The Road to Mandalay
Looking at the map, Bagan and Mandalay are fairly close to one another, but the bone-crunching reality is that between these two places the road is like a goat track. One shouldn’t be surprised by this given that most roads in Burma seem to be of the goat-track kind! The journey between the two areas is about 7 hours on a local bus along a largely unpaved, dusty road which travels through endless dry plains and poor villages.
Mandalay is the second city of Burma and sits at the heart of the country. Most tourists will pass through here at least once as it serves as a transport hub for all points in every direction. Many of the people I spoke to before arriving in Mandalay had a generally negative attitude towards the place and I think this mainly evolved from the alleged below-par palace charging unsuspecting tourists US$10 to enter. Again, another Government sting but given that it’s not worth visiting anyway, there’s probably no harm done.
Mandalay is HOT in the dry season and the temperature reaches more than 40C (104F) most days. At night, it is also VERY hot and because the electricity in Burma is very sketchy, there is a better than even chance you will spend some sleepless nights in a lather of sweat. No air-conditioning, no fan. Just heat and humidity.
The food in Manadalay tended to be quite cheap and of a fantastic quality. The best by far was the mutton curry from the Chapati Corner. A small dish of oily mutton curry, a couple of freshly made chapatis and bit of biriyani… One of the best street side meals I have ever had. Another good place was the Nepali Restaurant listed in the Lonely Planet. Good food, good price.
OK, so why travel to Mandalay? Are there any sites? Well, yes. I’d recommend going to see the big wooden bridge at sunset and visiting a bunch of the old royal capitals. None of it was spectacular, but definitely worth a visit and easily enough to occupy a full day of touring. One cool thing to observe were the package tourists at the monastery in Amarapura. OK, it wasn’t cool. It was actually quite shocking. At 11am, the monks from the monastery gather to have a feed and there is a bit of ceremony about it. Well, bus loads of tourists roll up to have a look (us included!). But the manner in which people were interacting with the monks was hideous. Hoards of people sticking their cameras in monks’ faces, yelling and asking them to move or pose in a certain way and generally treating the whole situation like is was some sort of zoo exhibition. If this doesn’t make you cringe, nothing will. But at the same time, it was interesting to observe and gives the opportunity for self-reflection. Are we any better? Probably not.
I’ve read many stories comparing Bagan to Angkor. First of all, there is no comparison. Totally different feel. I preferred Angkor much more for the following reasons. Firstly, Bagan is not set in a jungle. When we were there, it was like it was in the middle of the desert complete with searing heat. We got a horse and cart around the sites, although some had suggested a bicycle (like in Angkor!) – needless to say biking was out of the question.
I really wanted Bagan to be magnificent, but the polish was removed when travelling into town on the public bus from Mandalay, all foreigners were ordered to leave the bus 5 miles out of town to pay money at a checkpoint. It felt really uncomfortable to be on a bus packed with locals only to be asked to disembark to pay a fee. And the handful of foreigners on the bus felt similarly uncomfortable – especially when one went to pick up a brochure on Bagan and was asked to pay another US$5! Funny in hindsight, but a symbol of the lunacy of the Burmese Government.
There are plenty of reasonable budget accommodation options in Bagan, but food tended to be on the expensive side and was generally of average quality despite the multitude of options. Perhaps this is due to the predominance of package tourists in this small, rural town.
OK, so the temples – how were the temples!? To be honest, I wasn’t that impressed. Sure, there were thousands of them. But many of the biggest and best could not be fully accessed due to structural concerns. Ordinarily, this would be reasonable – but given the amount of money being generated down the road at the checkpoint from tourists, surely there is enough to fix some of these temples. Sadly, it seems very little of that money goes back into temple restoration/improvement. Many of the smaller temples lack atmosphere and your entry into them is often interrupted by locals selling paintings. Not vastly different to Angkor, but at least in Angkor you could find solace once past the invisible line which is the entryway. In Bagan, no such line exists.
Whilst I’m generally negative about Bagan, it is worth a visit. As is everywhere in Burma. Just don’t expect to come back gushing. Rather, expect to come back questioning everything about the place, just as you do when leaving places like Yangon, Mandalay and Kalaw/Inle Lake.
What a very interesting place this is.