Around Mandalay

Around Mandalay
Not every day on the road is an adventure waiting to unfurl and offer wild new experiences. Today for example is the second time on this trip I’ve had a bad belly and need close proximity to a comfortable latrine (five feet away at the moment). Coupled with a slight fever, zero appetite, and feeling utterly depleted I reside to a day in my room in Mandalay to catch up on this trip report. It is at times like these that travellers yearn for the comforts of home and the loved ones they left there.

My first introduction to Mandalay wasn’t the best, a walk through a muddy market and a sweltering struggle through a grid of identical looking streets back to the hotel suffering from stomach cramps. There are very few eateries around and a virtual blackout after sunset, street lights it seems are state-of-the-art in Myanmar and few and far between.

Day two was infinitely better as I opted for two wheels instead of two feet, Mandalay is a vast sprawling city covering great distances, the palace alone takes 2.5 square kilometers out of it. Walking around is a bad idea which is probably why you’re constantly hounded by taxi touts.

U Bein’s Bridge
After getting some maps and ride tips from Zach at Mandalay Motorbike I head south to the former capital of Amarapura and U Bein’s Bridge, the longest teak footbridge in the world, and one of Myanmar’s most photographed sites. The bridge spans around 1,300 meters across Lake Taungthaman which was full as it is still wet season. There were a few tourists around but not the usual hoards so I managed to get a few decent shots during my walk across the lake and back.

Sagaing and Mingun
Riding on I cross over the mighty Irrawaddy (now named Ayeyarwady) River and into what can only be described as a fifteenth century monastic hill retreat –Sagaing. A countless number of stupas dot the hillocks amidst an almost Mediterranean feeling cluster of buildings, alleys, stairways and monasteries that is home to around 6,000 monks.

I continue north hugging the river on its western bank through bamboo hut villages and tiny fishing hamlets to Mingun where the world’s largest pagoda would have stood had it been completed in the 18th century. Today it is probably the world’s largest collection of bricks, but still an impressive sight with even more impressive views over the river and back to Mandalay from the top.

Technically you need to pay to get in, foreigners need to pay to get into everything in Burma, but nobody asked so I didn’t bother, preferring to give my 5 bucks to one of the local kids for showing me around. There are parking fees also pretty much everywhere that a tourist is likely to go, an assiduous ticket boy will come running over to deprive you of 200 kyat (about 6 baht) to leave your bike there. He will meticulously check your ticket when you return to make sure you’ve paid!

My trusty steed, ‘Doris’ – a Chinese copy 125cc Honda, gets a rear blowout on the way back but help is never far away in Myanmar. A local lad sends his 5 year old son running barefoot back into town for a new inner tube and charges me a dollar for the replacement job – imagine that in the west!

Sunset is spent at the best place in town; the top of Mandalay Hill where an ephemeral golden light reflects off the pagodas and Buddha images invoking a surreal spiritual sense of heaven on earth if such a thing existed. The view across the river and city below is pretty spectacular too.

Today I’m heading north, following the river for a hundred clicks or so before taking the first bridge since Sagaing and heading west into Shwebo. The landscape is lush, iridescent green fields still worked manually, buffalo cart plod along the main road link between Mandalay and north Myanmar, a herd of cows brings what traffic there is to a halt. Busses and trucks drive like they’re possessed by some manic demon of the road, everyone else has all day to get where they’re going. I stop for a gas check as the gauge doesn’t work and a local guy ambles out of the trees and climbs onto the back of the bike rambling on at high speed, I presume he wants a ride to the dusty nondescript village I just passed through so happily oblige, realizing I’d already gone 40kms off course anyway.

After being stopped twice for a 100 kyat (3 baht) bridge toll I’m barreling down a single lane track into Shwebo, which turns out to be an unremarkable town with a few colonial buildings and token pagodas. My detour cost me time so if I was to be back in Mandalay before dark there would be no time for loitering. The ride back was more comfortable though a little tiresome, that is until entering Sagaing where the horizon turns gold and each corner out competes the previous in terms of chedi grandiosity.

I’d covered over 400 kilometers on a steppy so thought I deserved a treat for dinner. Dining that evening was at a swanky resort with one of the town’s best Indian restaurants, Spice Garden, the food and setting was excellent though a little peculiar sitting in this walled oasis whilst just outside dogs scrapped in the street and people lived in squalor along the banks of a fetid black canal.

I cycle over to the jade market near the river today in search of some stones for the better half. Myanmar produces the highest grade jade in the world and this labyrinthine market is the nucleus of dealings, carvings, and trading in the industry. Abandoning the navigation of the warren like maze of alleys that makes up Mandalay’s jade district I find a local dealer that appears very knowledgeable and end up walking away with a hundred dollars of greenness that would be worth tenfold in the west.