The ambitious plan was more than accomplished: This is the story about exciting excursions, wonderful gilded temples and city streets turned into rivers by the rain.
The road to Mandalay
I had not taken the road in a literal sense, but I arrived in Mandalay on the night train from Yangon. I was skeptical about the city. In my planning document I had written this:
When Rudyard Kipling wrote his famous poem “On the road to Mandalay” in 1890, he fixed the foundation stone for the romantic view of Mandalay: “By the old Moulmein Pagoda; Lookin’ lazy at the sea; There’s a Burma girl a-settin; and I know she thinks o’ me.” Actually Moulmein is on the southeastern coast. Also the last part of the poem shows that he was never actually in Mandalay, and had seemingly not even the faintest idea where it was. It is far from the sea, there is no bay and China is far away: “On the road to Mandalay; Where the flyin-fishes play; And the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay.“
The fact is that we all have grown up with this romantic view, but now everyone’s talking Mandalay down after having been there. It’s not ancient, it’s noisy, and there is no charm.
Anyway, that’s what I wrote. The realities proved otherwise. I could actually have stayed here even longer than I did, but on a fortnight in Myanmar there are other places putting up a fierce competition to win a visitor’s attention. Having arrived in the morning I found my hotel, simply called Smart Hotel.
My review of it at Agoda.com, the best site for finding hotels in Myanmar:
“Deservedly popular choice for foreigners: Hotels in Myanmar are too expensive, this one gave more value for money than others. There is no good location in Mandalay, so this hotel did not have a really bad location. However there are very few restaurants nearby, and neighbouring streets turn into rivers in the rainy season. The breakfast was alright, however. The skybar on the top was desperately in need of an interior designer, but the “Myanmar house wife set menu” was delicious.” (I gave it 6 out of 10 points)
The recommended set menu at the Smart Hotel
The making of a detailed plan
My planning document had listed a few opportunities and ideas, but I had not concluded much before getting here. My time frame was like this:
I had the rest of this day to spend, a full day number two and an afternoon flight to Bagan on day three. The reception convinced me that the city itself could be seen in half a day, while the surroundings of Mandalay required a full day. I quickly decided on postponing my sightseeing in Mandalay until the last day, and go for the excursion immediately. I also realised I would have time to fulfill my dream of taking the train across the Gokteik Viaduct on day two. (Read about it here.)
The reception also informed me that all tour buses had already departed for this day, and even had to be booked a day in advance. I did not mind avoiding a tour group so I settled for their second option, a private taxi for 35 $US. It was worth it, we left in the morning and returned late in the afternoon after dropping by the railway station to buy the train ticket for tomorrow’s adventure.
View of the mighty Ayeyarwady River from Soon U Ponya Shin Paya on Sagaing Hill, direction Mandalay
Amarapura, Sagaing Hill, Inwa and U Bein are the place names to remember if you are planning a trip to Mandalay. There is also a place called Mingun (a huge ruined stupa) but that would require another day. This morning the heavens had opened over Mandalay and the city streets became flooded. My driver knew what he was doing and hit all the best streets through and out of Mandalay.
Amarapura used to be the capital of Burma, just like Mandalay and Inwa, but is now reduced to being a township on the southern outskirts of Mandalay – which by the way is the second largest in Myanmar. It is a nice place with easy-going tree-lined residential streets. Apart from that, there is not really much to see here – with one big exception: There are a number of handicraft workshops. My driver had been here too before, and we met several busloads of tourists at every stop we made.
Making gold leaves by hammering gold in Amarapura
We made three stops in Amarapura: The first was a gold leaf workshop, the second a wood carving and puppet making workshop, and the third a silk weaver’s.
The picture above shows the guys who would stand for five hours hammering a piece of gold into ultra-thin gold leaves. Swing your finger slowly over a leaf and it will curl. Before the hammering, the gold was placed between layers of rice and bamboo paper. The special paper had taken up to three years to make. I was guided through the process and ended up in the store. Very interesting.
And so was the next workshop, where the following picture and the one on top were taken. This was quality wood-work, embroideries and sewing with detailed, intricate patterns. Mandalay is famous for its puppet theatre and there is one show in particular that visitors should see. I didn’t, but a number of tourists had T-shirts and were very content with having attended.
Wood carving and puppet workshop in Amarapura
My next and last stop in Amarapura was a silk weaving establishment and store. I was free to look into the large room behind the store, to watch the weavers. The tour groups flocked into the store.
