The road to Mandalay

After a few lazy days in Inle Lake, I was back on the move again. There were still two things I really wanted to do before leaving Myanmar – hiking in Hsipaw, a town in the hills of the northern Shan State; and taking the old, scenic train journey that runs through Northern Myanmar, between Lashio and Mandalay. Though the full train journey is 280km and takes around 15 hours, I was only planning to do the 7 hour segment covering the 140km between Hsipaw and Pyin Oo Lwin. There’ll be more on that in my next post…

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Great Burmese train journeys 

I decided to get a night bus from Inle Lake to Mandalay, spend a day and a night there, then get a mini bus to Hsipaw to do some hiking. Then I would take the train from HSilas to Pyin Oo Lwin, and get a connecting bus all the way back to down to Yangon for my flight back to Bangkok. I promise, it wasn’t as exhausting as it sounds when I write it all out like that!

Mandalay is Myanmar’s second biggest city, and even the Lonely Planet is pretty unenthusiastic about its charms, acknowledging it ‘doesn’t have a ton of immediate appeal’. However, I didn’t want to pass over it and decided to send a day there to see what it was all about. Overall, I found the people very friendly and enjoyed not having the pressure of a dozen ‘must see’ attractions to tick off my list.

I arrived off the night bus in Mandalay earlier than scheduled – something that tends to happen in Myanmar! I arrived at Hotel 8 at around 4.45am, with a reservation for the following night. I had decided to treat myself to a budget hotel, seeing as I was on my own again and spending the previous night on a bus, splashing out a whopping €25 for a room of my own. I genuinely don’t mind hostels, but there’s something wonderful about having a room to yourself now and again.

When I arrived the hotel staff couldn’t have been more welcoming, especially given the time. They told me my room was ready and I could go straight up. I was so grateful to be able to put my head down for a few hours and to have breakfast when I woke up, so basically I got a free night there.

I met a couple of other travellers in the hotel, and they invited me to come join them to wander round the city. While some people went off to have a massage, myself and a guy from Lichtenstein grabbed lunch in a busy cafe in the city, where it seemed like we were the only tourists. We had a delicious meal for next to nothing, and a man who was at a nearby table came over to say hello and tell us how happy he was that we were in Myanmar. He shook our hands and offered us cigarettes, and then came back two minutes later with two cups of coffee, which he had bought for us as a gesture to make us feel welcome. Shortly after he and over to say goodbye as he was heading home.

That evening, I decided to go to the famous U-Bein bridge, about 10km outside the city. Stretching out for 1.2km, it’s the longest teak footbridge in the world, and well worth a visit.

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A monk crossing the U Bein Bridge at dusk.

It’s possible to get a taxi to the bridge, but it’s a bit expensive to do alone. Instead I decided to get a motorbike taxi. For 8,000 kyat (about €6) he drove me out there, waited round while I walked over the bridge and around the area, and drove me back again. I can heartily recommend this experience. There were moments when, while swerving through the Mandalay rush hour traffic, beeping madly, I thought I was going to be flung from the back of the bike and head first into the Irrawaddy. But, for the most part, it was pretty cool. We zipped alongside the river and I watched the bustling city as the sky turned from blue to orange. I had a great view of people coming and going as the city moved from day to evening.

When I reached the bridge, it was almost time for sunset. I made my way slowly across, stopping every so often to admire the stunning view. It is an incredibly popular place and there are lots of tourists, but give the length  of the bridge, you don’t have to go too far to find a quiet spot.

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As I crossed the river, I was stopped three times by people asking if they could have a photo with me. I found this pretty funny but was obviously more than happy to do it. Two of the people were young women, who were keen to link arms like we were buddies. The other was a monk, who stood about a foot apart from me, as they are not allowed to come in contact with women.

 

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Sunset at U Bein bridge 

 

As the sky grew darker, I made my way back to my motorbike taxi, and we drove back to the city. I caught up with a few other backpackers I’d met earlier in the day, and we had a couple of beers. I headed off early enough and went back to my hotel to lie in peace, propped up on pillows, air con on, watching Die Hard 2 on TV. It’s not very rock’n’roll, but by this point in the trip I was just so happy to have my own room!

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