When I first put Mandalay on my itinerary I had the Robbie Williams song in my head and very little knowledge about what this city had to offer; well except the famous teak bridge of course. Even up until I arrived from Bagan I was still unsure of what to do. Group tours I looked at online seemed ridiculously expensive. Also, all the attractions I was interested in are quite spread out.
I booked to stay at Four Rivers Bed & Breakfast. A capsule hotel in Mandalay for $14 per night. While checking in I noticed they had a tour on offer for a very reasonable $6.50. All that is needed are 4 names signed up for the tour to run.
That morning there are five names already signed up, plus mine made it six; the tour was on. Chatting with the other people in the group we are not expecting much for the price, but are keen on just having a fun day. On board the van with me is a couple from Germany who love talking about all the places they’ve visited, making sure to show off at any opportunity, a new couple who have just met on the road and are soon going separate ways, meaning they are making out at every single freakin opportunity, and lastly a blonde guy with a camera who keeps to himself.
Driving down the road we get stuck in the morning traffic. There are so many motorbikes and cars, I miss the quiet roads of Bagan. A particular street is covered with Buddha statues and religious items, all carved out of white rock and in all sizes, some as high as the buildings behind them.
The first stop of the day is at the one of the monasteries to watch the giving of alms. I had heard about this before researching other locations that I would be visiting, but was not really a fan on the idea. It seems these days that tourists just take this spiritual commitment as a photo opportunity, getting right up in the monks face and thinking its some kind of attraction. I am not overly excited to visit, though I will admit I am interested to see what all the hype is.
Arriving on site to the monastery we are greeted by cars, vans and buses. It is obvious this is a touristic experience. Heading down the street, more and more people start filling the paths being noisy and overly excited. As the monks begin to walk down the road collecting their alms the tourist crowds inch closer, it nearly looks like the monks are on a catwalk with crowds on each side. I keep my distance standing back and using one of my zoom lenses. The whole experience makes me a bit uncomfortable, though I do have a great sense of respect for the monks and their dedication.
After waiting twenty minutes or so for the monks to finish their meals while the crowds gawk inside, the streets start to empty out a little bit. The monks head back, probably preparing themselves to do it all again tomorrow. I get talking to one of them named ‘ouh’, who tells me about his experience in the monastery, his love of Justin Beiber and that he has surprisingly met many people from my country, even having some friends from the town I went to university in. Lastly, he tells me that they go to U-Bein Bridge each evening to interact with the tourists.
I am honestly not to sure what to think of this, it seems like with the giving of alms and the nightly visit to U-Bein Bridge, the monastery is nearly just putting on a show for the tourists. That thought dampens the experience even more so I decide its time to move on to the next location and begin walking back to the van where the others are waiting.
The next stop is about a twenty minute drive away at a local temple. Its quiet there with only males being able to go into certain areas. Buddha statues line the walls sitting in a proud gold while the sun beats down. No one in the group desires to stay too long here and I encounter my first squat toilet. Guess it was bound to happen sometime.
Further up the hill we stop at Mandalay’s most famous temples, Sutaungpyei Pagoda. Its crowded here with Chinese tourists and locals. Unfortunately, there is a extra fee if you wish to take photos. At this stage I am templed out after Bagan, so I decide to leave my camera in my bag. This pagoda is on top of Mandalay Hill which provides stunning views over the plains below.
A short drive down the road we park up at a local school. The young boys are dressed in red, while the girls in pink. As we pull up the girls stop jumping rope and run up to us waving. Their bright uniforms matching the overhanging flowers in bloom. Wondering around the school yard during recess its easy to see the children are having lots of fun. A couple of guys join the young boys in a game of football, while I stand back, too worried about embarrassing myself.
Hitting mid day we head down the road to a port along the river while also stopping for lunch. The restaurant is in a large wooden building, with gaps in the floorboards and a heavy coating of dust you can see floating in the air. I order a portion of vegetable fried rice with a soft drink costing me $3.30. It surprisingly takes a long time to come out, especially since everyone else orders more complicated meals than me.
Down at the port we buy return tickets for $0.90 over to the area known as Ava or Inwa. As the little motorboat powers through the river the afternoon sun is high and the temperatures are hot. At the other side we are greeted by horse and carriages while men shout prices for tours. No one on our hostel tour really knows much about the current location so we just decide to split up and explore on foot.
The dirt road seems endless and many horse carts overtake us, but we power on, topping up the water supply as necessary. Small ponds dot the land and large gates show the way into the main area. Turns out once again there are more fees to enter the pagoda and we all decide against it. It honestly doesn’t take long to get over visiting temples. I am sure if I knew about the cultural significance of certain aspects and shared the same religion I would have a greater understanding, but unfortunately that’s not the case.
Back at the ferry port a bunch of puppies are lying around and its obvious they don’t have much time left in their little lives. I am not sure what is exactly wrong with them; whether it’s the heat, malnutrition or they’ve been injured. But, I feel as helpless as they likely do at this moment. We spill some water next to them, but there are no takers.
After a short trip back to the other side of the river we jump into the van. The last stop of the day is U Bein Bridge. This bridge is the only attraction of Myanmar I had some knowledge of before I researched Mandalay. The beautiful teak structure stands high above the waters below and carries on for an impressive 1200 metres. That may not seem like much, but when you are there and see how small each of the teak planks are it is truly something else.
I go my separate way exploring by myself. Whats interesting in Myanmar is that when you are walking the streets you will feel like you are the only tourist there. But, as soon as you head to some attraction you will realise how many people are actually there; but then they will suddenly disappear among the locals and you are the only foreigner again.
Being the dry season the water around the bridge is not that high. Of course this doesn’t stop the boats going out. I walk back and forth underneath taking a variety of photos. Children and animals play in the long grass and the temperature finally becomes reasonable. I decide to brave it and get up on the bridge. From below it looks high and from above it looks even higher. With no rails on either side I stick close to the middle, astonished by those standing on the edges.
As the sun lowers in the horizon the sky turns shades of orange and pink. It is truly a beautiful sight. As soon as it disappears from the sky I quickly head back to the van. Finding it in the dark would be impossible.
Overall it is a great tour organised by Four Rivers Bed & Breakfast, especially for the reasonable cost of $6.50. The van was in good condition and even though the driver did not speak English we were still able to have a laugh with him. It was easy to see he enjoyed sharing the beauty of his country.
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