Two Days in Mandalay, Myanmar
Many blog posts we had read about visiting Myanmar were less than complementary about Mandalay, describing it as dirty, dusty and a stop that could be easily skipped. We are so glad we didn't take that advice because we actually really liked Mandalay. The people were truly friendly everywhere we went and the sights were well worth visiting.
We only had a couple of days in the city so we decided to take our first afternoon and evening to view the sights in the north of town and then walk up Mandalay Hill to see the sunset. We wandered around the Kuthodaw Pagoda also known as the World's Largest Book and also took a walk around the Shwenandaw Kyaung monastery.
After taking a rest and a cool drink we decided to tackle the walk up Mandalay Hill. It was quite a tiring trek to the top that seemed to never end. Every time we thought we had made it there was another twist and the path went on. There are many smaller temples on the way up and sweeping views over the city to reward your efforts. At the top there were quite a few tourists hanging around but the space is expansive and it didn't feel crowded at all. After sunset we couldn't face the walk down so decided to take a motorcycle taxi back. The two of us jumped on the back of a small motorbike and the ride back down the hill and across town to our hotel was pretty exhilarating.
We decided to spend the only full day we had in the area by hiring a private driver to take in some of the nearby ancient towns. The U-bein bridge is popular with tourists who mostly go at sunset to see the bridge at its most atmospheric. We decided to brave the sunrise because it is a lot less crowded, but that meant getting up at 4am. Ouch! But we were rewarded with very few people, and an eerily peaceful morning on the shore watching the fisherman who walk through the lake with giant nets before dawn.
Our next stop was at the Mahamuni Paya where locals come in the mornings to venerate the Buddha statue. Males apply gold leaf to the statue while women can only watch mostly on flatscreens that surround the outside. It's a lively spot with children running around and vendors surrounding all the entrances. At this and many other temples we found locals wanted to stop and chat with us. Normally it was to sell us local handicrafts, other times to practice their English but more interestingly to be photographed with us. It's quite an odd sensation being treated as a novelty.
With the sun getting higher in the sky, we headed to Sagaing Hill; covered in beautiful, colorful temples. Because it was so early we were the first visitors of the day. The advantage is that the touts who try and sell you all kinds of tourist handicrafts weren't quite ready to pounce on us. After visiting a few temples we visited the incredible Sitagu International Buddhist Academy. Again we were the only ones there at this early hour. Unfortunately you can't go inside but the building is magnificent.
After Sagaing we went to the banks of the Irawaddy and rode a little ferry boat over to Inwe and took a two hour horse cart around the ancient city. This is classic tourist trail stuff but, all cynicism aside, we actually really enjoyed it. Again, being so early we didn't see any other tourists, we just trotted around through local villages and farmland, toured some old temple ruins and monasteries. Friendly locals waved and it was a really a great way to spend a few hours.
We made a couple of obligatory stops at local handicraft stores, the woodcarving was most notable for the creepy puppets, the silk manufacturing was hypnotic. The young women were so skilled weaving intricate patterns while escaping their tedium with headphones in their ears. It is an odd clash of cultures and time-periods to see them singing along to One Direction or Taylor Swift while performing this traditional on ancient looms.
We returned to the hotel soon after lunch time after our eight hour tour! Since our driver had picked us up so early we decided we could miss sunset while we caught up with some zeds before dinner. Overall I think Mandalay was definitely worth a few days visit. It was a great insight into Myanmar life and and it certainly exceeded our expectations after all the negative things we read beforehand.