Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mandalay and Mingun

My impressions from reading LPG were, why bother to come to Mandalay? It was the second largest city in Myanmar, and LPG and Internet forums gave the impression that transport within Mayanmar was uncomfortable and a hassle, but then again LPG always warns of all possible hassles and when it came time to board the actual bus I realized I had chosen well. I had paid a few dollars extra for a ticket on a bus that had one column of two seats together and another down the right that had only one seat per aisle. It turned out to be a luxury bus, reclining seats, pillow, a waitress who handed out toothbrushes in shrink wrap as we boarded and came and asked if I was ok, and when I asked when the music would stop, I understood she had no idea of English beyond, “Are you ok?” In any event the music did stop after a couple of hours and the bus would have been quiet except the driver played music all night to keep himself awake, but not that loudly, and I managed to sleep intermittently. The bus stopped twice in the night, but I snatched sleep in the intervals and arrived in Mandalay in a cold chill that frosted the bus windows from the inside, while a mist coated the land without so first glance of Mandalay was through a haze.

I was accosted by taxi drivers when I got off the bus and while waiting for bags. They didn't dog me, but the bus station was chaotic, in a dirt lot, typically Asian before concrete became commonplace and bus stations in many Asian countries got spruced up. One young guy who followed me assessed that with my pack I could probably take a motorcycle into town. Taxi drivers wanted 7000 kyat for the trip into town (8500 would be $10). The boy wanted 3000 to take me on his motorcycle, so I said ok, go on then, and he ran to fetch it.

He returned with an extra helmet and I got on and rode with him half an hour into town. The bus station was on the outskirts of town and heading in we passed people on bikes and bullock carts and as we entered the city with traffic and its menagerie of shops with signs in Burmese, I had the feeling I was back in China. On the ride in from the bus station I could see there was something about this place, a casual relaxed way of going about day to day life, without excessive regulation, that was different from any other. I could also see that as in China and in Georgia, and apart from some signs with English, I would be not only illiterate for much of my stay in Myanmar, but innumerate too, since the Burmese use their own symbols for numbers, which meant nothing to me. The banknotes were a Rosetta Stone of sorts, giving numbers in both Burmese and English, but I hadn't spent any time on that yet.

I had asked the driver to take me to Nylon Hotel because according to LPG it was in the center of the cheap hotel district. December-January is high season in Myanmar, the weather is perfect, 30 degrees max during the day, cool at night, clear skies throughout my stay. During the ideal season for travel, accommodation should be difficult, and indeed the Nylon was full. The motorcycle guy said he'd take me around, no charge, and help me find a hotel, and no commission, he added. He seemed friendly, but I told him I would walk. Right around the corner there was the ramshackle Garden Hotel, rooms $25 with bath and a/c, and all the street noise you could tolerate. They had two rooms I could have right then, so I went up and down the steep stairs between them comparing air conditioners for white noise. I took the one that produced the smoothest version of the whitest noise.

Down in the lobby (my room had yet to be cleaned but I'd left my bags up there) I got out my Kindle and tried to work out where I was. The streets in Mandalay are numbered and most streets have street signs on at least one corner telling you where you are so it's easy to find your way around the center. I was not far from the massive walled and moated palace area in the center of town. It was just turning 8 a.m and I noticed that if I could get to the west end of 26th street by 9 a.m I could take the special boat for foreigners to Mingun where a past king had started building the largest stupa in the world. The hotel had bicycles for rent, and with the sun still leaving long morning shadows it was easy to find 26th St and head in the direction of the shadows cast. This took me through markets that were a throwback to a past Asia and to a river where commerce was flowing through a system of barges and ancient trucks driving up the beach and onto the road. It was easy to find where the tourists were standing around, park and lock my bike, and get a ticket for a half day trip.

The river trip had a chill wind getting from Mandalay to Mingun, but I still had my flannel shirt around my waist from the bus ride and I settled back into a wicker desk chair and snoozed part of the hour it took us to get where we were going. We could see approaching Mingun that there was an impressive pedestal dominating the land, a square platform rising 50 meters. Once we got there and saw it up close, I could see it had carved stone entryways into each edifice. One edifice was whitewashed and had a temple in its niche, but the others led simply to alcoves. The building had cracks running top to bottom from earthquakes, but the pile of bricks was formidable and had survived nature.

There were other stupas and pagodas in the area, the green hills were dotted with them, and one pagoda with steep stairs provided nice views of the countryside. There were some interesting huge boulders with inscriptions on the riverfront with stairs lined with Buddhas leading to them from right off the beach. There was a bell there reputed to be the largest hanging bell in the world that people were scrambling under to have it rung in their ears. But the most interesting thing about Mingun was the people and the small town itself. 

There were perhaps too many sellers of t-shirts and postcards, and also some who had written the word taxi on their bullock carts. Rather like a camel ride in an Arab country, there was hardly any place to take a bullock cart to, Mingun being very compact. But the simple rhythm of life was relaxing. I had watermellon fresh cut, only 100 kyat per generous slice, and fresh green coconut. I found a school festival with (very loud) recorded gamelin music where children were dressed in traditional costume. Monks walked among them as they went home through the marketplace. 

Although the boat left at 1:00 by noon I had had so much relaxation that I returned to the boat and positioned one of the wicker recliners so that I could nap in the shade with cool breeze blowing over me and my feet on the rails. I turned the chair slightly when the boat pulled away for the trip home and completed my night's sleep that way till we returned to the river bank where I'd left my bike and disembarked by hopping one boat to another.

