightly shabby in places. But we had a large clean and comfortable room. Much nicer than Yangon for sure. We even had wi-fi. Still, we didn't want to spend the evening in a hotel so we set off to find some dinner.

David had read about a barbecue place called Shwe Kaing. When we arrived it was packed. A couple of tourists but mainly locals. We found a table and I went off to investigate. I soon worked out that you fill a basket with whatever skewers of meat you fancy and they grill them up for you. I chose some chicken, pork and mutton, and some broccoli for a bit of balance, and went back to David who had sourced draft Myanmar Premium beer. It turned out to be a really enjoyable evening. The food was good and we polished off quite a few beers. Nothing had any prices but we were not worried. When the bill arrived it was only 19,000 kyat (£12), even after we'd asked them to amend it as they had charged us for two less beers than we actually had.

I've always wanted to visit Mandalay - a faraway exotic city in my mind. Don't get me wrong, it's the usual chaotic Asian mix of scooters, broken pavements, noise and litter. But there are also temples, monasteries and just local life that is very engaging. On this trip I often remind myself how lucky I am to visit places I never dreamed I would see for myself. We spent the day wandering round, seeing the old teak Shwe In Bin Kyaung monastery, the Eim Daw Yar pagoda, and walking back through a local market. It was hot thirsty work and we fancied a beer. So far we'd not tried one of Myanmars 'beer stations'. They looked very local and very male. But we we braved it anyway. The beer (Dagon) was very cold and it was a good call.

I did a bit of research and found what sounded like a lively, local beer garden that served cheap drinks and pizza, called Central Park. It was a good 40 minute walk and on the way David twisted his ankle in one of the many holes in the pavements. Not too serious but still a bit sore, should have got a taxi. When we arrived it was nothing like we'd anticipated. It was an indoor pizza resturant, and quite westernised. We later realised that this was a new branch, not the original. Not quite what we'd wanted but it did look nice and we had walked a long way. It was pretty good actually. The pizza (actual pepperoni!) was very good and once happy hour hit we got some nice margaritas and whiskey sours. The staff didn't seem to understand their own happy hour and there was some confusion which was eventually resolved but resulted in us having nine cocktails between us to get the deal! We decided to treat ourselves to a taxi back, but ironically for the first time there were none to be found. Still, meant we could walk off some of that pizza. We did pass a police block stopping scooter riders at random and searching them. Saw the same thing again the next day too, never did find out why.

Sadly it was our final day in Myanmar. For once we used our brains and got a taxi the 8km to Mandalay Hill. It was a long walk to the top, but easy as there are stairs all the way. There are shops and small pagodas at each level (some selling flip-flops which made me laugh when shoes are forbidden). People actually live here, which must be an odd way of life. You can get driven up to the top, although that seemed like cheating. But that, combined with the fact that most people come for the sunset, meant that we had the walk up pretty much to ourselves. At the top is the largest pagoda, with a 1000 kyat fee. Even here it was far from busy. The views over Mandalay were stunning and it was well worth the climb. We stayed there quite a while enjoying the views and relaxed atmosphere.

On the way back down a Burmese family asked to have their photo taken with us. After the climb we didn't exactly look our best but couldn't really say no! At the bottom we retrieved our shoes, ignoring the taxis as we were going to walk back visiting sights on the way. Next stop was the Kyautawgyi pagoda. Nice, but we were starting to feel we'd seen enough pagodas now. We also saw the Sanda Muni pagoda, a bit different this one, with over 1500 inscripted stone slabs each in an individual stupa. Impressive, but we decided seeing it from the outside and peering through the fence was enough.

We'd read that there was not much to see at Mandalay Palace so we gave it a miss, but did walk back following the very impressive palace wall and moat. It was a lovely walk, nice wide pavement for once, no crowds, and not too hot. We broke the journey up with a beer and sandwich at City Cafe. Not great food but a nice relaxed atmosphere. Another ten minutes down the road we passed the Paradise Beer Garden. With a name like that how could we resist? Actually we only stayed for one, paradise was a bit of an exaggeration, although I think it's probably nicer at night. For our final meal in Myanamar we decided to return to Shwe Kaing Barbecue as we'd enjoyed it so much. No difference to the first night, other than being upstairs and managing to order some rather nice stir-fried vegetables this time.

The next day we got a taxi to the airport (arranged through the hotel at 12,000 kyat). There is not much at Mandalay airport, just a cafe and a couple of souvenir shops. Myanmar has been great. People have been friendly and welcoming and there has been lots to see and do. The people we spoke to seemed very hopeful for the future of their country, and all said how life was improving since the grip of military rule had relaxed. It's the fastest growing economy in Asia, and it shows. Tourism is developing at a tremendous rate and all the guidebooks and even online reports are out of date within weeks. We read that money has to be changed on the black market, that ATMs are hard to find, and dollars are prefered to kyat. None of these things turned out to be true. I'd say that the food had not been stand-out, and as I've mentioned hotels are expensive. Because of this we blew the budget once again, but we are getting better at £57 a day. We both loved our time in Myanmar, and three weeks was about right. We've seen all the main things we wanted to in that time.

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