Sunset on Mandalay Hill

On our first day in Myanmar, we still believed that we could draft up a list of things we wanted to do and follow it. One of the obstacles to our plans was Maung Maung, a man different than all the others offering their taxi services: curly hair, thick wool sweater and exuberant personality. It was not long before we were heading towards Mandalay Hill, sharing the car with a French couple. Maung Maung entertained us with jokes, mostly political in a display of defiance, and when we arrived at destination he let us go without payment “I’ll wait you here“. A suspicious bell rang in our heads as we exchanged a quick look, but we accepted nevertheless. We would have needed a ride later and it was worth relying on him.

2_Mandalay_stairs

The roofed stairway crawls up the side of the hill until the Sutaungpyei Pagoda at its top and, being a sacred place, it has to be tread barefoot. We left our sandals with a lady at the entrance and we planted our bare soles on the cold, dirty surface of the first stone step. It did get easier soon but our first contact with the local germs and fungi sent a shiver up our spine. The climb is less than 30 minutes and offers an interest insight: all along the stairway there are little souvenir shops which are also where people actually live. The terrace of the Pagoda offers a wide view on the city, the sunset raises a mist from the moat around the Royal Palace, surrounding it in a mysterious light. Despite the amount of people the atmosphere was quiet and friendly, people sat in circle talking to monks, others knelt in front of some of the many Buddha effigies.

2_Mandalay_footprints

 

Before we even noticed it the light dimmed as dusk descended… how long had we spent there? Was Muang Muang still going to be there waiting for us? We shot down the stairway, avoiding the multitude of dozy dogs and waving at the families closing up shop while cooking dinner in front of the telly. Of course our driver was still there, we were actually within the agreed time and he still had to cash in. But he looked less enthusiastic than when we left him, and he wanted to upsell us some tour.
The more resolutely he insisted the more stubbornly we declined. The more we declined his offers the more he became disappointed and pushy. Eventually he told one of his jokes, and normal service was resumed.

2_Mandalay_stupa

Probably your best bet for a taste of local cuisine is one of the numerous, often nameless, tea houses along the road: concrete floor, plastic chairs, green tea bottle always on the table. However they seemed to be a long shot from the hygienic standards we are used to and we wanted to get accustomed more gradually. So we opted for the Lashio Lay, suggested on our brilliant guide: typical Shan food and slightly more clean than the average, without being a polished anodyne eatery for squeamish tourists. It was so good that during our stay we ate there three times. The staff was friendly, English was not widely spoken there but it was not necessary as there isn’t a menu and orders are taken as “point at what you want”. All of their food is displayed in tubs at the entrance, you tell them what you’d like to eat and they’ll serve you the little dishes with a huge bowl of steamed rice, a soup and their green tea.

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Back at the hotel we were reminded by the staff that it was Christmas and we accepted their invitation to join the party at the top floor. The view was good, there are not many tall buildings, but everything was so dark that all we could spot was some lonely vehicle’s headlight slowly piercing the pitch-black road. We were the only tourists in the majestic saloon, with as many staff members as customers. On the stage the amateur band was testing out their acoustic repertoire of international classics and local tunes, completely ignored by the guys necking a bottle of Johnny Walker at the table near us. I know the description doesn’t make it all glamorous, and in fact it wasn’t, but it was somehow brilliant and we absolutely enjoyed it even if we probably arrived a bit too late and miss the climax of the party.
The waitress brought us more beer, with some chapati-like snacks while the band silently packed up and left the room and the last scooter wobbled along the road, under the windows.

Daily Expenses

  • 5 miles taxi ride (to Mandalay Hill): 8000Kyats
  • Shoes deposit fee: 200Kyats per pair (you can take them with you and save this fee)
  • Pagoda Camera fee: 1000Kyats (they’re strict enforcing this but it’s worth it)
  • Dinner at Lashio Lay, for two: 7900Kyats

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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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