Myanmar series part 4 - MANDALAY


Monks line up for lunch at the Mahagandayon Monastery

It was early Friday morning, on a hot June day, when the Asian Wings flight from Bagan landed at Mandalay International Airport. Except for the plane taxiing in Nyaung U before everyone was seated, the flight was uneventful (which is always a good thing) taking less than 30 minutes. I’m amazed both food and beverage service can be delivered before the plane touches down. One of the nice things about flying in this country is that destinations are fairly close together meaning you don’t have much of a travel day. It takes longer to get from the airport, which literally is located in the middle of nowhere, to the center of Mandalay (~ 30 miles which takes almost an hour) than it does to fly from either Nyaung U (Bagan) or Heho (Inle Lake).

My driver Joh Wei wearing the traditional longyi

I easily found my driver Joh Wei (sounds like John Wayne) that Kyaw had arranged. Since there aren’t many people arriving at these small airports, it’s easy to find your driver who will have your name on a white piece of paper. The road into the city of Mandalay is basically a two-lane road. All the trucks, tractors and other vehicles make for a rather slow drive. It was all right. It was nice to kick back, relax and take in the scenery. I get so excited getting to a new location. I’m like a kid in a candy shop with all of the new sites to see, understanding how the locals live, sampling the local cuisine. I can’t wait to get started.

Mandalay is a typical big city. It’s hot, dry and congested. Similar to Bagan, it’s also in the dry zone of Myanmar. There would be no rain during my stay even though it was the beginning of the rainy season; however, it would be hot and humid. It’s not a pretty city to visit; however, it’s a great place to use as your base to see all of the local sites – and there are a number of them. There are several worthwhile things to see in the city itself including the Mahamuni Pagoda (one of the primary pilgrimage sites in Myanmar), the Mandalay Palace and the Mandalay Hill area. Sites in nearby Amarapura and Sagaing Hill include the Mahagandayon Monastery (where a thousand Buddhist monks line up every morning for lunch), the U Bein Bridge (the longest teakwood bridge in the world and probably the most photographed location in Myanmar) and Umin Thounzeh (the 30 caves pagoda). About a two hour drive outside of the city into the mountains is Pyin oo Lwin – an old British hill station, a place where people visit to cool off from the searing Mandalay heat.

I would be in Mandalay for four days. After the transfer from the airport to my hotel, I was on my own for the rest of the day. Joh Wei would drive me to Amarapura and Sagaing Hill on Saturday and then a little further out of town on Sunday to Pyin oo Lwin. On Monday, I would be back on my own before departing Tuesday morning. There’s a lot to cover in the Mandalay area, so let’s get going.

The Mandalay City Hotel

We reached the centrally located Mandalay City Hotel by 9:30 am at which point I bade Joh Wei farewell until the next morning. After settling in and sending a few e-mails (internet access only available in the lobby area of the hotel), I decided to walk to the two places I wanted to see that day – the Mandalay Palace and Mandalay Hill - both of which were right in the middle of the city.

It was about 11 am and already hot by the time I left the hotel. When traveling, I love to walk; however, little did I consider that by the time I returned about 7 pm I would be exhausted after putting in about 8 miles. The heat, humidity and the vehicle fumes were more than I anticipated.

Interesting sign at the entrance to the Mandalay Palace

It’s not easy to walk on the sidewalks in Mandalay. They either don’t exist or in many situations there are cars and especially motorcycles right smack dab in the way. As a result, it can be a little challenging walking through the city. The Mandalay City Hotel is less than a kilometer from the southeast corner of the Palace. After navigating around the motorbikes that are parked where the sidewalk is supposed to be and avoiding traffic as I stepped into the street to go around the motorbikes, I got to the southeast corner of the Palace fairly quickly. The sidewalks bordering the Palace are well maintained and wide. I got my first glimpse of the 20-foot palace walls, which are located just beyond the 200-foot wide moat. I could only see a few towers jutting above the walls that were several feet thick. Mandalay Palace forms a square with each side 2 km long. There are entrances on each side; however, foreigners are only allowed to enter at the eastern gate. To get to the foreigners entrance, I walked the 2 km along the southern border and then the 1 km halfway up the eastern side. At the entrance to the eastern gate, there’s a large, interesting sign with the words “Tatmadaw and the people cooperate and crush all those harming the union”. Tamadaw is the official name of the Myanmar Armed Forces.

