Back to my visit, after the practicalities in a newly decorated airport so silent you could hear a pin drop, my passport stamped by kind immigration officials, my baggage collected from the luggage belt, I walked out to an almost empty parking lot where drivers of old taxis and combo minivans sold their services without that pressure so present in other south east Asia towns. The fairly long journey into town was characterized first by a long stretch of a newly constructed highway used by very few vehicles, surrounded by countryside, hills topped by pagodas and farms. And later by the total mess of the town outskirts, where roads are pot-holed, pavements are disjoined and home to locals who check out goods in small roadside shops selling anything you can possibly imagine. As we approached the town, the road got smaller and busy with cars, bicycles, rickshaws (here called sai kaa), trucks – some literally falling apart – emitting unhealthy dark fumes, people, dogs; women carrying wicker baskets filled with food on their heads, and men dressed in longyis – the traditional Burmese long sarong worn by both men and women – in a cacophony of sounds that invade the eardrums.
After settling down in a downtown hotel, I started my visit with a walk around the corner where, near a fruit shake vendor and a few men sitting down on plastic chair and chatting the day away, I met who would be my bicycle rickshaw driver and guide for the day: Jue, a calm and smiling dark-skinned middle-age man whose slim body displayed the hardship of years of pedaling his three-wheeled Chinese-made bicycle. Jue’s English was good enough for simple conversations, so I agreed on the fare and hopped on the seat of his vehicle.
Jue firstly worried about my hunger and took me to eat in a modern-looking restaurant where I was served fish curries, marinated prawns, small side dishes of all kinds of vegetables, all accompanied by spicy and non-spicy sauces. I ate till I dropped! With Myanmar cuisine being influenced by neighbouring countries like Thailand, China, India and Laos, a generous array of hot and cold dishes can be enjoyed seasoned to your taste with condiments like chilli sauce, shrimp sauce, soy sauce or lime juice. Local markets are the perfect place to see (and taste) Myanmar produce such as okra, long and green beans, and the speciality mohinga dish, a fish soup with fresh rice noodles which locals love to eat at breakfast; Mondi, a Mandalay favourite, is a yummy rice noodle dish with chicken curry; Shan noodles are another must-try dish.
I hopped again on Jue’s rickshaw and we left for another destination. Mandalay grid-patterned roads are busy with a kaleidoscopic mix of thousands of bicycle rickshaws (the city have 13,000 of them registered!), and Jue negotiated the crossings (most having no traffic light) with Japanes mopeds, low riding jeeps and modern cars, with a raise of the right hand to ask for the right of way. He stopped shortly after in a gold leaf workshop where we were able to observe the city’s skilled artisans at work: the precious metal is still hammered by hand thousands of times to produce gleaming paper-thin sheets that are bought by locals and rubbed onto Buddha sculptures at the temples.
Jue then pedaled along the city moat to catch a glimpse of the walled off Mandalay Palace, and stopped at an open air tea shop where we enjoyed a steaming and spiced Indian tea and I smoked my first Myanmar hand-made cigarette: a cheroot. Aromatic and spiced, these conical, slim and green cigarettes were very popular amongst the British during the days of the British Empire, with travelers through the ages referring the Myanmar people as “having the air of princes as they regally go about puffing on the cheroots”. Jue told me that a local woman can make up to 1500 cheerots per day.
Jue kept looking at his watch and eventually informed me that it was time to head to Mandalay Hill. On the way we made a stopover at Kuthodaw Paya, a unique and amazing temple compound that features a large gold pagoda. But the main feature are the 729 intriguing marble slabs inscribed with the entire 15 books of the Tripitaka, the sacred scriptures of Buddhism to be learned by all monks.
At the foot of Mandalay Hill I faced a dilemma: hike the 1729 steps to the top, or take the easy way. As the sunset was pretty near, time did not allow for the first option, so I paid the fare to a local motorbike-taxi who rode at an amazing speed along the switchback road, narrowly avoiding locals descending on foot, and let me off at the departure point of an escalator that covers the last few meters. I finally got to the top right on time to enjoy a bird’s eye view of the city below, as well as the amazing sunset with its palette of colours painting over the town and the surrounding countryside.
It is there at the top of the hill, at 240 meters above sea level, that the Buddha is said to have made a prophecy that in the year 2400 Buddhist Era, a great city would be founded at the foot of the hill, a prophecy that came true when Mandalay was founded by King Mindon in 1857. Once my Canon was happy with the shots taken, and my eyes content with the stunning sunset views, I started the descent of the hill on foot (barefoot!), which took me about 30 minutes. On the way down, I was rewarded first by a huge standing Buddha, his outstretched hand pointed in the direction of the royal palace, then by the sight of many temples, spirit shrines, places to stop for a drink and a rest, and souvenir stalls, which by that time were closing their trade for the day.
It was pitch dark by the time I got to the bottom, my feet swollen from the effort, and Jue was patiently waiting for me at the entrance, smiling, ready for the 4km ride back to my hotel. I paid him his fare, a tip, and waved goodbye. I went to have a meal of Indian chappati and mutton curry in a local roadside stall before hitting the bed early, totally knackered but filled with images and memories of the long and exiting day…
PART 3 FOLLOWS…