In a country full of ancient treasures Mandalay, the second largest city of Myanmar, is not on every visitor’s itinerary and those who do visit only stay for a very short period of time, a day at most. Sure enough the last royal capital of (then) Burma with its 1,2 million inhabitants is not one of the prettiest places in the country, but it still has enough sights to keep you busy for a few days.
Maybe it makes a lot of difference if you start or end your Myanmar adventure in Mandalay. For us it was the starting point for 4 weeks of traveling through the country, so we got our first impressions of one of the least spoiled Southeast Asian destinations here and they didn’t disappoint.
Explore by bicycle
Being Dutch, the city being pancake flat with an easy, numbered street plan and our hotel offering free bicycle loan, choosing our mode of transport was a no-brainer. We quickly found out that in Mandalay the right of way goes to the most intrepid, no matter if you’re driving a car or are just a vulnerable cyclist. With Roel leading the way we hardly had to brake for other traffic during our wanderings through the city…
Our first goal was to visit Mahamuni Paya, having a quick look in the gold-pounders district and the stone carvers district on our way there. It was interesting to see laborers pounding the gold leaf to make it as thin as possible, but most shops were rather touristy. After passing the rows upon rows of workshops producing new Buddha images we arrived at Mahamuni Paya for some ancient Buddha.
At the large Mahamuni complex a 4 meter tall seated Buddha, which is believed to be over 2000 years old, is the center of worship. Centuries of applying small slivers of gold leaf by devotees has left the statue with a layer of 15 centimeters of pure gold. Men only are allowed to get near the statue, so Roel could walk up for a close view while I had to watch from a respectful distance.
After eating lunch at the Mya Nandar restaurant with terraces overlooking the Ayeyarwady we headed towards the Royal Palace and fortress. Both fortress walls and palace are reconstructions but it gives you a sense of how big it was and what it looked like in the old days. Besides the 40 or so structures there’s not much to see inside the individual buildings though. The spiraled watchtower gives a nice overview.
We mainly visited because it was included in the Archaeological Zone combo ticket. Much of the fortress grounds are off limits, so there’s no room from wandering around outside the palace. You can take your bicycle inside the fortress walls, which is convenient since it’s a long walk from the entrance gate to the actual palace.
Mingun Paya by boat
On our second day we first made a half day tour to Mingun Paya. Mingun Paya would have been the biggest stupa in the world hadn’t work on it stopped after the king who commissioned it to be build died in in 1819, 29 years after work on the stupa started. Earthquakes created some big cracks in the rock after that for dramatic effect.
The stupa itself is not really that spectacular. You can climb on top for some panoramic views of the surroundings. With the relaxing 45-60 minute boat trip to get there, the somewhat rural setting of the village and the added bonus of the bright white Hsinbyume Paya it made for a great half day excursion. Waiting for the ferry to leave at around 9 AM you can watch the activity along the Mandalay river banks. The ferry goes back at 1 PM which leaves you more than enough time to explore.
More payas and monasteries
In the afternoon we pointed our bikes in the direction of Mandalay Hill and the temples and monasteries at its base. Most noteworthy are the golden Kyauktawgyi Paya surrounded by dozens of slender white stupas and the Palace Monastery (Shwenandaw Kyaung). This teak monastery has some amazing woodcarving, but also a lot of tour groups (maybe we timed our visit wrong) which made it a little bit difficult to really appreciate it.
At the end of the day we took the 1.729 steps up 240 meter high Mandalay Hill starting from the two chinthe (half lion, half dragon guardian deities) at the foot of the hill. Because you have to do it barefoot it’s quite hard on the feet – more so if you have just arrived in Myanmar and haven’t walked barefoot much yet, like us. Looking back it might have been more sensible to take a taxi or pick-up to the temples at the top of Mandalay Hill.
