I often tell my travelling companions that a good way to gauge my mood is to look at how many photos I take. The happier I am, the more I click away. Over two full days in Mandalay, I took three pictures of the city, all from the window of the breakfast room at my hotel. But let’s back up a bit.

The boat to Mandalay

Saturday morning I got up at the ungodly hour of 4:00 am in order to board a boat scheduled to depart Nyaung U at 5:30 am for its journey up the Ayeyarwady river to Mandalay. The taxi picked me up at 4:35 am and drove in the dark to the boat jetty. All I could see by the side of the road were some early risers cooking over open fires in front of their houses.

I was guided by flashlight down a muddy path to the boat, which actually looked quite nice and comfortable… and smaller than I anticipated. In total, we were only 9 passengers, all foreigners. We had padded chairs in an indoor cabin, but as soon as the sky got lighter and the air warmer, everyone moved outside. We had been on our way for about an hour by the time the sun rose.

Despite the high price of the cruise ($35) relative to other forms of transportation, I am really glad I picked that option. For a whole 12 hours I got away from the dust, the dirt, the pollution, the traffic and the honking that seem to characterize Burmese towns and cities. I had nice chats with people who spoke and understood English. I read a novel while watching river life. I had a cold beer while enjoying the sun and the refreshing breeze. Bliss. I almost wished I was on a one-week cruise instead of one day. I knew that way too soon we would be in Mandalay, and I hadn’t heard very nice things about the place.

Just before sunset we arrived on another muddy shore, and were immediately swarmed by taxi and songtaew drivers. An American couple and I decided to share a taxi since our hotels were nearby and after negotiating him down to a fair price ($4) we were on our way. At first sight, the busy city reminded me a little of Yangon.

From heaven to hell

Nylon Hotel was a step above what I had in Nyaung U, yet only $20 a night. And the WiFi, although slow, actually worked. When I ventured out to dinner though, I only had to cross a couple of streets to realize that this traffic was a lot trickier to negotiate than Yangon’s. Mandalay has a plethora of motorcycles (completely wanton vehicles) and no stop signs or traffic lights.

I went to the first restaurant I found, Mann. Despite being filled with travellers, I was very disappointed at both the quality and quantity of the food. Since it was full, they sat me with this young Swedish woman, Emma, and we had a good chat.

The following morning, after a disappointing breakfast consisting of one under-cooked fried egg, toast, and jam with the consistency of taffy, I walked to the Air Asia Travel & Service Centre to see if I could change the date of my outbound ticket. I was scheduled to fly out of Mandalay on January 22, but now wanted to leave earlier.

It was only a walk of six blocks, but took all the nerve I could muster just to cross the traffic-chocked streets and try not to step in the gutter off the broken and obstructed sidewalks. I feared that the office wouldn’t be there, or wouldn’t be open. Finally I spotted it, across a four-lane boulevard. Oh man! A small boy stared at me and asked me in English how I was doing. I waved my hand to mean “so-so” and pointed at the impassable road with an air of total despondency. In the end, he came across with me and helped me avoid becoming road kill. I walked into the Air Asia office sweaty and with an elevated heart rate. “I want to change my flight date” I told the clerk breathlessly. “I just want to get out of here.” Fifteen minutes later and $76 poorer I walked out with a plane ticket to Bangkok for January 14, two days later.

For the rest of the day, I only ventured out of the hotel to eat. Mandalay has a few “attractions”, but nothing that seemed worth getting down into the dusty noisy streets for. I had a lot of writing and internet surfing to catch up on anyway. Listening to my iPod with my noise-cancelling headphones, I was actually able to shut out the endless honking for a while.

One sight that I wished I could have photographed was a construction site where young women carried bricks to and fro by piling them up on their heads! I am not kidding. One of them had 10 bricks riding on her head. Yes, most tasks are still done manually in Burma as there is almost no machinery, but this is pushing it a bit!

Day trip to the ancient capitals

On Monday, my last day in Burma, I joined a couple of Israelis on a “tour” of the main attractions around Mandalay. We paid $10 each for the services of a driver and songtaew. This guy could barely speak English and he wasn’t a guide. He just dropped us off at the different sites and waited.

