We arrived in Mandalay after a bumpy, but otherwise not awful, minicoach journey from Bagan. Unlike previous journeys, this one had left at the sensible time of 9am and deposited us at our hotel door a mere five hours later. Our plan for our two days in Mandalay was to see the sights of what I had presumed in my mind to be a lush pocket of ex-colonial serenity in the heart of Burma.
The reality that greeted us was a dusty, low-rise city. A cacophony of horns formed the backing track to our stay in the city, and we tottered along the edge of roads on the barely-existing pavements.
We stayed at the Hotel Sahara – an oasis in the dust who very sweetly furnished us with a welcome drink and an air conditioned room. After a nap, we staggered out to forage for food and, I am ashamed to say, achieved very little else with our day.
The next morning, we enquired about tours to see the area but the hotel offerings were quite expensive and uninspiring. Instead, we spoke to a local taxi driver and asked him to take us to a handful of sites we’d selected which, cost wise, turned out to be about the same as a tour.
Our first stop was the Shwenandaw Monastery, built entirely of creaking teak wood. We walked into the deserted grounds – our shoeless feet rapidly becoming very dusty – and up the entrance steps of the intricately carved building. We saw only one other tourist and a handful of monks, clad in burgundy robes who paid us no attention as they went about their daily chores.
Next we headed to Maha Myat Muni Paya – a somewhat ostentatious 4 metre high Buddha statue which is the second holiest site in Myanmar, after the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. Women aren’t allowed in the worship hall with the Buddha, so have to make do with watching it (and the worshipping men) from TV screens outside. To pay their respects, worshippers coat the Buddha with gold leaf – so much so that he looks almost distorted under the weight of the added gold.
Our final destination was a hilltop temple – I’m afraid my notes fail me here – where we hoped to get some views across the city without paying the $10 entry fee that the more famous Mandalay Hill commands. Alas, it was too hazy to see very far, so we contented ourselves with buying some art work and having our photos taken with some of the other pagoda visitors who seemed to find us endlessly exotic.
As the sun began to cool, we headed to the U-Bein bridge. The rickety teak bridge is quite incredible, and spans over a kilometre across the shores of a lake.
Below us, vendors set up flimsy plastic chairs preparing for sunset viewers. Further afield, fishermen cast their nets into the lake while locals took a raucous communal bath. We joined the crowds to wander leisurely across the bridge, watching people capture the moment.
We picked up some fried chickpea fritters from a local, and it turned out to be a fine example of the melting pot of ethnicities in Mandalay. “I am Indian” he said proudly “and this is a traditional Indian snack”. Intrigued, I asked him where he was from in India. “Oh no no” he chuckled “I have never been to India”. Right.
Trivia time now – the U-Bein bridge graces Lonely Planet’s popular Southeast Asia on a Shoestring guide, although how they managed a photo of a deserted bridge is beyond me – it’s really busy, both as a homeward commute for locals and as an attraction for visitors.
Our second day began with a bracing ride in a pick up truck (as every day should begin, frankly) to the 9am ferry bound for Mingun village – an hour upstream. We glided along, savouring what could almost be described as a refreshing breeze and the tranquility of being away from the traffic and dust.
We dodged the horse carts and tour guides waiting to greet us and instead opted to walk around the small village independently, as it wasn’t particularly large. This was probably the most touristy place we visited in Myanmar; the concentration and visibility of tourists meant that the locals had been quick to respond with a seeming never-ending stream of drinks shacks, small restaurants and souvenir shops. We headed for the Mingun Paya – a half finished giant pagoda on which construction work has now been abandoned. The title of “worlds largest pile of bricks” might be true, but it still feels nonetheless rather cheeky.
Apparently climbing to the top is banned, and to reinforce this point someone had thoughtfully placed handrails and cut out steps, so we followed the scores of Burmese visitors puffing their way up. The view from the top was quite spectacular – looking across to the white Hsinbyume Paya and across rolling hills. We headed to the Paya next for another sweaty climb. Our final stop before catching the boat back was the world’s (second) largest bell (after Moscow)! Exciting times!
Back, napped and showered, we headed out for the evening. Mandalay doesn’t have much to offer by way of nightlife, so we headed to the Moustache Brothers – a comedy troupe best known for being sentenced to over twelve years of hard labour between them as reward for making a couple of unsavoury (but probably not inaccurate) jokes about the military regime.
Compered by the delightfully mischievous Pu Law, the show features a smorgasbord of Burmese dance, film and TV (the trio were name checked in the Hollywood film About a Boy, so we got to watch a pirated clip) and some jokes about the government. Traffic cops in particular came in for a hard time, although I suspect the act has toned down significantly in recent years. The whole thing was quite a strange, although nonetheless entertaining, evening and we enjoyed the opportunity to see some entertainment that probably wouldn’t be sanctioned for official tour groups. After everything the trio (now sadly a duo following the death of Par Par Lay) had been through, we were glad to go along and show our support. Even now, the Moustache Brothers are banned from performing for the Burmese people.
And thus concluded our time in Mandalay. There are other sights to see, but since these incurred the junta’s $10 tourist charge we opted out on this occasion. Although we’d seen some interesting places, I can’t say Mandalay as a city particularly charmed me. No matter, we were on the morning train to our next destination – Hsipaw.