The name of the city Mandalay, evokes a sense of mystery and romanticism. Visitors to Myanmar almost always feel pulled to Mandalay, in search of that mysticism. We imagine an ancient city, shrouded in mist and wrapped in lush vegetation as immortalised by Kipling.
Mandalay is often different to expectations. It is Myanmar’s second largest city bustling with motorbikes, cars and people as well as steeped in history. The Royal Palace and its moat a natural centre, overlooked by the temples on Mandalay Hill and with many teak monasteries, pagodas, and tea shops. It is too often treated as a travel hub, and base for the nearby famous sights of U Bein’s Bridge and the Awa ancient former capital with its palaces and temples, rather than taking the time to explore the city itself.
So I was not unhappy at all that I had to spend a week in Mandalay recently. It has been some time since I had visited the city properly, and with a holiday weekend at the end of my visit, the ideal opportunity to explore in my own time.
I flew into Mandalay late in the Sunday afternoon, as the sun was coming to a rest on the horizon, lighting up the temples in the distance. Perfectly evocative of the Mandalay in our minds.
The road to Mandalay is much easier today than it was when I first visited over a decade ago. I travelled by overnight bus at that time, leaving Yangon in the late afternoon, driving on the rough highway through the night and following morning and arriving in Mandalay in the middle of the following day. This time my journey was much easier, in the form of an hour’s flight above the new highway, before landing at the International airport and joining the motorway into the city as the last of the evening light faded.
The week was an inspiring one, though tiring and I was glad of the forthcoming weekend of rest and down time. I had my swimsuit, books, writing goodies and sensible shoes. I would walk up Mandalay Hill, explore the city streets, return to the Kuthodaw Pagoda which houses the world’s largest book, I would lounge by the pool and breathe in the atmosphere of Mandalay.
However, we should know that the best laid plans are too often sabotaged. In the early hours of my first morning, I was woken by the tell tale signs that all was not well in the gastric department. It soon became apparent that my planned early morning walk up Mandalay Hill was in jeopardy. It very soon became clearer that even leaving the room was not a wise option.
So, my weekend in Mandalay, was very different to that planned. I was truly felled by one of the worst episodes of gastric turbulence that I have experienced in a very long time.
Although it was not fun being so unwell, the timing was actually good. I was not travelling on the days I was most ill and I did not miss the conference earlier in the week which had brought me to Mandalay. By Sunday afternoon, I had graduated from ORS (Oral Rehydration Solution) to a teaspoon of scrambled egg and a morsel of dry toast. I was weak, tired and nauseous but at least I was upright. Which was just as well, because I had to catch my flight back to Yangon and meet the coming week.
I arrived early at the airport, as I always do but found that I was not permitted to pass through security. Nor was my flight listed among those on the electronic board. Unease and concern joined my nausea. My flight was at 4 pm and I was requested to return at 3.45 pm.
Finally, I was able to proceed to the check-in counter and I was advised that my flight would leave at 7 pm. When I noted that was three hours delay and not the two hours I had been informed, the check-in staff realised that I was on a different flight. That would leave at 6 pm. It was still not listed but at least there were plenty of passengers checking in for the various flights being operated by the same airline.
It was fortunate that two close friends were also at the airport, although travelling to a different destination. We wagered which of our planes would leave first, as mine was scheduled for an hour before theirs. To my relief, a large jet arrived, of the airline I was travelling with. And then another large plane, parked over on the tarmac. One of those would be mine for sure.
My friends’ plane also arrived, with a flurry of other various domestic flights. The flight to Yangon via the capital Nay Pyi Taw, was called and I stood up to board, even though the flight number did not tally. My friends’ flight was also called and off they went.
However, I was told this was not my flight and I should sit down and wait. I asked about my flight but no information was available. I waited. I eyed the other plane over on the tarmac. That must be mine. Then the flight to Kyeng Taung in Eastern Shan was called and another large group of passengers gathered. To my disappointment they were taken over to the other plane on the tarmac. I learned that another couple who were also waiting to fly to Yangon, would be on that plane when it returned from Shan state. By my reckoning that would take at least two hours. By now, the departure lounge was almost empty and plane after plane took off into the sunset. Literally.
There was clearly not a lot to be done other than wait patiently. Eventually, I saw one of the ground crew approach the gate, and I asked her about my plane. Very soon, she told me. My reassurance was tempered with concern because the tarmac was completely empty, not a plane in sight. However, after a few more minutes she announced my flight. With my flight number, which had suddenly come to life. I stood up to line up at the gate. And that was the first time in my life I have been in a queue of one to board a flight. It is rather alarming! As I walked down the stairs to the empty bus I spotted, around the side of the terminal building, a very small plane, reminiscent of the tiny planes used in Nepal.Eventually, I was joined by another two passengers, and the couple who were meant to be on the flight returning from Shan and we were taken to our plane.
I am a nervous flyer, and it was a good thing that I was so exhausted from my recent illness that I did not have the energy to do too much worrying. We joined the crew and the other passenger who had come from the flight’s origin in Chin State, picked a seat and the door was closed.
In no time, the propellers were whirring and off we set, as the ground crew waved and saluted our departure.
A brocade curtain divided the flight deck from the main cabin for the flight and the cabin stewardess served us a snack with tea and coffee which was very welcome.
Our flight in a little plane took longer, although I was not absolutely clear whether “after one hour, 54” referred to the flight time or arrival time. All was smooth, and soon we descended into Yangon. Grandmother’s suitcase had pride of place in the bus back to the terminal, along with passengers and the only other piece of check in baggage.
We had all returned safely. And with another tale to tell.
The Road to Mandalay, and return, had truly lived up to its reputation of adventure and experience.