One of the Palace buildings

After paying the Mandalay Archaeological Zone fee of 10 USD in cash, you can either hire a moto-taxi for a few thousand kyat to take you to the center of the complex, which is where the palace is located or you can walk the approximate 1 km distance. Much of the area inside the Palace walls is an active military camp and is off limits to foreigners. The area open to the public is the old Palace located in the middle of the complex. Built in the mid-1800s, the palace was home to the last two kings of the country. According to Wikipedia, much of the palace was destroyed by bombing during World War II, only the royal mint and the watch tower survived. A replica of the palace was rebuilt in the 1990s with modern materials.

After walking through the fairly deserted Palace, I stopped to get a bottle of water at a small café before heading back to the eastern exit and continued my walk north towards Mandalay Hill. There are a couple of entrances to the stairs leading to the top of Mandalay Hill. Since the stairs go through several temples, people remove their shoes and complete the 45-minute trek barefoot. I haven’t gone barefoot so much since my pre-teen years. This trip sure toughened up my feet. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, I removed my shoes and started the long trek to the top. It’s such a long walk and not knowing if I would be returning to the same place, I carried my shoes with me.

Street food vendor on the stairs to Mandalay Hill

After climbing just a few stairs, I came across a man who was selling samosas from his little cart. They looked delicious. I hadn't eaten lunch and needed to get some food in me. I asked how much. He told me 500 kyats for three. That's less than a dollar. As I stood there, I evaluated the risk of eating the street food. It was cooked so I thought I would be ok. I told him I only wanted one. He said that would be 200 kyats (about 25 cents). He took one of the samosas and with a pair of scissors proceeded to cut it up into smaller pieces into a bowl. He then proceeded to drop in some cabbage, a few vegetables, some herbs and added some sauce to it and then mixed it all up. He handed it to me along with a spoon. Yikes! I didn't realize he was going to add all the additional ingredients. I thought for sure I was done. I knew, at that point, this was going to come back later to haunt me. One of my personal rules is not to eat any raw vegetables unless I felt they were properly cleaned. Well, I went ahead and ate it. Wow. It was delicious. It was sooo good, I asked the guy for one more. I figured I was past the point of no return. One of the best street food meals I've ever had. Oh, by the way, it never came back to haunt me. Thank goodness.

The pagoda at the top of Mandalay Hill

I continued my jaunt to the top. It’s really an enjoyable walk. The pathway is a combination of stone steps and slightly inclined cement so it is fairly easy to navigate. The covered walkway keeps the sun off and the pavement somewhat cool so you’re not burning the bottoms of your feet. Every so often, I came across a small temple with images of Buddha. At the summit is Sutaungpyei Pagoda along with an incredible view of the whole Mandalay region. From here, you get a good perspective how big the Mandalay Palace area is. You can also see the tops of pagodas for miles around. Wikipedia describes the battle during WWII where Gurkha and British battalions took the hill from the Japanese in March 1945.

I took a slightly different path down the hill. This one was also a covered walkway. I got down in short order and since I had walked the southern and eastern sides of the Mandalay Palace, I decided to walk the northern and western sides on my way back to the hotel.

