A Glimpse of Mandalay

U Bein Bridge Reflections

Mandalay is a city. Not the most crowded city, but a city that is pretty polluted and dusty and lacking any real architectural gems in its construction. I did enjoy my time in Mandalay, but largely because of the places I visited just outside the city proper.

Mandalay is different from Bagan and Inle Lake in that you can rent a guide to take you around on a motorbike. I do not trust myself to operate a motorbike – but I will trust a complete stranger if it’s cheaper than a taxi. So hiring a motorbike driver was the way that I got around Mandalay and it was a fun way to discover this city.

Exploring Downtown Mandalay

My first day in Mandalay, I met a motorbike driver named Mr. Zaw as I was leaving the golden palace. I paid him to take me to the Kuthodaw Paya and he unexpectedly gave me such a great tour in English around the monastery that I paid him 10,000 Kyat ($8) for the rest of the day.

Motorbike Driver

Mr. Zaw in action

Downtown Mandalay is organized in a grid so it’s easy to get around. However most of the streets do not have sidewalks or street lights so it’s not the easiest walk.  If you do explore downtown, you’ll see a lot of the scenery below, which gets kind of boring.

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 10.32.54 PM

We traveled to a few of the popular spots in downtown Mandalay. When you pay the Mandalay Zone Admission Fees (USD10) it will give you access to all the sites I mention below + a few others. You can buy it at the entrance of any of the pagodas. Make sure you keep it on you!

The first stop I went to was the Mandalay Palace. The Palace sits across several blocks in the middle of Mandalay and is surrounded by a huge moat and massive walls. It looks like a huge fortress from the outside. Your motorbike driver has to drop you off at the moat, and you can walk into the area within the walled gates. You can take the 10 minute walk to the Mandalay Palace, or rent a bike for 1,000 Kyat (less than $1) which I did. Tourists aren’t allowed to bike or walk anywhere except the road that leads up to the Golden Palace.

Golden Palace Mandalay

Golden Palace

Next I went to Kuthodaw Paya. Out of all of the monasteries in Mandalay, this was my favorite as the glowing white pagodas against the bright blue sky was so pretty.

Kuthodaw Paya 2

I also went and saw the Shwenandaw Monastery which is made entirely out of teak wood and has beautiful ornate carvings.

Mandalay Teak Monastery

Entrance to Shwenandaw Monastery


Teak Monastery Mandalay

Ornate Carvings at Shwenandaw Monastery

We drove up to the top of Mandalay hill and it was a nice view, but nothing epic. Note – I went mid-day and it’s suggested to go at sunset if it’s not cloudy out.

View from Mandalay Hill

We also drove over to Maha Myat Muni Pagoda. This is the pagoda that is famous for the buddha face washing ceremony every day at 4am. I actually really liked this pagoda. Around 4pm they start to close down and a little group of musicians plays beautiful music. There is also a ton of artwork depicting the many lives of the Buddha.

Praying in Mandalay

While I was taking a photo of the pagoda, a woman asked me to be in a picture with her and that set off a chain reaction of 20 other women asking for a picture as well.

Pictures with locals in Mandalay

Another stop that may be interesting in Mandalay is the Jade Market. It closes down mid-morning, but I went at about 9am and was able to see some jade being laid out for auction.  This is really not a souvenir buying excursion although there were 1-2 tables that I saw that had jade jewelry for sale. But largely this is a wholesaler/auction market where you can see huge rocks of jade as well as small cut pebbles. You can even watch the jade being cut. Beware of where you step or walk – there is a fair amount of betal spitting going on by locals in the market!

Large jade at jade marketExamining Jade in Mandalay

Jade at Auction

U Bein Bridge in Amanapura

We then made our way about 20 minutes outside the city to Amanapura to see the U Bein Bridge at sunset. I was expecting the bridge to be crowded but not AS crowded as it actually was. It’s a popular spot for both local Burmese and foreign tourists especially at sunset. The bridge is quite creaky and walking over it with hundreds of other people is a bit scary in a fun way :).

Sunset view from U Bein Bridge

Sunset view from U Bein Bridge


Sunsets from U Bein

Sunsets from U Bein Bridge


U Bein Bridge Crowds at Sunset

U Bein Bridge Crowds at Sunset

Bright colors at U Bein Bridge

I also went to the U Bein Bridge at sunrise the morning I left Myanmar on my way to the airport. I found it to be MUCH better at that time. Barely anyone was there and the pictures I took were far better of the bridge.

Misty Sunrise U BeinU Bein Bridge SunriseU Bein Bridge Sunrise Monks

One other stop that you may make in Amannapura is the Maha Aung Mye Bon Zan Monastery. This is a bit of a controversial stop. This monastery has hundreds of monks and their daily alms collecting ceremony around 10 in the morning is flooded by a ton of tourists. I wasn’t planning on going but Mr. Zaw my motorbike driver was pretty insistent and was excited to be there himself taking a lot of pictures. I’m a bit on the fence if I would recommend it. There are definitely a ton of people taking pictures there and you feel like you’re part of this paparazzi mob and I was concerned that it was too invasive for the monks.

