After three sweaty yet amazing days in Bangkok we headed to Mandalay. I was really unsure on what to expect. I really couldn’t find too much info on Mandalay and what to do there during my pre-trip research. In fact, many people just head to Yangon, Inle Lake and Bagana and skip Mandalay entirely—some say Mandalay isn’t even worth a visit.
Needless to say I wasn’t expecting much. I chose Mandalay as a gateway city instead of Yangon before heading to Bagan because you can’t fly into Bagan from any international airport and it’s super monsoon season in Yangon. So Mandalay it was, and I went in with very low expectations.
I was in for quite I surprise. I find myself right now actually sad to leave Mandalay after a wonderful few days there.
I suppose I should start at the beginning. We arrived and hopped into the free AirAsia shuttle bus that conveniently stops about a block from our hotel. Changing euros at the airport was no problem, so we had literally hundreds of thousands of KYAT on us! We then checked in and everyone was overwhelmingly polite. Our hotel, the Sahara was about $28 per night and included a small, impeccably clean room with fridge and a bathroom.
We dropped our stuff, enjoyed a few magical moments of air conditioning and headed out about 3 pm to find a spot for lunch. We consulted the hotel staff and they suggested a traditional Burmese spot about a 25 minute walk away called Mingalada which also means hello in Burmese (the only word I managed to master so far!).
Upon heading out, we were stopped by a trickshaw, a man with a bike with a “sidecar” of two seats attached. I normally steer away from those offering tuk tuk or taxi services but something about this guy was different. So I asked a price and he told me 1200 Kyat. I did a quick calculation…less than one euro. Cheaper than one ticket in the Madrid metro. We happily accepted.
We had a great time talking with him and asked him if he would come back after lunch, pick us up and take us around the city to see the sights, and he told us he would for 7000 Kyat, about five euros. Sold!
Now onto the food. We sat on the floor around a table and ordered a traditional Burmese lunch. It works like this: you order the main dish, like duck, or chicken curry (we got one of each) and then they bring you a million sauces, side dishes, veg, salad, soup and more in little plates and also dessert.
So our table was literally set with 100 plates and the food was good! I prefer Thai and Indian curries to these because the Myanmar curry was very oily, which is typical of their curries. However, the presentation was fun and dessert consisted of seeds mixed with chili, which was crazy. Not my favorite, but certainly an experience. Jorge accidentally put a giant spoonful of picante pepper seasoning in his mouth thinking it was something else and the entire wait staff was cracking up. He’s still dealing with the consequences two days later, LOL.
It’s also worth noting the wait staff spoke basically no English, although the menu did have the dishes in both Burmese and English. The menu also had no prices, so we were slightly concerned we might get cheated. Then the bill came.
6200 KYAT for a full meal for two including dessert and drinks. 4.50 euros. Insane, right?
Our friend/guide Challou was waiting for us outside with his trusty trickshaw bike and we headed out. He took us to some amazing shrines as well as simply driving through some of the areas in town that are less touristy.
He also showed us the old monastery he lived in during the days when he was a monk.
Jorge also played this game with locals that is similar to hacky sack where they kick the ball around.
During this tour, so many people and children waved to us, said hello, in fact, we were the only Westerners we saw all day! Tourism is still new in Mandalay and we really didn’t see many at all, however, we did hear there are quite a few tourists from India and China which makes sense because those countries border Myanmar.
The people are poor but friendly and for the most part, they don’t try to cheat you. In fact they just seem awed at the fact people with blond hair and western features are in their country.
Children seem especially excited, and love to say hello and come shake our hands. It was our fifteen minutes of “fame.”
Almost every single person here wears a Longyi, which is a long skirt that you tie at the waist. Woman wear it more wrapped around their waist and men tie it in a knot. Children also wear it and it’s surprisingly comfy and airy. I couldn’t believe that 99% of the people wear this. It just seems like such a different world (it IS). Locals, especially women and children also put a yellow like, glittery substance on their cheeks and face which our guide told us was like a natural kind of sunblock. Besides the fact that the sun is very strong here, Myanmar is no different to any other Asian country in that they are obsessed with having whiter skin.
It’s also interesting to hear about their anti-government sentiments. We were told not to pay to go inside some of the government monuments because the government gets the money, and clearly doesn’t use it to help and support their citizen. I listened carefully and decided not to contribute to the government and their cronies by choosing to simply see the outside of these monuments.. Of course, by staying in a hotel, I already was handing money over to the government but obviously I had to have somewhere to stay.
Anyway, our awesome tour ended with a visit to the banks of the Irrawaddy river, where I surprisingly saw locals bathing! Yes, it’s true…many people in Myanmar don’t have running water.
In fact, I saw a lot of stone wells too during the trip, and people using them to fill up buckets with water. Also, no one seems to have the luxury of a washer here, and most wash their clothes in the river or using the water they have in wells. That means squat toilets and outhouses too. In fact, there aren’t really any laundry places in Myanmar as you see in Thailand where backpackers can drop off their laundry. Why? Because of course, no washers! No one wants to wash scuzzy backpacker clothes by hand!
Checking out the river was beautiful and interesting. We were able to see the beginnings of the sunset, which was very peaceful.
