Part 1: Mandalay
The first thing you notice about Mandalay is the dust wafting throughout the city’s narrow streets and alleys. Minimal pavement and a fluster of activity at markets, tea houses and restaurants creates a stirring and liveliness that you feel as a prickle in your nose and between the hairs on your forearm. Just a short block away from our southeastern hotel was an outdoor market, the first corner pungent with baskets of dried fish. Further south the road was slippery with the husks of shucked corn strewn haphazardly in the street. And just a few doors away, storefronts glittered with the gold and crimson monk attire dangling from the windows. The city is certainly an assault on the senses, but an assault that’s enjoyable, even desirable.
On the first day, with a few new compadres we met in the airport and hotel, we braved the streets of the market for our first Burmese meal, wolfed and slurped as we hunched on foot-tall stools in the cramped back room of a market stall as the rain plundered the tin roof. It was a familiar moment I hadn’t felt in a long time–where you eagerly show up to a restaurant, stomach empty and angry, and, like a smack to the back of the head, you realize you can’t order. You don’t speak their language and they don’t speak yours either. And so, communication is reduced to nods, pointing gestures, and grunts. And when they lay the bowl of unfamiliar meats and grains in front of you, you’re greeted first with a sigh of relief (yay, food!), then a quickly sprouting curiosity (what exactly am I eating?), followed by a sharp pang of worry (is this going to wreak a multi-day bacterial havoc on my stomach?).
Luckily, the first meal of noodles, mixed with pickled vegetables, was successful. And after nodding a vigorous ‘thank you’ and handing over the still-unfamiliar colorful kyat bills (pronounced “chat”), we meandered on to a tea house–a national pasttime. It soon became very clear that the people of Myanmar spend a lot of their social hours chatting over a cup of tea, sweetened with a thick layer of condensed milk at the bottom of the ceramic mug. Beer, wine and whiskey were all more challenging to find, but tea houses were abound.
The following day we hired an eager taxi driver to haul us in the back of his truck to the outlying “ancient cities”. Our first stop was a wood carving shop with men crouched outside, whittling away at hunks of sandalwood and other local varieties. The shop was more like a dusty little gallery, stuffed to the brim with hand-carved pieces–everything from Buddhist or Hindu iconography to puppets to local hill tribe head masks carved once a year and used during annual sacrificial ceremonies. Unlike the Balinese tourist-trap-tours, who were tourist-eager and ready to sell every last scrap of handmade goods, the Burmese woodcarvers were more modest, quietly whittling, not at all pushy about selling.
We headed to a monastery just outside town. On the leafy road linking two buildings on the monastery grounds, the monks gather in two straight lines to collect their lunch for the day.
Clad in crimson-dyed robes, the monks line up, barefoot, elbows cupping their alms bowls, patiently waiting for the lunch, given to the monastery each day by a different donor.
Back on the tiny truck, our driver zipped us over to Sagaing, one of the country’s old capital cities, where we climbed what seemed like a never-ending staircase to a hilltop temple overlooking the Mandalay valley.
Dogs lazed in the shade, a few families were walking on the colorful tiled floors as we meandered around the chedi.
After Sagaing, we were entreated to a bizarre look at the emerging tourism industry. Our taxi driver dropped us off at a boat dock, instructed us to pay the ferry across the river to Inwa, a small village resting on a man-made island in the Ayerwaddy. From there we were to rent a horse cart for a mere 6,000 kyat and tour the temples from the back of a rickety cart.
And so, when in Rome…
Immediately swarmed by hawkers shoving jewelry and bells at us, we finally managed to rent two carts, each driven by a betel nut-chewing man with leathery skin and a squat pony. Since it was rainy season, the cart, with its giant wooden wheels, was tugged through thick mud and water as deep as two feet. We passed oxen carrying large loads of bamboo and locals shuffling along on the dirt roads, carrying materials in wicker baskets perched on their heads.
Our horse cart driver led us from temple to temple, and to a few monasteries (which required a mandatory $10 multiple-entry fee, which we skipped). On the tour, we passed a few tourists, crouched in their own horse carts, but mostly found quiet, tourist-less areas of the temples with beautiful Buddha images perched quietly in the chedis. We visited the famous watchtower, rocketed into a sideways lurch after an earthquake. A local man once told me that this particular relic of the past had been deemed Myanmar’s very own leaning tower of Pisa.
I befriended a local seller for a few quiet moments outside one of the monasteries we decided to skip. A whole group of tourists had just entered and I was resting under the shade of a tree near the entrance. The seller, a young woman of around twenty, offered jade necklaces, dangling from her wrists. Cheap she insisted. I declined. She insisted again. We both looked at each other and for a brief moment, we put aside the seller-tourist roles and chatted for a few minutes as simple humans. Charmed by her sweetness, I decided she was a seller I could support–instead of the persistent and annoying hawkers who follow you and yank your arm to get your money.
So, under that shade tree, I bartered for two necklaces. We settled on a fair price, and, just as I was cradling the crisp kyat bills, ready to seal the transaction, a flock of tourists began to exit the monastery, an equally large gaggle of persistent hawkers following the tourists in-step. They were precisely the hawkers I was trying so hard to avoid. Well, they caught me, bills in hand. And suddenly, I was their next target. Like vultures, they surrounded me.
“Miss! Miss! You buy!”
The charming woman disappeared in the flock. I tried shuffling back down the road to the horse cart but the other women were persistent, crowding the path in front of me, reducing my step to a mere shuffle. I was surrounded by hands waving necklaces, silver bells, bracelets and postcards in plastic slips. I was surrounded by voices pleading with me, offering their goods and prices in sing-songy voices. One young girl was trying to convince me to exchange a $10 U.S. bill into local currency.
I kindly repeated a string of “no”s and “thank you”s and head shakes, smiling but persistent in my refusal. I climbed into the horse cart and, as the driver kicked us off down the road, most of the women dispersed, springing their tactics on the wispy, white-haired tourists who were still lingering around the nearby hawker stalls.
I chuckled as we set off on the rocky road. But as we rounded a corner, I heard a familiar sing-songy voice trailing us. It was the young girl with the $10 bill, pedaling hastily after us on bicycle. I averted my eyes but she knew I saw her.
“You change? Okay? Yes?!”
She dug into her front basket and pulled out the U.S. bill.
When I didn’t respond, she produced a jade emblem bracelet, waving it as she steered one-handed.
“Okay?! You buy bracelet? Good deal! One thousand kyat. Very cheap. Okay? You buy?”
She followed us for a long five minutes, her legs pumping against the foot pedals, her voice high and steady. She was desperate to get just a little money. Somehow.
But as we rounded a corner toward the end of the road, she disappeared. And the tour ended as abruptly as it had begun. Our horse cart dumped us right back in the muddy tracks near the river’s dock, with different young women proffering necklaces and silver bells all over again.
Back on the other side of the river, our taxi driver collected us after this bizarre tourist trap experience and hauled us off to our last city of the day, Amarapura, one of the most famous ancient cities. We headed straight to the U Bein Bridge (prounounced “Oo Bain”), a 1.2 kilometer teak bridge spanning the Ayerwaddy River. As the sun began to nestle into the clouds on the horizon, our small group walked the bridge, dodging the local Burmese tourists snapping photos, strolling monks, and women balancing wicker baskets on their heads, walking briskly from one side to the other. Boats of tourists scattered on the water below. This was the local hang out spot for families, couples, solo travelers. People were gathering here to enjoy the river, enjoy each other’s company, and to sit and ponder the wonders of life in this mysterious country as the sun dipped below the horizon.