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After a luxurious overnight bus from Yangon, during which a hostess dressed as a flight attendant came down the aisle with a drink cart, and every passenger was handed a pillow, blanket, head cushion, container of snacks, and bottled water, we arrived in the dark 5 AM Mandalay morning.
Naturally, a bargaining battle with the taxi drivers ensued and ended with us being seated on a bench in the back of a pickup instead of the agreed upon enclosed car. We continued to wait until the pick-up filled up, with the understanding that we most likely had been overcharged and were paying for everyone’s ride into the city center.
Luckily our hotel was kind enough to check us in at 6 AM – I guess they’re used to travelers showing up early. Though they were viciously overpriced ($25 for a frightening room without a/c, tv or wifi) we were too exhausted to complain.
After a proper 5 hour nap we were ready to explore Mandalay, a city with an exotic name, but a somewhat less impressive aura, as it turned out. We left the hotel and were greeted with a cloud of exhaust fumes. Cars and motorbikes were whizzing past, left and right, not even hesitating at the 4 stop intersections lacking both traffic lights and stop signs. The city evokes a busy vibe with unremarkable buildings and architecture. Gone were the charming dilapidated colonial buildings of Yangon and colorful market vendors. Mandalay just didn’t yield the same vibe and was not as medieval and ‘old’ as the name exhumes.
Mandalay is the second largest city in Myanmar and the former capital. The city was established as the capital in 1857 by King Mingdon Min but only until the British conquest of Burma in 1885. Unfortunately most of the city and its splendor was destroyed by fires and Allied bombing during World War II. The British rebuilt it, with an easy to follow layout of numbered streets and avenues. Today the city is the commercial center of Northern Myanmar, and is a center of trade with China and India.
We went to see the Royal Palace, which was underwhelming and, having been reconstructed after being destroyed in WWII, lacking that historical edge. The interiors are empty and the exteriors aren’t as grandiose as expected. I’d recommend passing on this for future visitors, though it is included in the price of a ticket for the Ancient Cities Tour.
The one sight we truly enjoyed within the city was Mandalay Hill.
The walk up must be completed barefoot, but luckily is over a cement walkway covered with an awning so you are not exposed to the piercing sun in the process.
All the same, we took frequent breaks. Up at the top, we sat ourselves down to take in the view and recover from the walk. All of a sudden a local Burmese girl had wedged herself between us. Without speaking any English she thought this would be the best way to communicate that she wanted a photo with us. As always we were flattered. The photo-op continued. We must have taken personal photos with at least 4 girls. It was only a few minutes later when one of them approached us with a laminated 4×6 photo that we realized they had paid a photographer to take a photo of them with US instead of the view! What a compliment. A great way to finish up our Mandalay sightseeing.
Luckily for us the real draw of Mandalay lies not in the city itself, but the ancient cities in the surroundings. We arranged for a motorbike tour of the three ancient cities, Sagaing, Inwa and Amarpura.
We were promptly greeted in the morning by two men, one of whom I can only describe as having the kindest eyes (and corresponding red stained betel chewing lips, might I add).
Our first stop was the gold leaf shop. At first I dreaded this, thinking we would be harassed into buying something, but it turned out completely different. We entered the shop and on the left side you could see these half dressed young men swinging huge hammers over their heads – turns out that is how they flatten the gold pieces.
They keep hammering until the gold is thinner than regular paper. This is where the ladies come in. They split the gold leaves in half and package them. Imagine, one 24 karat tiny gold bar produces 3000 gold leaves sold for around $1 a piece. At no point were we asked to buy anything and it was fascinating to see how these gold leafs (which people then buy at the temples to stick onto the Buddhas) are made.
Later we headed to the Mahagandayone Monastery where we were right on time for the 10am lunch procession of 1000 monks.
As they lined up with their bowls, so did the rest of the tourists with their cameras. This was hands down the one place in Myanmar where we saw the most tourists – and of course they were behaving completely obnoxiously. While being repeatedly asked to stay off the path of the monks, these tourists disregarded the instructions and flashed the cameras directly in the faces of the monks. As interesting as it was to see the monks it was downright disturbing to see the tourists in such numbers interrupting this age old tradition.
From there we headed across the bridge over to Sagapuin, the ancient city with 1000 stupas. Let’s face it though, after you’ve seen a few of them, you feel like you’ve seen them all. So thankfully our tour only took us to a handful of them.
Normally the following route for the motorbike tour is to the Inwa river crossing where you take a boat to cross the river and then hire a horse drawn carriage to take you around the ancient sites of Inwa.
Being the animal supporters that we are, we wouldn’t accept a torturous (for the horse) carriage ride and instead opted to pay our drivers extra to take us around themselves. Our guy jumped at the opportunity, instantly saying he could take us to local workshops in the villages instead of the regular sites and take us off the beaten path, with a locals lunch as well. Perfect.
We stopped by a local food stall for lunch, where we had a huge spread of Burmese style dishes and curries for the bargain price of $1.50 total. Now that’s a good deal.
As we sampled dish after dish our guide started to open up to us. He talked about the political situation in Myanmar today, and how optimistic the people are about Aung San Suu Kyi and the upcoming elections. His eyes simply lit up as he talked about how much the people love her and look forward to her being in charge. He talked about how rapidly the country had been changing lately, with SIM cards not too long ago costing $2,000 and motor scooters going for $30,000. These things among many, have just recently become accessible to the people, and they are taking full advantage of this opportunity.
Tourism has been booming and our guide is able to work 25 days out of the month. The opportunity exists and he is seizing it. He himself came from a family outside Mandalay and would have had to work in the rice fields if not for this job. While he did not have the education nor the money to go to university he now hopes that his youngest son will be able to go and is working towards making that possible. His 16 year old son has enrolled in a trade school, hoping to find work in the jade trade, which is a lucrative business in Myanmar. Everything sounded so hopeful and promising, we were happy to listen.
Lunch was a great opportunity to learn more about our guide and he was happy to share all this information about his life and family. Amazingly he never received any formal lessons in English, picking everything up simply from interacting with tourists.
From there we made our way through the local villages in Inwa. We stopped by a family making pottery.
Then we got to see how the monk’s food bowls are carved, made and painted.
We got to see the local women making Burma’s natural cheerots (cigarettes), learning that after a full days work they only earning 2,000 kyat (the equivalent of $2.50).
Best of all was that none of these places were tourist workshops. There was nothing for sale and nobody tried to get us to buy anything. We were simply there to observe the local life.
The highlight of the Inwa trail was the ancient palace wall. This place is not on the horse drawn carriage track so we were the only people there and the structure is truly amazing.
We finished off our day at the famous U-Bein teak wood bridge (the longest teak wood bridge in the world). Obnoxiously packed with tourists at sunset, we opted to make our escape a little bit earlier, forsaking the sunset in the process.