Meeting Mandalay, Money Mishaps, and Other Myanmar Reflections
When I arrived in Myanmar last spring, I was just about overcome by an irrefutable combination of feelings... I was excited... Nervous... A little bit puzzled, a whole lot mystified... and extremely hungover...
Here's a little back story.
The weeks prior to my arrival in Mandalay had been spent packing up my life in Korea, travelling through Hong Kong, and making my way from bustling Hanoi alllll the way down to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam.
The days prior had been spent quite literally raging in Bangkok.
You see, when I realized I'd need to have a stopover in the city anyway, that was the only excuse I needed to make it a little extended layover, and to visit my friend who lives there.
It should be noted that the friend I was visiting is one of my wildest university friends. We've had a couple of reunions in our Asia adventures, and they've always been epic, but nothing could have prepared me for our March and April shenanigans.
I flew in to Bangkok on St. Patrick's Day... That in itself was a good time... but, as luck would have it, there was also a music festival the next day... (which I, of course, was grooving at til the early hours of the morning... before heading to the airport to catch my flight to Mandalay).
I smile (and get a headache) just thinking about it.
It was a great weekend.... had a blast... lost all of my photos from that 40ish hours... (which I'll explain later)... but, would I do it again?? 100%.
...When I woke up the next morning, I felt justifiably horrible. So much so that I was only slightly revived by the 711 Toastie that Brad brought me in bed. For reference, these little convenience store grilled cheeses usually work hanger, hangover, and munchies miracles... but on that particular morning, it did not.
I got in a cab who proceeded to drive me to the wrong airport. When we were back on track, and I'd arrived at the correct airport, I spent the next hour running around looking for a place to print out another copy of my e-visa approval letter.
Finally got it all sorted and made it to my flight just in the knick of time.
Sooo, yeah... that's a little backstory on my arrival to Myanmar.
*note - the glitch at the 0:09 second mark is me tripping over a rock in the temple*
In fairness, I knew Myanmar was going to be a bit mind bending regardless...
At the time, I hadn't known anyone else to travel there, and, therefore, had literally no clue what to expect. To be honest, I kind of liked it that way. I didn't want anyone else's experiences or perspective to influence my own - I just wanted to go and wander and take it all in.
The plane landed in Mandalay and my brain kicked in to high gear. I felt those, "I'm about to explore somewhere totally new!" butterflies in the pit of my stomach... the kind that are always accompanied by mixed feelings of excitement and fear.
I grabbed my backpacks, breezed through immigration, and then headed to find an ATM.
I am an English teacher. Math is not my thing... Numbers make my brain hurt... especially when I'm tired (and hungover)... but I thought surelyyyy I'd worked out that USD to Myanmar Kyat currency conversation properly.
You can imagine my freak out when the ATM spit out the this massive wad (and I mean WAD) of colorful, elephant clad cash. I let out an involuntary, "Shitttt," before quickly shoving the money in to my wallet as best I could. I didn't want anyone to see how much money the solo girl with the too-big backpack had just withdrawn.
I walked away thinking, "OH MY *expletive* GOD I MUST HAVE ADDED AN EXTRA *expletive* ZERO AND JUST CLEARED MY ENTIRE *expletive* U.S. ACCOUNT,"... but trying to look cool, calm, and collected, I went to sit down and put on my best, "Hey all good - nothing to see here," face.
I tried to link up to wifi to figure out just how much *expletive* kyat I had just crammed in to my too small wallet... but there was no wifi. *Expletiveeeee* (Side note: Since thought filters apparently aren't a thing for me, I figured I'd try a bit of censorship for my mum's sake. Better, ma??)
I didn't find a wifi connection, but I did spot a counter selling SIM cards. I went over to get one, and, by the time I'd finished, the crowd by the ATM had cleared. Trying my best to look casual, I walked back over to try to redeposit the money - (lol). As it goes, the only option was withdrawal.
After setting up my SIM card, I realized I had been stressing over nothing. One of these bills was actually worth just around US$3.
I still didn't quite feel comfortable toting around a fat wad of wash without pepper spray on me as well, but everything turned out okay.
It's all very funny now - BUT IT WAS NOT AT THE TIME.
I bought a bus ticket, and, after waiting a bit, was on my way to Ostello Bello, the hostel where I'd be spending the next few days.
