But we did anyway, as we needed to use it as a platform to get to Hsipaw. And you have to go to Hsipaw. (We will get to that later)
We arrived at 4am on another freezing night bus and got a taxi to Smart Hotel hoping it had a 24 hour reception. Thankfully it did, and after thirty minutes waiting they had organised a room for us. We slept.
The hotel was… good… not great but it did have three very important factors that helped with our stay there. The first – they let us leave our luggage with them for a few days, while we headed to Hsipaw. The second – the owner, Terence – a worldly fellow who takes the time to stop and chat with us, in his dark aviator sunglasses, giving us an insight to some of the shadier sides of the country as well as random intermission of when he worked in Italy and all the ladies had short skirts. Very interesting to know, Terry, thanks. The third – Happy Hour at the top floor restaurant. The restaurant has little to no atmosphere, but the view over Mandalay was great and their Happy Hour cocktail, the Smart Sunset Cocktail, was delicious. The signs said one free cocktail between 6pm to 7:30pm, but we soon learnt, that the Smart Sunset Cocktail was free during those hours. We had a lot.
We had planned to spend the first day in Mandalay, wandering its streets. We lasted an hour, as it was about 48 degrees Celsius, and there is nothing to see in the downtown area. We stopped for a large and delicious lunch of rice and curry, before jumping on the back of a motorbike rickshaw to Maha Myat Muni Paya to see the gold Buddha. Sarah could only see it from a distance, but as I was equipped with the necessary requirements, I was able to walk in and up onto the platform with worshippers laying their gold leaves onto the Statue.
We headed back for a quick shower before heading out to the highly acclaimed performance from the The Moustache Brothers. Originally two brothers and a cousin, there are now only two remaining as the main brother recently passed away due to lead poising from the prison cells he was imprisoned in for speaking up against the regime. They are only allowed to perform the show in their own home, which was unfortunately located next to a conveniently placed loudspeaker from an adjacent stage that was seemingly blasting out government propaganda in an attempt to drown out the Moustache Brothers.
The show is now a shadow of its former self, with the remaining performers hanging onto the legacy of their brother. They played a couple of clips of the old days, which looked like it was hilarious. Well, it seemed hilarious to Aung San Suu Kyi who was in fits of laughter when the camera cut to her. It was worth going to see and the atmosphere was good, with beers flowing while cheroot cigars filled the room, but we are not sure how much longer they will be able to keep it up.
We had one day left in Mandalay, so we organised a day trip from the hotel out to some sites outside of the city. Another one of the tours that we hate, stopping off at the factories so people will try and sell us items for extortionate price, but we managed some highlights. Seeing the area where thousands of Buddhas were being dremelled, grindered and sanded into amazing sculptures was very cool.
We headed out to Mahagandayon Monastery, where we joined hordes of other tourists to watch a thousand monks line up for breakfast. It was quite hard to watch as other tourists got right in the faces of the monks to take pictures. We were only slightly better, though, as we had a zoom and stood back…Sorry Monks. From there we went to some more Pagodas (all beginning to look the same now) but did offer fantastic views over the countryside, with hundreds of golden spires poking up through the trees.
After a quick stop at a small school consisting of one football pitch entertaining at least 6 different matches on it at one time, we went on to another Pagoda, that we had noticed from the hilltop and looked considerably different to the other Pagodas we had seen. It looked like a giant golden…
We were dropped of at the only restaurant by the river, that surprise, surprise, had an english menu and comprised of “traditional” dishes dumbed down for tourists so it tasted like utter… well you get the idea. The fact that the restaurant smelt like how it tasted, did not improve the ambience. Annoyed, and frustrated that we had opted for the easy way out with a day tour, we got on the overloaded ferry across to Inwa, the ancient Imperial Capital of Burma. We had read that you get there and are swarmed by hawkers demanding you to get on their horse drawn carts to see the sites. We were over spending money we didn’t need to, so intended on walking. After 300m we realised, walking was not an option, thankfully one of the drivers was hanging out by a tree and offered us his services for half the price. Done!
While we weren’t that interested in seeing more ruins, Inwa was truly worth the visit. Unfortunately we did not purchase the City Ticket in Mandalay, which meant we couldn’t enter a couple of the sites, but it didn’t matter, what we saw was great. After an hour and a half on a bumpy horse cart, we stopped in the garden of a restaurant need the boat ramp, and enjoyed a cold Mandalay Beer amongst the shady trees before jumping on the boat back across. We thought it was overloaded before, but when the doubled the amount of people and added four motorbikes to the front, we got slightly concerned. With 3mm of boat above the waterline, we chugged wobbly arcross the river to the mainland. It was the longest 3 minutes and 30 meters of our life. Slight exaggeration!
We had one more stop. U Bein Bridge or the Teak Bridge. We had wanted to see this the most, and when we arrived as the sun began to set, we were not disappointed. It is a bus thoroughfare of commuters, monks, fisherman, tourists, birds and fried crabs. Even though it has gone the way of the tourist, it didn’t matter, it was beautiful. Built in 1850, it is said to be the oldest and longest teak bridge in the world, and it has been built in a beautiful part of the world.
We headed on home for a quick cocktail before our 4am train up to Hsipaw.