This is the second in a series of guest posts from Rhiannon Roy – a freelance writer, travel photographer and hiking instructor from London, who recently spent two weeks exploring Myanmar.
Still largely off-the-beaten-track for tourists, Mandalay is bursting with life, history and culture, with golden temples and teak monasteries hidden around every corner.
Although it is usually my go-to method of transportation, walking the city is not ideal as there are no pavements, few traffic lights or pedestrian crossings, and no clues as to which direction the next motorbike is going to come from. If you are confident enough to brave the Mandalay traffic by motorbike, then, by all means, hire one for an authentic experience of the city. If you value your life, however, renting a car and driver for the day is relatively inexpensive (around 35,000 kyat, or just under £20), and they will swiftly whizz you around the sights, as well as wait outside for as long as you would like to spend there.
WALK ACROSS U BEIN BRIDGE
Originally built without nails, U Bein is a 1.2km long wooden bridge, studded with occasional tourist markets and local palm readers, that stretches (and occasionally wobbles) over a lake in the wet season and flooded paddy fields in the dry.
RUB GOLD LEAF ON THE BUDDHA
In the Mahamuni pagoda sits the ‘living statue’ of Buddha. Males (sorry ladies; you may only watch on a video screen) are allowed to approach the Buddha to rub gold leaf on his body – a practice which, over time, has had drastic results. The pagoda is also one of the best places in Mandalay for souvenir shopping for jade bracelets, marble statues and plenty of other tourist goodies.
DONATE FOOD TO THE MONKS AND NUNS
Early birds may catch sight of lines of novice (young) monks and nuns walking the streets with donation bowls. They are not allowed to ask for food; instead, they rely on donations of spoonfuls of rice and snacks from locals and passers-by. If early starts are not your thing, you can also donate snacks and see the monks lining up for their meal at the Mahagandayon monastery at around 10.15am. However, this monastery does tend to get packed with camera-snapping tourists, which can detract from the authenticity of the experience.
READ THE WORLD’S LARGEST BOOK
So ‘reading’ is a bit of an exaggeration, as is the description ‘book’… The Tripitaka tablets consist of 729 marble slabs etched in gold on both sides, telling the Tripitaka Pali of Theravada Buddhism. Each slab is housed in its own shrine alongside a protective Buddha. The shrines surround the Kuthodaw pagoda, connected by pretty, colourful walkways where you can peer in the shrines to see the ‘pages’ of the ‘book’.
SEE GOLD LEAF BEING MADE
Mandalayans still practice the ancient method of hammering gold into leaf by hand. The craftsman repeatedly brings down a heavy hammer on fragments of gold pressed between bamboo paper, using the reactionary rebound of the hammer on the stone beneath to help lift it again and guide it back down – a sight well worth a quick stop.
TREAD THE LINE AT THE ROYAL PALACE
Set within walled grounds (each side of which is 2.5km long surrounded by a 60m wide moat), the Royal Palace was originally built by King Mindon when he established Mandalay as the capital. Since then, however, the original buildings have been destroyed and replaced with replicas. The rest of the compound is currently in use by the Burmese military, and access is forbidden to all foreigners – however, strangely, tourists must walk through the restricted zone to reach the Palace. You may only enter at the east gate, and are commanded to walk in a straight line down the path to the Palace, and return the same way.
It is a slightly unsettling experience, walking obediently down the path whilst not-so-obediently trying to peer through the trees to see what lives are being lived in secrecy. Myanmar, for all its political struggles, is still not quite free of the military regime, and the Royal Palace is one of the places where a tourist can feel the foreboding presence of the military.
CLIMB (OR DRIVE) MANDALAY HILL FOR SUNSET
Crowning Mandalay hill is a stunning tiled pagoda, which is worth a visit in itself, however, as the sun sets over the city, the balcony is where you want to be standing for uninterrupted, panoramic views of Mandalay and the surrounding area.
COUNT THE BUDDHAS IN SAGAING
Another great spot for sunset, the U Min Thonze caves in Sagaing are home to a long row of Buddhas, overlooking another astonishingly beautiful stretch of countryside, with shrines dotting the landscape and poking through the thick canopy of trees. TripAdvisor can’t decide how many Buddhas there are in the caves – you’ll have to count for yourself!
TOUR IN A HORSE AND CART AROUND INWA
Once an ancient capital and only a short taxi (and boat across the river) from Mandalay, Inwa is a treasure trove of antiquated temples and monasteries. Up to three people can fit in each cart, and off you trot around the idyllic countryside, stopping at each of the sites of interest in turn.
Most of these sights are free, however, you will need an ancient heritage site ticket to visit the Royal Palace, two ancient monasteries in Inwa and the Shwenandaw Monastery – 10,000 kyat (£7) for entry to all of these sights. You may also be requested to pay a small ‘camera fee’ if you are spotted with a camera or smartphone at some of the sights. Make sure you wear slip-on shoes – you must to remove them before entering any religious site, as well as some museums and the Royal Palace.