The pre-colonial capital is overflowing with motorbikes, dust, and construction. The old palace, with its huge moat, sits monumental in the middle of a bustling and mostly monochrome cityscape. Temples and Pagodas stand out from the drab landscape. I find something about Mandalay charming. It’s dirty (though not like Yangon), noisy, and most of the buildings are hideous, but I like it.
I eat a bowl of Shan noodle soup for $0.50, and walk around. I end up at Rainbow, a restaurant/bar with a TV in the back. American action movies are being shown. I have a Mandalay lager, a Mandalay rum, eat peanuts, and watch. I have stilted conversations with locals that really only know a phrase or two and don’t understand anything I say. When Con Air (starring Nicholas Cage) comes on, I know I’m going to be there for a while.
The next day I go see some of the sites by bicycle. The Kuthodaw Paya and Sandamuni Paya house rows of marble slabs telling the story of Buddhism. A monk completed it in the early 20th century. I climb up Mandalay hill, which takes you through a different temple on each level, past vendors. My favorite is the temple that has the palm readers, the vaulted white ceilings covered in black script. Near the top I meet So. He is one of the few Burmese that has managed to see a bit of the world, mostly through student scholarships. We chat for a while, and then he takes me more than halfway to the Ayeyarawady river, where I plan on going for sunset.
At night I see The Mustache Brothers, a comedy group that has been performing for years now. Two of the three brothers (one died in prison) and the sisters perform nightly for what now is a tourist audience. But during harder political times, they were a persistent voice of dissent in a place where public dissonance has often been met with brutality. They perform vaudeville, satire, and traditional dancing. After the show, I chatted with one of the daughters. A few teenagers also came over and wanted to talk, and practice their English. The performance was a bit funny, informative, but mostly reminded me that so often we deal with cruel realities through comedy. It can also act as a gadfly. The charisma of comedy will always win people over.
Traveling by road in Myanmar you are likely to pass through almost as many checkpoints (government, militia, or otherwise) as shining Pagodas in the green hills. I meet a German and a Czech on the mostly empty bus through the hills from Mandalay to Hsipaw. At Mr. Charles Guesthouse, we plan our treks into the hills for the next day. We eat at “Mr. Food” and then get some Mandalay Rum and Beer to have over conversation back at the guesthouse.
In the morning I am joined by my local guide and a Polish couple. We go up a buffalo-cart path, past farms, wild sunflowers, and huge spiders webbed into the brush. Local villages are starting to use solar and hydropower in the absence of any power from the larger towns. The fog covers us for most of the morning, but eventually burns off. It is not a technical hike, as we just follow the path, occasionally seeing a cart being pulled or a motorbike go by.
We arrive at a large village about lunchtime: around 200 families. We eat a delicious (vegetarian) lunch and then walk around the village. Almost everybody is gone working in the fields or elsewhere. There have been other hiking groups around as we’ve been coming up the mountain. At the one-room schoolhouse we run into them again. The doors are open and we are able to peer in. Most go right up and take pictures of the kids. They enjoy the attention, but I feel strange. It feels like gawking. I calmly observe, look at the posters on the walls, the lessons being taught in the five parts of the room for grades 1-5, and lay back.
The next day I rent a bike and ride around town. I ride along the railroad tracks and see kids flying kites along the river. Down the road a bit there is a monastery where I park my bike. A monk motions to me that it’ll be OK there. I wasn’t worried about my cheap Chinese rental bike in a monastery, but I appreciate the reassurance. I walk through the Chinese and Buddhist cemeteries, past a landfill, and into farmland. Eventually I reach the waterfall, which is nice, but leaves a little to be desired. It is dry season after all.