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Exploring Mandalay

Myanmar, and especially Bagan, still isn’t the easiest country to reach despite the fact that things are quickly changing there. Even in just the last two months since we booked our flights from Bangkok, more airlines are offering daily flights to Myanmar’s larger cities like Yangon and Mandalay. Though there still aren’t direct flights to Bagan (yet), so we found ourselves with about seven hours to kill in Myanmar’s last royal capital. Mandalay’s airport leaves a lot to be desired – there are just two tiny cafes and absolutely nothing else in the airport – so we hired a taxi driver for the day to take us around to some of Mandalay’s popular sights.

Our taxi driver spoke all of about three words in English, but like nearly all of the Burmese people we encountered, he was incredibly friendly and helpful. At each place he took us, he personally guided us to what to see and did his best to explain things in his very limited English.

Mahagandayon Monastery

Monks carry their lunch at Mahagandayon Monastery

Our first stop was at the Mahagandayon Monastery. Monasteries and temples are an integral part of life in Myanmar and Mahagandayon Monastery is an active monastery with more than 2000 monks and novices and the largest teaching monastery in Myanmar. It was lunchtime and the burgundy-clad monks systematically line up promptly at 10:15am for their second and last meal of the day. While it was fascinating to see, it felt a bit like a zoo as bus loads of tourists piled out to watch the monks line up and eat their lunch. Visitors that leave donations contribute to the monastery’s financial well-being, but we saw disrespectful tourists that ignored the signs and walked right through the middle of the lunch area.

U Bein Bridge

Walking across the rickety U Bein Bridge

Amarapura, just a short drive from the monk’s school, literally took our breath away! Founded by King Bodawpaya of the Konbaung Dynasty, Amarapura became the capital of in 1783 and a royal palace was built there. King Mindon began building Mandalay as his capital in 1857 and decided to reuse as much material from Amarapura as possible in the new capital’s construction. The “left-overs” were used to build the 1.2 kilometer long U Bein Bridge, the oldest and longest teak bridge in the world. The bridge spans Taungthaman Lake and it is extremely popular to walk across the dangerously decaying bridge.

U Bein Bridge

We could barely walk on the wobbly U Bein Bridge, but these Burmese women carried things on their heads

U Bein Bridge

Fresh grilled crabs

U Bein Bridge

Anyone want to buy a bird?

Because of U Bein bridge’s popularity with tourists, many street vendors have set up with their wares on the bridge. You’ll find everything from jade jewelry to stunning drawings done in coal. Though most interesting was the woman with a cage full of birds. She offered us one, smiling as I looked at the cage-full of  little birds hopping about. “One bird for $1″, she told me. What on earth a tourist would do with a bird is beyond me and I almost wanted to buy one just to set it free! Apparently people do just that, making a wish as they set the desperate little bird free. The woman just catches more birds to sell, so don’t buy one and perpetuate the cycle.

Amarapura

Doesn’t it look romantic?

If walking across the swaying, wobbly bridge is a bit too adventurous for you, boat rides are also available to take romantics across the lake. I must admit, while a gondola ride in Venice feels like a Disney ride, this boat ride looks absolutely idyllic. Had we had more time, I would have convinced Tim to hold an umbrella over us to shade us from the sun as a Burmese man rowed us across the lake.

Maha Myat Numi

The golden Buddha at Maha Myat Numi

I didn’t want to pull myself away from the peaceful scene at Amarapura, but it was time to move on. We left our shoes in the taxi as we padded through the market set up in the passageways to the Maha Myat Numi pagoda, home to the most ancient and revered Buddha image in Myanmar. The Buddha is covered in nearly 6-inch thick gold and decorated with diamonds, rubies, and sapphires. I would have liked to get a close-up look, but women are only allowed in the prayer hall. Tim did don a longhi to go inside.

Maha Myat Numi

Bronze lion statue

Maha Myat Numi

Bronze man statue

Maha Myat Numi

Three-headed bronze elephant

I could get up close to the large bronze sculptures, which were originally found at Angor Wat in Cambodia. They were brought to Myanmar from Thailand in 1563 as victories of war. There are three statues: the three headed elephant statue, the lion statue, and the bronze man. Burmese people believe that if you have a pain or a disease, you should pray to the bronze man statue and then touch him to relieve the pain of that body part. I have plantar fascitis in both my feet and figured I had nothing to lose, so rubbed his feet. My feet still hurt…

Kuthodaw Pagoda

The Buddhist scriptures are housed on 729 stone slabs in these shrines

Kuthodaw PagodaAt the foot of Mandalay Hill sits Kuthodaw Pagoda, also known as the World’s Largest Book. The Buddhist scriptures of the Three Baskets were inscribed on 729 stone slabs and housed in 729 white stone shrines outside the pagoda.

Kuthodaw Pagoda

Star flower tree from 1892

Kuthodaw Pagoda

Some locals rest under and in a star flower tree that is believed to be 250 years old

Star flower trees, many over hundreds of years old, were systematically planted amongst the shrines at equal distances. The sweet-smelling trees offer a nice bit of shade to escape from the hot and unforgiving Myanmar sun to visitors.

Kuthodaw Pagoda

Kuthodaw Pagoda

Kuthodaw Pagoda

The ornately carved teak doors of Kuthodaw Pagoda

While we had always thought of Mandalay as an old city, we were surprised to learn it is actually quite new. The pagoda was built as part of the new royal city of Mandalay in 1857. The entrance is through beautiful open teak doors ornately carved with floral designs, scrolls, and Deva Nats (or supernatural deities).