The several sights along the steps up are not that interesting and you have to go back down as well (sigh). The temple at the top is interesting and colorful, though, especially in the warm light of the late afternoon sun. This is also the moment most visitors get here to take in the views over Mandalay and the setting sun and it can get a little crowded.
A shameful visit
On our third and last day in Mandalay we hired a taxi to take us to several the sights south of the city. The first stops were the interesting Kyo Aung Sanda monastery and the Maha Ganayon Monastery in Amarapura. We had made it clear to our driver that we didn’t want to visit this second monastery famous for the monks marching in two single rows to the monastery dining hall at 11 AM to eat.
In the end curiosity got the better of us, but afterwards we felt ashamed of having been part of this spectacle, with tourists elbowing each other for a couple of lousy pictures. It was like looking at monkeys being fed. You could clearly see that especially the young monks were made uncomfortable by it all. And they have to endure this every single day. Best avoided!
Next we drove to Sagaing Hill at the other side of the Ayeryawady River and took the 350 steps up from the Lion Gate to the Pon Nya Shin Paya. The steps up were not too hard and the temple on top of the hill was OK, but it didn’t hold the attraction other payas in Myanmar had for us. It also had some nice views, but not out of the ordinary.
After crossing the river again Inwa (or Ava), the royal capital four times since it’s foundation in 1364, had some interesting ancient structures to see. Inwa is reached by a short boat ride, crossing a tributary of the Ayeryawady. Horse carts (8000 kyiats for 2-3 hours) bring you to the sights. Don’t try walking: distances are bigger than you think. We had the bad luck that on the way back a piece of rubber broke off from one of the tires of the horse cart, leaving us ‘limping’ back to the boat.
Iconic U Bein Bridge
The day ended in Amarapura again, at one of the most iconic sights of Myanmar: U Bein Bridge, the longest (1,2 kilometers) teak footbridge in the world. With a lot more tourists walking the bridge than locals the ‘couleur local’ at U Bein Bridge sometimes seemed far away. A pair of boom boxes at the beginning of the bridge playing very loud Myanmar pop music didn’t help either.
But with sunset getting closer and tourists finding their spots on the water or on land to watch the sunset, the bridge for a short period of time looked more like you know it from the pictures in guidebooks, brochures and travel programs. The sunset was stunning with very intense colors. For best pictures of the bridge it seemed you had to be on one of the many boats floating on the water (we’d positioned ourselves on the dry lake bed, water was low).
We visited Mandalay in November 2014
Travel tips Mandalay
Combo ticket – For several sites in and around Mandalay you have to buy the Archaeological Zone Combo ticket which gives entry to Mandalay Palace, Mandalay Hill, Shwenandaw Kyaung and Inwa, to name the most important. It costs 10.000 kyats (about 8 USD).
Sleep – We stayed four nights at the Taw Win Myanmar Hotel plus one more night after getting back from a visit to Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw. Taw Win Myanmar was a pleasant surprise. We hoped this would set the standard for the rest of our four week trip, but sadly this wasn’t so. Our superior twin room had good (if a bit hard) beds, refrigerator, flat screen TV (with HBO) and a well-proportioned bathroom with hot shower. Wifi was the best (if still spotty at times) of the places we stayed at, breakfast was OK and plentiful. Staff was helpful if not always very knowledgeable. Free loan bicycles were a nice touch.
Eat – We had dinner a few times in 81st Street, which had some nice local restaurants but also an Indian/Nepali place that served tasty Indian curries. The open front Aye Myi Tar had simple and cheap Myanmar curries. All main dishes (like in most local restaurants) come with 4 side dishes, soup, white rice and salad. Very filling.
Transport – We flew into Mandalay with a stopover in Bangkok using Bangkok Airways the second leg of the trip (nice touch: the airline had a lounge for economy passengers). Mandalay International Airport is over 30 kilometers south of the city. Public transport is scarce so a taxi is your best bet to get to your hotel. Taxis are cheap, but we found a bicycle to be the best way to move around inside the city.
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