After the spectacular scenery of Bagan, we bussed on to the final capital city of the Burmese Kingdom. We had arrived in the city from Bangkok and took a bus to Bagan on the same day, so we had experienced a bit of it before exploring it. We had read reviews and heard from other travelers who disliked the city, so mixed expectations arrived with us as we returned to Mandalay. Tourists often follow along a pretty defined route in the city: Mahamuni Paya, Mandalay Hill, the tour of the religious and historical sites south of the city, etc. Our path followed very similar lines.
The tour that every tourist is offered focuses on Sagaing, Amarapura, and Inwa. We did this via taxi for 35,000 kyat and I had conflicting feelings throughout the day. After visiting a gold leaf workshop and a longyi production house, we headed to the Mahagandayon monastery in Amarapura. Every morning, novices line up for their meal and tourists flank on either side. The idea itself could be positive - there were tourists that morning that presented offerings to the novices ranging from snacks and treats to toothpaste. Others, like us, were content to stand on the side and be witness to what happened. Unfortunately, some were more interested in capturing profiles of the young men and boys - and not from the sidelines, instead getting in the way of the procession, impeding the novices’ movement, just to take a picture. The lack of respect was appalling.
And for me, that kind of set the tone for the rest of the day. Even though we knew there was a bridge to get over to Inwa and we could avoid the boat ride/horse carriage ride, our taxi driver refused to budge, even for a few extra thousand kyat. So, we paid another 1600 kyat to cross the miniscule river by boat and then had a helluva battle with the horse carriage driver over the fare we would pay (finally agreed on 5000 kyat). That thankfully ended with jokes and smiles, but the tour itself felt so much more forced than anything else we experienced in Myanmar.
That being said, you may think we disliked Mandalay. The truth is that Mandalay, being an area where ancient capitals sprang up repeatedly, is a place well worth visiting. The taxi/horse-cart tour does take you to some impressive sights especially at Inwa. U Bein Bridge, the longest teak example in the world, is usually where you end your tour for sunset. A boat ride out onto the lake is definitely worth it to catch the sun as it falls behind the bridge’s supporting beams.
Our other excursions in the city were very enjoyable. We rented bikes for a day and explored Mandalay Hill and the surrounding area in the morning and visited Mahamuni Paya in the evening. The pagoda contains an impressive golden Buddha relic moved to Mandalay from Arakan (seen in the pictures above) and is a highly-revered holy site. Bicycle was a great way to get around as it gave us the chance to see the city while in transit, something that often gets blurred in a taxi or on a motorbike.
My favorite part of our time in Mandalay was our visit to Mandalay Hill, located north of the city palace. We hiked up the west staircase (in between the golf course sections on Google Maps) in about 15 minutes and as soon as we reached the top, three novice monks came up to us and asked to take a picture with us. Only one spoke a little English, but they all exuded a warmth that lifted our spirits and left us smiling. Not two minutes later, a young woman came up to us to talk. She told us how she had just graduated high school that day and was just so happy to practice her English with someone. Anaïs wasn’t kidding when she said the Burmese people were incredibly nice!
After descending the hill - and having another young student talk to us - we visited Kuthodaw Pagoda. Famous for being the largest book in the world - 729 inscribed stones reveal the entirety of the Tripitaka (plus one more to describe how the work was done) - it was impressive to see each of the stones protected in its own stupa. Just as enjoyable was the massive teak door that marked the entrance to the pagoda.
Very near lies Shwenandaw Monastery, which was once part of the royal apartments of the king who built Kuthodaw. After his death, his son dismantled the building in Amarapura and moved it to Mandalay. The teak monastery is covered in intricate carvings depicting various Buddhist stories and motifs and was once gilt over in gold.
A couple days in Mandalay felt like enough to us and we were soon on our way out of the valley and up in the hills for the first “cool” (aka, below 25°C/77°F) weather in months.
We stayed at 79 Living Hotel for $33 a night. Centrally located with a decent buffet breakfast, the rooms were well kept and shower pressure was good. Not the cheapest option in the city, but we felt like it was a good option. If you plan on taking the early morning train towards Pyin Oo Lwin or Hsipaw, you won’t beat this location - it’s directly behind the train station.
For food, we had delicious chapati and curry at the intersection of 81st and 27th - you won’t miss it as it will be packed. We also had a good dinner at the market near 29th and 84th. Aye Myit Tar was our other dinner spot and it was a good place to experience Burmese cuisine. The waiters we had were fun and personable and they are accustomed to tourists, so it was a fun dinner, albeit a bit more expensive than most street food. Delicious, though, and well worth it.
From Anais: If you're interested in witnessing a very local sight, check out the jade market early one morning. I went alone one morning at about 6 am by motorbike taxi and walked around the whole place. I was the only tourist – as far as I could tell – so I did get a few stares but I couldn't care less. It was fascinating. While there are people selling jade outside the market, the most interesting part was the dealer's market. The whole place is cramped with sellers trying to shove their way to a dealer for him (yes, they were only men that day) to inspect your jade. They'll use water & flashlights to inspect the quality of it, which explains why people sell flashlights right outside (see pictures below). I didn't see a transaction happen but there was a lot of negotiating and banter. The whole thing was awesome to witness and I urge you to go if you like seeing true local scenes.