I did not even check which airport I was making the transit at. I did this once in Seoul, but did it again. Fortunately, there was plenty of time to make connection. I found that the currency exchange was far better in Bangkok airport’s many exchange kiosks (slightly better rate at Don Mueang than than Suvarnabhumi Intl airport ). There is a shuttle bus just outside door #3 of arrival hall. You will be asked to show the boarding pass or flight detail. I see them jot down the boarding time on notebook. Free of charge. My morning arrival in Bangkok meant that the bus went through the beginning of the morning rush hour at 7am.
Air Asia flight to Mandalay took only 1hr 45min or something like that. I put ear plugs on, and fell asleep before seeing Bangkok outside my window.
As I was filling out the arrival card, I realised a potential deal breaker. I changed my plans hours before leaving home the day before, The original plan was coming to Yangon first, sleep one night, then travel north by an over-night train. My mistake was not realising I booked an evening flight out of Bangkok, instead of a short connection in the morning. That is why I changed plans to fly into Mandalay instead, swapping orders of a few things. What I did not realise until now, was that on the visa approval letter printed was “port of entry: Yangon International Airport”. The AirAsia ground staff did not seem to notice anything out of ordinary when they saw this letter before checking me in. But they are not responsible for the border control of Myanmar, are they?
For the second time this week, I managed to pick the slowest moving immigration queue. He looks at my printed letter of approval. They he scans my arrival details. His smile fades. He looks at the letter again. Flips it over. Then starts the scanning of stamps from various countries, taking time on a few pages that seem to interest him. Any moment he would call a supervisor and I get pulled aside to the small room to my left. After several hours in a room without view, they hand me a boarding pass for the evening flight back to Bangkok. I curse it thinking, the inflation of prices made this country a put-off for backpackers seeking ‘genuine experience’ anyway…
But none of that happened. My queue was hopelessly slow, but he stamped my passport and arrival/departure cards, and passed them back to me with a smile. Phew!
My bag was one of the last on carousel. I picked it up and walked out. At the information counter I found out, as I half expected, the free shuttle bus for Air Asia passengers is a thing of the past. There was, however, a shared mini van, which would cost 4,000 kyat or US$4. That was agreeable considering the airport was pretty far out of town. The road surface was rough. The road is paved with what looks like concrete. But there are joints everywhere with as much as an inch gap up or down. The car slows down and go over the gap, but still the suspension gets kicked up, and the whole car gets kicked up. It was interesting to observe the mix of left- and right-hand drive cars. The road keeps cars on the right. So the left-hand drive should be the standard. The van we were on was a left-hand drive, with passenger door on the right/pavement side. From the sticker inside the cabin, I gathered it came after retiring of duties in South Korea. Then there are farm trucks of various sizes that are part of scenery in rural villages in Japan. And right-hand drive! Some of them still have business name and phone number from its days as commercial vehicle in Japan.
Guidebook says Mandalay should be considered a launch pad for excursion of ancient towns around. It is a concrete grid, lacking charm. Probably true. I walked around on dusty street, photographing people, but did not find charming views.
People are friendly. Very similar feeling to being in Luang Prabang or Chiang Mai. They look at you in foreign visitor’s uniform of shorts and cap, and the camera down your front. But then they look at you in the eyes. That’s when I bow to them. Immediately their deadpan turns into a relaxed smile.
Golden Dream Hotel is located in West Mandalay. It is a bit of walk from the centre of town, but it is far from office and shop buildings. It feels closer to where people live, and I loved hearing how the town woke up at 5am, walking with a straw bag, or riding one of those noisy motorcycles. Probably the monks would be walking in line down the street, collecting the food and money for the day from the people in the community. Soon I hear the morning chanting through loud speakers nearby. Alms would have been over then. They do the alms walk before they gather in their temple’s great halls to chant in front of Buddha’s image. By 6am, the chanting seems to have finished. And it is still dark out.
I can understand why this time of the year is popular for visitors. It is the cooler part of the year. But what it means is the day is pretty short. The sun set around 6pm, and at 6am I can begin to make out the shape of trees outside my window against whitish navy of the pre-dawn sky. In the summer you’d want to rest, even nap, during the hottest part of the day. Rainy season is tricky with movements, on foot or on wheels. But the winter, the day is short. We would need to pick up the pace so we don’t miss the light while it is there.
I’m not on a mission. I just want to find peace, and meet the peace-loving people. It’s only Day 1. There’s plenty of time to do more.