Myanmar: Mandalay

From my whistle stop tour of Bangkok, I flew to Myanmar. I had a bit of an adventure getting to the airport; it was torrentially raining, the bus didn’t turn up and then the taxi I got with a Russian couple both ripped us off and got stuck in standstill traffic for what seemed a very long time. We eventually arrived, though the Russians had a flight an hour earlier than mine so I hope they got it! The A4 bus to and from Don Mueang airport is a good value option at 50฿ (all metred taxis were quoting 500฿ and refusing to put the meter on – leaving us a little helpless with the time pressure of a flight) but leave a couple of hours’ buffer if you’re relying on it getting you to the airport on time…

The flight was smooth, and passport stamped, I headed out to find the bus into Mandalay. There isn’t a public bus as such, but they run minibus shuttles into the city for 4,000K which is much cheaper than a cab. On the very bumpy hour-long ride, I was struck very quickly by how beautiful the surrounding countryside is. The roads weren’t busy, the sky was a cloudless blue, and there was colourful vegetation all around. I spent the afternoon orientating myself around my area of the city and reading up on Myanmar in my Lonely Planet up on the hostel rooftop where there was a beautiful sunset. I had dinner that evening with some Chileans, Argentinians and an Aussie girl – who were all sadly moving on the next day, but had some good tips for my upcoming destinations.

Sunset from the Ostello Bello rooftop

Ostello Bello is a good chain of hostels to stay in in Myanmar. Tourism, particularly backpacking, is pretty nascent here – which is amazing for seeing the sights (no huge tour groups or bumping into people from your town) – but it also means there isn’t a huge amount of choice in budget or lively accommodation. They’re relatively expensive compared to Cambodia and Vietnam in particular, but the Ostello Bellos are the best choice for a hostel-style vibe in Myanmar. They have a place in Mandalay, Inle Lake (Nyaungshwe) and Bagan.

After breakfast the next day, I walked up to the royal palace which sits in the heart of the city. It’s in a walled complex and you have to walk through a strange restricted area to get there, passing military drills and families going about their daily business. A note I wish the hostel had told me: to get in, they ask for your passport as a kind of deposit to enter. I managed to get them to take my hostel key instead, but take yours with you just in case they hold firm with the registration rules!

The Royal Palace (nicely labelled as a ‘foreigner’ with my yellow lanyard…)

The palace itself isn’t spectacular in comparison to the one in Bangkok; some of the buildings are reconstructions from earlier years and most of the structures are empty, but it was quite interesting all the same. Within the palace, there’s a small museum of royal court artefacts and models showing traditional dress, which I enjoyed. On my wandering, I was adopted by a Burmese family who wanted to take several different photos of me with the family members. I’m not quite sure what value my sweaty little face will add to the family album, but it was quite funny to be involved. There was also a school trip of about 50 local kids, around 6 or 7, each of whom wanted a personal ‘hi’ and a wave in return for the barrage of hellos I got from them. I spent about 5 minutes solidly hello-ing and waving to my new fans, feeling somewhat like the Queen, before I made my way out of the palace.

Traditional dress at the palace museum
The king’s glass bed at the palace museum

Next, I walked up to Mandalay Hill. If you do nothing else in Mandalay itself, I’d say this is worth a visit. Many people go for sunset, and this is also the time of day local monks converge on visitors to practise their English, but I chose to go during the day for better views and fewer people. The city is very flat aside from the hill that sits behind the palace walls, from which you have a great view over the city and its surroundings. I chose to walk up one of two ways; up steps through several pagodas on the way to the summit. Accepting my filthy-footed fate (the usual no shoes in religious buildings rule applies), I whipped my sandals off and started the climb. None of the pagodas in themselves were amazingly noteworthy, but they were all slightly differently structured and decorated which made for an unique walk – and having a sheltered path in the midday sun was nothing to sniff at either! It took me about half an hour to reach the top, stopping along the way to try and snap the landscapes around me which I couldn’t quite do justice. I hadn’t realised until I got to the summit that the hill is more or less the edge of the city – if you look one way, you have the palace and the rest of Mandalay sprawled behind it, but if you look the other way, there are just country plains stretching for miles. Despite the heat haze, the views were great.

