After having explored the amazing temples of Bagan, I was bound for Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city. Mandalay is the economical hub of upper Myanmar and considered the center of Burmese culture. There are several ways from Bagan to Mandalay nowadays, buses, boats and even domestic flights. I originally planned on taking the boat upriver but the irregular boat schedule collided with my own schedule. I decided to take the bus which would only take about 5 hours and was actually the cheapest option. With a lot of things to do in and out of the city, I was looking forward to a few exciting days in the city.
My first impression of Mandalay was that it is dusty … very dusty. A bit dirty, busier than Yangon and incredibly hot and humid. Good thing however, that the hotel I had booked also offered a free pickup from the bus station. So far so good. My friendly motorbike driver then also offered to show me around for a day and go to all the attractions out of town. I heard a lot of good things about these tours and had actually planned to do it at some point – not on my first day though. The guy seemed nice and friendly and we agreed to meet up again a couple of days later to do the tour. So how did I spent my days in Mandalay? Here is my little itinerary:
1| Rent a bike and explore the inner city by yourself
Bikes are available everywhere and very cheap. Just make sure they give you a good one that won’t break down on you after the first turn. Let them put some more air in the tires as well. A lot of the attractions within the city are easily accessible by bicycle and the traffic is not too bad. You can spot a lot of interesting things along the way which makes it even more worthwhile.
2| Visit one of the gold pounders’ workshops
Most of the workshops and their galleries are located on 36th street but there were actually two I found which were open for visitors. King Galon and Golden Rose. The people at King Galon were very friendly and walked me through their whole shop explaining everything. It was amazing how the gold-beaters swung their 3 kg hammers in a monotonous rhythm over and over again. Almost like music. It takes them hours to produce those fine gold leaves, light as air, which are sent all across the country for the Buddhist worshipers. Gold is the offering of choice in the thousands of temples and stupas of Myanmar. Especially for worshiping Buddha statues, the gold leaves play an important role. More on that later. I got lucky here because I was all by myself, getting a lot of explanations. Before I left, a big tour group arrived which instantly made the whole thing less enjoyable. Oh yeah, and it is for free.
3| Visit the stone carvers’ district
Mandalay is full of craft businesses which are all still operated very traditionally. Another highlight are the stone carvers along Sagaing-Mandalay Road. The whole area seems to be covered by coat of fine dust of all all that marble that’s being manufactured there. Everywhere, inside the workshops but mostly right on the street, you can see skilled craftsmen chipping and polishing slabs of marble into the most delicate Buddha statues. Big ones, small ones and everything in between. The most astonishing thing was, that no one used templates or sketches of any kind. They seemed to just have the picture of the future Buddha in their heads and just revealed it out of that big slab of rock. I wandered around the area for about an hour just observing the workers’ incredible skills.
4| Pay respect at Maha Muni Pagoda
Maha Muni is the holiest pagoda of Mandalay and considered the second holiest place in Myanmar just after Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. The pagoda is huge with several entrances and hallways leading to its center. Inside you will find a huge image of a sitting Buddha which is about 4 meters high. This is also one of the only places of worship which only men can enter. The women are allowed to catch a glimpse from the outside or via one of the TVs mounted outside. A policy that’s recently been subject to heated discussions. However, once you enter this sacred place, you can feel how important it is to the worshipers around. The atmosphere is so devout with people kneeling in front of the statue, the faithful clasp hands before their chest and others waiting to go inside the area with the Buddha. There the golden leaves come into play. Worshipers go up the platform and then rub some of the leaves on the statue as their offering – and so did I. This has been done for centuries and the Buddha is hence covered with big bumps of gold. I can’t even imagine the value of all that gold.
5| Unwinding at Shwenandaw Monastery
After a lot of walking around and cycling, it was time to relax and unwind for a bit. I had heard about a famous monastery completely built out of teak wood. I found it right in time before a big downpour started flooding the streets of Mandalay. It took shelter inside the main hall and just lay on the floor listening to the rain hitting the roof. All by myself, it was an almost meditative moment and I think I fell asleep for a short while. After a bit the rain stopped and the sun came out. Perfect for checking out the monastery from the outside with its intricate carvings.
6| Eat at one of Mandalay’s many street food joints
The beauty of exploring the city by bicycle is, that you are totally flexible and free to do what you like. In terms of food this means you can just cruise down the road, look for a place that seems inviting and then sample some of the local food. In my case it was the plain and simple fried rice. You just can’t go wrong with it. But the best thing about Myanmar cuisine is, that you always get a pot of complimentary tea. No matter where you are, you will get your tea. It’s just good, goes well with the food and it’s sociable. Burmese just love spending time sipping tea and chatting with friends and other guests. A must do when in Myanmar. At the end of my trip I was so used to it that honestly missed it when I was back in Bangkok.
7| Discover Amarapura and U Bein Bridge
Amarapura is now a township of Mandalay but used to be the capital of Myanmar for a some time. The township is mainly known for its silk and cotton weaving, the big Maha Gandhayon Kyaung monastery complex and the world’s largest teak wood bridge, U Bein Bridge. I had only time to visit the monastery and see the bridge – the latter even twice.
