Mandalay – A hidden charm
Mandalay is often skipped by travellers as they think the city is underwhelming and charmless compared to other cities in Myanmar. However, every city is different and beautiful in its way that makes them worth a visit, so I decided to give the city a try and was glad that my travel buddies made it there with me. Our time in Mandalay was rather brief. Since Mervyn wanted to ride the e-bike one more time before we left Bagan, we arrived in Mandalay around 5 pm after five hours on a minivan and stayed there just over a day, which gave us a chance to get a glance at the city.
Mandalay is the second biggest city in Myanmar with vast streets where vehicles buzz around. It is not the prettiest city in all of the country but it does have some things to see. A Mandalay bucket list often includes the iconic U Bein bridge, Royal Palace, Mandalay Hill and other ancient cities like Sagaing or Inwa, but we, or at least me, did not cover them all. Mervyn and Paula made it to see sunrise at U Bein bridge while Khadija and I were sleeping.
When Mervyn got back to sleep, the girls and I checked out a gold leaf workshop to witness the producing process of thin-golden leaflets that are attached on Buddha statues and pagodas since Mandalay is the main provider of those things throughout Asia. All four of us later climbed up to Mandalay Hill together and did some hilarious dancing in front of a pagoda near the bottom of the hill after. That was Mervyn’s idea and it turned out one of the best parts of our stay in Mandalay.
However, the best part of my stay in Mandalay was roaming around aimlessly through streets and watching locals go about their day to day routine. I did a walk to a neighbourhood of our hostel while Paula and Mervyn were away to the bridge and stumbled upon a local market. Everything was so exotic, colourful and vibrant there. Streets were clogged with flowers vendors and vegetable and fruit stalls. Bikes and carts were pushing their way through the stalls, while busy people hurrying back and forth, negotiating and buying stuff. How glad I was to find the market as I always make it a point to visit local markets in a new city just to gain first-hand knowledge of local lifestyle. Strolling around the city also offered me numerous opportunities to interact with local people, thus realising how nice they were. No matter where we went, we were welcomed by the locals with big smiles and friendly “hello”. They just kindly came up to us either to ask for some photos or to practice English. I could say Mandalay residents were among the friendliest people I had met in Myanmar.
It is the rare traveller who falls in love with Manaday at the first time as the charms of the city do not reveal immediately. It charms might come from the people and the way the city did not know its beauty. Mandalay turned out to be quite laid-back, peaceful and chilled and I wished I had had more time to discover it. I was just so rush in the last few hours in the city because of my night train back to Yangon.
Night train experience
I had heard about different experiences including positive, negative and neutral on Burmese train. Some said it was rather long, taking from 15 to 20 hours (still can’t beat my 27 hour-coach to Laos), bumpy, old and uncomfortable. Some described night train was their worst experience in Myanmar while others just loved it. For me, sometimes I was clueless of what to do on my trip but taking the train was a must-do thing of mine in Myanmar no matter how it was, and it did not let me down. Not at all!
If Mervyn got a bus back to Yangon where we met up later and Paula left for Inle Lake, Khadija joined me for the train. We had been told to show up at the train station at 4.30 pm but we were 25 minutes late and thanks to helpful people, we found our train and seats just in time for the departure.
We got upper seats for 9,300 kyat each, which was “luxury” enough for us. The train was swayed and bouncing, no air-cons, just opened windows. It might not offer us the best conditions but it was our rare chance to mix with local people and get insight into their lives.
What occurred on the train was a very real and enthralling glimpse of Burmese life. Kids nodded off with heads on their mums’ laps. Pedlars wandered through on a regular basis selling snacks and drinks. Some cars, especially the ordinary seat ones, were packed with people and their stuff, which gave them a look of little markets. People chatted as if they had known each other for long and very well. Some even gathered near the junction between two carriages to play card games and have some beers. I just immensely enjoyed watching those things!
The train also gave us opportunity to witness the kindness of Burmese people one more time. A train conductor helped us buy food on the train as we struggled to communicate with the local in English. We were given some tissues and asked if we needed any help by a local lady who sat in front of us. They were just so nice! No words could describe how thankful we were to them.
Despite the bumps, I slept quite well on the train but Khadija was not which made me feel a bit guilty. We arrived bang on time at Yangon station at 7:45 am, reunited with Mervyn, spent last few hours in the city walking around and meeting up with my Burmese friend after heading off to the airport for my flight back home and the other two’s flight to Malaysia.
Apparently, train is not for everyone, but I myself was glad that I took the train as it was both a unique and strangely enjoyable experience. We just couldn’t help but laugh at how bumpy the actual ride was as we had never experienced anything like it before. And the train acted like a window into the life of locals and expression of how the country works, giving me a priceless experience to witness the “real Myanmar”, see the countryside and interact with locals. The train journey was obviously one of the highlights of my Myanmar trip!
“This is Burma and it is unlike any land you know about it”. So said Rudyard Kipling in “Letters from the East” and it still rings true today. The country is nothing like I expected it to be. Myanmar is a country overflowing with integrated culture, magnificent landscape and friendly people. As far as travel experiences are concerned, it is definitely one of my best. It is just so mesmerising that I have fallen in love with it. Every time someone asks me where to go next, my answer is always Myanmar. It is changing fast, so go now!