I bought a bus ticket from Bagan to Mandalay for 8,000 MMK (6.24 USD). That price was pretty low so I shouldn’t have been surprised when I saw how tiny my bus was. I was picked up at 4:00am and driven to a little white van in Old Bagan with the words ‘OK Express’ printed onto the back windows. Sufice to say there was no sleeping that happened on that bus. We took dirt roads for 6 hours from Bagan to Mandalay. At one point I’m pretty sure we drove through a dried up riverbed.

It was a bumpy, cramped, uncomfortable trip, but it was nice to see the Burmese countryside. There’s really just nothing out there. It’s a step back in time. At one point we stopped at a little restaurant for food, and I bought some Burmese snacks because they looked like they were chocolate flavored. It was a peaceful little place. A woman monk in her pink robes sat alone, quietly eating her breakfast. The plastic chairs arranged around the tables were more comfortable than any lawn chair I’ve experienced before back home in the U.S. Clearly, these people have figured a few things out that we haven’t.

Eventually we entered the city of Mandalay. I had pretty low expectations for this place. Mandalay is, by almost all accounts, a dusty, nowhere town. And as we rolled into town, I can’t say that I disagreed. My first impression was pretty consistent with what I had heard.

Hotel Review: Hotel Sahara

Price: 30 USD per night

I stayed at a place called Hotel Sahara. It cost me 30 USD per night, which is a little pricey. Ideally I would have just stayed in a hostel, but as far as I know, there are no hostels in Mandalay. This hotel was awesome though! It is probably the cheapest hotel in town, and it is too legit to quit. The room was nice and clean. The air conditioner was a monster. The staff was very helpful. When you book a night in the cheapest hotel Agoda has to offer, you expect it to suck, but this was an outrageous value for what I paid. If you are in Mandalay, definitely check this place out.

Exploring Mandalay

I was pretty tired after that bus ride, so my first order of business was to sleep. When I woke up it was late afternoon and I had no prospects. So I walked out the door and made friends with the first people I came across. They were a group of Italians that were on their way to see the Royal Palace. That plan was fine by me so I decided to join them. To show you just how big this palace is, here's a map of Mandalay:

The palace is surrounded by the moat you see above. Each side is 2 kilometers long. From our hotel, it was a kilometer to the nearest entrance, but when we got there they said that no foreigners were allowed to enter there. We would have to go to the other side. That was another 2 kilometers of walking. It was really hot, but we trudged onward. At long last, we reached the second gate. It was around 4:35 when we got there. We went over to the gates to buy our tickets in but they told us that they stop admitting foreigners at 4:30pm.

Whatever. I didn't really want to see your stupid palace anyway.

We found some shade, bought some water, and discussed what to do next. We decided that we should go to the U Bein Bridge. The U Bein Bridge is the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. Teakwood is a common tropical tree that is used commonly in Burma for everything from their trademark facial make-up, to, well, bridge building. It was supposed to be the thing to do at sunset, so we would need to get a taxi there (or something) immediately in order to make it.

We headed out the main road and put our thumbs. We were having no luck with taxis, so I decided to get a bit more aggressive. I went over to a covered pick-up truck (these sorts of trucks often carry people from place to place in Burma) that was stuck at a red light and asked if he was a taxi.

"No, no, no" he said, waving his hand at me.

I said "Okay" and walking away, scanning the road for another vehicle to solicit a ride from, but just then he called to me and beckoned me back over.

"Where you go?" he asked, in almost indecipherably terrible English.

"U Bein Bridge, Amarapura," I said as slowly and as clearly as I could, in an attempt to maximize the chances of him understanding me. I was probably butchering the pronunciation.

"Okay," he said quietly, with a gesture towards the back of his truck.

"Okay? U Bein Bridge? Taxi?" I asked, a bit confused.

"Yes, yes," he said quietly, eyes now facing front, as if he was distracted by something.

"How much?" I asked.

The man looked back up at me, shaking his hands back and forth, "No, free," he said.

"Free?? .......why?" I asked, skeptically.

"Yes, free," repeated the man. He clearly didn't speak enough English to tell me why.

"What he say?" my new Italian friend called to me, in thick Italian accents.

"...He says he will take us for free," I called back to them.

They all happily jumped into the back of the truck, like we were getting away with something. I cautiously climbed in behind them, and the truck started moving.

"Guys, we're all going to get murdered!"

They laughed and reassured me that sometimes people just do nice things.

I got out my phone and tracked our progress towards the bridge with my GPS anyway, just to make sure. Sure enough, he was taking us in the right direction, so I chilled out a bit and enjoyed the ride. It was actually a cool drive. There was a slight delay waiting for a train to pass, but other than that the wind kept us cool.

