Mandalay. It sounds so romantic, thanks to Rudyard Kipling, or for some of you, to Las Vegas. But to set the record straight, there is no bay here. And there are no pyramids in Luxor, either. Thanks, Las Vegas, for messing with Americans’ geography.
On the road to Mandalay (see? It does sound romantic), we found out something important: there are the main bus lines with full-size buses, and then there are smaller buses which are not exactly of the same calibre. They are clean, and as long as you have a seat, it’s pretty much the same. It’s the people sitting in the aisles of the bus that make it feel a bit cramped. The main difference is price: 22,000 Ks for the tourist buses, 9,000 Ks for the local ones, less for an aisle seat (but no blanket or water bottle). Chalk one up for truth in advertising, though: the small bus is called OK Express.
The good news is, we arrived only 1.5 hours late, which is on time in Myanmar, and the bus took us all the way to our hotel door, sparing us the extra expense of a taxi.
We arrived in time for dinner and there are 2 choices within spitting distance of the hotel: a row of street food vendors, and a J&J BBQ and Beer barn. The street food in Myanmar is almost exclusively roasted chicken — all parts of the chicken — and roasted fish served with pickled veggies in fish sauce. That’s how you prepare food if you have a fire and no refrigeration. We didn’t like the fish sauce and the chicken parts didn’t look very appetizing.
The real deciding factor, however, was the beer on tap at J&J, so we went there. And despite the name, the food was quite tasty, although Lili noted that she and Sunshine were the only females in the place. I told her that was nonsense, just look at all the cooks and cocktail waitresses. That didn’t go over well. The other thing we noticed was “no shoes, no shirt, no problem” is the rule here! It makes me think we have too many laws in the US. Well, we do. But here, patrons take off their flip flops and relax at the table. Plus, it’s hot out, so some of them take off their shirts. I was tempted to do the same, but Lili threatened to take away my beer if I so much as unbuttoned too far. She’s no fun, sometimes.
The reason I used the term “spitting distance” is the disagreeable habit of the locals to spit. A lot. We saw this in India, too: people spit on the street, on the sidewalk, onto other cars, anywhere. Here, it’s mostly onto the street and sidewalk, but every restaurant has buckets next to the tables for spitting. In Myanmar, it’s mostly betelnut they’re chewing, which makes for red splotches everywhere. Otherwise, it’s tobacco that they’re chewing to stop from chewing betel. Pick your poison. Either way, you don’t want to walk barefoot outside of the pagodas!
The next day, we braved the heat (38° C or 100° F) to visit the royal palace, built as a forbidden city when Mandalay was founded in the 1850s (yes, it’s that new). Foreigners are required to buy an archaeological zone ticket, which allows 5 days of entry into the palace, the Shwenandaw Monastery, and most others. It also allows you to enter the zones in Inwe (Ava) and Amarapura. So your 10,000 kyats do go fairly far (literally).
This is really a controversial stop, because it’s not even the original royal palace. The real one was looted by the British in the 1890s and bombed to bits by the Japanese in WWII. Well, that’s what happens when you build an entire palace out of teak wood. This reconstruction was started in 1989 using metal and cheaper wood. At least it gives you an idea of what the place must have looked like. For some reason, even in the recreation you have to remove your shoes to go inside the structures. Spoiler alert: the glass palace is the central building here, but it’s not glass. It’s a wooden pavilion. Well, it’s covered in mirrored mosaic pieces, which are technically glass. But it’s not like the Crystal Cathedral or something.
We actually meant to see the Shwenanda Kyaung (aka the Golden Monastery) after the palace, but there were a couple of issues: first, we could not get out of the palace compound. It’s 1km to the taxi/tuk tuk pickup area at the entry gate. Technically, foreigners are not allowed to walk that road, even if we wanted to in the heat. Second, the monastery closes at 5pm (for foreigners), meaning you’re kinda stuck there unless you have pre-arranged a ride.
Are you getting the feeling that foreigners are singled out here? It’s not just here, though. We saw that in Jordan, Egypt, Ethiopia, and India, too. Oh, in case you’re wondering, we hopped on the back of a light truck and they took us to the gate. The people already in the truck were just tickled that Westerners were riding with them, and they were even more excited that we wanted photos. The moral is, if you don’t want to share a light truck with 24 of your new best friends, have your ride wait for you.
