It’s 3 years ago to the day that I left Myanmar. I wasn’t there long, a whirlwind 21 days quite simply because the visa didn’t allow much more. It feels like a lifetime ago that I was surrounded by the grace and beauty of the Burmese but I still think about my time there daily. From the pink-robe clad she-monks to the families that somehow squeezed me on their already full motorbikes Myanmar was truly a place of the people. Interestingly it is also the only place where I’ve travelled with others; a beautiful trio of fellow foreigners also devouring the majesty of this place.
You don’t know what to expect from Myanmar, particularly 3 years ago with the borders freshly opened and a gentle hum in the memory of the countries troubled past. Recent visitees warn that ATM’s are yet to exist (although a select few had popped up by the time I arrived) and US dollar bills must be kept pristine; crinkle and doggie eared free, otherwise they won’t be accepted (truth). I remember standing in the airport, eyes seeking my hotel ride being nothing other than shit scarred, an unfamiliar feeling for me.
But Mandalay. The name itself somehow seems romantic. It evokes images of dreamy sunsets and open plains, which proved true.
We arrived here at a dismal hour of the morning, Myanmar seemed to have the most scattered bus timetables generally dumping you somewhere new at around 3am. It’s a safe assumption that at that hour after too long in transit nobody is having a good time, and somehow, wearily we got to a hotel and more importantly, bed.
I don’t read guide books. I don’t read travel blogs. I sporadically look at tripadvisor when I need a delicious meal. I mostly turn up somewhere, wherever a bus or train is going and hope for the best. I listen to stories, ask locals and peruse the pamphlets in lobby receptions. I can’t remember much about Mandalay. I ate copious amounts of ice-cream, found the best vegetarian restaurant Myanmar over (Marie Min), bought a traditional Burmese theatre mask and rode helmet-less on the cities motorbike taxis (sorry mum).
The highlight though was walking up Mandalay Hill. You wind up, barefoot, through an undercover stairway, dotted frequently with resting monks, market stalls that no doubt in time will become filled with typical tourist propaganda, and stray dogs. It seems at every turn you are greeted with both smiles and overwhelming views of the city and rice fields below. Atop, the 360° views are breathtaking, but even more-so is the temple, the gleaming gold domes against a patchwork of vibrantly and intricately tiled walls. As a foreigner you will no doubt be approached by one of the countless monks wanting to practice their english and if you really want to experience the magic of this place make sure to coincide with the sunset.
The city itself boasts the impressive royal palace and its surrounding mote. From here it sprawls, pancake flat and explorable by foot. There is an overwhelming contrast between the rich and the poor, with the city centre playing host to the shiny exterior of modern consumerism, flanked by the cities homeless and desperately poor.
I would love to return to this country one day but am terrified by the change that tourism may have brought. I hope that locals still invite you to drink tea with them to learn of new cultures, that families still squeeze you onto their motorbike and that you never have to feel in fear because the Burmese are the most honest and trustworthy people.
If there is one country that I really treasure it Myanmar, and I adore the road to Mandalay.