Then, we made a quick stop at the flower market, where most locals bring flowers on their motorbikes to sell. It’s curious because the flowers are typically purchased not for peoples’ homes or gifts, but as offerings to Buddha. Flowers may be a luxury not many can afford, but they will splurge only for Buddha. Lucky guy, that Buddha!
Finally, a stop at the night market for Jorge and I to purchase our own longyis! When in Myanmar, do as the Myammar(ians?) do! I am still trying to master tying mine!
Our day tour was so wonderful we asked Challou if he would drive us around to see the famous U-Bein bridge and sure enough, he asked his brother to do so who happens to be a taxi driver. It was perfect because the hotel had quoted us $50 for a full day tour with driver who speaks limited English, plus another $30 for a guide to explain more things in English for a total of $80. However, Challou said he would accompany his brother in order to translate and the full cost would be $45. Deal!
We started off with a visit to the Big Buddha, which is placed in elaborate shrine made of gold. To my dismay, only men could enter! So Jorge happily sauntered in while I sat meditating with the other women. Blah.
Next stop would be Amanpura, a small village just outside of Mandalay featuring the famous U-Bein bridge, the longest wooden teak footbridge in the world at 1300 yards. We started on one side of the water and took small boat over to the other side, which was fun.
They we explored the village, visiting a weaving factory, pagoda, a Buddha shrine (they are all starting to blend together) and then finally walked back over the bridge.
The bridge made for beautiful views and we encountered some friendly locals as well and all in all it was a delightful experience.
Next stop, lunch at a local Burmese spot. Delicious curries, again, a table with one million plates, and for four people (we treated our guide and driver) to eat a huge meal, the bill came to a whopping total of…about 8.50 euros. Mind-blowing. Also interesting to note that the locals eat the rice and curry with their hands. It’s a bit shocking at first, but once you realize everyone does it you get used to it.
We then took a small speedboat over to the village of Inwa, where we paid for a horse cart and driver to take us to a monastery and some pagodas. The shrines were gorgeous, but the horse cart was bumpy and this is really the only spot I encountered pushy locals trying to sell me crafts etc. It reminded me of Siem Reap…which I am sure most of Myanmar will be like when the tourism boom hits in the next five years or so.
Until this point it had been refreshingly authentic, but I guess it’s normal that these people want to make a living and really the only people who come to this ancient protected city are tourists.
We ended out the day driving up to Sagaling Mountain for beautiful shrines and some breathtaking panoramic views of Mandalay, where you can see the river, lakes, greenery and tons of temples. I think this was my favorite part of the day, as I am a real sucker for panoramic views, plus a bunch of gold shrines that were really stunning.
The tour was incredible and I really had no idea that Mandalay was filled with so many special and historic spots.
We had a small rest after the tour and then headed out for dinner. Since there are so many Indian and Chinese people living in Mandalay, a huge part of the Myanmar cuisine is actually Chinese and Indian food, so we selected Indian. It was good, but decidedly similar to the more oily curries of Myanmar.
After a long day out, we crashed and woke up fresh the next day for our final Mandalay morning. We rented bikes from our hotel and braved the Mandalay traffic to lap around the nearby palace. That may seem like a short trip, but the giant, square Royal Palace complex is a huge square surrounded by a moat that is actually two km on each side. So to bike the whole thing is eight km. We had decided not to go inside for two reason: one because I didn’t feel like paying 10 euros to the government and two because I heard it wasn’t that interesting inside anyway. Everything was reconstructed in 1990 and nothing is original, so I didn’t think it was worth it to pay the 10 euro entrance and support the government. So we decided to simply enjoy the outside instead.
We biked along the first two sides and then stopped to see a few pagodas, one of which I fell in love with, the Sandarmuni Pagoda. It’s simply stunning: many small white shrines with a giant gold one in the middle. The cloud formations were just perfect and the photo ops were insane. Each little tower has small chimes on top and the deserted temple with the chimes blowing in the wind just about converted me to Buddhism, it was such a zen setting. If only I could induce that feeling of the chimes blowing in the wind into my daily life (perhaps I need to get some wind chimes in my office lol?).
We then lapped the last two sides of the palace on our bikes and arrived back in time to check out of the hotel, head out for a brief lunch of Chinese food (good, but nothing particularly exciting, though we did finally sample Myanmar beer which I give two thumbs up). Then we headed to the airport to catch our flight to Bagan.
The flight to Bagan we managed to purchase online a month before on a travel agency, which I wasn’t really sure if it was even real because it’s extremely difficult to purchase flights online and ahead of time. Really, until a few months ago, inter-Myanmar flights could only be purchased in person by a hotel or travel agency once you arrived to the country. I also see this changing very soon…especially with the increasing presence of internet and tourism.
We got to the airport and went to the Air KBZ desk with an printed email I was assured was enough to secure our reservation. Turns out it was, hooray! However, there was no one at the Air KBZ desk and I was directed to another airline’s check in and actually flew with Mann Yandanarpon Airlines (try saying that 10 times fast)…I still am not sure if I totally understand what happened but the point was after a 25 minute flight in a propeller plane, we landed safely in Bagan. Oh, and it’s probably worth noting that no one once checked my ID and security was kind of a joke.
Stayed tuned for Bagan, coming soon! In the meantime, I leave you with a little poetry from Rudyard Kipling:
“Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay;