Exploring Mandalay from the outside

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March 11th 2015
Published: April 4th 2015
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Tired. Arriving at our hostel (around 4am) following an 8hr overnight bus from Nyangshwe (Inle Lake), we slept more comfortably on the reception chairs for a few hours until our room was ready. By 'more comfortably' we mean some sleep, interrupted every so often after sliding off the chair and then trying to reposition ourselves to avoid cramp. So not much sleep but more than we had on the night bus.

The main thing for tourists to do whilst in Mandalay is to go on a day tour around the surrounding areas/villages via motorbike or taxi. This includes visiting Sagaing, Inwa and Amarapura. The city itself doesn't really hold much regarding sightseeing apart from the hill top monastery with great views. After a quick clean-up we opted for the friendly taxi guy 'U Chit' who seemed to be permanently based outside the hostel during the morning. He offered us the standard $30 rate for the 1 day 3 city tour; and despite his dilapidated car (which we considered was the norm) we happily obliged.

We visited a number of monasteries and golden topped temples with stunning views at the top of a hill in Sagaing, some holding enormous Buddhas within, others with rooms filled with Buddhas upon Buddhas. We refrained from taking a lot of pictures as we already have quite a few Buddha pictures on our camera but it was impressive how many Buddha statues we have actually saw; countless.

Second area on the agenda - Inwa, also known as the town of old Ava that we could only reach by boat. Inwa not only had the usual monasteries and temples but was also home to a number of small ruins from a former era (we're drawn to the mystery of old bricks I guess!). There wasn't much information regarding these old stupas but we explored all the same trying to spot those which were completely camouflaged by plants and trees that grew on them and in some cases through them.

One thing to point out was surprisingly how tourist driven this island was. As soon as we had stepped off the ferry a young girl bearing a selection of fashion jewellery tried her hardest to convince P to buy something. A minute later we were approached by the horse and cart drivers offering to take us to some of the popular sites. Despite being successful in refusing their offers we found it impossible (literally) to shake off the men offering us sightseeing of Inwa on the back of their motorbikes.

Not the best plan we have ever hatched, but we opted to go with them to get them off our backs. So off we went on the back of 2 motorcycles exploring Inwa. In truth, we could not have walked the distance ourselves but the annoying thing about the ride was that the drivers only stopped at specific sights of interest for them and refused to stop when we asked to view smaller temples even though other people were there exploring them. One reason for this is that they are very reluctant to take people on tours for over an hour. This is so they can drum enough business throughout the day, great for them, annoying for us.

This meant we only touched the surface of this site. What we saw however was very impressive. So many untouched temples left in their best state; covered by nature. It may sound bizarre as we did stare in awe at mounds of grass but for us this was priceless. We can’t begin to talk about the amount of make shift temple restorations we have seen in the past leaving us both feeling that many ruins are now truly ruined. Not here! For now.

Lunch time and back on the mainland, U Chit took us to a traditional Myanmar restaurant. Here you don't actually order anything. They just bring everything to you in small bowls. There were salads, veg, fish, numerous meats in oily sauces and soups all luke warm! We must have had 10-15 bowls of food in front of us. We sampled a bit of everything placing bets on the total cost of the meal. To our surprise it only cost us 4,000kyat for us both (£2.50) and we ate enough to last us the rest of the day!

Last stop was Amarapura and the world famous U-bein bridge. The longest teak wooden bridge in the world. Despite how impressive it was, we didn't bother walking the full length of the slightly wobbly bridge but did take some pictures and chatted briefly to some young monks. This was a pleasant experience with the novice monks excitedly asking us many questions about ourselves before they had to rush off. P really wanted to get one of those amazing sunset shots you see over the bridge but sunset was 2 hours away and it was just too hot to be waiting around plus we had not really slept the night before. Instead she settled on trying to take some of the best pictures possible at this time of day (let us know what you think). Furthermore the bridge was really atmospheric at this time of day and we really enjoyed watching and being in the middle of the busier times the local people crossed coupled with the more quieter times with what seemed like only a few people crossing at once. Plus we hear there are hoards of tourists at sunset and sunrise whilst at this time of the day we were the only ones. There were many moments you caught flashes of red and orange from the robes that the monks and the novice monks wore. This stood out in the distance and was something we particularly wanted to capture on camera.

As the beetle-nut was a big cultural difference for us, we desperately wanted to get a photo of someone chewing it. Rather than take sneaky pictures, 'U chit' was our perfect opportunity so before we said goodbye to 'U chit' our taxi tour driver, we asked if Chris could have a photo. Not unusual right. Well first picture he didn't smile, he just stared at the camera and then the second picture his mouth was not open. Damn it. Oh well; nevermind.

Mandalay in the evening seemed to be more alive compared to Yangon - more restaurants and more shops. Also in the space of 4 blocks we spotted a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple, a Catholic church and a Mosque! A sterling example of multiple faiths cohabiting. Before bed we decided to watch an episode of "Leftovers" in our room. Half way through, the single bed we were sat on broke completely! Only thing standing was the legs! We just lay for a second on the floor in disbelief before we started laughing. Luckily no-one was hurt.

The hostel didn't have any other rooms available so we slept on a mattress on the floor as we didn't trust the strength of the other single bed in our room. We made sure we got a discount the following morning. That's backpacking for you.

Myanmar overview

We loved Myanmar. There are so many outstanding things to do and see, the temples of Bagan, trekking through the mountains, watching the fishermen of inle lake, the areas surrounding Mandalay such as Inwa and U Bein bridge. For us it was more touristy than expected but still low level tourism in comparison to the rest of South East Asia. We found it very accessible, easy to travel between places and get what you need. The people were friendly and helpful. If you intend to travel here expect to see a lot of temples and Buddhas, many of which are remarkable but believe us when we say you will see enough to last a lifetime.

I know we mentioned this briefly but one thing about Myanmar which we never quite got used to was the stares. People would stare at us for a long time and we couldn't help stare back in confusion. It was bizarre, it was like children's curiosity, they have barely seen darker skinned people from an African/Caribbean heritage, even though there are many people with dark skin who live there (mainly Indian heritage). At one bus station, one little girl pulled up a chair up in front of us and sat on it backwards just to stare at us. Grown adults would also walk past us staring, their gaze not failing, sometimes not quite getting their fill so they would twist their neck as they went by as if in utter shock and disbelief. One elderly guy on a bus turned in his seat and watched us for what seemed like hours (nearly the whole journey), not hiding his stare or curiosity when we looked back. This creeped P out a little as she would close her eyes to sleep and wake to find him still staring. No expression at all.

When we travel we want to explore new places, meet new people, experience new cultures and I guess the tables have been turned. We provide something new for the locals to experience. We now know what it feels like to have someone take a sneaky picture of you. We didn't mind when someone asked to be in a picture with either one of us, like in Bagan where the focus should be less on tourists but the sights, but hey we must be important.

We spent a total of 16 days in Myanmar which in hindsight we regret limiting ourselves by booking our outward bound flight; we had the time but booked our flight to Thailand too early. Knowing this as we left was a little sad but maybe we'll come back and explore the even less travelled areas.

Exchange rate; £1/1500 kyat $1/1000 kyat
P's favourite place; Bagan activity; 3 day trek
C's favourite place; Bagan activity; 3day trek

Food. For us food was a mixed bag. Outside of Yangon we found it to be more accessible. Some of our favourite dishes were vermicelli noodles (a big thing here), sweet and sour dishes, avocado salads, and curries with chapati. We spent an average of 7000mmk/$7 for 2 meals and 2 drinks. Sometimes local food i.e rice and meat dishes were served cold which was off putting to say the least.

Transportation. This is one thing that lets Burma down when in a city. Buses are not straightforward and the language barrier makes it even more impossible to navigate. Taxi's appear to be the main method of transportation and can be costly in tourist areas. Inle lake, Bagan & Kalaw are easily navigable places on bike or foot. Travel between cities and towns are very accessible, great links often using overnight buses. These were reasonable at an average of 10,000mmk using local buses.

Accommodation- Was one thing that actually surprised us. Yangon was the most costly but thereafter we spent an average of 20,000mmk/£14 per night for a double room. All guesthouses we stayed in were clean and comfortable (minus the last one where the bed broke) and we generally booked a couple of days ahead. Breakfast was included in the price and generally consisted of fruit, toast, eggs and the local donuts. Chinese green tea is served free of charge in local food joints which we both loved and took advantage of.

Spends; 50,000mmk/ £33 a day for the both of us.

Bye Myanmar... until next time.

Additional photos below
Photos: 51, Displayed: 29


5th April 2015

Good post
I enjoyed this read, thanks!
6th April 2015

Mandalay blog
Cheers, glad you liked it!
5th April 2015

Good post
I enjoyed this read, thanks!
13th April 2015

good post
Thank you, hopefully it will prove to be useful for people wishing to travel there.
5th April 2015
Monk walking across U-Bein bridge

Great photos and summary!
Love the way you got the monks' colored robes to stand out, and that traditional meal with all the little plates and tastes sounded lovely. Interesting that the country was so affordable, even if you did have to be the tourist attraction. Just think, as a trailblazer, you've made it easier for all darker-skinned tourists after you--what a service!
6th April 2015
Monk walking across U-Bein bridge

Re: Great photos and summary
Thanks Tara, that's true I guess we never thought of it like that. We can now say we have opened the doors wider and made it easier for other travellers who have darker skin in Myanmar. We'll happily take that. Yeh, Myanmar was surprisingly affordable, more so than anywhere else so far and the food in places was certainly a treat!!
10th April 2015

We loved our time in Mandalay. You've captured some great photos. You can always go back. Better to leave wanting more than to stay long enough that you wish you'd left sooner.
13th April 2015

Thanks Dave and Merry. U bein bridge was very atmospheric. I know it is overwriten about but we just loved the trying to capture its beauty and the wonderful moments that passed us by in seconds. Yes, Myanmar continues to linger with us, we shared some wonderful memories there.

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