Instead of hitting the Shwenandaw, we took a tuk-tuk up to the top of Mandalay Hill to watch the sunset. The hill is 230m high, and you can walk but again, it’s oppressively hot — unless it isn’t, in which case the walk can be very rewarding with pagodas at the turns all the way up the hill. We cheated by riding a tuk tuk up and down.
The Su Taung Pye monastery at the top is the place to be for sunsets in Mandalay and you will see at least 1 dozen Westerners up there among the few dozen locals. It is a bit gaudy, what with mirror mosaic walls and red and gold rooftops, not to mention the flashing lights behind Buddha’s head, but the locals seem to like it. Since the city is flat, you get an inspiring view of the sun setting over the mountains beyond the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River.
By the way, there is a 500 Ks fee to drive up the hill, which the driver is supposed to cover but may ask you to, and there is also a 1000 Ks charge for — you guessed it — foreigners to enter the monastery. Again, you will be smart to book your ride up and down the hill, as taxis don’t drive up here for fun. All the tuk tuks we saw were already spoken for. But at least if you have to walk, it’s all downhill and there are lights.
A quick word here about all these alternate names and spellings. Myanmar was known as Burma until… well, until the 1960s if you were the ruling military junta, and the 2000s if you were a foreigner. The British conquered southern Myanmar, which they called Burma, in the 1830s and northern Myanmar in the 1880s. They made lots of maps during that time, and most of the names we use outside the country are anglicized variations of the Myanmar-language original. As a mark of independence, the original names are being promoted as a replacement for the colonial terms. And the name Burma comes from 1 of the 135 ethnic groups that make up Myanmar. In an effort to include the 134 others, they call the country and the language Myanmar, not Burma or Burmese. Those words are actually prohibited in the Myanmar media!
The next day, the kids boycotted pagoda visits, so Lili and I went to visit the Shwenandaw monastery, the Atumashi monastery, and the Kuthodaw temple, with an option to see the Sandamuni temple. These are all within a 5 minute walk of each other, through tree-shaded streets. As usual, the kids really missed out — even if they think they dodged a bullet. The Shwenandaw monastery was possibly the most amazing building we have seen in Myanmar (after the Shwedagon pagoda, of course, if you’re a local reading this). Even the history of this building is fascinating. It was part of the royal palace in Amarapura before the capital was moved to Mandalay in the 1850s. Once the palace in Mandalay was under construction, that building was dismantled and brought to the new palace, where it adjoined the glass palace and was King Mindon’s bedroom.
For one reason or another, his heir King Thibaw had the room dismantled once again and moved to its current location outside the palace moat and reassembled as a monastery. That moved saved this building from the destruction of the rest of the palace. The elaborately-carved teak wood is in varying states of repair — the original exterior carvings are worse for the wear and some have been replaced, while the interior carvings have held up quite well (some better than others, of course). The interior carved beams and walls are all covered in gold, hence the name. Captain Jack Sparrow would have felt at home.
After that, we walked to the Atumashi, or Incomparable, monastery. This is the largest monastery building in…Mandalay or Myanmar. I forgot. Anyway, it’s about the size of a large banquet hall, and it’s made of plaster, which is unusual, but the original burned down. Because it was made of wood. Of course. Sadly, the Buddha that was here is gone, because it was made of the lacquered ashes of the king’s clothing and sported a 28 carat diamond on the forehead which mysteriously disappeared after the fire. Hmm. Anyway, the modern interior looks like a Hilton hotel except for the hundreds of LED Christmas lights strung on the back wall and the pillars. Disco, anyone?
On our way out, we were stopped by a monk, who asked if he could practice his English with us. This has happened to us before, so we were not taken totally by surprise — the monks seek out Westerners to practice their English. Well, Sun Bright needed the practice. We gave him “5 minutes,” and he promised to pray for us 4 times a day. He blessed us right then and there, and he read our palms. He asked if he could call us Father and Mother. I wanted to say that I had my hands full with the 2 I knew about, but instead, I told him it would be my pleasure. But I didn’t give him our home address.
We walked down the shady street to the Kuthodaw temple, which is a very popular place and is known as home to the biggest book on earth. I’m not sure if anyone has told Guinness, but the “book” is in a collection of some 730 shrines, each with a large stone tablet inside with text etched onto it. The text is the Tripitaka, which is the sacred text of Theravada Buddhism. As you can imagine, the temple complex is quite large, housing as it does 730 white shrines as well as the main gold stupa, four pavilions, a thanaka station under a large tree, and a long, large entrance.
