By bedtime I had enjoyed fine dining, a local teahouse, backpacker chatter, city cycling, street food, Myanmar hospitality and had bought some sunglasses. Looking back it was a pretty good first day in Myanmar, even if it was followed by one of the worst night’s sleep I can remember.
My first task upon arrival at Mandalay International Airport, after security and collecting my backpack, was to change my US dollars into Myanmar kyat. As I did this (temporarily becoming a millionaire for the first time in my life!) some other Europeans from my flight queued for the ATMs and we all bought tickets on the same shared bus into the city. The heat hit hard as soon as I stepped outside the terminal building – the first two days in the country turned out to be the hottest of the time I was there.
I was first to be dropped off – at Dreamland Guesthouse on 69th Street. I vaguely remembered finding this place online a month or so previously, perhaps via TripAdvisor, and liking the description enough to give them a ring to reserve a room. Within minutes of arriving I was congratulating myself on a fantastic choice. This oasis of calm and creativity made me feel utterly at home immediately. From the walls painted with rainforest designs upon which hung dozens of colourful paintings produced in-house, to the clean bathroom with homemade shower gel and a hilarious poster explaining to Westerners how to use the water jet to clean after using the toilet. This was a place I understood, and which made me smile a lot.
As the other three that I had met in the airport were all staying in one place, I hired a bike from the guesthouse to find their hostel and say hello. But first I needed sunglasses, so I headed towards the downtown area and found a shop near Diamond Plaza that looked promising. They were very happy for me to try on a few pairs (and amused at my childlike grappling with Myanmar numbers), but I decided that none of them were the right shape for me, so on I rode, enjoying the breeze as I cycled through the afternoon heat of Mandalay.
A block away I saw a few locals around a stall selling some hot fried snacks, so thought I’d try one of each. The simplest of street food: battered and deep fried potato slices, sweetcorn and onion. The customer before me gave another taste of Myanmar hospitality by insisting on buying them for me!
I cycled on, nibbling away, towards the other side of town, around 57th Street, where I thought the other hostel was located. The main drag running East to West (35th Street) was wide and reasonably busy, but I never felt at risk on my bike. This was despite seeming to be the only one of three people in the city on them, as most Mandalay residents zoom around on their motorbikes or in cars. Fortunately they beep their horns every few seconds so you always know what’s around you and can get out the way if necessary.
I couldn’t find the other hostel, but no matter as I had what I really wanted – a taste of Mandalay street life. And even more importantly, I bought some suitable sunglasses from a roadside stall for 4000 kyat (somewhere around £3), before pootling off back to my accomodation. The staff at Dreamland Guesthouse are bright, creative and infinitely helpful: they answered all my questions, took my laundry to be washed, and arranged for me to be picked up on the back of a motorbike the following morning to tour some of the historic sites surrounding Mandalay.
After relaxing for a while and chatting to a couple of young Israelis in the sweltering heat on the roof terrace, I showered again then headed out on foot to find some dinner. I decided to get off the main road so walked up 68th Street and straight away found the Emperor Cafe and Food Hall. “Here’s somewhere I can get some nice Myanmar tea,” I thought, so walked in and plonked myself on a free table. Luckily for me one of the waiters brought over a menu that had pictures on one side! However, what I was really after here was tea, so tried to order some, and my obvious white face and terrible attempts at the language prompted a man on a neighbouring table to offer his help. He was a university teacher with decent English, so helped me order a cup of char zae – strong tea sweetened with loads of condensed milk. Just what the doctor ordered, and at 300 kyat (about 20p), very reasonable. I ended up drinking this almost every day in Myanmar.
I still needed dinner though, and wasn’t yet confident enough about tea house food, so walked one more block north to a quieter (and by this time, darker) road. Fortunately, this is Myanmar, so I didn’t feel remotely threatened walking around at night as I would in most big cities around the world. On this street I had a choice between two nice-looking air conditioned restaurants, both with enough locals in to reassure me of their quality. There was Raymond’s, with a younger crowd and a sign promoting the pizzas and pasta on offer, and the Royal Mandalay. The latter was a pretty posh-looking place. I went for the Royal Mandalay as I wanted some Asian food more than dishes I could find back home in Cornwall. It was a big and fairly grand place, with a few groups eating their dinner, plus me on a table on my own ordering a beer, crispy boxing chicken and a very tasty thai red duck curry from the extensive menu.
Walking back from dinner I saw some lads outside another, simpler restaurant playing with a plastic football, so asked if I could join in. They were keen, and when I mentioned “chinlone” one of them produced a rattan ball for us to play with. I worked up a ridiculous sweat trying to work as a team with the four boys, all trying to keep the ball in the air using feet, knees and head. We played on for fifteen minutes or so, only occasionally getting it stuck in the bushes or rolling across the street, with much laughter and smiles all round.
Obviously I needed another shower by the time I got back, and then I went to join some fellow guests on the roof who were drinking beer and rum and exchanging tales of their travels. After spending several hours out and about in the city on my own, cycling, chatting, drinking, eating and playing chinlone with Mandalay residents, I had a sharp sense of culture shock listening in to the conversation among these young backpackers of where they had been, how much pot they had smoked, and how many “authentic” experiences they had had.
By the time I got to bed my brain was so busy there was no chance of sleep, though the room was very comfortable (I was most grateful for the air conditioning). And at least the lack of sleep gave me the opportunity to get up before 6 to sample some typical breakfast at Emperor Cafe.
Looking back, it was a busy day. The next few days turned out to be equally well-packed and rest assured, I eventually got several good nights’ sleep!