After checking into our hotel, Carlo and I went on the prowl for dinner. Roaming street after street, we were captivated and overwhelmed by the amount of activity bustling on around us. Although we had only been roaming Bangkok’s chaotic streets a little over a week prior, we had spent the days since in quiet, rural towns of Myanmar and the stark contrast between the two was immediately evident. Suddenly we were in the country’s second largest city, Mandalay, and despite the new urban environment, the city still felt decades behind like the rest of the towns we had visited. On some blocks high tech phone stores stood next to beer stations and almost all of the men still wore longyi and women and children thanaka. Trucks buzzed by, teenagers crammed in the back. Oh, Myanmar!
During our breakfast the next morning, a parade raged on in the streets. Music echoed through the hotel’s dining room as float after float of dancers and singers drove by. Supposedly the celebration happened only once every five years as participants marched towards one of the city’s most important pagodas. With breakfast finished (tea, two pieces of toast, a banana, and an egg), Carlo and I began exploring the city.
In the morning we visited Diamond Plaza and in the words of Wikitravel this “three cinema movie theatre is at the top of a mostly empty complex. Very limited times & movies but they sell out quickly so buy early. Be warned that the cinemas are cold and very noisy, people talk, make phone calls, receive phone calls etc. all the way through, especially in dialogue heavy spots.” Since neither of us were feeling like doing tourist activities, we decided to make a day of going to the complex. The description of the cinema sounded like an experience in itself, and one that I had missed in India while traveling with Milo months before.
The twenty minute walk to the plaza took us over three hours since we continued to stumble upon interesting looking alleyways, mosques (due to a large Muslim influence in Mandalay), and the Wes Anderson-esque train station along the way.
The block before the plaza, we entered into another rundown looking mall where we tried durian flavored ice cream. Instead of the fruity taste we were expecting, the ice cream tasted like straight up onions and neither of us could stand more than a few spoonfuls.
The four upper floors of the mall were empty and the escalators were no longer running (or never ran at all). But hidden on a floor above all the emptiness was a glamorous, two story karaoke bar, an arcade (with less than half of the games working), and even an active church. I discovered a hallway door which led us directly onto the roof with a nice view of the city.
After a quick and disappointing lunch (Carlo tried some sort of slimy peanut curry?), we had finally arrived at the Diamond Plaza. A lit up display board boasted the cineplex on the 5th floor and after our cramped elevator ride up (we evidently weren’t the only ones wanting to see a movie!), the doors opened to reveal the regal entrance. Red fabric surrounded the ticket booth of which there were three separate lines, one for each movie playing. With the next showtime in an hour and a half, we purchased tickets to see The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s newest film. Tickets started at 1,200 kyat (92 cents) but went up to 3,200 kyat ($2.45) depending on what seat was chosen. We opted for the second to least inexpensive option to save our necks from soreness.
While waiting for the movie, we spent our time walking throughout the rest of the mall. Two buildings were joined together by two hallways. The first was a fully functioning and lively mall full of shops, people, and food while the other had the cineplex but the four floors below remained entirely empty. Although many places in the country still experienced electrical shortages, lighting up this immense section of unused mall space seemed to be a priority.
Having finished the movie (very pleasant experience and no obnoxious interruptions or chatter as described in the Wikitravel description), we rushed back to our hotel so Carlo could get in touch with his friends Eva, a childhood friend from Switzerland, and Diego, her boyfriend from Berlin. They had just arrived from Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city and transportation hub, after flying into the country a few days prior. We met for drinks and since Carlo hadn’t seen them in over a year the night went late.
In the morning we met Eva and Diego again to hike up to Mandalay Hill, a massive pagoda overlooking the surrounding land. On our journey to the top, we came across a monk and his friend who engaged in conversation as they were practicing/learning English. Our conversations were pleasant however, once we had made it to the main pagoda on top, I was looking for some peace and quiet to watch the sunset.
Our two friends suddenly turned into a large group of Myanmar students from a nearby university also looking to practice their English and suddenly all four of us were overwhelmed by speaking and answering so many questions with so many people. At a certain point, all the conversations became a bit much for me so I ended up walking to the opposite side of the pagoda to find the quiet I was looking for. Since the sun was setting on the reverse side of the pagoda, all of the people looking to chat remained on that side since most tourists had come to see the sunset. The backside green landscape fading into the darkness was just as pleasant and I sat watching and writing.
When darkness started to fall, we said goodbye to all of our new acquaintances as we began the descent back to town. Eva and Diego left the next day around noon while Carlo and I waited until night to leave. We had booked our first train tickets in Myanmar to Bagan, the land of a thousand temples and one of Myanmar’s top places of interest. With our bags on our backs, we left our hotel in the city and walked to the train station, which took on a very different appearance than from our first visit. From the top floor, the station looked abandoned. Blockades guarded nearly every platform entrance and the few lights that remained on eerily flickered in the night.
At the staircase to our platform, someone checked our tickets and led us far down the station until we reached a four car train. Two police officers re-checked our tickets and then another man led us to our seats on the first cart. Locals smiled at us excitedly as we loaded our bags above our heads and took our seats. We were the only foreigners in sight.
Facing our double seat was another double seat occupied by a mother and her two children. Her son, likely around sixteen, tucked a blanket around his younger brother who sat snuggly between them. The train departed one minute early at 8:59pm but just our luck, our window was jammed open. As the night’s cool air funneled into the car, Carlo and I layered up, shivering, uncertain if we’d be able to last the whole night.