Sometimes a place has wonderful things to see and do, but I don’t gel with the overall vibe and that’s the Mandalay I met. Vegan food was available, as everywhere in the country, and the one wholly vegetarian restaurant I tried was pretty good. Also one of the guys who worked there had a "world's best mom" t-shirt.
At Mandalay Palace I climbed a bunch of spiral steps up a tower I was 99% sure would crumble beneath my feet and I did some walking around the massive replica of the old royal palace. The grounds were virtually empty and it was all a bit dull. Plus there weren’t any cats. The highlight of my visit was the taxi driver who approached me with a tour that I declined. He got in his car and drove a few hundred metres up the road, only to propose the same again when I walked past. He did this three or 4 times. I KNOW WHO YOU ARE, GUY.
I Climbed 1,729 Steps
...because I am apparently a masochist. I don’t know, but it’s how to get to the top of Mandalay Hill (a famous pilgrimage site abundant with shrines, pagodas, and other things words can't explain) for people like me who for some reason are too dumb to use the lift. I met a whole bunch of cats and dogs on the way, and a palm reader who tried to prove his skills by looking at my palm lines and announcing that I'm married. A prediction, I'm sure, not at all influenced by the ring he saw on my finger.
I also met a couple of Japanese tourists who nearly fell over laughing because the only thing I can say in Japanese is "abunai," which means danger, so they taught me how to say cat (neko) and that’s how I improved my Japanese vocabulary by 50%.
The highlight of Mandalay Hill is not the view. It’s the cats and graffiti. Graffiti in Myanmar is wonderful, and seems to be focused on writing subjects you study (I saw many sloppily etched "GEOGRAPHY!" and "I love my teacher!" tags) or just any other word you know (snow white!). You can find it scrawled randomly on benches and walls as you ascend past sectioned off spaces seemingly built to command romance. Hot tubs, flowers, benches painted with words like "KISS" along the path to prayersville. This world, I swear.
Smart Hotel is Smart
The manager of my hotel (Smart Hotel – recommended) took to his guests like long lost BFFs and so, along with free lifts around town and some excellent tales, I was happy to have someone to ask about Burmese food I had tried but couldn't identify. I was desperate to know more about a fermented bean paste I ate and loved when I was in Bagan.
Terrance (he has a name) immediately named the mystery paste as pone yay gyi, made from ground fermented horse gram beans. He smiled and called over one of the staff for a brief conversation. Afterward, he explained that the ingredient had been added to the hotel grocery list so that I could enjoy it with dinner.
Pone yay gyi is like dark miso, but less salty and more chalky in texture. Mixed with oil (sesame or shallot), plus thinly sliced garlic and shallots, it can be a meal on its own when eaten with plain steamed rice. You can order it from Mum's House Burmese Supermarket in London.
Terrance also arranged for a tour with two other guests, so that was a thing that happened too. The tour, complete with stops at workshops where we had the option to purchase item like gigantic Buddha statues (would look great in my, um, wait, I live in a flat. In England) and gold leaf to plaster on Buddhas at temples because Buddhism isn’t about stuff and money at all (hey, remember this?).
I Don't Know What's Happening
The tour also included a stop at a noon almsgiving that is well known in Mandalay. The procession consisted of two queues of monks, young and old, with almsgivers lining either side of the road to fill the passing baskets. I arrived empty handed, but a big tour group on the opposite side of the road made up for it with the largest collection of pens, candy, and toothbrushes I have ever seen in one place at the same time (admittedly I can’t think of any time I have seen these items in any quantity in one place at the same time).
The monk line on my side of the street diminished as every participant under the age of 80 got held up by invisible things so they could happen, by accident, to join the opposite queue. You know how sometimes at the end of a lively panto the actors start throwing so many sweets at the audience that you don't know whether to open your mouth or duck (but it doesn't matter either way because you're so overjoyed by the amount of sugar)? The almsgiving was like that, except in the form a frenzied delivery of toiletries and office supplies by tourists who probably had to catch their bus in seven minutes.
We also visited Inwa, an old capital that is accessible by boat and traversed only by foot or horse and carriage. I wasn't comfortable with the latter method of transportation for ethical reasons, but I also knew I wouldn't have time to see anything if I stayed on foot. We had an hour and a half to spend, so I spent much of my time reading, blissfully alone in a tiny shrine I came upon. The rest of my time was spent turning down horse cart rides. Eventually I said I am terrified of horses and suddenly I was a brave hero for being in their presence.
The rest of the day involved temple hopscotch to avoid dark coloured floor tiles at the 24 billion temples we toured. It’s a shoes off affair, and it gets hot. Also I played an involuntary starring role in many family photos. Involuntary because I was too distracted by all the monks with their iPhones to notice large groups gathering by my side who would suddenly throw arms around me to pose for what are probably the most exceptional photos of me ever taken.
Our last stop of the day was U Bein Bridge, a 1.2 kilometre teak bridge crossing Taungthaman Lake. It’s a popular tourist stop for sunset, but it was cloudy and raining so mainly it was a platform to view pretty boats and a couple who were on their way to prom in 1992.
Vegan in Mandalay
Maybe you came here to read about vegan Mandalay dining and not story hour, so okay. There’s really one main spot, Marie Min.
Marie Min is the Lonely Planet listed and highly rated vegetarian restaurant in town. Their tea leaf salad is one of the best textured variations I tried, with lots of crunch, but salt is used sparingly. The aubergine salad, on the other hand, tasted more of salt than anything else. The ginger salad is their best dish (balanced sour salty). The tofu tomato curry is also delicious and easy on the tum.
The great thing about Marie Min is the condiment selection. I like condiments a lot, so that’s cool.