After Yangon and Bagan, dusty Mandalay is a popular stop on the backpacker trail through Myanmar. Spread out over several miles, it acts as commercial heart of the North. However, the city itself has only few ‘highlights’, if any. Two full days in the city should be more than enough.
The reconstructed Mandalay Palace is barely worth a visit. Today, most of the vast walled square is a restricted military area and hence off-limits to foreigners. If you decide to pay the hefty 10$ entrance fee, head directly to the watch tower for a cool breeze and an overview of the compound.
Those looking for panoramic views and romantic sunsets should head to Mandalay Hill, a lone elevation north of Royal Palace. To avoid a sweaty climb, I opted for a bike ride to the top (1.500 Kyat). Although entrance is supposed to be free, they impose a 1.000MMK ‘camera fee’ on foreigners. If you only carry an iPhone, ignore the signs and walk past the counter, you’re unlikely to get stopped.
Quieter monastic districts can be found further west towards the Ayeyarwady River. This is a great spot to just sit back and people-watch. Locals are very eager to practise their English.
The ancient cities of Sagaing, Amarapura and Inwa
On my second day in Manadalay, I teamed up with two Dutch girls from the guesthouse and rented a taxi for the day. We were headed for the ‘Ancient Cities’ tour, which is the main reason for a stopover in Mandalay. The three cities are all within a span of 30km and make for a good day trip.
Inwa, an island along the Ayeyarwady River, was the Burmese capital from 1364 to 1841 with several breaks in between. After a short boat ride over the river, we climbed into a horse cart for a two hour circle tour (8000MMK / cart) over deserted dirt roads and along small farms and villages. There is not much left to see: Nanymin – the old watch tower, a couple of monasteries, and a few pieces of the old city walls are about it.
Next stop: Sagaing, has more to offer, but only if you haven’t yet grown weary of pagodas. A walk up Sagaing Hill is the main attraction. Nice views over the lush, green town, and hundreds of scattered pagodas.
We finished off the day with a walk along U Bein’s Bridge, a 1.2 km-long teak wood bridge, which made for a very enjoyable break from all the pagodas. There are many shaded rest areas, food vendors, and chatty locals. Arrive late for the famous sunset boat ride along the bridge.
Life as a novice
Half of Burma’s monks live in or around Mandalay. Hence, the most interesting part of the tour was a visit to Amarapura’s largest monastery: Mahagandayon.
Modern residences lining up on both sides of the street house up to a 3000 monks and novices at any given time. Surprisingly, foreigners are allowed to walk around freely and observe the daily routines of the red robed men. You’re likely to see boys shaving their heads, doing their laundry or studying for upcoming exams.
Around 10.15 am, monks start to line up in two queues for the only meal of the day. As the bell rings, the men start marching silently into the huge multi-floor food hall, carrying only a towel and their personal ration of alms.
Stay: Yoe Yoe Lay Guesthouse
Next: Meet the Palaungs