As soon as I had my freedom (my funky moped) I wasted no time jetting off to explore Mandalay and the surrounding area. After all, what else does a man need other than a pair of wheels and a toothbrush? Quite a lot actually, but we won’t get into that here…
Mandalay is the second-largest city in Burma after Yangon, considered the centre of Burmese culture and the last royal capital (the last King of Burma died in exile in India in 1916). As a Royalist, I thought it would be fitting to start my tour at his old Royal Palace, which was actually just around the corner from my hotel.
Completed in 1859 the Royal Mandalay Palace makes quite an impression. Sat in the middle of the city, it is surrounded by a huge wall and moat 2km by 2km square, and is now home to 5,000 Myanmar soldiers. Although Mandalay is a busy, noisy city of 1.5 million people, sat in the middle of the palace grounds, all you can hear are the birds as they fly around a pretty, flowered oasis.
It is certainly a nice escape (if only to get away from the incessant beeping of horns in Mandalay that drive me crazy!) even if most of the buildings are modern reconstructions (the original was unfortunately bombed by us – the Allies – during WWII).
Next it was off to U Bein Bridge, the longest and oldest teak bridge in the world, near Amarapura (once a previous capital of Burma) about 30 minutes south of the city.
The bridge was named after the major who had it built in 1850 using wood from a previous royal palace, and spans 1.2km across Lake Taungthaman. This seemed like quite a good spot to have lunch, so I did. And it was a delicious multi-plated meal of noodles, soup, salad and spices.
Unfortunately, delicious as it was, it only took about 2 hours to go right through me, which almost caused major embarrassment in a temple I was visiting (that was the best 30 cents for a WC I have ever spent; I would have paid $300). As I rode south west I found myself riding through quiet, wooded paddy fields, which were a welcome change to the city concrete.
Soon I was riding over the Irrawaddy River across an old iron bridge on my way to Sagaing, an important religious, monastic and meditation centre with hundreds of pagodas regularly punctuating the skyline. The Irrawaddy, or ‘The Road to Mandalay’ as described in Rudyard Kipling’s poem, is still an important source of commerce and Burma’s largest river, running the length of the country from north to the south. It looked pretty murky, but somewhere below the surface the vulnerable Irrawaddy Dolphin lurked (which looks like a Beluga Whale and is closely related to the Killer Whale), as well as the even rarer Irrawaddy River Shark, of which only 1 specimen has ever been found.
Across the river I rode up Sagaing Hill, where many international students come to study Buddhism. At the top is Soon Oo Ponya Shin Pagoda, built in 1312, from which the view of the Irrawaddy and Mandalay is amazing.
Riding back to my hotel in Mandalay I stopped at a couple more pagodas on the river’s edge for some nice views across the water. Like all rivers in Burma, the Irrawaddy is used daily as an important source of water for irrigation, cooking and washing people and clothes all along the banks.
I wanted to try and get to Mandalay Hill to watch the sun set, as I’d heard the views were the best in the area. Arriving late, I decided against climbing the 240m hill with my dodgy ankle and ragged it up on my moped instead. I was glad I did, because I just made it in time to watch another perfectly clear, red, round sun drop behind the mountains to the west, reflecting on the Irrawaddy as it went.
Few things are better than a good sunset, except maybe a good Beef Wellington. And a pint of Directors.
I was very pleased with my first fun packed day in Mandalay, and I was very happy with my Chinese moped, which was doing everything I asked it to do. It was basically a cheap Chinese copy of a Japanese Honda, but it worked. Thousands were thrown together daily and knocked out to Asian markets with whatever name you wanted on it. Mine was a ‘Newanbo’, but Zach had joked he could have a ‘Zachbo’ if he wanted. Hmm, a ‘Bowenbo’ has a nice ring to it – I wonder if it will sell back home in Norwich?
A great day was well ended by a good dinner and a few beers at Hunters Bar & Cafe (about the best Mandalay can do for nightlife) with fellow traveller Anna I’d met on the plane over, although I was so tired I almost fell asleep in my food. A full day on a bike really does wear you out. Goodness knows how tired I would have been had I been cycling 100km a day! I was more and more pleased the way Madam Fate had dealt my Myanmar cards to me this trip, although I wished she would throw me a few a lottery wins every now and then.
One of the good things about Burma is it’s cheap. Well at least food and drink are cheap, at around 3 USD for a good meal and 2 USD a beer. Accommodation is the only thing relatively expensive, maintained artificially high because only certain hotels are permitted by the government to receive ‘foreigners’. But at least you no longer have to stay in a Government owned ‘hotel’ (as you did until quite recently) and tourists can be sure their money goes directly to the many extremely nice private guesthouse owners. Having said all that, 20 USD is the going average, so even that isn’t too bad.
Like all new tourist destinations, prices and experiences are likely to change pretty quickly, and so if you’re thinking of going, there’s no time like the present!