Myanmar is a country unlike any I have been to before.
Men wear skirtlike longyis and have teeth stained red with betel nut juice. Women and children decorate their faces with gold tree bark paste. Monks walk in solemn droves up the streets, flip-flops lightly brushing the dusty ground.
When I first arrived in Mandalay, I was struck by the differences between Myanmar and many other Southeast Asian countries I have visited. For one- I was a rarity. When I set out to the local market to shop for jewelry, I was followed by hordes of giggling children who would jump behind the nearest wall or stand when I turned around to look. One brave one would rush up, say ‘Hello!’ and then rush back to their friends. When we went out to eat, the restaurant servers would take turns bringing multiple menus, just to have the chance to look at me. One boy, who looked to be about 12, sat staring and giggling throughout the entire meal.
After living in Thailand for a year, where tourism runs rampant and waiters are more likely to fight over who has to serve you then who gets to serve you, it was quite a refreshing change.
My first day was spent touring Mandalay. We hired a private car, to show us some of the temples and ancient cities around Mandalay. We began the day touring a couple of pagodas, where I still was drawing quite a bit of attention from the locals. Many women came up and asked to take selflies with me, which are probably on Facebook somewhere. It was very odd in a sweet way.
At 10:15, we were able to witness the monks lining up for their breakfast at Mahagandaryon Monastery. Although the monastery was in a very peaceful setting, it was a bit strange to see other tourists lining up to take photos of the monks. I wonder if they are annoyed with it, or happy with the financial support that having tourists visit brings.
After that, we headed for the ancient cities of Inwa and Sagaing. Sagaing hill was very steep, and we were grateful to be going up it in a car, although I saw several brave souls biking up in the 40 degree heat.
Inwa turned out to be our least favorite part of the day,. You have to cross the river to get there, and once there are harassed by horse cart drivers to take a tour. Most of the sites are not free, and charge a 10,000 kyat admission (which seems to be the case for some historical sites in Mandalay). In the spirit of not contributing to the government, we decided we wouldn’t pay for the steep admission fee. (This includes Mandalay Palace, which was apparently built by forced labor). We opted out and sat drinking coconuts in the shade and people watching instead.
We ended our day with sunset at U Bein’s Bridge, paying 8,000 kyat for a sunset boat ride. Our boat guide was lovely, telling us all about how much he loved American movies and how thanks to tourism, he now speaks 3 languages! Seeing the setting sun fade down into brilliant hues of pink and orange was truly a beautiful way to end the day.