I woke early for my jaunt about the city of Mandalay.
Yael had paid for a motorcycle guide for the day..... I decided to walk and see. I like the ability to stop where I want, at times totally undetected.... This is rare when you tower above the locals.
Mandalay Hill was, according to GoogleMaps about 1.5 hours walk. I scoffed at this estimate, and at 7.45am grabbed my camera pack and hit the streets.
I smelled my way via Mandalay's eclectic streets. Some poorer than others, some busier than others. As a photographer who has now travelled quite a chunk of South East Asia including India the strangest thing I found was the willingness of the local people to have their picture taken, at times almost demanding it, all the while smiling and laughing. What a people thus far the Burmese have shown themselves to be. Many things happened today that I found quite moving.... Such wonderful folks.
I encountered a market on street 10. There was no mention of it on GoogleMaps.... Well why would it? It wasn't constructed for tall humans, nor anyone overweight. The Burmese are a slender race, as is my build, but navigating the narrow paths between the swathes of whole food produce was a challenge. Vegetables, fruits, fish and insects were all on offer.... along with the usual Asian market tat.
I was getting ever closer to Mandalay Hill, but still had a couple of kilometres to go.
When I eventually reached the foot of the 700 metre hill I decided to explore a little set of stupas (gold statues and the like, there's lots of them in Asia, they almost pale in to the background after a while). A monk suddenly appeared. Not out from the ether, he simply walked around the corner and made himself known. He removed the cigar from his mouth and began chatting in Burmese.... I am in Burma so what else should I expect? He smiled, I smiled, he chatted some more, I chatted back implying I was understanding the odd thing he said, he smiled some more returned the cigar to his mouth and then signalled for me to follow him. Which of course I did. I always follow strangers, especially strangers in robes. It's fun.... Usually.
He brought me in to his little sleeping quarters then served me a bowl of chopped vegetable spring roll with chilli sauce. It was delicious. He then disappeared and shortly returned with some filtered water. Why this kindness? He's a monk I guess.... and a Burmese monk at that! Does it get any better? Once again we chatted pointlessly, both feeling good, both smiling a lot. I indicated that smoking was bad for him, he nodded in an understanding way, then removed the cigar, sat cross legged and pointed at my camera. Ahhhhh, this was the 'take a picture of me' time. What a great guy.
We said our goodbyes and I proceeded towards Mandalay Hill.
I slipped out of my sandals and started the long ascent up the stone staircase.
It was hot. It was steep..... and by the time I reached the top I had counted somewhere in the region of 730 steps.
The views over Mandalay were impressive. At sunset there are hundreds of people up here. It was late morning, and there was maybe 15. Perfect. I wandered, watched and looked. It was peaceful up here.
As I descended the steps a pack of huge dangerous looking dogs saw fit to let me pass.
As I reached the road an old man on a very old motorcycle sidecar with wife as passenger slowed down and waved me to jump on the back. Of course I took him up on his kind offer. I kind of assumed he somehow knew I was headed back towards town. He dropped me on the outskirts, where within only 20 minutes I was lost amongst Mandalay's grid system.
I asked a student how I could get to where I was going. I was miles away.
He told me he would bring me. More kindness. I hopped on the back of his motorcycle and we tackled the crazy roads.... No giveway or stop signs here. Everything is run on a gut feeling. Terrifying at times!
10 minutes later we were on the street where I needed to be. I walked up, down and all around in search of the little recommended cafe for almost 20 minutes before I was informed it was the building under renovation which I had sauntered past almost five times. Said building was currently in the process of being transformed in to an ice cream parlour.... Slightly disappointed and with an ever increasing hunger I flagged down a motorcycle taxi. The temperature was almost 33 degrees celcius. A bit steep for my first few days.
I headed back to my little hostel and rested for an hour before exploring the nearby streets under the darkness of night. I had read about a very good street food area where a local Burmese family knocked out stunning curries.
It wasn't long before I was pulling up my little red plastic stool and pointing at various pots of curry. Before I knew it I'd sampled the mutton curry, the fish curry and the egg curry along with generous portions of steamed rice and side portions of raw carrot and okra.
Sitting with a full belly amidst the sounds of traffic and Burmese voices I began to ponder.... Had it really been a wise decision to eat so many different types of curry with a 3.30am rise ahead of me and a 10 to 14 hour train journey to the town of Hsipaw (see-paw).... I'd previously read that the train toilets here in Myanmar were best avoided..... We'll see.
I was late going to bed, and decided to stay awake until 3am. I showered, filled my water bottles, loaded up my backpacks and began the 25 minute walk to the train station. Five minutes of walking and a motorcycle taxi rider offered me a life. He quoted a silly figure. I told him I was happy to walk. As I walked away he continued to lower his price until he reached 'I'm happy to pay that'. Five minutes later I was at the station. Yael had my ticket she would arrive shortly.
As I descended the steps towards one of the train platforms I spotted a tall, beautiful incredibly leggy lady at the end of the platform. She had a backpack too. I walked down towards her and enquired about the platform and train. Her name was Laura. Laura was from Argentina. Her friend Judith was from Barcelona. We checked out seat numbers. Laura and Judith were right behind me. That was nice. Yael arrived with her huge backpack. I helped her load 'the beast' in to the overhead storage and we all made ourselves comfortable. It was 4.20am. As the train pulled away from the platform on time I thought to myself, 'things are looking pretty good right now.' Everyone reclined their seats to grab some rest before dawn. I reached for the handle on the arm of my chair pulled it up and remained in the exact same position. The only broken chair on the entire carriage was mine..... But things were still looking pretty damn good!