Mandalay – the name alone conjures exotic visions of Kipling’s Far East. But as with so many romanticised Southeast Asian cities, Mandalay falls short of most people’s expectations. Taken at face value, Myanmar’s second-largest city is much like any other urban centre in the region: big, noisy, hot, polluted, and impersonal. Compared to ‘happening’ Yangon, Mandalay is sprawling and seriously lacking in charm. When we visited in early October 2015 at the tail end of the monsoon season, rain pelted the city for hours on end and the streets filled up with waist-high water, making it even more difficult to explore on foot (among it’s laundry list of maladies, Mandalay has a serious drainage problem).
But that’s not to say it’s all bad. Some areas feature narrow laneways, built up on both sides with cute restaurants and antique shops. Other parts of Mandalay extend to wide suburban boulevards that are pleasant enough to explore on the back of a motorbike. Mandalay Palace is worth a visit, as is Mandalay Hill, which provides beautiful sunset vistas over the city. Mandalay residents were also among the friendliest people we met in the country. Still, most tourists arrive in Mandalay in order to leave, shunning the urban sprawl in order to spend time exploring the three ancient cities of Sagaing, Ava (Inwa) and Amarapura instead.
At this point in Myanmar’s tourism history, there’s only really one way to see greater Mandalay in a day, and that’s by hiring a car and driver. The tourist trail is well-trodden in this part of the country, and most drivers subscribe to a standard itinerary that includes stop offs at crafts workshops, various temples, and a large monastery. A good tour finishes with a grand finale, the ever-impressive U Bein Bridge at dusk.
Mandalay’s craft scene revolves around gold leaf, marionettes, silk weaving and richly embroidered tapestries. There are dozens of cottage workshops dotted throughout the city, and stopping in at a few is mandatory (not that you have a choice). There’s no real pressure to buy anything; for the most part, people seem happy to receive a few kyat in good faith for showing you around the workshop and narrating artisan demonstrations. The most interesting of these workshops are the dusty floors where bare-chested men sit in dirt pits, hand-beating metallic chunks into gold leaf. The next stop on the tour, Mahamuni Buddhist Temple, is where you can see men and boys reverently applying the gold leaf to a giant statue of Buddha.
Temples of Sagaing
Sagaing lies on the opposite bank of the Irrawaddy to Mandalay. The Golden Pagoda on Sagaing Hill, with it’s pastel-coloured tiles and eye-wobbling row of glistening Buddhas, is a particular highlight. If you’re lucky, your driver will stop on the bridge on the way to Sagaing to give you an overview of the city – an impressive landscape of gold-crested pagodas peeking above greenery.
One of Myanmar’s many former capitals, Ava is sadly neglected. The trip over by ferry (your driver will drop you off at the dock) is unremarkable, as is the horse-and-cart ride around Ava’s temples and ruins. Many of the sites demand an entrance fee, so we skipped those. If I visited Mandalay again, I’d be happy to skip Ava altogether.
Mahar Gandar Yone Monastery
Mahar Gandar Yone is the second-largest monastery in Mandalay. Cars and buses loaded with tourists arrive here every morning in perfect sync, timing the drive for the 11am procession, when the monks and novices emerge from their lodgings for the carefully orchestrated morning walk to the mess hall. It’s a bit touristy (ok, it’s very touristy), but it’s still a fantastic photo opportunity.
The monastery complex itself is full of nooks and crannies to explore (preferably with your monk guide). The minutia of daily life in the monastery is fascinating to see and hear about – never have billowing robes drying on a clothesline looked so pretty.
U Bein Bridge
The final stop on the tour, U Bein Bridge in Amarapura is best viewed around dusk when this monumental, frighteningly rickety teak-and-concrete concoction transforms itself into a beautiful silhouette. There are a few different ways to travel the bridge and lake, but whichever means of transport you take, it is a beautiful sight. I suggest taking the time to walk the bridge in at least one direction in order to appreciate the little ecosystem of life and trade U Bein supports.
Not usually one for guided tours, Mandalay was one instance where I was happy to sign my fate over to a driver and follow directions for a day. In my opinion, this is the easiest way to experience greater Mandalay’s highlights in a short period of time, but it’s by no means adventurous. Have you travelled off the beaten path in Mandalay? Where would you recommend visiting?