I know no more about the road to Mandalay than Kipling ever did, I flew..
Mandalay has less of the facade than Yangon and is often described as being more "Burmese" than Yangon - for whatever that's supposed to mean. They both seemed perfectly "Burmese" to me.
Unlike Yangon, Mandalay, though still a little 'neat', does have more of the characteristics that I would expect of an Asian city. Dusty, more chaotic, noisy, and on some of the side streets the poverty that I expected to see was much more evident than in Yangon. Mandalay is popular with a lot of travelers, though I can't say I'm one of them. But I guess I just don't care much for Burmese cities.
As I was beginning to learn, pagodas are Myanmar and Myanmar is pagodas. If you don't like pagodas then you probably won't like Myanmar. Conversely, you might like Myanmar even more because you'll save a ton of money on all the extortionate entry fees they nail foreigners with to visit these pagodas.
I arrived in Mandalay in the afternoon, for those few hours I hired a driver and went to visit five pagodas concentrated to the northeast of the city near Mandalay Hill. Despite the utterly ridiculous entry fees - I think the five pagodas and a walk up Mandalay Hill set me back somewhere between $15 and $20 US plus a buck or two for the driver, the pagodas really are quite beautiful and worth a look.
I spent the afternoon seeing Atumashi Kyaung, Shwenandaw Kyaung, Kuthodaw Paya, Sandamani Paya, Kyauktawgyi Paya, and finished with a hike up Mandalay Hill - home to more payas, good views, and a large photographic display showing many of the ruling generals paying a visit to the hill. Nobody was giving much attention to the photographs, especially the locals.
ANCIENT CITIES NEAR MANDALAY
Any trip to Mandalay should include a visit to the ancient cities of Inwa, Sagaing, Amarapura, and Mingun. You need a day and a half to do this. Inwa, Sagaing, and Amarapura can be seen in a day with Mingun requiring another half day.
Inwa, an island along the Ayeyarwady River, was more or less the Burmese capital from 1364 to 1841 with several breaks in between. There's really not much left to see in Inwa. The Nanymin - the old watch tower, a couple of monasteries, and a few pieces of the old city walls are about it. Small farms and villages comprise Inwa today. Horse cart provides a pleasant form of transportation around Inwa. The cost (May 2000) is 500 kyats (about $1.50 US) for about two hours.
Sagaing, capital from 1315 to 1364 and 1760 to 1764 has a lot to offer, especially if you haven't yet grown weary of pagodas. A walk up Sagaing Hill is the main attraction, which as a foreigner is another privilege you'll pay a few dollars for. Nice views at the top. Unlike Inwa, Sagaing is very much an active town, and scattered around the area are more pagodas. The most interesting is the Kaunghmudaw Paya, which may or may not have been constructed in honor of a buxom Burmese queen.
Amarapura was the off and on capital in the late 18th and 19th centuries. A walk along U Bein's Bridge, a 1.2 km-long teak wood bridge, makes for a very enjoyable break from all the pagodas. There are many shaded areas to stop, buy a drink, and converse with the locals. Among numerous new friends I made were a young monk and his pet monkey and a pair of teenage girls looking to practice a little English - though as is often the case, one of the girls did 99% of the talking. Across the bridge is a picturesque village and, guess what... a pagoda! Kyauktawgyi Paya is its name and it has some nice frescoes which a handful of local children made sure I didn't miss.
Mingun requires a half day to visit whether you want it or not. Unless you hire out a private boat, you have to take a special tourist boat which leaves Mandalay at 9:00 a.m. and returns to Mandalay from Mingun at 1:00 p.m. This is not negotiable. The trip is about an hour up and 45 minutes returning.
The main attraction is Mingun Paya. Had it ever been finished it would have topped out at a dizzying 150 meters high. An 1838 earthquake ensured that the pagoda would never be finished. Out front are a pair of enormous chinthe (half lion - half dragon) ruins.
At Mingun I was hit with another reality of pagodas in Myanmar - even the ruinous ones like Mingun require removal of the shoes at a place somewhere completely outside the temple grounds, and not just outside the building that houses the Buddha as is the practice in other countries. For what it's worth, there is a small Buddha image inside Mingun Paya, so while it is a ruin, it is still an active temple, which I guess offers some justification for removing one's shoes. So I ditched my shoes at the bottom and started the barefoot climb up the hot and broken rocks, getting a nice gash on the side of my foot that took a month to heal. I could deal with this, it's their country, but my sensitivities to local custom took a hit when I observed a pair of young local men reach the top, and safely out of view from anyone at the bottom - put their shoes back on and proceed to walk around the top of the paya in comfort while the foreigners burn and cut the soles of their feet. Still, the views were nice and it was the only break from the "gimme money", "gimme presents" kids. Mingun was the first place I saw these kids in any great number but not the last.
As soon as you disembark from the boat you'll be surrounded by kids. Some are hawking souvenirs and drinks - which is fine, they are at least offering something in exchange for your cash. A few more, usually boys, will follow you around making conversation and telling you about Mingun whether you want them to or not. These de facto guides aren't at all necessary if you have a guidebook or some form of background information. But they are persistent and the kid that followed me around was nice enough so I gave him a dollar for his troubles (or mine?).
back to Myanmar contents
All text and photographs © 1998 - 2006 Gordon Sharpless. Commercial or editorial usage without written permission of the copyright holder is prohibited.