CURRENT LOCATION: Bangkok, Thailand (again...)
After our rather traumatising mini bus ride to Mandalay from Bagan, we decided to head out for a nice dinner approximately 1 km away from our hotel. The layout of the city centre, where we were staying, is a massive grid. This works really well in many cities and shows a significant amount of foresight by the city's founders (more than can be said about Auckland). However, and this is a pretty big however, the North to South streets are all named by numbers and the East to West streets are also named with numbers... So there are no street "names", per se. To add to this, many of the streets N to S and E to W do not span the entire city. For example, if you were walking along 73rd street, and you came to cross road with 34th street it's entirely possible that the next cross street is not 35th street as you might expect, but, is, in fact, 36th street... Or even 37th street. This befuddling situation would be completely redundant if there were any street signs. There are few. Fewer street signs than white people even. This made mapless navigation frustrating. Combined with our scrambled insides from our horrible bus ride and the prolonged hunger, our inability to find the restaurant we were after left us near death. Or so it felt. However, after 35-40 minutes, several double-backs and circumnavigations we found our restaurant and life returned. I think we even managed a few smiles and laughs over dinner.
Our first full day in Mandalay saw us heading to the Royal Palace. Now since our adventure started in Bangkok nearly 6 months ago, we have seen our fair share of royal palaces. So, to be perfectly honest, we've seen it all. It was going to take something really epic to impress us now (see more about this phenomenon in our last blog post). And you know what, Mandalay palace failed. It failed on so many levels. The palace was not a palace, but a reconstruction of what the palace grounds may have looked like. The palace was at the centre of a massive plot of land surrounded by 10m high brick walls and a truly impressive moat. Each of the four brick walls were at least 23km long! Massive. Once we entered the palace grounds it became clear that there was a serious military presence. I believe the grounds are used by government or military (not that much of difference here) officials to go about whatever it is that they do. Outside the visitor entrance there was a huge, red billboard that read in both Burmese and CAPS lock English: "TATMADAW AND THE PEOPLE, COOPERATE AND CRUSH ALL THOSE HARMING THE UNION." There were a number of heavily armed soldiers who were all very eager to make sure we purchased our ticket to enter the grounds. There were a number of vague maps that outlined where tourists were allowed, which areas were restricted and where it was ok to take photos or not. Despite all this, it was not particularly tense as you might think. It was just, as much of Myanmar is, strange (to us) and foreign. When we entered the gates we still had to walk about 1 km to the centre of the compound, where the palace was located and where we were allowed to take photos.
We arrived at the palace and quickly realised that it was not to be a top ten palace of SE Asia. We removed our shoes and socks, then started our exploration. There are a bunch of buildings that have been recently created (circa 1990) to resemble the traditional palace that would have stood there hundreds of years ago. The buildings were empty, there was no signage or context, and the grounds were relatively poorly managed. To say the building were empty is actually unfair, most of them had resident pigeons, by association, bird crap all over the floors, so would hate to have left that out. And remember how we had to take off our shoes? At the back of the complex there was a half-assed "museum" that housed a bunch of random memorabilia, a few actual historic relics and number of re-imaginings of apparel or costumes from the era. The one redeeming feature of the attraction was a massive lookout tower that you can climb to get a bird's eye view of the palace and much of Mandalay city centre. You could also see Mandalay Hill, which was to be our next destination.
But first, lunch. Lunch was delicious. We went to an American style diner called Cafe City. We had burgers and milkshakes. Ready to climb the hill.
We arrived at the bottom of Mandalay Hill where there was a covered pedestrian walkway that lead you to the top. Once again removed our shoes and socks and started up the steps. Up and up and up and up and up and up. There were about 7 or 8 false summits, and it just kept going. Unfortunately this cool location was not particularly well looked after. There was seemingly an attempt to restore the walkway with a number of men painting the beams that supported the covered walkway. However, most of the paint was on the concrete floor/steps. There was seemingly no attempt to prevent drips and when they obviously dropped their paint buckets, no obvious effort to clean the spill was to be seen. The many pagodas and buddha shrines on the way up were inhabited by scabby, very ill looking dogs and cats, pigeons and hawkers. It was a bit of shame, the premise of the site was great, and it had serious potential, but it was just lacking effort and no doubt proper funding to help it reach this potential.
