Myanmar – Mandalay, ancient Royal Capital on the Irrawaddy River
A country that has it all! Myanmar is the perfect combination of rarely visited highlights and exceptional friendly people. Only relatively recently opened to tourists, this country has earned a spot on our list of favorite countries ever visited. We opted to visit Myanmar’s ancient capital Mandalay, the temples of Bagan and the fishermen of Inle Lake.
After a sleepless night and two flights we arrived in Myanmar. We planned our trip around Myanmar carefully during our time in Bali, and first up was Mandalay, in central Myanmar. Myanmar is a huge country, it is one of the largest countries in South East Asia and has been on our “destination radar” for some time now, so we couldn’t wait to get started!
Mandalay turned out to be an amazing buzzing city with great food, amazing temples and friendly people. On our second day we got up early, had a lovely breakfast in the hotel and spoke with reception about what we can do in the area. The hotel is located just West of the gigantic Royal Palace and was an excellent place to explore the city. Around noon we hopped on two far from perfect bicycles and rode to the East entrance of the Royal palace (the only entrance for tourists).
As we drove up to the huge entrance we had to dismount the bikes and park it next to the entrance. Friendly armed soldiers pointed us to the ticket office before we made our way in. The ticket is valid for five days and gives you entrance to practically all temples and sights in the Mandalay area. It’s quite the walk when you get through the gates but gives you a great impression of the army stationed here. Army bands were busy practising their tunes while others were playing football and there was an overall relaxed atmosphere. It is almost impossible to get lost as you are only allowed on one single road, the rest of the huge area is completely off-limits except for army personnel. The Royal palace, along with most of Mandalay, was bombed extensively during the Second World War. The current palace is a copy of the former grand palace. We walked up the watch-tower for an aerial view of the grounds. Only here you can really see how enormous this place is. The palace is dominated by the largest pagoda where they reconstructed the Lion Throne, the most important throne in Myanmar. We spend about an hour exploring the grounds and the small adjacent cultural museum.
We continued our bike tour and drove up to the Schwenandaw Monastery and the adjacent Atumashi Monastery. Both beautifully gold coloured temples with magnificent architecture.
We met a friendly taxi-driver Mtmt (pronounced as Momo like Mama) at the temple with whom, after a nice talk, we agreed to explore the outskirts of Mandalay the following day.
As the sunset drew near we started our bare foot ascent to the top of Mandalay Hill. The way up was long and winding with 1600 steps taking you to breathtaking sunset views up top. The climb up we were pretty much alone, we came across one other tourist, all other people took the easy way up, by taxi. From the viewing deck up top there are splendid views of the landscape that is dotted with pagodas and temples. While waiting for the sun to set we spoke with several friendly monks, who wanted to practise their English skills. The sunset was incredible, with deep orange sunrays illuminating the valley and river below. Once the sun fully set we headed back down the winding stairs, this time with no more light than that of our phone. Once back down we hopped on our bikes and rode around the moat of the Palace. Lots of locals were enjoying the evening with friends at the moat or doing sports. We looked up a place in advance and had dinner at Shan Ma Ma, serving amazing local food!
The three ancient capitals – Amarapura, Inwa & Sagaing
Mtmt picked us up at the hotel around 08:30 and we made our way south. Our first stop was the golden Buddha at the Mahamuni Temple. A huge temple with gold ornaments everywhere, including a small museum. Mtmt vividly explained us much about Buddhism and its customs. At the centre of this particular temple is a famous Buddha statue, which is plastered with 24k golden leaves by donors. The statue was fought over many times among south-east Asian countries. After the last war Myanmar transported the statue over 200 kilometer to its current home. That is 200 grueling kilometers the statue had to be dragged by men. A ceremony was in play as we arrived and we saw how donors put on the golden leaves. We were told a golden leaf can cost up to two thousand dollars, and that people offer it in hope the Buddha will bring them fortune and luck. I was even allowed a short entrance into the chamber itself. Amazing experience!
We continued our tour with a short visit to a statue workshop before we arrived at the biggest Monastery in Amarapura. In the Mahagandayon Monastery more than a thousand dedicated monks and novices reside here. When we arrived it was lunch time and the monks lined up before enjoying the tasty-looking food. As our guide knew the place and some of the monks, we made a stop in the kitchen, where the food is prepared on a huge scale!
After the impressive Monastery we made a short stop at a traditional weaver before we stopped at a local school. At the Aung Myae Oo free school there are almost three thousand students. We were led around the school by two girls who had unpronounceable names and were very nice. We went classroom to classroom while being explained about their classes. Its a great initiative to offer free education to so many.
On our way to the top of the nearby Sagaing Hill, the ancient capital, we picked up some sweet lychees. On top of the hill we had marvelous views of the area from the U Min Thonze Pagoda. Forty-five statues ordinate the colorful temple. Also on top of the hill, at Sun U Ponya Shin Pagoda we spoke to more english-practising monks and enjoyed the incredible view.
We had a local Lunch before we took a three-minute ferry ride across to Inwa Island. One of the former capitals, the island hosts many temples. The best way to get around is by horse cart, which we hired at the ferry. Over less than paved roads we made our way from temple to temple. Each temple more mesmerizing than the other. Especially standing out was the Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery. Surrounded by golden temples this stone temple is nothing short of breathtaking
As we came back we went for a somewhat underwhelming sunset at the famous U Bein Bridge. The bridge is the longest teakwood-bridge in the world. We watched the setting sun from the side with many more tourists. This was the first time it felt crowded since we arrived.
Before we arrived we had little expectations of the royal city, but Mandalay has since enchanted us with its buzzing lifestyle, amazing food and incredible temples.