Mandalay is a wonderful city, in northern Myanmar. It’s the second largest city in Myanmar, and also my favourite one so far. They say that it’s the people you meet on the road help shape your trip, and they couldn’t be more right when it comes to Myanmar. The people here are the nicest I’ve met, and in spite of the fierce competition for low paying jobs and services, general poverty, and extreme weather conditions (feel factor of well over 40 degrees centigrade), they all manage to maintain a smile on their face.
As my bus docked into Mandalay’s bus station, there was a swarm of locals at the bus door, offering to carry my bags and drive me to my hostel. I refused each one of them and moved away from the crowd, where this young boy asks me if I need a taxi. He wasn’t like the others, he genuinely seemed to want to help and I told him where I wanted to go. He said he could take me, and during the taxi ride we got talking, and he told me he was also a tour guide and would be happy to show me around Mandalay, if I wanted. His name was JoJo, as I would later learn, he was 22 years old, and he was a devout Buddhist who stayed with his family just outside Mandalay.
Now, JoJo had one of those serene, monk like faces. He dropped out of high school a few years back because conditions at home were rough, and because he wanted to make money. He drove a motorbike taxi for a few years, and once he had saved enough, he bought a car and became a taxi driver. He told me that since this was low season, and tourists were scarce, he would take me on a tour of all the key spots in Mandalay (in a private AC taxi), all for $35! I couldn’t say no to an offer that good.
He picked me up early next morning from my hostel, and we started off with the famous Mahamuni Pagoda. It’s Mandalay’s most famous pagoda, and the image of Buddha at this temple is regularly applied with leaves of gold. The legend is that an old King requested the Buddha to leave an image of himself behind for people to worship, after visiting the King’s lands. An image was built and Buddha breathed upon it, giving it the significance it holds today.
This was followed by a visit to an actual Buddhist monastery where over a thousand child monks were in training. I got to see the distribution of alms.
After that, we went to Sagaing, a hilly region full of pagodas, just outside Mandalay. It offered a good aerial view of Mandalay.
From there we stopped for a quick lunch and then I visited the old capital of Mandalay, Inwa. It’s a tiny region that’s accessible either by horse carriage or on foot. It takes around 5 hours if you want to walk, I rented a horse carriage, and it took me around 2 hours.
(A word of warning: Inwa is hot. There is close to no shade at any of the monasteries or pagodas, and the ground heats up to something that feels like a bed of fire. Being Buddhist monuments, there are no shoes or socks allowed… it really, really burns.)
Through all of this, JoJo was a little concerned because I was running through these monuments fairly quickly. He had the day planned taking into account a set amount of time at each of these places, and every time he dropped me off at a place, he kept saying ‘slow slow’. But since I was alone, and I tend to walk really fast, I was shaving off a significant amount of time from his estimates. Fortunately for me, JoJo was happy to take me to a few additional spots, and his smile never waned.
Once we had gone through the additional spots as well, JoJo drove me to the final spot, and highlight of the evening, the U Bein Bridge. The bridge was built in the 18th century and is the oldest teak-wood bridge in the world. It’s around 1 km long and offers one of the best sunset views in Mandalay (the other being Mandalay Hill). I got here early and had a couple of beers at one of the many restaurants at either end of the bridge. It was beautiful.
On my next day out in Mandalay, I decided to walk to the remaining tourist spots – each a short distance from my hostel. I visited the old Royal Palace (worth skipping), the pagoda with the biggest book in the world, and scaled Mandalay Hill for a sunset view of the city of Mandalay.
The biggest book is not as you would imagine. It is, in fact, 729 individual tablets engraved with scriptures; and each one of them has been enshrined by a mini temple of its own – thereby making it the largest book in the world!
In terms of food, restaurants, and other things to do, there’s nothing that particularly stood out for me in Mandalay. Myanmar is still in the nascent stage of tourism, and everything is local and small scale. The restaurants are pretty expensive for what they offer though, and expect to pay 2-3 times the supermarket price of water or a soda at any of the tourist spots.
Through all of this though, my best moments in Mandalay are the conversations I had with JoJo. I even booked a day trip with him to Pyin Oo Lwin, and I will write about that in my next post.
Would my time in Mandalay have been the same had I not met JoJo at the bus station? Definitely not. I’d probably have scrambled to move from one place to another, clueless of where to go next in the blistering heat and not seen more than half of the places I did. Besides all of this though, it was my time with JoJo that has given me a lot more perspective to take with me for the remainder of my travels.
His way of thinking and approach to every one of his life’s problems makes me believe that truly pure people do exist. In one of our talks, I asked him how he felt about the British invasion of Myanmar. He goes on to tell me, in depth, of why the British wanted to conquer Myanmar (gold and ruby deposits, and teak wood), the extent of what they took away from the people, and about how it left Myanmar years and years in the past. He then suddenly stops, smiles and says, “But we are Buddhist people. We don’t hold grudges. We forgive everybody.”
I want to write so much more about JoJo and the many things we spoke about, but this post would get too long, and I don’t think I’d do justice to the conversation or be able to convey the true emotion and sentiment behind it, but I will still try and cover some of it in my next post, along with some other interesting stories from Pyin Oo Lwin.
I know you’ll never end up reading this JoJo, but thank you for being one of the highlights of my trip. I hope many more tourists take your taxi. And I hope you never stop smiling…