Giving Alms Mandalay

But I had a bit of a chat with the head monk at the monastery and he actually said that he sees it as a good thing as it educates people to the monk and buddhist faith and if the monks do get upset about it, they should use it as an opportunity to practice their meditation and realize this is not something to get upset about.  I did learn a lot by going there and talking to Mr. Zaw and the head monk about the lifestyle. A few of the interesting facts…

  • The monks eat at breakfast and at lunch but abstain from eating dinner.
  • Local Buddhists make a donation (also known as alms) to the monastery.  This donation pays for the monastery to cook big vats of rice and a basic veggie stew for the monks. Then, those that made the donation serve the food to the monks in this procession. The monks are also given little snacks and sweets.  Buddhists believe that giving alms helps earn them merits and accumulating these merits will contribute to a their growth towards spiritual liberation.
  • Anything that the monks do not finish goes to local poor children and families who wait for the extras to be handed out.
  • All practicing Buddhist males have to serve as a monk for some period of their youth. Usually they serve anywhere from a few months to a few years.  Practicing females can also serve if they want to and they are often referred to as nuns.
  • These monasteries also sometimes are home to orphans who would not have a home otherwise.

Alms Ceremony MandalayNuns at LunchMonks in Mandalay

Sagaing & Ava City / Inn Wa (The City of Gems)

On day 2 of my motorbike adventures with Mr. Zaw, I paid him 15,000 Kyat ($11.50) for the whole day and we went to two nearby towns.

The first town we stopped at was Sagaing. Monasteries make up most of this city and if you visit Soon U Ponya Shin Paya. You will have a view of a bunch of religious shrines, buddhas and housing facilities for monks scattered across the hills. The views were pretty here, but I wouldn’t put it on any kind of must see list.

View from Soon U Ponya Shin Paya

View from Soon U Ponya Shin Paya

For the afternoon, we drove through small villages in Ava City (Formery known as Inn Wa).

Inn Wa Ponycarts

 

There are definitely a number of sites and stores set up for tourists in this town, but I found it to be pretty empty during our afternoon there. There is a lot of local village life that you get to see – especially if you come on motorbike. If you don’t come on motorbike, it looked like the only way to get around was via ponycart ride which couldn’t go down a lot of the side paths that our motorbike could.

Scattered across Ava City there are a number of older monasteries and Buddha statues that are all very unique and different.

Leaning Tower of Inwa

Leaning Tower of Inwa

Inn Wa Monastery Young BoyMonastery Inn WaOld wall in Inn WaBuddha in Ava City

There are also a ton of farms and rice paddy fields making it a really beautiful drive.

Banana LeavesFarming in Mandalay

A Glimpse of Mandalay

The highlight of my Mandalay trip was the “Glimpse of Mandalay” tour.

At around 9am I was picked up at my hotel in a truck cab and met two other Canadian girls who were also apart of the trip. Our guide Aung first took us to a market in downtown Mandalay. It wasn’t as nice as the market I had seen in Bagan, but that’s to be expected since it was a city market.

Mandalay Market

We then stopped by a local tea shop where we tasted some of the awesome tea shop snacks including samosas, Shan Noodles and meat filled buns.

Sweet Tea in Mandalay

Then, we were driven to a small house in the middle of a remote village on the outskirts of Mandalay.We spent the next few hours cooking a few curries and salads in their backyard kitchen which is set up specifically for a cooking demonstration & class.

Taste of Mandalay Lunch

 

After lunch and a brief siesta, we jumped on bikes and took a ride around the village which was the coolest part of the experience.

Biking along stream Mandalay

We met a group of teenage boys sliding down a dam in the river.

Mandalay Swimming

A group of young novice monks who were about to collect alms for the next day

Novice Monks in Mandalay

And 2 boys who were using the empty ride paddy as their backyard pool.

River Jumping in Mandalay

Every few minutes we would pass by a house where the kids would come running out to say hello and wave to us.

Village Hellos

The mountain views surrounding the ride paddies were exquisite.

Laundry in Mandalay

Top Tips

  • Hot Spots  – There really isn’t a downtown strip area with a ton of restaurants.  The restaurants are really scattered around the cities grid layout. My hotel, A1 Hotel was about 2-3 blocks away from the nearest sit down restaurant which was fine to walk to – even though it’s a bit difficult to walk around this city.
  • Getting Around -Transportation is somewhat easy to find. You will always see motorbike drivers offering to take you around the city for around 1,000-3,000 Kyat depending on how far you are going..  Any hotel can also easily find you a taxi car.  It was a bit expensive (for Asian standards) to get to the airport in a car (about $20 in a cab).
  • Cash – In Mandalay they really mostly accept just Kyat although most hotels will accept dollar and help you exchange for Kyat if you need it for taxis or motorbikes.
  • ATMS – there are atms throughout Mandalay – and a fair amount of them.
  • Credit Cards – Largely not accepted (maybe at hotels?) I didn’t use my credit card at all aside from booking hotels online. Plan to always have cash.
  • Archeological Fee – You will have to pay the archeological fee if you visit any of the major pagodas (10,000 Kyat – $10).
  • Getting There – If you are getting to Mandalay from Bagan, I highly recommend the slow boat ferry. If you are going to Inle Lake, there are buses that aren’t too bad at all.
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