The day before I took that guided motorbike trip, I had met up with Angel from Canada whom I spent a few great days in Bagan with. In the evening we went to see the famous U Bein Bridge with high hopes for a nice sunset. We didn’t get lucky this time and it was all grey, covered up, raining and windy. Oh well, we still decided to walk across and it was actually nice because there were way less tourists than usual. Sometimes even a weather like that can have its very own special atmosphere as it was the case on that day. At one point we rested underneath a little shelter on the bridge and got to talk to an old monk. He spoke some English and was very curious. After a little chatting he invited us to his monastery for the next day. Since I planned on doing that motorbike trip anyhow, I promised him to stop by. Not sure if he actually believed it …
The next day, I went back to Amarapura, first stopping at the famous Maha Gandhayon Kyaung monastery which also functions as educational center for young novices and monks. In the morning at around 10 o’ clock the monks receive their daily food donations. They line up and then walk into the big communal hall. As interesting as it was to observe this, it reminded a lot of Luang Prabang, Laos. Tourists pointing cameras into monks faces to the point that they are unable to collect their donations. Here it was by far not that bad (yet) but it still had a bitter taste to it. When I was standing there, I just hoped it won’t become another Luang Prabang.
I then wanted to see if I could find the old monk from the evening before. It took us a while to find his monastery since not even my driver knew exactly where it was. After some asking around we made it and as soon as I entered the premises I bumped into the monk. What a coincidence. He was very kind and happy to meet again. He showed me around and explained everything. The monastery was actually a famous meditation center, frequented by both Burmese and foreigners alike. After a while it was time to say good bye again but not before we got a picture taken together.
8| Enjoy the view from Sagaing Hill
Sagain is a little outside of Mandalay and to get there you have to cross the Ayeyarwady River. Sagaing and especially its famous hill going by the same name are one of the main centers of Buddhism in Myanmar. Sagaing Hill is home to more than 600 monasteries and stupas and more than 6.000 monks and nuns.
The steps up the hill are steep and it takes a while to get up there. On the way up you pass a few smaller stupas and temples and the views get better and better. Once up on the top you have sweeping views down to the river banks, Sagaing Bridge and the many temples crowding the numerous hills around it. It’s amazing and the Soon Oo Ponya Shin Pagoda just adds to the atmosphere of this place.
On the way down the hill I discovered a hidden monastery which then turned out to be pretty huge and very nicely built. I wandered around exploring the premises when I bumped in a group of novice monks. They were actually kids and invited me for some water and a banana snack. Once again one of these magic Myanmar moments which seem so normal when you are there. We tried to talk a little bit, mainly dropping the names of famous football players and laughing a lot. The novices break was over and to let everyone know, two young ones went outside to hit the huge bell in the courtyard. Seemed like it was time for me to go as well…
9| Take the ferry over to Inwa
My driver dropped me off at the shores of the Ayeyarwady where I was supposed to take a little boat over to Inwa, yet another one of the three ancient cities, Amarapura and Sagaing being the other two. After a bit of waiting, the boat came and took me and a few others tourists over to Inwa. Once there, people usually take a horse cart to get around but I just felt like walking a bit. Unfortunately the cart drivers were very pushy following me around most of the time. Guess that’s what the influx of mass tourism does to people. I still enjoyed the scenery and the old stupas along the way. Apparently there is a very interesting wooden monastery in Inwa but at that time, due to floods, it was only accessible by boat and I didn’t have the time to go. Maybe next time …
10| Take a ferry over to Mingun
The ferry to Mingun leaves every morning from Mandalay at about 9 o’ clock. It only runs once a day so you better make sure to be on time. After about 10 km up river we made it to Mingun, a town that is home to a few very interesting attractions. First there is the huge Mingun Pahtodawgyi Pagoda. The unfinished pagoda would have been the largest in the world if the king of that time would have not decided to stop building. An astrologer told him that he would die once the stupa is finished. With its big cracks from an earthquake, the construction still is so massive and most impressive.
Only about 200 meters away is beautiful Hsinbyume Pagoda. This pagoda is very distinctive in style – all white and decorated with very intricate designs on the outside. It is very different from any of the other temples and pagodas I had seen so far. Inside the pagoda a lot of little details caught my eye which made the place even more fascinating.
The last thing Mingun features is the world’s largest ringing bell. It was cast for the huge stupa and because of the unfinished work was never put to work. The bell weighs more than 90 tons only surpassed by a bell in Russia which isn’t functioning though.
Last Thoughts …
It wasn’t love at first sight but eventually I got to really like Mandalay. It has a special atmosphere to it and I guess you either like or you don’t. The city has so much to offer – I could have easily added more highlights to this list. Things I haven’t done but are probably very worthwhile include the show by the Moustache Brothers, the Royal Palace or the water puppet theater. However, what made the place so likable for me was not only the many attractions but its authenticity. I agree, it’s dusty and maybe even dirty, but you get the chance to experience typical Burmese life around every corner. Just wander around and you will see so many cool things. A big outdoor market with the most exotic things, a pub with Myanmar beer on draft with only locals watching football, a hidden restaurant or street food joint with excellent and cheap food or even the run down, local gym where I worked out with the locals. It was an enjoyable time in Mandalay and just right before heading out into the countryside ….