The taxi driver then went for a bridge over the huge Ayeyarwady River. This is the central spine of Myanmar, and has been for centuries. All major kingdoms, or dynasties, have evolved around the river and produced the capitals of Inwa, Amarapura, Mandalay and also Bagan which would be my next destination after Mandalay. The river flows the length of Myanmar and gives life to all kinds of farming activities along the very wide valley surrounding it. The river is navigable for most of its length, offering opportunities to sail up- and downstream from the Andaman Sea, i.e the northern end of the Indian Ocean.
On the other side of the river is Sagaing. There are several hilltops around these parts, almost all with temples on top. I was let off at the bottom of the largest hill and was directed to take the steps up to Soon U Ponya Shin Paya. It took its time. It was wet, damp and quite a climb. On the other hand there were steps all the way, a few more or less standing stupas on the sides and even a monastery halfway up. The steps were covered by a corrugated iron roof.
The temple on top was interesting, but the view was much more fascinating. I walked down the same way, alone, observing that other tourists had been driven to the top.
Large and small temples and stupas in Sagaing
Coming up next was another former capital of Burma.
What seemed to be the standard way of getting to Inwa or Ava (and by far the most fascinating) was to take a boat from a jetty (mud bank landing place) south of Amarapura for a few minutes across the river. This happened to be my only “voyage” on the Ayeyarwady. I had been dreaming of taking a boat downstream to Bagan but the sailing schedule was not favourable for me.
Anyway, visiting Inwa is a smooth affair – everything has been neatly laid out for foreign visitors. On the Inwa bank the horse-carts awaits you, ready to pick you up and move you around on a network of dirt roads and even some paved roads. I lunched here before boarding a cart for the next couple of hours.
View of one of the paved roads in Inwa
The old royal palace had been sacked and destroyed, and nothing remained apart from a watchtower seeming to fall down any day soon. Elsewhere the tourist route led to a series of temples, some quaint and stripped like the one pictured below, others with gilded roofs.
Inwa is a “has-been” capital. This is from the Yadana Hsimi Paya.
Inwa’s religious buildings was an aperitif of what I would see a few days later in Bagan, on a much larger scale. I did like Inwa, and moving oneself on a horse-cart was a relaxing way of getting around. On the return boat I was joined by two Western girls and a Burmese guide with bicycles. It is obviously possible to walk around in Inwa too, it’s not very big, if you have a decent map and plenty of time. The area, with an agrarian landscape and a few hamlets for the permanent residents, was pleasant and well worth a visit. Just make sure you find the Bagaya Monastery, the best place of them all.
I had on the other hand one more place to visit before calling it a day.
If you have ever seen a sunset picture of an old, quirky bridge with a group of monks on it, you will remember it (click here if not). That is the postcard view of the U Bein teak bridge. I found no sunset, this was after all in the rainy season, but I found an extremely fascinating bridge. It is made of very old teak (1850) and is 1.2 km long. This makes it the longest and oldest teak wood bridge in the world.
The bridge was built with timber from the destroyed royal palace in Inwa. The horizontal boards to walk on have been changed over the years providing a reasonably safe passage. Teak is a hardwood built to last, but perhaps a majority of the pillars are in heavy decay, and I would suppose something will have to be done over the next years.
Yes, there are monks crossing the U Bein Bridge
The tourists have found this to be a must-see place in Myanmar, but when I was there the vast majority were locals crossing from one side of the lake to the other. The bridge has several functions for locals even apart from providing a means of moving across. There were a number of men sitting there with fishing rods, or standing to their neck in the shallow water with their rods; there were young couples on a romantic stroll, or groups of young boys and girls giggling at each other; there were senior citizens out for a walk with their grandchildren.
I had an idea of limiting myself to a little walk on the bridge, but ended up walking the full length of it and return the same way. I was not disappointed: This is a great thing to do if you are in or near Mandalay around sunset.
It had been raining quite a lot this morning but the day was reasonably dry. In the evening I went out into the Mandalay night looking for an ATM and a place to dine. That was not at all easy. I found an ATM after a while and even a restaurant after having waded almost knee-deep in the streets around my hotel. There was not much to discover in the area I was staying in, not far from the railway station and Mandalay Palace.
This article is part of a series from Myanmar, describing my travels in August 2013. My visit is presented in ten chapters, a planning document and an article with some final impressions from a country which is included on just about everyone’s bucket list. Read all chapters:
(1) Introduction (plan)
(2) The Amazing Shwedagon Pagoda
(3) Central Yangon
(4) The Night Train to Mandalay
(5) The Train Across the Gokteik Viaduct
(6) The Train from Kalaw to Shwenyaung
(7) Amarapura, Sagaing Hill, Inwa and U Bein
(9) The Temples of Bagan
(10) What else to see in Bagan
(11) Inle Lake
Here are more pictures from this day around Mandalay: