Mandalay: the city of pagodas and friendly locals

Mandalay was the perfect entry point and introduction to Myanmar. It’s much quieter and more laid back than Yangon, despite it being the second biggest city in the country, and the people are extremely welcoming and eager to practice their English with you (as I would soon find it).

Within a few hours of landing in the country, I was climbing the stairs to reach the top of Mandalay Hill for sunset. I was soon accompanied by a young monk who was also heading to the top for his daily English practice. He asked me many questions about Australia and my travels and he was happy to answer some of mine. China is the only other Buddhist-majority country I have been to before and I was interested to learn about the religion. 

Mandalay Hill

I reached the top with just enough time to watch the sun go down and the sky to change its colour. The monks outnumbered the foreigners, as there were only a handful of us up there, and they shyly moved around to start conversations with us. The sun slowly disappeared, and everyone started to make their way back down. It was such a beautiful introduction to the country I would be spending the next 28 days in and as I took the stairs back down I was thinking, ‘I love this country already’. 

The next day I joined a group from the hostel doing a tour of the three ancient cities surrounding Mandalay. Across the river, there was Sagaing, which was formerly a small kingdom of its own. There are hundreds of stupas and pagodas scattering the hills on the river bank and the view from the top of one of them was beautiful. The area is now an extremely important place for Buddhist study and meditation and we visited one of the most renowned Buddhist universities.

We then went to one of the largest monasteries in the Mandalay area, where 1000 monks study the Buddhist teachings. I was told that we would be going to see them eat lunch and I thought that that was a strange thing to do. Every day the monks and students queue in procession as they make their way to the dining hall. I was in complete shock when we arrived to find a crowd of other tourists already there waiting. As the young boys emerged from the buildings to line up, the tourists gathered together on either side of them with large cameras in their faces trying to get a good photo. As the boys started to move towards the dining hall, the tourists only got more aggressive and even ended up sticking their heads into the hall windows as they tried to get photos of the boys eating. I looked on in horror and was too disgusted to get my own camera out. Although as I stepped away from the crowd, I did manage to get my camera and take a few photos, including some of the tourists who were the real spectacle there. We left and my mind went through several emotions from anger to sadness to guilt. Those poor young monks were effectively in a zoo at around lunch time every day for all the tourists to come and gawk at. However, as much as I could be angry at the other tourists, I can’t deny that I too am in the country for ‘tourism’ purposes as my visa states. 

We moved on to Innwa, the former capital of Burma over centuries before. There are only some ruins left now of the old palace and a monastery and of course, there were some pagodas around too. Usually, tourists take the horse and carts waiting at the entrance around the complex for a two-hour tour, however, two of my group members were just as tight and stubborn as me and we decided to walk, despite the locals saying, “Very far, very far, verrrrrry farrr.” We covered nearly 10km by foot in the two hours we had and were just able to take in all the main sights before power walking back to meet our driver. Walking had been the best idea though as we were able to take in much of the local life around the farms that have cropped up in the ancient area.

Innwa

Our last stop was Amarapura, to see the famous U Bein bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world at 1.2km long and made from the remnants of the old royal palace. It has become a sort of postcard photo for tourists and there were many buses and people already there to see it. I managed to find a good spot, despite being in ankle deep mud and rubbish on the banks of the lake that ran underneath the bridge. The sunset put on a nice show for us making it a perfect end to the day.

I also visited Mahamuni Buddha Temple in Mandalay, one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Buddhists in the country. The Mahamuni Buddha image sits in the middle of the temple where men can go and place a golden leaf onto it as a sign of respect. Women can only sit and watch from the outside. While I was there I was lucky enough to catch a family’s celebration and ceremony that they do when they send one of their children off to become a monk. The family members were beautifully dressed and posed for photos for a professional photographer in the temple complex. 

I also went to Shwenandaw Monastery, an example of the traditional wooden architecture from the 19thcentury, and Kuthodaw Pagoda, which houses the world’s largest book. Although not a ‘book’ as we know it, the book is actually 729 inscribed stone tablets housed in small shrines across the complex.

Despite it being Myanmar’s second largest city, it certainly has a small town feel when walking in the city centre. It suffered devastating air raids during the Second World War and thus, much of the original colonial architecture completely disappeared. The royal palace has been rebuilt in the centre of town, however, it’s not quite the same. It of course also boasts a few big shopping malls and a KFC now, however, the night market and local restaurants are by far the better places to go. 

The locals are extremely friendly and, in my opinion, much more open to talk than those in Yangon. I had many a good conversation with the hostel manager, young monks and my motorbike taxi driver about sensitive political issues, a conversation that they themselves had initiated. There were many varied opinions on the Rohingya and Aung San Suu Kyi and the direction Myanmar is going as a country. What they all had in common, however, was that the country has some seriously complex issues to deal with but that doesn’t mean that tourists shouldn’t still visit. In fact, they want and need tourists to visit to reinvigorate the potentially profitable and successful industry for the country’s future.

Mandalay guide

Where I stayed

Ace Star Backpackers

The staff are extremely friendly and helpful and the rooms are clean and spacious. It also has good Wi-Fi, free breakfast and a rooftop terrace.

Where I ate

Mogok Daw Shan (on the corner of 33rd and 77th St) which specialises in home-made noodles of all types and is always packed full of locals slurping bowls of their Shan noodle soup. Prices start from 1500kyats or $1.50 for a Shan noodle soup and are open every day from 6am until 9pm.

How I got around

Grab is Southeast Asia’s version of Uber and works very well in Mandalay. You can order a motorbike, rickshaw or car from the app and there’s usually a driver not too far away. Or it is also good for checking prices before hailing an ordinary taxi.

How I got in

I flew into Mandalay International Airport which is 35km outside of the city centre. There is a great service called Shwe Nan San that has a counter right as you leave customs. They have a shared minivan than will drop you at any hotel or hostel door for around 4000kyats or $4.

How I got out

Mandalay has three bus terminals and I managed to use all three somehow. I left Mandalay for Hsipaw (my article on trekking in Hsipaw can be read here) and the bus departed from the east bus terminal called Pyi Gyi Myat Shin. The main bus terminal is in the south of the city which has services to Yangon and other major destinations. The west bus terminal called Thiri Mandalar, was where I took the bus towards the Indian border (read about how to cross the border here) and Kalay. Ace Star was able to arrange all of my bus tickets and helped figure out which station I needed to go to. All stations are around 2000-3000kyats or $2-3 from the city centre.

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