Walking through pagodas up Mandalay Hill
Zig-zagging up Mandalay Hill

Views absorbed, photos taken, and t-shirt somewhat drenched, I walked the hour or so back to the hostel for lunch. I took the afternoon and evening quite easily as I wasn’t feeling brilliant, just popping out to the shops, listening to some podcasts and chatting to the girls in my room.

The view over the city…
…and the view over the plains

The next morning, I headed out with two other British girls from my dorm to Mingun, one of the four ‘old cities’ around Mandalay. Two of them, Inwa and Amarapura, are covered by the same 10,000K archaeological zone ticket as the palace, but the two the other side of the river, Mingun and Sagaing, aren’t. A popular traveler choice is to visit Sagaing, Inwa and Amarapura in a one day tour, but I decided to just go for the one given I wasn’t feeling up to a 12-hour sightseeing day! I chose Mingun based on reviews from others, and for the hour’s boat trip up the Irrawaddy to get there, which really enjoyed. It costs 5,000K directly from the port.

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It was another beautifully sunny day, which even made the brown waters of the Irrawaddy look almost inviting! We docked at Mingun, paid our 5,000K entrance, and tried to work out where we were supposed to be going! The old city is essentially now a cluster of surviving pagodas scattered around an area of a few kilometres squared, but a functioning village has sprung up in the spaces between so it can be difficult to see the next site.

Mingun is probably most famous for Pahtodawgyi, a huge, unfinished, ruined temple. It was started in 1790 by King Bodawpaya, but the build was abandoned when an astrologer claimed the completion of the temple would mark the time of the king’s death. The most striking thing about the sandstone brick beast is the colossal cracks that run through it from an earthquake in 1839 that tore some of the corners apart. I think the ruins make it look that bit more majestic!

The unfinished, earthquake-ruined Pahtodawgyi

The king also had a huge 90-tonne bell cast for the temple he never finished, which now sits in its own pagoda just down the road – it’s supposedly the largest ringing bell in the world. Fun fact.

The Mingun bell

The other notable site at Mingun is the Hsinbyume Pagoda, built by King Bodawpaya’s grandson in 1816. It’s a large white temple with a lot of steps and wave forms in its architecture. It wasn’t quite as impressive as the white temple in Chiang Rai (I’ve been spoiled the last few months!) but it offered some more lovely views of the surrounding jungle, river and temples from the top.

The top of the Hsinbyume Pagoda

When we’d completed the circuit of sites, we found a lovely little place called My Garden Café down on the shore of the river for a juice and a snack, before we walked back to the boat for the cruise back to Mandalay – which was actually a fair amount faster on the way back going downstream!

Snack stop at My Garden Café

I took the afternoon fairly easily due to my stomach. I’d been planning on moving onto Bagan the next day, but still wasn’t feeling great, so I ended up spending another two days in Mandalay getting my strength back up. Luckily, I had the company of my two British dormmates, as one of them was also feeling a bit off. On one morning, we went to the pool of the Mandalay Swan Hotel to sit in the sun for a bit (its 7,000K each and we had it to ourselves), and on another, we just sat on the Ostello Bello rooftop with Kindles, Netflix and sunshine for company.

The pool at the Mandalay Swan

I definitely spent longer in Mandalay than I would have if I was feeling top notch. Unless you’re keen to see all of the ancient cities and pagodas, or use it as a base to head out to Hsipaw or Pyin Oo Lwin, I’d say 2 nights there is enough. Still, it was a good place to start my Myanmar adventure, and I’m excited to see more of this beautiful country!

Until next time,

Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 6, including one enterprising young local who more or less followed me on my entire palace and hill route, a) to advertise his tour guide and moto-taxi services, and b) because he didn’t believe me when I said I was walking the whole way, and clearly thought I was going to use someone else for a taxi.
Interaction was: a little irritating, but I suppose you can’t blame him for trying when there aren’t many tourists! It did, however, feel quite satisfying on my ‘home straight’ back to the hostel when he said, ‘oh, you did walk it all!’

One Woman and her Backpack x

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