I didn’t know know anything about Mandalay. Most travelers skip this because, according to them, it’s a city clogged with people and dusty streets. I didn’t fear the crowd or the dust. For me, there was a big appeal in going to places that most people disliked – what was about it that made them scrunch their faces in disgust, what made the city a mere footnote in travelogues.
The ones who visit Myanmar usually fly in to the former capital of Yangon, then head upwards to Inle Lake and Bagan, before heading back to Yangon. I contemplated on doing the same, but strange and silly as it sounds, I was on a quest of visiting as much airports as I could. And so I booked a flight out of Mandalay, choosing to stop there for a couple of days after Bagan and before I fly back to Bangkok, my comfort zone.
The night before I left Bagan, I hastily emailed a guesthouse through Facebook, hoping they had a spare private room for the extra two nights I suddenly had in Mandalay. The girl replied some hours later, telling me they had one last room left and that they only took cash.
I hesitated in my dark, cold bunk bed in Bagan, running my hands through the Burmese kyat left in my wallet.
I could still stay in Bagan. I still had the bed for another night, and it’s not like I’ll get a refund if I leave earlier than planned. I was beginning to doubt myself and the whole point of the trip, and I wanted to establish that I was in control. That I still had the power how the trip will go, that I can steer myself to a less rocky direction. It felt like I was running away from something I didn’t have a name for, and the only answer I had was to keep moving.
And so I said yes, leaving Bagan the next afternoon, arriving in rainy Mandalay 5 hours later.
— — —
My room in the Mandalay guesthouse was painted in green. There was no airconditioner, but there was a ceiling fan whirling above the thin bed. A night light shaped as a butterfly kept me company, plus a tub of potato chips from a store in Bagan and an almost expired pastry slice I brought from home.
The next day, I woke up to the sound of light rain. The girl at the front desk handed me my breakfast coupons for the next two mornings, pointing me to an Indian tea place across the street where I can claim my free breakfast.
Pulling up the hood of my pink jacket, I ran across the small street between my guesthouse and the restaurant, an almost falling apart shack with mostly Indian men eating and laughing.
Myanmar has a rich tea culture, one that I wanted to dabble in, but had no idea how to. It’s also patriarchal, in the sense that there are barely solo women travelers who pass by. The men threw me curious glances as I pretended to ignore them, reading the grimy laminated menu in front of me.
I picked something familiar from my previous trip to Malaysia: roti with condensed milk and sweet tea. The roti arrived on a dented, silver platter, slightly wet from being handwashed from the kitchen. The hot sweet, silky tea sat in an old, scratched cup, something that has definitely seen better days.
I could get sick from this. And I can also get away unscathed.
But then: isn’t that why I left and went on this trip? My version of the infamous YOLO, sticking up my middle finger to every one who told me that traveling solo is unsafe, that I threw away my promising career for my millennial whims, that I wasn’t being smart in this path I chose.
I confront my fears of getting sick. I had medicine in my backpack if I really needed it. Worst case is I’ll go to a hospital and make good use of my travel insurance.
Looking back now, I’m so glad I ate that simple breakfast: it was one of the best meals I ate while in I was in Myanmar.
— — —
The things no one is ever prepared for when traveling: navigating foreign streets with your lack of local language skills and attempting to go sightseeing despite crazy weather.
When I kicked off my backpacking trip in Myanmar, I knew I was arriving in shoulder season. That usually means it’s right in between good weather and bad weather, with less crowds to contend with. I actually preferred it that way, but what I didn’t prefer was getting lost under the heavy rain with no way to get back to my guesthouse.
I found myself standing for cover under an old tree, failing to hail a cab. Am I doing it wrong? I thought to myself as I raised my arm and hailed an empty taxi. There wasn’t any extra info about this on Lonely Planet or in any of the other guides I’ve read online. I had no choice but to keep walking under the rain, with only a baseball cap and a hooded rain jacket to keep me protected.
In the midst of going around in flooded circles and three blocks away from my temporary home, I saw a beacon of light: a woman selling a local snack. I was starving and shivering cold, and the snack seemed a great way to warm up. I stood in the corner, slyly taking cover under her umbrella and asking her in English how much she was selling the snacks for.
She shook her head, and we played charades. With some local bills and a show of fingers, the lady showed me how much a bunch of those fried, oily goodies will cost me.
I handed her a wet, crumpled kyat (I was like a poor, wet cat at this point), and showed 5 fingers, thinking 5 fingers = 5 pieces. I watched her put small piece after small piece, filling up a plastic bag of fried eggs.
The show of fingers she made? It meant 1 finger = 5 pieces. So I went home with TWENTY FIVE fried eggs, definitely more than what I bargained for.
I still don’t know how I managed to fit that inside my belly, but I do remember doing my laundry and watching a rerun of ANTM in between.
— — —
We travel for a lot of reasons, but it’s mostly this: to deal with the unfamiliar and come out of it wiser, understanding that the world is a rich, colorful medley of different perspectives. The beauty of traveling is, even if you don’t know what you’re doing or where you’re exactly going, you can always steer yourself whichever direction you wish to. You’ll find humor in dire situations, you’ll be brave enough to take a risk, you’ll learn how to be quick on your feet.
What was once unchartered territory for you will slowly be something familiar – not familiar enough for you to be an expert, but familiar enough for you to be a bit comfortable. And at that moment, just when you think you’re doing okay, you’ll be flooded by the unfamiliar once more. A cycle that makes traveling all the more worth it.
I apologize for the uber low quality photos! These were taken back in 2015 with my supposedly top of the line Sony Xperia phone, but water seeped into it and the lens fogged up, thus most, if not all, of my photos from that trip came off soft-focused. Did my best to edit them two years down the road, but there’s not much I can do to make them look semi-presentable. All the more reason to come back to Myanmar soon!