Giant Chinthes guarding Mandalay Hill

Almost to the bottom of the hill, I came across two, incredibly large, white Chinthes guarding the southern approach to Mandalay Hill. The Chinthes are gigantic, imposing, lion-like figures as they sit facing the road at the bottom of the hill. It was here that I found a roadside vendor selling drinks that I bought a soda and rested for a while – the whole time in full sight of the Chinthes. The hike back seemed a lot longer than the one getting to the hill. Since it was the end of the workday, locals were returning home with many of them riding bicycles. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many bicycles on the road. It was different and nice to see. By the time I got back to the hotel it was early evening and I was hot, tired and feeling yucky. A hot shower and then a cold beer made everything seem a lot better.

Many of the locals ride bicycles to get around the city

The Mandalay City Hotel worked out well because it was centrally located. Other than the guest rooms needing a little facelift, the rest of the hotel was in pretty good shape. The hotel has an inside dining area, behind the lobby, that serves a delicious daily buffet breakfast, with made-to-order eggs, (which is included in the rate) and dinner (order off the menu). Not sure if it serves lunch or not. There’s a nice garden pool located just off the dining area. The water felt great in the heat and was in a nice secluded garden area.

While having a beer in the restaurant, I met a couple of guys from Belfast. They joined me for drinks and then dinner while chatting about our travel experiences to date. We would later connect and travel to Pyin Oo Lwin together.

After breakfast on Saturday morning, Joh Wei picked me up for a full day of touring Amarapura and Sagaing Hill. He had a set itinerary that Kyaw had provided to him. Joh Wei spoke fairly decent English so he and I had some good conversations over the next few days. As a driver, he would drive me from one stop to the next, provide some basic information about the site and then wait in his minivan until I returned.

Our first stop of the day was a small place in Mandalay that made gold leaf. Similar to most tourist stops, we were provided a brief demonstration how gold leaf is made and some of its various uses. I discovered on the trip that gold leaf is attached to the Buddha images extensively throughout the region. There was no hard sell for any of their products. They hope that you purchase something; however, they do not push anything on you. A nice, polite “thank you” is all that’s needed before exiting.

Close by is the Sulamani Pagoda, which is one of the main pilgrimage sights in Myanmar. It was Saturday morning and the temple was packed with locals. A covered walkway, leading to the entrance of the temple, is lined with souvenir sellers. Upon entering the pagoda, there is a long aisle, crowded with people as they face the large Buddha image in the middle of the temple to which a number of men are attaching gold leaf. Only men are allowed to put the gold leaf on. The temple grounds outside were less-crowded and very picturesque when viewing the temple’s architecture.

Monks waiting in line for lunch at Mahagandayon Monastery in Amarapura

It’s about a twenty-minute drive to Amarapura, which is basically a suburb of Mandalay. Our first stop there was the Mahagandayon Monastery which, founded in 1914, is one of the largest teaching monasteries in Myanmar with over a thousand monks, many of which are young novices. At 10:30 each morning, the monks form several long lines and walk by huge pots containing rice and other food items where someone dishes up their lunch for the day. Tourists are welcome to watch the procession of the monks. There are signs asking the tourists to abide by certain rules and essentially respect the monk’s privacy. Being there in the off-season, there were not many tourists on the day that I visited. Everyone was quiet and stayed out of the way. I have read some of the travel forums that complain of the way tourists disrupt things. I can imagine that during high season the number of tourists might be overwhelming especially if many are trying to get in position to take photos. It’s very important to be respectful.