When we finally made it to the top, about 1100 steps and an hour later, we were met with a huge sign that informed us of a 1000 kyat ($1 US) foreigner fee, however, there was no obvious place to pay this and no one was enforcing it. So we carried on to check out our well earned view. This aspect did not disappoint. 360° views of Mandalay and the surrounding hills, river, and wetlands. It was stunning. We took some photos, enjoyed the breeze and had a look at the extra shiny, glass-covered temple at the top and made our way back down. We decided to head back to our hotel for a couple hours before heading out for dinner and a traditional Myanmar marionette show!
The marionette show was pretty awesome. It was created by a master puppeteer about 45 years ago in an attempt to save the almost lost art to which he had devoted himself. It was a small theatre that seated 50-60 people, an area below the stage (but at ground level) for the band to play traditional music for the show, and the raised stage itself. It was decorated with traditional artwork, instruments, and of course puppets. The show began and Sam and I made up 25% of the attendees. We were given a brief rundown in English of what show would involve and the music began. We saw a woman doing traditional Myanmar dances as well as a number of "famous" puppet dances to an upbeat, drum-filled soundtrack. It was definitely impressive to see the puppeteers in action and while the majority of the time the puppet masters were hidden, at specific times the curtain was raised fully to reveal the masterful, delicate manoeuvres that the puppeteers were carrying out. Some of the puppet dances were really cool and others felt as though they needed a bit more practice. But overall it was a really cool cultural experience. Exactly one hour later, the show was finished, and so was our first day in Mandalay.
On day two we were feeling a bit fatigued from our climb the day before, but we decided to achieve what we had done at many a palace in SE Asia, to circumnavigate the palace grounds! We did cheat a little bit though, as we had gone anticlockwise around half the palace the day before we thought we'd just go clockwise today. Boom - whole palace traversed. We were heading back towards Mandalay Hill to check out a few temples we didn't have time for yesterday. We stopped off for some curry and satay for lunch then carried on to the temples. They were, and I can't believe I'm still saying this, really cool. We've seen A LOT of temples now, but these were both filled with tall white stupas placed in a massive grid. They each were adorned with bells, that chimed in the wind, and made for a very zen experience. Which is what you want at a temple I guess. However, the second temple was under refurbishment in the form of an angle grinder against metal rods, so the zen feeling quickly subsided. All the walking and climbing steps had taken it out of us, plus the heat and humidity meant by mid-afternoon we were ready to relax in the air conditioning before our journey back to Bangkok the next day.
Good thing we took it easy, because the road to Bangkok was not straightforward. We took the free Air Asia shuttle to the airport from downtown to airport, located 50km from city. This was actually a good service and despite arriving 30 minutes later than advertised, it certainly saved us further money and headaches. However, when we arrived at the airport, we soon discovered that the check in was after a security check, and they didn't open the security check until they opened check in. This meant we had to sit in the airport for over an hour, with the busload of people we had arrived with. After all we were all on the only flight to Bangkok for the day. This arrival lounge was not air conditioned, had one painfully overpriced cafe, non functioning free wifi, and deficit of about 20 seats for the number of people waiting to check in. Not great. Also, when check in opened, it meant that all of the people who were on the plane (our fellow bus takers and... Everyone else on the plane) were now in a massive line, being checked one by one, by a lone security officer. This queue took around 25 minutes to complete. Then the same plane load of people had to queue to check in with the airline. Another 15 minutes thanks to Air Asia actually having three check in desks operational (nice one!). Then a third queue for immigration. Then we queued for boarding. Good times. The flight was easy and comfortable, as we were surrounded by empty seats. An hour and half later we were in Don Mueang airport in Bangkok. The lines for immigration were huge, but were dwarfed by the line to get a taxi. From exiting the airplane to getting into our taxi took 3 hours and 25 minutes. Needless to say, we were not happy campers. The silver lining was knowing that we had a quality hotel to check in to and we knew exactly how to get there using the BTS monorail, as we stayed in the same place last time we were in Bangkok. We dropped our bags in our lovely room and immediately went out for a delicious dinner at our last destination for this epic adventure.
Lots of love,
Z & S
(Original post date: 26th July 2015)