Mandalay Hill

Mandalay Hill

With just a few minutes left before we had to make the hour long drive back to the airport, we stopped for some photos of the magnificent Mandalay Hill from the entrance to the royal palace. If the bustling city of Mandalay and its surroundings were this incredibly beautiful, we couldn’t wait to see what was in store for us in Bagan!

Know Before You Go

  • There is an ATM is Mandalay Airport and there is a currency exchange. If bringing cash to exchange, crisp and new US Dollars are preferred.
  • We hired the taxi for the day for around $35 US. All sites we visited in Mandalay were free of charge.

Jennifer Dombrowski

Jennifer Dombrowski is a location independent globe trotter and bases herself in Prata di Pordenone, Italy. She works as a social media and innovation strategist in higher education and is a regular contributor on johnnyjet.com. Her website, jdombstravels.com, is the 2012 Destinology Travel Bloggy Best Newcomer award winner. Google+

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23 comments

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  1. Lori

    As usual, a very comprehensive post. I love your photos – and I see there are many things to see in Mandalay:)

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Thanks, Lori! All the photography credit goes to Tim. There is quite a bit to see in Mandalay and we really only got a sampling.

    [Reply]

  2. Rhonda @ Travel? Yes Please!

    I am not familiar with this part of the world, so thanks for sharing! I love places that are rich in culture and history, so I might have to visit Mandalay one day. That gondola ride looks so peaceful!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Rhonda, things are changing quickly in Myanmar. I’m so glad we went before the tourists fully descend. Go if you have the chance!

    [Reply]

  3. Heather

    Gorgeous photos! Do you think there’s enough to do in Mandalay to warrant a weekend stay? I would definitely want to go for a ride on the lake!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    We really only got a small sampling with the amount of time that we had. I definitely think there is enough to see and do in and around Mandalay to spend at least 2 – 3 days there. You can stay for up to 28 days in Myanmar on the visa.

    [Reply]

  4. Christy

    This makes me want to go to Myanmar even more! It used to be high on my list of countries to visit, but somehow got put on the back burner. So glad you got to experience it!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Christy, put Myanmar at the top of your list. We loved it! If you think Mandalay convinces you, just wait until we post about Bagan. It was seriously magical.

    [Reply]

  5. Bram | Travel. Experience. Live.

    Oh mannnn, I need to get my butt over there before everything is ruined!

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Yes, go NOW! Things are quickly changing. Just in talking with friends that have been there even within the last year, things are already very different. Already you can take bus tours around the temples of Bagan, when just a year ago the only ways to get around were to walk, take a horse cart, or bike.

    [Reply]

  6. Ellen Christian

    That must have been fascinating. I love the architecture.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    The architecture is very different from anywhere else we’ve been. While we found many of the pagodas to look quite similar to our eyes on the inside, the exteriors are unique.

    [Reply]

  7. Beth

    I’ll be spending about a month in SE Asia this spring… really debating on if I should try to squeeze in Myanmar. Did you hire a car to get to Bagan?

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    No. To get go Bagan, you can go by boat down the river. The boat leaves early in the morning and you get to Bagan just before sunset. It takes 10-12 hours. There is also a train, which takes around the same amount of time as the boat. There is a bus, but roads are interesting and that takes longer than the train or boat. Finally you can fly on Air Mandalay or Air Bagan.

    We flew on Air Bagan. The flight from Mandalay is only around 30 minutes but there are only 1 or 2 flights daily. We chose Air Bagan because it was the less archaic booking process of the two airlines.

    [Reply]

  8. Chris

    Hello Jennifer,
    A day is too short a time in Mandalay, you have missed out some of the most interesting places to visit like the Royal Palace where the last tragic Burmese King resided after his defeat by the British. He was sent to Ratanagiri in western India, he died heartbroken, Similarly the last Mogul King of India was taken to Yangon (Rangoon) he died pining for his native land, both the monarchs are buried in a foreign land. Mandalay has the puppet theatre and the beautifully dressed puppets are for sale. Last but not least is the Moustache Brothers who fought against the military regime with Aung San Sui Ky and it is a must visit satire show in Mandalay. Incidentally Rudyard Kipling “Road to Mandalay” is famous, he talks about “the flying fishes”
    with authority even though he never once visited Mandalay !

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Hi Chris,

    As we said in our post, we only got a sampling. But one day is all the time we had and we made the most of it by exploring what we could.

    [Reply]

  9. Cheryl Howard

    What an incredible experience! Can’t wait to read more about your trip there.

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Perhaps it was because we did zero reach on Mandalay and didn’t know what to expect, but it definitely had some wow factor! I only wish we’d had more time in Myanmar. We’ll definitely need to go back.

    [Reply]

  10. Derek

    Amazing post….I almost felt like I was there! Shame to hear about the disrespectful tourists walking right through the monks’ meal though. That is one thing that really infuriates me, some tourists lack of respect for the local culture. Overall sounds like you two had a great time. Glad to hear :)

    [Reply]

    Jennifer Dombrowski Reply:

    Our worries about Myanmar were totally unfounded. We got along there just fine, language barrier and all. You should definitely get that visa and go!

    [Reply]

  11. Laura

    We haven’t had the opportunity to explore Asia much yet. Thanks for giving us a taste of Mandalay — great photos!

    [Reply]

  12. Julie K.

    The first picture of the Pagoda could easily be mistaken for the Lafayette cemetery in New Orleans..But then you see the second picture and you know you´re not in America anymore:) Unlike so many other parts of Southeast Asia I feel like Myanmar still doesn´t get too terribly many visitors..and can give a glimpse of what it was like to experience Asia say fifty sixty years ago..

    [Reply]

  13. Marlene

    Interesting and beautiful pictures Thanks for the history lesson

    [Reply]

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