After about 15 minutes of driving, the man pulled over. This is it! He's gonna take us around back and shoot us! He walked around to the back of the truck, and began attempting to clarify our destination. I hopped up into the front seat to help guide our way there. While riding next to him up there I attempted to reaffirm the free-ness of the ride he was giving us, but there was no further information to be had.

Eventually we got to the bridge, and the moment of truth arrived. We tried to pay him anyway, because we appreciated the gesture, but he refused, and drove off. He was actually kind of stand-offish, which is a weird way to be when you're doing somebody that big a favor. This was not a short ride. It was a 45 minute trip out to the southern outskirts of Mandalay to get there. Here's the route:

He could have made a solid 10 USD from that trip, which is pretty substantial here, but he refused the money. Wow guys. I've gotten cynical.

U Bein Bridge: The World's Longest Footbridge

We then turned our attention to the bridge. All around us there was street food being sold. On our left a massive pagoda rose up from the jungle of umbrellas and trees. On our right we could see the muddy ground slope down to the banks of the lake. Children played in the parked boats.

We made our way through the crowd, which was mostly composed of Burmese people, and found the bridge. Sunset was just starting, and it was gorgeous. The swampy lake, full of scraggly trees, and fishing boats, made an interesting foreground for the striking colors of the sky. Monks walked down the bridge talking to each other. Burmese locals waded through the water below, which was only about waist deep, collecting... something. I don't actually know. Here's the gallery from the walk across:

It was pretty a pretty sky, but the bridge itself had seen better days. The U Bein Bridge was built in the late 1800s and it was clear that the boards had been there since the very beginning because, in many places, they were unsettling flimsy. Falling through the bridge did not feel like it was out of the realm of possibility. I'm a big dude, so if it was going to be anybody, it was me.

One the other side we found more dirt roads, and corner shops. We turned the corner to walk underneath the bridge that we had just come across to hire a boat to take us back across.

We hired a boat for 10,000 MMK (7.80 USD) to take us back to the other side. It was a pretty ride in the low light.

The Story Of A Burmese Refugee

When we got to the other side we were hoping that maybe another taxi would drive us back to our hotel for free, but our luck had run out. We haggled a price of another 10,000 MMK (7.80 USD) for the ride back.

As the only person in our group who spoke no Italian, I sat up front while the rest of them socialized in the back. I started talking to the driver and he spoke excellent English. He said that he had learned to speak English a monastery. He said that his name was So So.

"So So like 'not good'," he laughed.

He began talking to me about the opening of his country 4 years ago. "For us in Myanmar, there are 3 types of tourists, do you want to know the 3 types?" he asked.

I laughed and said that I did. Here's his list.

  1. Treasure Tourists
  2. Lonely Planet Tourists
  3. Garbage Tourists

The first 2 items on this list were pretty self explanatory, but I asked him to give me an example of a 'Garbage Tourist.'

"The Chinese!" He said, without missing a beat. It'd be very politically correct of me to deny that I relate to that, but I do. I think everyone in Asia does. Chinese tourists are pretty awful.

Then I asked what kind of tourists he thought we were. Where did we fall on that spectrum?

"I think you are between treasure and lonely planet," he laughed.

Whatever bro. My mom says I'm a treasure.

He went on to tell us about his history of political persecution in Burma. When he was in university, maybe 18 or 19 years old, he was involved in a big protest against the government. Many of his friends were arrested, but he managed to run away. He ran all the way to the Thai border, which he crossed illegally. He had 2 friends that lived outside of Burma, and they both lived in Thailand, so he went to meet one of them in Bangkok and find work there. There are no shortage of Burmese migrant workers in Thailand though, and it was a hard life there. He told us about being stopped by the Thai police because he looked Burmese and being questioned about the legality of his status in Thailand. He said that he was very nervous, but told the police, in English, that he was Filipino, not Burmese. The English apparently sold them, and they apologized and let him pass. Eventually he returned home though, and he is pleased with the direction his country is headed in now.

There were still a few things that I had left undone in Mandalay, like actually exploring the palace, and going up to Mandalay Hill, but to be honest, it all seemed like it would be pretty boring. But Mandalay itself wasn't boring at all. It was real. I'd rather catch a glimpse of real life in a place than smile politely as it tries to fabricate tourist attractions for my amusement. Most places don't have any "attractions", but that doesn't mean you shouldn't go there. Those places are real. It's hard sift through the crap at the big tourist havens to find the substance of a place. But in places like Mandalay, there is only real life. I like that. It's not that exciting, but real life usually isn't.