Side story: When deciding whether or not I'd go to the festival in Bangkok (which didn't take long), I rationalized my decision by saying, "Oh I'll just sleep on the plane and the bus and when I'm dead." I got ZERO sleep on the bus ride in to the city... as this was quite literally the bumpiest bus ride I have ever had in my entire life.
Even if it hadn't been a bumpy ride, I'm not sure I would have been able to sleep. I was staring, wide-eyed, out the window... soaking in all of this crazy landscape that I'd never seen before. Though it was business as usual for the people of Mandalay, it was extraordinarily foreign for me.
Confused as hell by the writing on the road signs, I attempted to scope out places I'd return to in the following days.
When I finally arrived at my hostel, my hangover had passed but I was exhausted. I took a shower, had some dinner, and completely crashed.
The next morning, I woke up early, ate the free (surprisingly delicious) hostel breakfast, and rented a bicycle for the day for 3,000 kyat ($2.14).
Like I said before, I had no real plans for Myanmar, so once I'd gotten my very rickety set of wheels, I just cruised around the city. This was low key terrifying because I had no clue where I was going... and because the roads of Mandalay were just as mental as most other big, Asian cities.
I was greeted with warm hellos and "Mingalabahhhh"s from little kids on the back of motorbikes as the zoomed by. These hellos came from faces, adorned with smiles and Thanaka, that radiated nothing but good vibes... and, so, within an hour of exploring, I was at ease.
Myanmar had been (and still is) a mystery to me... but I knew I had nothing to fear here.
I ended up cycling over to Mandalay Palace (into the wrong entrance), and was told by a very stern, military man that I'd need to enter through the foreigners entrance.
This Palace was actually pretty surreal. There wasn't too much to see... well, rather, there wasn't too much you were allowed to see. You had to check in, wear a visitors pass, and, as a foreigner, were not allowed to enter restricted areas... which was most of them.
I parked my bike outside the gate, as instructed, and walked straight down the road towards the palace... (which was also the only direction I was allowed to go).
After exploring the Palace Grounds a bit, I removed my shoes and wandered in to one of the many buildings, and, very quickly, all eyes in the room turned to me... before I knew it I had a cue of people waiting to take photos with and of me. Bet you can guess who my favorite was.
Later on, I met and exchanged emails with a school teacher who's class was out on a field trip, then practiced English with her students.
Photoshoots and English lessons are tiring, and at this point, I was hungry... so I cycled to the closest restaurant I could find, and brushed up on some conversational Burmese with the help of my waiter at lunch.
After getting some food, I biked/walked up Mandalay Hill, and was absolutely amazed once I reached the top.
It was sparkly and authentic and magical... and, though I'm trying, I still can't quite put that place in to words.
I again, was greeted by a group of young girls wanting to chat to all the foreigners and practice their English. Pen and paper in hand, the asked, and jotted down the answers to a million personal questions.
For each question I answered, I got a sticker... one of which stayed faithfully stuck to the back of my phone case long after I returned home.
As the sun went down, I started to walk back down Mandalay Hill to where I'd parked my bike... but then my sandal snapped... and after walking barefoot for awhile, I very willingly accepted a ride from a woman heading down on her scooter. With her baby in the front, and me on the back, she quickly whizzed me back down the hill to my bike.
So much for not accepting rides from strangers. Sorry, mum.
On my way back to my hostel, I stopped at another temple, and browsed through the world's largest book at Kuthodaw Pagoda.
I chatted with monks and locals, other travellers, and made friends with the cutest Burma pooch.Then, after returning to my hostel, as you do when you're backpacking with minimal shoe options, I duck-taped my broken sandals back together - Good as new!
All in all, Mandalay was a magical start to my Myanmar trip.
I had been SO nervous to come here... just because I didn't know anyone who had ever been... but, I guess that's the whole point in this travelling thing - seeing new places and meeting new people for yourself... finding out that the world isn't such a bad place, and the people in it, no matter how different they may seem, are mostly good.
If you want to learn and grow and challenge yourself, you've got to go beyond where the people you know have been before, beyond where you're been before, and out of your comfort zone entirely.
The Burmese people were so kind and helpful, I felt silly for having been so worried.
Up next in part 2 - read all about the second bumpiest bus ride I've ever been on, minor scooter collisions, and yet another magical, epic Myanmar adventure through Old Bagan.