Leaving Bangkok behind us – a short one hour flight brought us to Mandalay. First time to Myanmar for both of us.
To our surprise, everything was very well organised – from changing money at good rates to getting a sim card to the minibus into the city.
The windowless but super clean Diamonds Inn was our home for the next three days. Its proximity to the train station would come in handy later on.
Mandalay is a hub city for the region and has 1.1 Mio inhabitants (way more than we would have thought). The city itself has no real centre and most pavements are in a very dire state – so not that great for tourists (or local pedestrians). But don’t be fooled there are quite a few sights to explore.
Up Mandalay Hill
So on day two, we took a tuk-tuk to Mandalay Hill which overlooks the pan flat city. While climbing the 1729 stairs we came across a few Buddha statues and smaller pagodas.
The hill is a popular spot for couples and families and they seemed curious about tourists. So we are now even on some of their family pictures.
The hike up the hill took us about an hour. Each time when we thought we made it to the top there would be another semi-hidden staircase. We also came by two markers commemorating the British victory over the Japanese occupier in World War II.
From the top of the hill, we enjoyed the fantastic view of the city, the countless pagodas and stupas. Indeed we soon realised that in Myanmar you come across a stupa at every corner.
On our way back to the hotel we stopped at Kuthodaw Pagoda home of the world ‘largest book’. Well, it’s not a book in the traditional sense but rather a collection of 729 stone tablets with scripture. Very picturesque in any case.
Last stop for the day was Shwenandaw Monastery a rare wooden pagoda with intricate decorations. It also one of the few structures which weren’t destroyed during the second world war.
The next day we hired the same tuk-tuk driver again for some sightseeing around Mandalay.
First stop was the Maha Gander Yone Monastery. The idea was to see the alms giving ceremony. Unfortunately, there were about two hundred Chinese tourists there as well too. So the scene was not that peaceful.
Probably the only way to handle this situation is to limit the number of people visiting each day.
Luckily the next few stops were not as crowded. We crossed the Irrawaddy River. Once again dozens of stupas and pagodas are scattered everywhere – Myanmar truly is the land of the thousand stupas.
We climbed up another hill to reach the Umin Thonze Pagoda where we visited the Buddha Gallery and once again enjoyed a fantastic view over busy Mandalay.
Ponnya Shin with its golden stupa was just next door and is a charming place with a large Buddha statue and another viewing platform.
Tiny Island with a lot of Attractions
Next, we took a small boat over to Inn Wa a small island a few hundred meters away from the mainland. After lunch, we hired a horse carriage for some island sightseeing (not often you can use this phrase).
The island albeit small had quite a few unique and old pagodas. The Daw Gya Pagoda reminded us of the similar structures we have seen in Attuhaya, Thailand earlier on this year.
Bagaya Monastery was another wooden monastery surrounded by rice paddies and even had a friendly resident cat. The nearby ruins of the Kyang Lain Monastery would probably be a good set for the next Indiana Jones movie.
The island even had a leaning tower – a defence structure built in the 19th century which was damaged by an earthquake.
Needless to say, each attraction came with a few souvenir sellers. They were persistent but friendly and not overly pushy. I always think they would make excellent sales trainers as they know all the tricks in the book (seller: “Buy one you make me happy” – me: “You look very happy already” – Seller: “Okay, then even more happy”).
Last stop on the island was Me Nu Bruck Monastery which impressed us with its wooden flooring.
By now our feet very super dirty as at each temple you not only need to remove your shoes (like for example in Thailand) but also your socks. Perhaps it should be looked at as a part of a SPA package.
Just too many Tourists
After leaving the island our friendly tuk-tuk driver brought us to the U-Bein Bridge for sunset. Unfortunately, this was again on the program of every organised bus tour (I think there must have been about 10 buses and we were in low season). As a result, the bridge and surroundings were hopelessly overcrowded.
The about 5-meter high bridge has no railings we were wondering how many people have fallen from all the shuffling.
Admittedly, it’s not easy to find a middle path between tourism dollars and protecting sights and their atmosphere. However, I am quite sure things will collabs (or at least the bridge will) if it continues like that.
So Mandalay and its surroundings were a bit of love on second sight. The city itself is rather dull but the surrounding sights are beautiful and it was a great start to our Myanmar adventure.
Next up on the program a ten-hour train trip to Hsipaw.
Sleep:Diamonds Inn was a good choice. Clean and very friendly staff. It’s also just opposite the railway station.
Eat: There are a lot of small noddle shops and eateries.
Transport: Mandalay has an international airport with flights mainly from/to Bangkok. It also connects domestic destinations. There is an organised minibus service for 3 USD to the city. You can also change money there at good rates and get a sim card.
Tuk-tuks are the transportation of choice to visit sights in and around Mandalay. We were able to get a driver for about 25 USD/day (probably a bit more expansive in high season).
Money: As mentioned you can change money at the airport. Preferable USD, SGD and EUR. Bills should be in new condition. It’s quite difficult (to impossible) to change Myanmar Kyat (MMK) outside of Myanmar.
There are lots of ATMs but they have a withdraw limit of about 220 USD per withdraw so bank charges might pile up. Some hotels accept credit cards.