Surprisingly, the Sandamuni temple, just down the road from Kuthodaw, is even larger, with over 1000 shrines housing stone tablets, but the texts here are commentary, not a book. For unknown reasons, the Sandamuni temple is practically empty while Kuthodaw is full of visitors (mostly locals). We were on our way to see it, but Lili was having a sugar low, and the heat was at its peak so instead we walked back to the main road where I called a tuk tuk.
AROUND MANDALAY: AMARAPURA – SAGAING HILL – INNWA
In every taxi and tuk tuk, you will find a laminated card with all the local attractions (read, pagodas) and the ancient towns (and erstwhile capitals) of Amarapura, Sagaing Hill, and Innwa (Ava). Every driver will pull out the card and ask if you would like to visit those places. I got the impression from every travel blog I read that this was a checklist item, which usually means something to avoid. But here we were, with a full day and nothing to do, so why not spend 40,000 kyats (about US $25) to spend the day seeing the sights from the comfort of an air conditioned taxi?
We inquired at the hotel, which had a 10% markup on the price. Whatever. A driver met us the next morning at 10 (it’s normally 9am if you want to stop first at the Amarapura monastery, home to over 1000 monks). We didn’t want to invade the privacy of the monks, although we were a bit intrigued. If you do go, please be respectful: ask permission to take photos, don’t talk too loudly or press cameras in their faces, and dress appropriately.
We drove 20km through Amarapura straight to the Soon U Ponnya Shin Pagoda on Sagaing Hill, from where you can look over dozens of golden stupas that dot the hill down to the river. The temple complex here also contains a giant marble Buddha as well as holy relics. The temple is said to have been established in the 14th century when this was a capital city and has 2 of the largest plumeria trees I have ever seen, which were every bit as impressive as the temple and the views. Remember that ticket you bought to see the Mandalay Palace and the Shwenandaw monastery? Well, you’ll need it here, too. Like I said, it goes a long way.
From there, it is a short drive to the other temple on the checklist, U Min Thonze. At the top of a long set of steps, you may have seen photos of this place: it is best known for a long, gently curving “cave” housing 45 or more Buddhas. I got a real sense of déjà vu walking down the hall — haven’t I seen that Buddha before? There are commemorative plaques of donors from around the world and we had fun reading them. It’s also cool inside, which is a welcome break from the heat.
Just as interesting as the temple itself are the souvenir shops along the pathway. We found handmade shoes, combs, hair ties, and clothing at impossibly cheap prices and we bought a few — more to help the people making them than because we needed anything, but we were impressed by the quality of the merchandise and the humility of the merchants — these are not the hawkers you come across in Europe or Egypt. These people are kind and respectful. Either that, or they are excellent salespeople.
Back in the air conditioning of the taxi, we drove down the hill to an impressive-looking white dome at the bottom of the hill. It is the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy. We were less impressed up close, but we walked around it anyway. The high point for me was the crimson plumerias out front — wow! I wanted to cut off a branch and take it home to plant it, but on second thought I decided to look for a similar plumeria back home instead.
From Sagaing, we drove down an incredibly picturesque single-lane road to a collection of woven houses. From the line of parked taxis in the dirt road, I realized we were at the “dock” for the boat to Innwe. Innwe was the capital of Ava, a kingdom in the middle ages, which was synonymous with Burma. Very little remains, which is just as well, since we have seen enough medieval ruins in Europe and Egypt. The monuments that are left, the pagodas and monasteries, are impressive and almost poignant, within the context of this unassuming village.
The road to Innwe (that doesn’t sound as good as road to Mandalay) is the loud, smelly, 90-second boat ride across the small river to the land that time forgot on the other side. The boat ride was also notable in that you can see right through the bottom, and it’s not even a glass bottom boat! On the Innwe shore, you will be met by a half-dozen multilingual hawkers selling “jade” necklaces and handmade trinkets. Next you will be greeted with dozens of horse carts. Well, pony carts. This is more or less the only way to get around the town, and it’s at least more pleasant than a motorbike. Now, normally I would never do something this touristy but we had come this far, there’s nothing else to do, it’s too far to walk, and our driver was napping.
