The rather epic journey from Galle to Negombo was followed by a sleepless night of airport waiting, flying and 2am chicken curry, so it is with a sense of bewilderment that I was shown to the Bangkok Airways Lounge at Suvarnabhumi airport. A breakfast buffet, free wifi and comfy sofas were exactly what I needed and made the 6-hour stopover a whole lot more bearable. And the in-flight mango and prawn curry was to die for! So it is more refreshed than expected that I arrived at Mandalay airport on Monday afternoon. I headed straight for the ATM to withdraw some Kyat (though it turns out there are now many ATMs around, at least in Mandalay) and to book my shared taxi into town. The young staff were so friendly and eager to help, I immediately felt very welcome. On the drive in, I was shocked at how green everything is and the numerous golden pagodas twinkling in the sun all over the countryside.
I arrived at the hostel with close to no expectations and was once again surprised at how clean and modern it is. Shortly after settling in, I met an ex-Warwicker who suggested a cab to Mandalay Hill for sunset. A little haggard from the journey, I accepted without really thinking and am very glad I did. Not only does it offer sweeping views across the lush green countryside surrounding Mandalay, there is a beautifully kitch mirrored pagoda which stunningly reflects the evening sun. And the light! It truly was breathtaking. On the way back, our driver dropped us at some more pagodas which were reminiscent of Santa’s Grotto with all their flashy lights.
On Tuesday, we signed up to an all-day tour organised by another hostel. Now, this is not usually my cup of tea and there were certainly elements of it I wasn’t particularly fond of (notably older tourists shoving their paparazzi lenses in the faces of young monks) but all in all it was a good day and a great way to visit the ancient cities around Mandalay. We stopped off at a monastery, a Buddhist institute, various pagodas, Inwa and the famous U Bein bridge at sunset. Not only was the sun setting a beautiful sight, the silhouette of the bridge and all the people on it making for fantastic photographs, all the fishermen were heading out in their narrow boats, or just wading into the water, for the evening’s catch. Despite the many tourists, the atmosphere was fantastic and local families were also visiting and chilling by the lake. After the heat of the day, a cold beer was exactly what the doctor ordered!
Finally, yesterday, we jumped onto the back of a couple of scooter taxis to the Royal Palace. Though it is a reconstruction, it is still pretty impressive and was a perfect morning activity. After yet another lunch at Marie Min’s vegetarian restaurant, I decided to go for a bit of a wander on my own. The indoor market I was aiming for has actually suffered fire damage and walking around Mandalay is not particularly easy due to the poor quality of the pavements and the open sewers everywhere but I strangely really enjoyed my walk. I didn’t bump into another tourist, felt absolutely safe, used my Indian road-crossing skills, smiled back at everyone who waved and smiled and shouted hello, and eventually found a wonderfully cool and hip little coffee shop where I enjoyed a banana smoothie.
And that’s it for Mandalay! I am currently in my hostel reception, waiting for my bus to Hsipaw for some new adventures. But my first impressions are great – the people are so genuine and friendly and smiley and the country itself is beautifully photogenic. More news soon!