A songtaew is like a pick-up truck with two long parallel seats at the back. Being in the open air, we were exposed to the all the dust, fumes, and noise that makes Mandalay, despite its pretty name, such a hell hole. This town is so dirty that the leaves on the trees look grey, covered in a layer of dust. Driving through, it looked like the whole town was just as bad as the centre. There are virtually no nice buildings; everything is concrete, and charmless.

At the edge of town, as we entered the “suburbs”, concrete 4-storey buildings gave way to wooden houses and garbage dumps, then fields and huts. It’s surprising how quickly a busy city transforms into villages without electricity or running water.

After a brief stop at a wood carving workshop and store, we drove to the ancient capital of Sagaing where we were instructed to climb a gazillion steps to a golden temple with a view over the town and river. Unfortunately, the “smog” made for rather poor photos.

Our next stop was Inwa, another ancient capital, reached by a short boat ride across the river. Once on the other side, horse carts awaited and tried to charge $9 to take tourists around the sights. My companions were not keen on it so we started walking. And walking. And walking some more, and we hadn’t yet reached the first sight. Finally we gave in and stood by the side of the road. A songtaew soon stopped. Hard negotiations followed. After walking away, we finally got our price of $2 each to be taken around.

The sights consisted of a wooden monastery where little novice monks studied, the ruins of an old watch tower (at the end of a bone-rattling ride on rocky dirt roads) and another monastery in a different architectural style dating from the 19th century. We were also forced to buy a $10 combo ticket to see some of these sights.

Lunch was also an extra expense, and although food was plentiful, I didn’t find it especially tasty. In fact, all the food I’ve had in Mandalay and surroundings has been disappointing.

The last stop of the day was U Bein’s Bridge in the town of Amarapura. This is the world’s longest teak footbridge, and spans 1.3 kms over lake Taungthaman. It’s made up of wooden planks that creak and clap as you walk over them, yet it feels rather solid, as crowds of people cross it in both directions.

That night I had another meal of greasy noodles. Fortunately, I also got some free Chinese tea to help wash it down. I think the best food I had in this city was at the ice cream shop across from my hotel. One night I had a banana split for dinner!

I’m sorry, but I couldn’t find any redeeming quality to Mandalay…except perhaps the cheap draught beer (60 cents a mug).

Getting out

Finally Tuesday morning came. Relief was in sight. But first I had to get to the free Air Asia airport shuttle, five blocks away. I would have braced myself and walked it with no luggage, but loaded with three bags, I decided to look for a taxi for the short ride.

The guy at the hotel said it should cost 1000 Kyats ($1) but the taxi drivers were adamant that it was $2. For $1 I could get a ride on a motorcycle. I pointed to my bags to indicate that I was a little too loaded for a motorcycle. “No problem” the guy said. I should have known, looking at entire families with cargo riding motorcycles, that for them this was small potatoes. Time was of the essence, so I grudgingly accepted. Immediately I was fitted with a too-large helmet, which provided about as much protection as a party hat. The driver put my two smaller bags in front of him (the larger pack was still on my back) and off we went into the fray. Fortunately I was distracted from the deadly traffic by the thought that I might get head lice from this helmet. But when I took it off and saw the filth in it, I doubted that even lice would want to spend 5 minutes in there.

The bus was large and comfy (made in Japan is my guess) although the driver was driving it bare feet! We got to the airport without incident an hour later.

Conclusion

There is something about constant filth that is deeply demoralizing. Being such a clean person, I think it slowly sapped away my travelling joy and energy. That’s partly why, after only 18 days, I decided I had seen enough of Burma and was ready to leave. And it wasn’t just the streets that were dirty. Even the hotel rooms were rarely cleaned to western standards. It’s almost as if they ran a wet rag over the sink and toilet and called it a day. I was just yearning for sparkling fixtures and a blemish-free bathroom mirror.

The other main things that frustrated me, as I’ve mentioned many times, is the almost-impossible-to-use internet connection. I’ve also been travelling non-stop now for 7 weeks. It’s time for a break.

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