To psych myself up, we sat in the shade of a huge tree at the Silver Ava, one of the 3 restaurants here, and had an overpriced beer (600 ml bottle for 4000 Ks, or US $3.50, which usually sells for 2500 Ks in town). An English couple assured us the horses and ponies here were well treated, and the monuments were only about 10 minutes apart, so the animals got plenty of rest in the shade.
A ride around the monuments and pagodas costs 10,000 kyats (US $6.50) and takes about 1.5 – 2 hours. The cart will fit 2 adults or 6 locals. Don’t try to fit more than 2 of you — they just won’t do it, and it’s really too much weight for the pony. You won’t fit, anyway: you’ll be cramped enough with two. You may be able to wrangle a better price if you rent multiple carts — I did, but I felt so bad at the end that I paid the full price.
Daniel and I squeezed into one cart, while Lili and Sunshine climbed into the other. As I mentioned, the ride over the rutted dirt roads is bumpy, and I could barely sip my beer. Luckily, the driver offered to keep it in his cooler until the next stop. Just kidding! He propped the bottle between his [bare] feet until I told him I would hold it myself. At least my feet were in the shade. He laughed. Daniel volunteered to hold the bottle, but neglected to add “to his lips” so I had to take it back from him, too.
As promised, after about 10 minutes, we rolled up to some pagodas that looked suspiciously like the pagodas in Bagan. Lili got out anyway to take some photos and walk around them. Daniel and I wisely sat in the cart in the shade.
Our next stop was the Bagaya monastery. In many ways, this is as impressive, if not more so, as Shwenandaw monastery — from the outside, anyway. The tall, black teak structure is covered in elaborate carvings of dancers, angels, and demons. Inside was an unusual treat, which was a highlight for the kids: there appeared to be buttons on the wall. Hundreds of them, seemingly randomly spaced. There were also small birds flying silently through the tall room. We got a little closer and the “buttons” flew away — they were small bats! Lili lasted about 1.1 seconds before getting the willies and stepping out. Again, I felt that Captain Jack might peer out from behind a pillar at any moment.
I do want to mention that you know you are coming to a monument by the sudden agglomeration of food and souvenir stands, sometimes even before you can see the monument itself. That happened as we came up to the Nanmyin watchtower, which is all that is left of what must have been a grand palace. The tower itself is a reconstruction of the original, which fell in an earthquake. Even the reconstruction is not very stable and no one is allowed to climb it anymore.
After Lili and Sunshine walked around the tower for their photo shoot, we got back into the carts and continued on to the Mae Nu Oak Kyaung, or Brick monastery. As the name implies, this large monastery is made of brick, which is one of the reasons it is still standing. Be sure to walk underneath and around back for some nice views. The inside here is pleasantly cool, thanks to the masonry construction and the fact that it is elevated.
A few minutes after that, the cart turned onto a familiar-looking street (if you were paying attention at the departure) and we were back at the dock. The noisy, smelly boat took us back to the other shore where our taxi driver was finally awake and we basked in the AC on our way to the U Bain bridge.
Back in Amarapura, which we read was a capital city a couple of times over the past 500 years, we drove through a busy market to a parking lot near the famous U Bain bridge. This is the longest and oldest standing teak bridge in the world, constructed between 1849 – 1851. I suspect it’s not going to stand much longer, however, because it attracts thousands of people daily, to watch the sun set over the river. Well, if you think about it, the bridge runs east-west, so how can you watch the sun set over the river? In fact, the sun sets behind the bridge, over a pagoda. It’s possible that in the rainy season from the east end of the bridge, you can see the sun set over the water. When we were there, a good section of the bridge was over dry land. The best part was the busy market on the way from the road to the bridge and the enormous camphor tree, complete with an altar, at the base of the bridge.
You can also take a boat ride here to watch the sunset, but be sure you’re on the right part of the river or all you’ll see is some trees as the sky darkens. Sunset boat rides in colorful canoes cost 15,000 Ks.
At dusk, we drove back to Mandalay, past some brightly-lit pagodas and another teak bridge on the west side of town. Everyone was exhausted from the day, but not too exhausted for a meal and a beer (me) at J&J, where they recognized us (as the only Western family around).
Suggested reading: Lili and I read The Glass Palace, which traces the exile of the last king of Burma from Mandalay. It’s heartbreaking history, an excellent story, and an engaging read.
Lili also recommends Letters From Burma by Aung San Suu Kyi for more recent history of Myanmar.
Want to see the photos? Click here!