We only lasted three days in Mandalay.
On day one we found the tourist information office at the central train station and pushed open the door to find a dusty, bare room occupied by a very small man who was fast asleep with his feet up on the desk. We needn’t have bothered waking him as he spoke no English, we spoke no Myanmar and his office had no maps or leaflets or literature of any kind.
On our way back to the hotel, none the wiser, I think I almost became unconscious due to the heat – it reached forty degrees that day and was humid as hell – so we found refuge in a roadside cafe, each of us sipping a flat, fake can of coke, each of us silently wondering how to survive in this city.
Our visit did improve. Wandering the streets without a map has its benefits and over the course of the next few days we found a dilapidated old cinema which the security guard kindly allowed us to explore; an outdoor market exclusively selling hardcore sex toys; a very nice ice cream shop; a bar where pints of beer cost around 40p and I may have been the only woman to ever to cross the threshold and a traditional Myanmar restaurant that served incredible bamboo curry and was home to the tiniest kitten in the world.
I’ve always been drawn to the aesthetics of architectural abandonment and ruin and if the place has a good story behind it all the better. Mingun Pahtodawgyi, I read, is a monumental, unfinished buddhist Stupa in the village of Mingun. The King who ordered it built halted construction when an astrologer warned that once it was completed he would die. It would have been the biggest Stupa in the world and, just to make it even more beautiful, it was badly damaged in an earthquake in 1839. I had to see it, so on our second day we took a taxi to the docks to attempt to hire a boat to take us up the Ayewaddy River, the only way to access the village of Mingun.
Stupidly, we thought there’d be longtail taxi boats available to take tourists up and down the river and negotiated a price for a return journey with the first local to approach us. His boat turned out to be a massive vessel, probably used to transport goods up and down the river and his whole family lived below deck. The captain was grumpy but the fare was cheap, the sun was, as always, shining and the views of the banks of the Ayewaddy River were stunning. Not yet ruined by tourists like ourselves, Mingun is still a traditional Myanmar village, both welcoming and wary of tourists. The Mingun Pahtodawgyi is a mere suggestion of the monumental building it was supposed to be, an unfinished ruin both strange and beautiful and well worth the journey to see it.
Despite all this, three days felt like enough in Mandalay. I had felt strangely dazed since we arrived and leaving our hotel for the airport felt like escaping. In the taxi I felt vaguely guilty, like I hadn’t tried hard enough to make the city my own. But as we stepped out of the air conditioned car into the suffocating heat and entered the most bizarre one-room airport ever conceived, I knew we’d made the right decision.
It was mostly westerners, just hanging around and waiting for someone to tell them where to go. The airport cafe sold only cans of coke and instant coffee and had one dirty, unchilled cabinet proudly displaying such curiosities as ‘cream puff’ and ‘cheesecake’ that no one dared go near.
Customs was all a bit strange too. It was as though the staff had been hired to act out the part of airport security for a TV show but hadn’t yet learned their lines. Despite solemnly studying my passport and visa and scanning my bag four or five times, they allowed me to take an open bottle of water from the street onto the plane. An oversight that would seen me on the receiving end of a taser gun in London.
When we arrived in Bangkok airport we went straight to the desk of one of the cheap domestic airlines and bought tickets for the next budget flight, one way. I know the ‘tickets for the next flight’ thing is such a cliché but it didn’t matter, we were exhaused, dehydrated and hadn’t eaten for eight hours but we were happy. We had escaped and we were heading for the islands.