I was very excited and maybe a little nervous arriving in Mandalay as Myanmar was never in my original travel plans, it was kind of a spur of the moment decision to go after hearing such good things off people who had been there. So I hadn’t really done much research about the place and just composed a rough itinerary from the little that was wrote about it in my Lonely Plant guide to South East Asia.
As Myanmar has only been open to tourists for the last seven years, tourism is still not big in most parts of the country and backpacker hostels are rare. So I booked myself into a cheap hotel in Mandalay, which, whilst very basic, the novelty of having my own room and own bathroom felt like luxury.
Once I had checked in I went to get some late lunch before walking over to Mandalay Hill to watch the sunset. Walking through the city the friendliness of the local people was instantly evident. I’ve never seen a happier, gentler, more inquisitive group of people than the Mandalay locals with every person I passed giving me a big toothy smile and people passing on motorbikes waving or shouting hello. They seemed to have an authentic innocence about them and still wear traditional ‘longjis’ (long pieces of cloth wrapped around their waist to make a skirt type thing – both men and women) and put a yellow paste made from a plant root on their faces which acts as a sun block.
Once I got to Mandalay Hill I walked up the covered stairway barefoot (they’re big on taking your shoes off) passing many Buddhas and little stalls along he way. On my way up I got speaking to two monks who were English students and were very excited to hear I was from England. They were so lovely and full of questions and taught me a couple of Burmese phrases, but can only remember Migalaba (hello). The sunset was disappointing as it was a very cloudy day but the view over Mandalay was good and gave a sense of how flat and sprawling the city is.
The next day I went to visit Mandalay Palace which is central to the city and impressively large. Each side of the square shaped complex is 2.5km long and surrounded by a large fort moat. Once inside the complex I hired a bike and cycled around, although many of the areas were restricted to tourists. As well as the main ‘throne room’ there was also over 40 timber buildings, although most had nothing inside, as well as a spiral watch tower which had a good birds eye view over the whole complex.
The afternoon was spent looking around several Buddhist temples before heading to the rooftop bar of a hotel overlooking the Ayarwaddy River. I had purposely arrived around 5pm as I read it had awesome views of the sun setting over the river. What I didn’t know however was that 5–6pm they served free cocktails! Whenever my glass became almost empty they would refill it. I got speaking to three Londoners and an American girl and after the sunset we all headed out to a local bar for the rest of the night.
Whilst there was nothing overly amazing about Mandalay, and really it was just a big, spawning, dusty city, I still really enjoyed the place. I think with the amount of smiles and waves and kindness from the local people it would have been impossible to leave without a smile on your face too. Whilst the pretty palace, free cocktails and abundance of temples were all good, it was definitely the lovely people that made Mandalay memorable for me.