Travel websites, visitors to Myanmar, and even our Burmese friends told us that Mandalay was avoidable. The city, after being razed to the ground most recently in World War II is a new metropolis of wide multi-lane roads and buildings. Despite its name conjuring up exotic images, Mandalay is on the surface another city in an emerging country. My parents were keen to see the surrounding areas, so we spent a couple of days in Mandalay. While they went off to the hill station of Pyin Oo Lin we decided to rent bikes and discover the city. One of our first observations when we arrived was that it appeared very bike friendly. To us New Yorkers, who fear for our lives every time we get on bikes, it was an opportunity to hop on cycles.
Before we wheeled in, we spent an hour observing the rush hour crowd, most of them on bicycles. They all appeared to be riding at a leisurely pace and in a very orderly manner. No one wore helmets.
Cycling in Mandalay, more or less without any destination, was easy. The roads are generally smooth. The cycle lane is only shared by motorbikes, who respect cyclists and don’t move too much faster than cycles themselves. It was much less stressful than riding a bike through the streets on New York City, even without a helmet.
Experiencing Mandalay on a cycle rather than a car made a big difference to our appreciation for the city. We were able to wind through little alleyways where locals spin sugar into jaggery, pound metal for pots and carve wooden boats. We even crossed a local teak bridge above an Irrawaddy River tributary.
Since we cycled outside of the city, we were also able to enjoy a quiet lunch perched over the Kandawgyi Lake at Secret Garden Restaurant.
Our post lunch entertainment was being caught in the middle of a Shinbyu, an initiation ceremony of Burmese boys into a monk order. Most Burmese boys spend some time in their youth as novices in a monastery. The occasion is one of joy, and includes a colorful procession of the dressed up boys on horses, several animals, loud music and plenty of dancing. The entourage encouraged us to join, and we briefly did before starting the return trip home.
We wound back through a settlement alongside a canal that ran the length of the lake. Each house had a bridge driveway leading to its door.
Our final stop was at a longyi stall. Longyis are wrap around skirts worn by men and women. I was so intrigued by my fellow cyclists’ ability to ride in them that I had to try it out.
We’re happy to have had our day in Mandalay. Cycling gave us a feel for the city and we can now look back on it as a city with its own soul, rather than just a launching pad to its outskirts. It also allowed us to take our time and speak with the people of Mandalay. Sandeep made a quick friend at the end of our cycling day. This man came up to him and proclaimed, “You’re going to look like me when you get older!”