Myanmar, previously known as Burma, another country that was on my bucket list that has been ticked now.
As usual, months before departure, I had to do some research and fixed my route in Myanmar. The plan was originally based on solo travel so I didn’t mind so much on how I get around and where would I lodge to keep in the budget. However, nearer to the departure date I changed my plans as some friends decided to join the Burmese club at the last minute so I ended up travelling with a few people and the overall experience was unforgettable. The best time to visit Myanmar is between December and May to be guaranteed a dry and sunny getaway and the temperature couldn’t be more pleasant.
The planned route was: Mandalay – Bagan – Inle Lake – Yangon.
Our route started from Mandalay, taking then a cruise to Bagan on the Irrawaddy River, flying next to Inle Lake then an overnight bus to Yangon – our final stop. A total of 8 days. Did I see everything? Absolutely not! There is so much to offer and to learn in this “mysterious” country. I use “mysterious” as I found it really hard to get accurate information either from the internet or even from local guides. The other challenge we had in the country was the communication. The spelling can be quite different between the guide book, local spelling and spelling on the internet. together with the distinctive pronunciation by the locals made it hard to understand. Maybe it would be different if you were part of an organised tour group with a professional tour guide. Travelling through the country on your own was not easy.
Mandalay is the economic centre of Upper Burma and considered the centre of Burmese culture. There is a continuing influence from Chinese immigrants, mostly from Yunnan province in mainland China. The city gets its name from the nearby Mandalay Hill, although the exact origin of the name remains unclear. The root word has been speculated to be mandala, referring to circular plains or Mandara – a mountain from Hindu mythology.
This city was founded at the foot of Mandalay Hill in 1857 by King Mindon as his royal capital. The hill slopes studded with pagodas, still looms over the city. But Mandalay was bombed in the second world war and the palace vanished along with many of the original buildings. The palace was rebuilt in the 1990s, and since then Mandalay has undergone a haphazard construction boom that was never about aesthetics. An ever-growing number of motorbikes and cars clog the roads too, making for a sometimes smoggy city.
By looking at Mandalay on google map, my instant feeling was that it must be very touristy near Mandalay Palace as you would expect as a focal point for a city. Therefore I selected the Aurora Hotel which is quite close to the palace as far as I can see from the map. The reality was Mandalay is very spread out, there wasn’t an easy way or a walking distance to access any of the popular tourist sites.
The day we arrived at Mandalay it was rainy and wet. The city was busy, as the infrastructure is still quite behind. The roads had become rather muddy after the heavy rainfall. When it’s sunny though the city can be very dusty and smoggy. None of us were impressed by this muddy city when we first arrived.
How to get into the city from Mandalay airport? Taxi services are available from the airport with a fixed rate costing roughly 10 dollars (15,000 Kyats each way). You will need to visit the taxi service window before exiting the terminal to purchase your ticket. There are always boys standing around the window and to help you carrying luggage which they expect some tips at the end of it. They will try and follow you regardless of whether you need their service or not, then they will demand a tip. There are also other options to get you to the city which you can take – bus or shared taxi. Cost of these two other methods are next to nothing.
Myanmar roads are a little interesting, most cars are imported second hand Japanaese cars with the steering wheel on the right but they drive on the right as well. The country used to drive on the left as a former Brisith colony, but following a surprise edict from General Ne Win in 1970, the direction of traffic changed overnight from left to right. The steering wheels of cars didn’t, so people had to rely on the honking horns and passenger guidance when merging into a lane.
How to get around in Myanmar? A good question, there are plenty of taxis and tuk tuks running through the city but are you sure you are paying the right fee without a taxi meter fitted? All taxis are not fitted with taxi meter so you would rely on the driver’s honesty. Most drivers will try and charge you a little more if you are not local which is quite normal everywhere you go. However, my friend recommended an App called Grab, which works like Uber. This app will tell you exactly how much you should be paying from one destination to another. Grab app is popular and well used in South East Asia. It also helps you to avoid mis-communications on how to pronounce your destination. Just pin down the location on the map and wait until your drive arrives with correct number plate says on your phone. No need to be frustrated if your driver doesn’t understand your accent. It is so convenient for foreign travellers. You must get this app before travelling.
Next post on Day 2 – The Monk’s Breakfast and Sunset over Ubein Bridge is coming soon.