Umin Thounzeh - the 30 caves pagoda

Next, we proceeded to Sagaing Hill, which is relatively close to Amarapura. There are two bridges, practically right next to each other, crossing the Ayeyarwady (aka Irrawaddy) River. The older one, built by the British during World War II, was the primary bridge to Sagaing Hill until a few years ago when a modern, four-lane bridge was built by the Chinese. We drove close to the top of Sagaing Hill. Prior to dropping me off, Joh Wei provided basic information about what I would see on the walk. The path to the top was a covered walkway. Similar to Mandalay Hill, I walked much of the way barefoot since the walkway passed through small temple areas with Buddha images throughout. The pavement was really hot on this day and not covered in spots. There were a few places I ran from one shade spot to another. At one point, I literally had to quickly sit down on my rear end and get my feet off the ground cooling them off. Then I jumped up and ran to the next shady spot. There were a number of small pagodas along the walkway. Each had a number of Buddha images, that all looked alike, aligned in a row. The highlight was Umin Thounzeh (aka the 30 caves pagoda). The thirty entrances lead to a series of 45 Buddha images seated in a long row. As I got close to the top of the hill, I came upon an older monk who was very kind and escorted me to the top unlocking the gates to the final couple of small pagodas. He seemed like a very kind person and I appreciated his hospitality with a small donation.

Monastery school for novice monks and nuns

After a brief stop at the Pon Nya Shin Pagoda that has stunning views overlooking the Irrawaddy River, we headed to a nearby monastery school for novice monks and nuns. Joh Wei knew about the school, which welcomes tourists to walk through and interact with the novices. The children interacted well with the few tourists that were there at the time. They really enjoyed seeing the photos that I took of them. After looking at each picture, they couldn’t wait to take another group picture posed in a different way. They were well behaved enjoying their playtime in the school’s yard.

Nearby, we stopped at the Sagaing Hill Restaurant for lunch. I came across some of the tourists I encountered at different stops that morning. It seems like all the drivers and tour guides take their clients to the same restaurants.

U Bein Bridge is the longest teakwood bridge in the world

After lunch, we headed back to Amarapura to visit the U Bein Bridge – one of the most photographed locations in all of Myanmar. This was one of my favorite places. The three-quarter mile long bridge, built around 1850, is built on stilts spanning the Taungthaman Lake. It is believed to be the longest and oldest teakwood bridge in the world (Wikipedia). The slats that you walk on are spaced about an inch or two apart so you can see the ground and the water – which in many places is probably 20 feet below. The slats, some of which were broken, did not seem very sturdy so I was a little apprehensive in places. It must be a strong enough, I thought, because there were a lot of people walking on it even some on bicycles. There’s not much shade on the bridge except for the occasional resting areas that have a covering and a few benches. I noticed that many young locals seem to hang out on the bridge especially in these rest areas.

Back at the hotel that evening, after dinner while accessing the internet in the lobby, I interacted again with the guys from Belfast. They asked if they could join me on the day trip to Pyin Oo Lwin the next day. It sounded like a great idea. I could use some company so we agreed to split the driver costs that I had already paid.

Local woman selling spices and fruits at the farmer's market in Pyin Oo Lwin

Local woman selling spices and fruits at the farmer’s market in Pyin Oo Lwin

On Sunday morning, I met up with everyone and headed out. I was looking forward to getting into the mountains where it would be cooler. It’s about a two-hour drive to Pyin Oo Lwin – most of which was on a two-lane road that had a number of trucks working in the area. One of the things that was a little peculiar on the drive was a section of highway that was divided with two lanes on each side. Now in the U.S., a divided highway means that on each side the traffic flows in the same direction – not so in the Mandalay region. The two lanes on the right side, at times, had traffic flowing in both directions. Same with the left side two lanes. It seems, according to Joh Wei that drivers going for short distances will take the closest and easiest option. Saying that I was a little surprised when we first saw someone driving against us on the same side of the road as we were is an understatement. It’s always nice to have a local driving you who knows the unwritten rules of the road.

We spent a little time walking through Pyin Oo Lwin. It had rained recently so there were a number of puddles that we tried to avoid. We walked through the farmer’s market and then through town. We came upon a Hindu Temple that was being renovated. There were a number of Myanmar military cadets throughout town since a military academy was located nearby. We relaxed with some hot tea in a local café as a group of military cadets were sitting next to us – just another Sunday morning in Pyin Oo Lwin.

