After a crazy mini-bus ride from Inle Lake, I arrived in Mandalay to discover the glass of my laptop screen cover was again cracked. It’s only the cover so no lasting damage but still annoying. Instead of taking the new wide smooth highway, the mini-bus used the old, bumpy and rocky roads. We spent half of the time bouncing out of our seats and my laptop must have jolted in my bag, coming down hard on one end. Ah well, I can live with it.
Mandalay has a more western and modern feel than Yangon, with less street markets and more shops selling things other than mobile phones. Unfortunately, with my foot still recovering from major blistering after the Kalaw Inle Lake trek, I found it difficult to wander more than a block from the hostel. On top of that, for the first time during this Myanmar trip it rained incessantly. I guess I’ve been lucky, others have complained of constant rain in both Yangon and Bagan. So on a day with less rain and to go easy on my foot, I hired a bike and rode around the city.
Mandalay Royal Palace
The first stop for the day was the massive walled area of the royal palace, with nine separate gates and a moat wider than the Brisbane River. After going inside and paying the US$ 10 archaeological fee, I rode through the grounds of the palace, which are largely out-of-bounds to foreigners, to the central reconstructed palace area.
Named, ‘The Famed Royal Emerald Palace’ and the ‘Great Golden Royal Palace’, the location no longer houses the original palace. Bombed to all buggery by the allies in the second world war a replica was built in its place using more modern materials — mainly corrugated iron for the rooftops. Most buildings are bare and empty although one that survived the bombing was the five-story watch tower. I got lovely views over the palace grounds although I got the impression many of the local visitors were more interested in getting photos of me than the palace.
At one corner of the royal palace area stands the hill that gave the city its name. Covered in pagodas and temples the hill is a popular pilgrimage destination for monks with four sets of steps climbing to the summit. The steps stop at various temples along the 240 m climb although those who leave their flip-flops at the bottom are rewarded by having to dodge piles of bird and dog poop all the way up. The views from the top, however, are worth the annoyance of the climb, which is not difficult, only long.
National Kandawgyi Gardens
A two-hour group taxi ride to the East finds us in Pyin Oo Lwin, a small town locals from Mandalay come to for holidays away from the city. One of the hotspots here is the National Kandawgyi Gardens, a spot of beauty that took myself and a kiwi girl from the hostel several hours to walk around. It was certainly a change of pace from the city. The gardens are massive with a lake and plentiful kinds of flora growing around it. A great day!
The best way to see some of the sites of Mandalay is to book a day trip but be warned of extra charges along the way. The fee for the tour only covers the group taxi ride.
King Galan Gold Leaf Workshop
With so much gold leaf around this nation it was interesting to see how it is made. Workers pound by hand small squares of gold into sheets of gold leaf. They use 3 kg sledge hammers and belt the gold continuously for 30 minutes straight.
Maha Mauni Pagoda
We were delivered to one of Mandalay’s major pagodas and wandered around barefoot, again careful not to stand in the poop of birds that build nests under the ceilings. In the centre of the pagoda is a great seated buddha which locals climb to plaster gold leaf across its surface.
Probably the most unusual part of the tour, we head to the monastery to watch lines of monks carry their bowls to be filled for the morning meal. It is unusual as at 10am every morning tourists swarm here to watch these monks (1000 of them) get rice. It must be bizarre from the monks side of things also.
These are in fact two hills with pagodas atop each that providing great vistas of the surrounding landscapes in addition to sprawling chambers of buddhas.
After lunch we head to a river crossing and the more rural Inwa Ava area for two hours being driven along muddy roads in a horse-drawn carriage. At times I felt sorry for the struggling horse as it dragged two of us and the driver through difficult mud.
Bagaya Kyaung – The Teak Monastery
One of the attractions of the horse ride was the Teak Monastery built with many thick teak planks. It is a magnificent buildings except that it has suffered from fire damage and the wood has a thick black layer of soot across it. It is part of the Mandalay Archaeological zone so the card I purchased a couple of days earlier covers it. Otherwise it is a US$ 10 fee.
Me Nu Ok Kyaung – The Brick Monastery
Our final crazy carriage visit took us to another monastery, this one the most different in Myanmar as it is not built from wood but brick. With several levels, criss-crossing passages and small rooms with connecting windows this would have made a great play castle. I could imagine playing hide and seek all day in this place.
U Bein Bridge
Back in our group taxi and we head to the oldest and longest wooden bridge in the world. The teak wood bridge in the shape of a V is 1.2 km long and crosses the Taungthaman Lake. It is a haven of tourists, locals and monks crossing from one side to the other. But instead of walking back across, tourists can hire a boat and be rowed back, stopping midway for sunset, something that was unlikely to happen during our cloudy day.
Overall, I enjoyed Mandalay better than Yangon as there was more to do in and around the city. There was a feeling of being a sprawling warm city than the dirty mess of cramped streets of Yangon.
Next, I head back to Yangon for my last couple of days in Myanmar before I head back to Malaysia.
The World Wanderer