Arriving in Mandalay

A welcoming parade

“Taxi!” “Taxi!” “Shared taxi!” “10 dollars” “eight thousands….” “taxi! taxi!” “….kyats to Mandalay”
I wasn’t expecting this. After a quiet flight and a smooth passport check in a silent room, we were assailed by a dozen of people, all of them shouting at once, each of them pulling us towards their ticketing booth. It took us a few seconds before we settled in this new urgent scenario and started negotiating. Few minutes later and after changing the car twice in the parking lot we were off to Mandalay with another companion sharing the rate with us. We drove past an AirAsia bus, which turned out to be a free shuttle service for passengers, and which explains why those people were so eager to sell us a taxi ride before giving us a chance to peek out of the airport doors.

Not all bad comes to harm and when we took a detour to drop off the other passenger, the taxi got stuck in a colourful procession of ox-carts where also the animals donned bright elaborated garments. Our driver, rather than getting nervously frustrated as one would expect, got off the car to enjoy the show, smiling at us: “wedding!”

Cerimonial Ox Cart in Mandalay
The hotel was exactly how I imagined it, borrowing images from novels about foreign correspondents of older, more adventurous times. A decadently luxurious establishment, out of which flocked few kids in uniform to relieve us of our bags. We checked in with four receptionist at the same time, confused in excitement. They might not have the military rigueur of an old European hotel staff but they made it up with a sincere, heartfelt, will to help. We took the lift amidst a volley of goodbyes and thankyous, watching uneasily the tiny bell-boy, bent under the weight of my backpack, fearfully waiting for his back to snap. I insisted to carry it myself but after a while I desisted, as I feared I was going to hurt his pride.

We left the hotel determined to spend Christmas at the tourist office, then at the royal palace and a final dinner at the positively reviewed Too Too. None of this had of course happened.

Street of Mandalay
We soon realised that in Mandalay there are no proper pavements: the space between the street and the front of the building is used as an extension of shops and houses (sometimes the distinction of the two was quite blurry), and insidiously bisected by a foul smelling gutter only intermittently covered by wobbly slabs. The result is that you do most of your walking on the street, braving the chaotic traffic, and proceeding more slowly that one would guess looking at the map. In fact people are either idling on the pavements or travelling on wheels, nobody walks.

The time-travel station of Mandalay

We approached the station from the wrong side and had to walk along a long wall that seemed to house a great number of families, living there with no roof and sharing that dusty strip with unhealthy-looking dogs. Anywhere else we would have felt threatened but here we felt safe: everyone was minding their own business, sometimes looking at us with curiosity as if we were a couple of friendly aliens to smile and wave at. Kids were happy to test their English with us, which mostly goes from a basic “hello” to the more advanced “what is your country”. A couple of them even ran to me and went deliriously happy when I replied “mingalaba“.
How long until they too start cynically seeing us as money cows to milk? How many ruthless tourists, selfie-hunters, and “bucket list” fanatics will take to bend the attitude of this beautiful people?

Burmese child in Mandalay

The visit at the tourist office, inside the station, offered a trip back in time. The absence of electronic displays, advertisement and the limited amount of travellers gave it more the looks of a library than a railway station. The information office itself was anachronistic, and the absence of computers and screens was striking. I love these places where you still have to rely on the knowledgeable tourist office sorting you out with a few phone calls, rather than on a mobile app.

Daily expenses

  • Taxi from the Airport: 4000Kyats each (AirAsia offers free shuttle bus)
  • 5 minutes ride on Trishaw: 1000Kyats
  • 1 night at the Hotel Queen: $45

  

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After being in Rome a few times without even looking at the Coliseum I realised that there's more to travel than sightseeing: meeting the local culture is what, 10 years later, determined the birth of this blog.

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