At the boat office, someone who said he was 'director' told me I could ask him anything so I asked where I could get tickets for the dance advertised on a poster. He said I could just go there, at the address given (street coordinates pinpoint all locations in Mandalay). I said I wanted to visit the monuments and asked how I could get the composite pass, and he told me to go to the pagoda on the east side of Mandalay hill. The composite pass is $10 and lets you in to all the monuments in the Mandalay zone.

I was still tired when I got back on my bike but I almost instinctively thought a beer would be good and a place called the View Point would be the best place to have it, according to LPG. When I arrived by bicycle I found other followers of LPG had had the same idea. The view was still there but the bar by that name was undergoing reconstruction, and there was no beer to be had. 

The view was over the river to Mingun, where we'd just come from. River people below were doing something industrious on rafts or platforms they'd assembled on the river or on the river bank, hard to tell what though, they were too far below us. In any event, stalwart followers of LPG know that the book is not infallible, and after checking out the scene simply remount their bikes and move on.

I cycled back to the hotel, not easy to find because I'd forgot the exact street intersection, but someone in the street gave me the coordinates for the Nylon Hotel, 83rd and 25th and I honed in on it to find the Garden Hotel and retreat to the lobby. There I consulted my LPG, Kindle version, which I'm finding pretty unusable compared to the book with maps you can consult while checking the legend at the same time. But I found I could get an espresso at a place called the V-Cafe, just a few blocks away. It was on the way to Mandalay Hill with the pagoda on top dominating views from the city, so I bicycled over. It was a European food restaurant, and though the hamburgers and spaghetti didn't interest me, I ordered a double espresso for the price of a bottle of beer (1500). It smelled good but only filled half a cup so I asked for hot water which I added to make a cup of something like a Starbuck's. When I wanted to pay I was charged for only a single espresso, because the waiter said, it was in a small cup, just 800 kyat, less than a dollar. It came with a biscuit too.

I rode the bike north parallel to the moat and then turned east to ride along the north wall of the moat. The traffic was thinned out here and on my right just back from the moat the wall encircled a forest of several acres that was once the royal palace. From here I could spot the line of pagodas going up the hill, my destination. Eventually I got there after 45 min. cycling. I parked the bike with an attendant and my shoes with another and started barefoot up the covered walkway. 

I soon fell in step with a monk who struck up a conversation. I had read in LPG that it was commonplace for young Burmese to go there to chat up foreigners, not to hassle them, more like the people you might meet in Tunisia, just want to get to know you. In conversation I found that this monk became a monk when he was 11 and his parents couldn't afford to send him to high school. Now he was 26 and he was in a university for monks in Mandalay. He had just returned from his first ever trip to Yangon, and he'd never been to Lake Inle, my next destination. He was keen to learn English so I told him about Webheads and asked him to get in touch (so far he never has).

The foreigners hike to the top of Mandalay Hill for the sunset, which is glorious from there. Lots of Burmese were chatting to other foreigners, and native and visitor seemed happy to meet one another. On my way down, a couple of girls on the same route asked me to pronounce words they spelled out for me. One was Karaoke. Another was s-h-a-t-t-y. When I asked for more information, it turned out the word was from a Justin Bieber song. When the girl sang the lyrics I realized the word was 'surely' and she had been led astray by someone who had been inventive when transcribing the lyrics.

By now it was dark, and time to eat. There were some beer stations mentioned in LPG a little far from where I lived but I cycled gamely in the dark trying to find them. Driving a bike at night in Mandalay is daunting. Each intersection is dangerous. Many streets had no lights (same as my bicycle, no lights :-) and some had uneven surfaces. Lights coming the other way created a glare. Since I had no light or illumination, I just had to be careful, but I found Uncle Chan's beer station where LPG said it would be, in a compound with barbeque and food stalls. As LPG promised, the beer was ice cold and only 600 a draft, not even a dollar. I ordered food from pictures on a menu with no prices. A green vegetable soup appeared on the table, and then the pork dish came with raw garlic and coriander garnish, and the pork was cold. I had trouble communicating that they should cook it, and had to hand it back to the waiter. Meanwhile my mashed potatoes arrived, to die for! They were cooked in garlic and chili and were delicious. Then another plate of pork appeared, most of it gristle, which I didn't eat, so at the end I had a place full of gristle left after culling out the only edible titbits.

When I left there I had eaten vegetables and some pieces of pork meat, but was still peckish. Fortunately I discovered as I passed another beer station and pulled in that they have a quaint habit in them. When you stop in to order a beer for less than $1 they bring you that and a bowl of soup. I was still hungry so I ate the soup, garlic and ginger, with some whole dangerous chili peppers, which I set to one side. Then a plate of watermelon appeared, and some nuts. All this was free. At the end of my sojourn there I paid 1200 for two beers, just a buck and a half. And next night, same thing. When I stopped for beer I got soup and watermelon, and also popcorn. When I'd finish one helping they would bring another (if you finished your soup they even brought more of that, and you just paid next to nothing for the beer).

That next night I ate at Noo Noo, a Burmese restaurant singled out as typically Burmese in LPG. But this one was worth it. The food looked unappetizing in the pans behind the glass, but once it was in front of you and they started bringing more rice and refilled any bowl of greens or whatever the side dishes were, it turned out to be delicious (only one helping of fish though, chunky, melted in the mouth). Well, that meal was 2500 for the food, filling and good, plus 1000 for the Coke. In any event, eating is one more surprise after another in Myanmar.

The following installments of this traveler's tale are posted with photos:

Inle Lake and Bagan be edited and posted shortly (but not today :-(so, stay tuned :-)

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