I’m writing this while sitting by the pool in Siem Reap Cambodia, where it’s pelting rain and sunshine simultaneously in equal measure! Px & I have performed like true Brits by playing water volley ball in the torrential rain.
It was good to get back into a city again after rural Bagan, and our bus driver wasted no time getting us to Mandalay almost an hour earlier than scheduled. A hairy 6hr journey of horns and over taking on bum numbing seats, whilst enduring clinically life threatening hangovers, meant it wasn’t the most enjoyable trip we’ve ever taken.
A 20 minute pit stop allowed us to stretch our legs and buy snacks of fried chicken & fruit from girls balancing huge trays of produce on their heads, before hitting the road again.
Once in Mandalay we were transferred onto a smaller open sided dusty local bus where we were wedged in with our luggage and taken to our various hotels. Ours being a slightly shit one compared with Bagan, but it was cheap and reasonably cheerful and perfectly located.
In Mandalay, the motor bike is king. It dominates every side walk, road, and back street. Clusters of bikes huddle outside restaurants and shops like parents waiting for their kids at the school gates. It’s as if the bike is a revered God that must always take precedence as pedestrians have to pick their way around them.
There are no traffic lights in Mandalay except on the major roads into town, and being made up of a grid system of wide roads with multiple junctions and heavy traffic, this is a bold move. Yet there is very little congestion, an instinctive flow of hooting bikes and trucks cross left and right with seemingly Jedi like skills. I shall have a word with Sadiq when I get back. I always knew it was the traffic lights that make London so congested.
Wasting no time at all we headed out to the local night market ☑ on 34th/76th St. The street food here felt slightly different from Yangon, with more of a Chinese influence. On every corner was a snack stall serving up crispy chili filled dosas, or our favourite nibble from Yangon the Mont Lin Ma Yar, or “husband & wife” snack. So called as the little dome shaped pancakes filled with quails egg & chick pea, are paired together to make a complete ball shape. Cute! All cooked out in the open on wood fuelled clay stoves, under the typical fluorescent light.
The street food delivered as usual. The night market actually focusses more on fruit and veg stalls, but the few hot food stalls that there are, are really good. We ended up going to the same two stalls two nights in a row, one of which provided the hero dish of the trip so far, a clay pot noodle soup. The clay pot retains the heat so the soup arrives bubbling to the table. Slightly spicy but giving more a warm heat than a blow your heat off blast, and filled with fresh vegetables and chicken that cook in the broth while you eat.
Our second favourite stall gave us a freebie present each time, either little crispy wontons in a bag with sweet chili sauce, or on the second occasion, the owner spent a good 10 minutes pummelling some mystery ingredients in a big wooden mortar. The resulting gift was a green papaya salad, the equivalent of a Som Tam. The heat was incredible. Now I’m good with chili, but this made my eye balls sweat. The staff could see we were struggling and found it hilarious. Silly tourists. As we left she gave us another bag of wontons to take with us, anything to ease the volcano in our mouths!
The next day we did our usual activity. Walk the city. Our main focus for the day was the Zay Cho market, the golden Buddha, beer stations, and to climb Mandalay hill for sunset.
We’ve seen many markets in our time, it’s always the first thing we aim for in any city as it gives such a visual insight to the culture, the heart of any society, plus we love food. Zay Cho ☑ was like no other market we’ve ever seen. The sheer scale of it was mind-blowing. Housed in an old covered wooden panelled building, with raised platformed stalls, this market services the entire city with wholesale produce. We saw and smelt everything. Dried fish hanging like strips of leather, mounds of grey, mud like fish paste, piles of noodles, baskets of betel leaves* perfectly stacked in concentric circles, mounds of earthy coloured spices. Dotted within the produce stalls were little tea houses and food stalls. We stopped at one for tea, where simmering kettles of water boiled on clay stoves. The tea is thick and sweet, made with condensed milk. On a raised platform we sat on the unfeasibly tiny stools at low tables. Px is 6’2” and long in the leg, not built for toy furniture. I think I was far more amused about this image than he was. But the tea was refreshing and set us up for more exploring.
The market was endless, and we saw things that we really didn’t need to, nobody needs to visit the entrail stall. Even Px’s chef genes were being challenged. Moving on our next stop was the golden Buddha of Mahamuni Paya ☑, a good hours walk from the market. This Buddha is one of the most holy in the country, and the pagoda that enshrines him is one of the loveliest we’d seen. So much gold. The high vaulted arches painted in rich gold and red filigree detail. Buddha himself is constantly being adorned with more and more gold leaf, monks sit serenely around him applying this paper thin offering, leaving the statue strangely bumpy and bobbled. In a poor country such as this, as usual religion has the wealth.
Lunch time and our aim was to hit the acclaimed Shan Ma Ma, run by two sisters and listed in Lonely Planet, so we knew it would be a reliable option. But we were tired of walking, and we’d lost our map, and this city is bigger than it looks on paper! So we hopped on to the back of two motor bike taxis. Slightly hesitant at first as we’d seen the way these bikes speed around the city, but it was the most exhilarating way to travel. As long as you paid no attention to the oncoming traffic and those Jedi junction skills, it was a brilliant way to get where you need to fast.
Shan Ma Ma ☑ lived up to expectation, more of a covered street food set up than an actual restaurant, where fresh ingredients were picked out of rows of bowls, and combined into stir fried noodles and soups. We went for crispy pork and a chicken noodle dish that came with him made tomato chilli sauces.
Back on the bikes to the base of Mandalay Hill, 1700 steps to the pagoda at the top and an amazing view over the flat landscape of Mandalay and it’s surrounding plains. But we were against the clock as sunset was upon us and we had 1700 steps to climb, which apparently usually takes 30 minutes. Like hormonal teenagers sprinting to safety from blood hungry vampires before the sun sets, we were at the top in 15 minutes in 30 degree heat and barefoot. Zola Budd would have been proud, if slightly less sweaty.
Unaccustomed as we are to so much exercise, the only option now was to visit one of Mandalay’s many Beer Stations. Large open sided warehouse buildings filled with beer, and blokes. Like Wetherspoons but without the carpets and the 2-4-1 pub grub menus. We were something of a novelty to the locals. We hadn’t seen many tourists at all, so tall bearded white man with small white bird in a beer station was something of note. We were either humorously stared at or confronted by the regulars, who told us if we looked under the seals of our beer bottle lids we might have won a free bottle. A Myanmar Beer promotion. Once we’d learnt this revelatory information it turned out that we’d won at least two more bottles, which we passed onto our new friends as a reward for divulging such insight.
Our time in Mandalay was short, but fun and friendly. A very different city to Yangon, more spacious, slightly less smelly and chaotic. Next stop Cambodia and a morning flight to Siem Reap.
- Betel leaf chewing. In both Yangon & Mandalay virtually every street corner has a little glass fronted stall selling cigarettes & betel leaves. Betel chewing is such a huge habit to the extent that virtually every man you see has red residue stained teeth, and the streets are marked with brick red splashes where the juice has been spat out. The leaves are lined with coconut milk and wrapped around a bundle of spices, and tobacco. You’ll see guys buying bags of these little green bundles, and their cheeks stuffed with the pin cushion size pad which dissolves as its chewed. It’s pretty gross. Our bus driver chewed all the way to Mandalay, spitting into a plastic bag which then gets tossed onto the road side.