A day at the Markets of Mandalay

Mandalay: Life on the River

Our second hotel in Mandalay, the Sahara, didn’t host the same crazy roof parties as the first but turned out to be a good deal: cheaper yet equally comfortable, closer to the Royal Palace and to the AirAsia shuttle bus. Breakfast here was also remarkable: a bit of continental, a timid tentative of British and, mainly, fantastic noodles and rice. With a full belly we ambled towards the Zegyo Market to dip into the local culture.
Before we found the market, the market found us: as we were still counting the streets we realized to be surrounded by fruit stalls and busy people hurrying back and forth. What a beautiful mess! It’s difficult to render the extent of the chaos reigning over the narrow alleys of the market with the tidy, rigid structure of a computer font. Bikes and carts were pushing their way through the stalls while pedestrians negotiated the little space left available. Kids were sleeping in wicker baskets, impervious to the bedlam, as their mums communicated with us trading smiles and gestures for pictures.

Women laughing at the Market
Mandalay-ZegyoMarket-nuns

We hate the “zoo approach” of tourists in exotic countries so Martina refrained from taking photos of people and only asked them if she could shoot their products. But they insisted that she took photos of them, and of us with them. Some of them also took photos of us and after every snap we showed each others the results laughing like old friends. Unsurprisingly, and to my relief, the fact I was wearing the traditional longyi attracted lots of favourable attention. I might have looked like a toolPerfect longyi knot to a western eye but most men gave me an approval nod pointing at my knot, as they know how hard it is to master that skill! Also wearing a skirt with that hot weather is incredibly comfortable, who knew!?

In the afternoon we headed to the jade market, the biggest of its kind in the world and the hub where most of Burmese money is traded every day. It’s probably not a good idea to buy there unless you know exactly what you are doing, as there are lots of fake stones and skilled sellers. Our driver Sean (I don’t know how to spell his name but he liked the idea of being compared to Sean Connery), told us many interesting details on Mandalay and Burmese life as he pedalled us in his trishaw along the dusty roads. A trishaw is an old Chinese bike with a hand-made sidecar attached, it can be very heavy – I couldn’t lift one – but they’re much smoother to ride than expected. I pushed Sean and Martina for a few blocks without a drop of sweat (maybe just a little bit), even though it was quite hard to control.

Riding a Trishaw.
It’s quite a long way to the market so we stopped to give Sean a break at the Shwenandaw monastery. The building is incredible, all made of teak, carved with a meticulous care for details and, despite being the most beautiful thing we had seen in Mandalay thus far, it was completely deserted. Just the two of us, not a tourist, not a monk…not even Sean.

Shwenandaw Monastery Mandalay
Shwenandaw Teak Monastery Mandalay

We finally arrived at the market after its activity had reached the peak: people were leaving, stalls were emptying, only few were still working the stones while the majority was busy discussing the day’s business and gambling. It’s interesting to see how gems are crafted with rudimentary tools and precise skills. There are some dodgy characters around giving the market an interesting shady vibe, without feeling threatening. More for locals than tourists, as a matter of fact – once more – we were the only tourists around.

Working the stones at the Jade Market
Gambling at the Jade Market

Back to the hotel we waved goodbye to Sean, he’s a really good man and I would suggest anyone to take a trip with him. You’ll find him stationed next to the Hotel Sahara entrance.
We started walking towards the Kywe Zoon Jetty which is where the ferry to Bagan departs but also, according to the guide, offers a majestic show on sunset with the water buffaloes dragging logs across the calm waters of the Ayeyarwady river. With the disappointing Icelandic seals still vivid in our memories we didn’t expect any buffalo. In fact we didn’t see any, but the spectacle still exceeded our expectations. In an almost surreal scenario, from our vantage point above the river banks we could see the lives of those dwelling in bamboo huts washed by the ocher light of the evening.

Misty sunset by the river

Again the darkness surprised us, it seems that in Myanmar the passage between day and night is less gradual. The idea of walking the 22nd road back in such condition was not the most appealing but one thing one never needs to worry about in Mandalay is finding a mean of transportation. In 15 minutes we were back to our hotel, after an exhilarating ride on two scooters, whizzing in the rush hour traffic.

Daily Expenses

  • 1 night at the Hotel Sahara (double room) $35
  • 1 Longyi at the market: 3000Kyats
  • An afternoon on a trishaw with Sean: 8000Kyats
  • 2/3 miles scooter ride 2000Kyats (each bike)

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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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