Pwe Kauk Falls near Pyin Oo Lwin

Not far from the center of town is the Pwe Kauk waterfall. It’s not your typical long-drop waterfall. This one was a river cascading over a number of huge, round boulders dropping into a pool below. It was different. It’s a popular picnicking spot with the locals. There’s a number of vendors lined along the road selling mostly food and beverage products. The biggest draw though was the swimming hole which provided a welcome relief from the heat for the locals.

We stopped at The Candacraig, a colonial mansion built in 1904 as a guesthouse of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. It’s now the Thiri Myaing Hotel – the oldest hotel in Myanmar and run by the government according to Wikipedia. When we were there, it was being used to film a Myanmar movie. There didn’t seem to be much hotel activity going on.

The highlight was the National Kandawgyi Gardens, established in 1915, where the greenery and colors provide a very relaxing place to stroll. A lake and walking paths throughout the gardens provide a great place to spend the day. Per Wikipedia, it was modeled after the Kew Gardens in England. There are over 500 species of indigenous trees and 75 foreign ones. There are 300 different species of orchids. There are three museums located in the gardens – a fossils museum, petrified wood museum and a butterfly museum. There’s an aviary section that is closed in with netting. If you want to spend a day relaxing, this is the place to do it. Enjoy a walk through the gardens, take time to sit and read a book, or throw out a blanket and just relax. The gardens include an observation tower with a corkscrew set of stairs going up the outside of the tower. The top provides a great view of the surrounding area.

St. Joseph Catholic Church

Monday was a day to relax. In the morning, I headed to St. Joseph Catholic Church about a mile from the hotel. I wanted to see what a Christian church was like in this pre-dominantly Buddhist country. There were no services going on when I got there. In fact, the church was all locked up. I couldn’t even get onto the church grounds. After taking some pictures outside of the gates, I walked next door to a lemonade stand. I asked one of the men, who happened to be the owner of the stand, if there was another way in. He said no; however, he would try and get the key from the nun who was responsible for the church. I followed him across the street where he contacted another woman, who in turn, went to track down the nun with the key to the outside gate and the church itself. After about 15 minutes, the lady returned with the key. The three of us walked across the street to the church where the lady unlocked the outside gate and then the door to the church. The two of them waited inside, patiently chatting with each other, while I toured. It was a beautiful church – one which had an intimate feel to it. I wasn’t sure what to expect in a predominantly Buddhist country and one which had a very repressive government for so many years. The two adults sat and chatted while I looked around. After touring and taking pictures for about 20 minutes, we exited the church and the lady locked the door and the gate. I thanked both of the people who were so persistent in helping me to gain access and for waiting patiently while I walked around. I walked back to the lemonade stand talking with the owner. He asked me to sit down where he had one of his workers make me a tall glass of fresh lemonade. It was really good on this warm morning. When it was time to go, I offered to pay; however, the owner said no, the drink was on him. I was so glad to have seen the beautiful church and to have met two such very nice people. They went out of their way to help with my request. Once again, the people of Myanmar continue to amaze me with their kindness.

After returning to the hotel and getting something to eat, I laid out by the pool reading my book and occasionally swimming. The water felt great and it was really nice to relax and cool off in this heat.

I enjoyed my time in Mandalay. It was nice to interact with fellow tourists instead of being by myself. The guys from Belfast were good conversationalists, funny and relaxed to be around. For dinner, on the evening we returned from Pyin Oo Lwin, we had dinner with another couple that the Belfast guys had met previously. In fact, I ran into the other couple when leaving Inle Lake a few days later at the Heho Airport. They were arriving from the Bagan area while I was waiting for my plane to Yangon.

On the drive to the airport, I noticed the school bus ahead of us with the children on the roof of the bus - interesting

Early Tuesday morning, Joh Wei picked me up for the almost one hour drive to the airport. I was off to the Inle Lake region – a location I knew practically nothing about but had heard some good things since arriving in this country.

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