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Published: September 13th 2017
The Boat To Mandalay
Setting off from Bagan.
On The Road Boat To Mandalay
To get to Mandalay, I took a boat up the Ayeyarwady River on a ten hour trip north departing Bagan at stupid o'clock. At 4am, I stumbled out of bed, showered, packed, and met my pre-booked driver who took me to the pier at Nyaung U in time for my 5am check in at the boat. The boat departed at 5.20am with just seven passengers. This is one upside of traveling during the low/wet season - empty hotels and tourist transport. The top deck of the boat was comfortably laid out with rattan deck chairs. We each had lots of space to ourselves.
After setting off from Bagan, I watched the sunrise over the Ayeyarwady, then I settled in for the long ride, observing the riverside communities and other boats as we passed them by. The main highlight for me was watching a rickety boat with five cows on it motor past me. It did get a bit monotonous after a while, but this was still a very pleasant way to get to Mandalay. Far better than an overnight bus along dusty roads which I am sure are no longer lined with
The Boat To Mandalay
the palm trees and tinkly temple bells that Rudyard Kipling once described.
The boat trip cost US$35, and included breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, water, coffee, and tea. A great deal overall. As an added bonus, the river breeze was a wonderful respite after one week of intense heat and humidity in Yangon and Bagan. As we approached Mandalay, we were treated to spectacular views of temples scattered across the hills at Sagaing. The boat arrived in Mandalay at 3.30pm. As I have come to expect, it was raining yet again at this time of the afternoon. The dock at Mandalay is very close to downtown, and my pre-booked hotel was only a short taxi ride away. Per my mapping app, we traveled 109 miles in 10 hours. Check out the journey's stats here
There is one other upside to traveling during the low season, and that is great hotel deals. Although I had noted in my Yangon entry that lower end accommodation can be pricey in Myanmar, there are good deals to be had in the three stars and above categories during the wet season. My room at Arthawka Hotel in Bagan was a bargain, as was the
The Boat To Mandalay
The boat journey as recorded by my MapMyRun app. 109 miles in 10 hours. Thankfully there were charging stations on the boat.
room I had initially booked for one night only (I was being cautious) at Mandalay City Hotel. After checking in, I was shown a very nicely appointed single room. The hotel also had a pool. The biggest draw of this hotel, though, was that it is set away from the road. The hotel is accessed by an archway along busy 26th street. Once past the archway, one goes down a driveway to a pleasant, tree lined property. I could not hear traffic noise from my room. This was a good deal better than other hotels I saw on agoda.com and during the taxi ride which were all multistory affairs fronting busy streets. After settling into my room, I immediately went onto agoda and booked two more nights. At US$32 per night, this was a good deal.
Thanks to Kipling, it is easy to romanticize Mandalay. Travel companies have capitalized on this (think Mandalay Bay, etc.). I knew better, so I spared myself any potential disappointment. After checking in and chilling for a bit, I ventured out to dinner at a restaurant about ten blocks away. Here are some initial observations:
• It is breezy in Mandalay,
The Streets of Mandalay
In order to walk efficiently, one must eschew the cluttered sidewalks and walk on the road. In this instance, I had to walk around this parked black car (there is no designated street parking) and weave through the oncoming motorbikes.
and a bit cooler than Yangon and Bagan.
• The area around my hotel seemed to have quite a few electronics and eyewear shops. I later on determined that this was a trend here with shops selling similar items clustered together.
• Walking and crossing the street here is hazardous. Like Yangon, the sidewalks are not conducive for pedestrians, as they are full of obstacles and hazards such as missing drain covers, randomly parked vehicles, and stuff just placed on the sidewalks. In order to move efficiently, pedestrians have to walk on the road. In Yangon, this wasn't much of a problem as vehicles there didn't move much due to congestion. Not so in Mandalay. Traffic moves freely here, and they don't necessarily follow traffic signals where they do exist. Crossing streets requires crossing lane by lane, dodging oncoming traffic, and allowing cars and motorbikes to weave around you. Somehow, it works.
• There a wide, clear sidewalk fringing the moat around Mandalay Palace. It is a welcome relief to walk on those sidewalks.
• Mandalay is laid out in an easy grid pattern, but both axes are named "street" and both axes are numbered.
• There seem to be quite a few people of
Maha Myat Muni Pagoda
Devotees tacking gold leaf on the Buddha.
Indian and Chinese descent here.
Exploring By Foot
I resolved to spend two whole days exploring Mandalay; the first day on foot visiting the sights within the city, and the second day via car visiting sights outside the city. For my day on foot, I planned a route that would first take me southwest of my hotel to see two sights, and then northeast of my hotel to see the sights clustered around the palace. The map my hotel provided me did not have a scale, but I thought to myself that it shouldn't take that long to walk one block west and 20 blocks south to my first planned stop, correct? Wrong! I didn't factor in the poor sidewalk conditions and difficulty in crossing roads. It took me over an hour to get there! Along the way, I saw a cluster of jewelry and gem businesses, another cluster of motor parts businesses, and finally a cluster of religious artifact stalls at and near my destination.
My first stop was Maha Myat Muni Pagoda, which is renowned for its sitting Buddha which devotees continually cover with gold leaf. The pagoda itself wasn't immediately obvious from street level.
Shwe In Bin Monastery
A beautiful, teak building.
To get to it, you have to go through a row of shops selling religious items. The Buddha was in a small, covered hall and there were lots of devotees sitting in front of it. Due to the positioning of the entrances to the Buddha, you could only see his lower half and the devotees filing past as they tacked gold leaf onto him. The gold leaf must be six inches deep by this point! It looks as if only men could place gold leaf on the statue.
I knew that at this rate, I would not be able to see all the sights in one day if I kept walking. I did not, however, want to spend an additional day in Mandalay, so I decided to take motorcycle taxis where appropriate. I'm a bit nervous about motorbikes, so I had to remind myself to breathe, and trust that the driver will get me to my destination safely.
My next destination was the Shwe In Bin Monastery, a beautiful, teak building that was a welcome departure from the usual gold structures in Myanmar. I walked around the beautiful building appreciating its carvings. After that, I took a motorcycle
taxi back to my hotel to freshen up.
Around 11am, I set off on foot for the remainder of my day's sightseeing, which was to go to Mandalay Palace, visit the world's largest book at Kuthodaw Pagoda, and then climb Mandalay Hill. The Mandalay Palace moat was only two blocks from my hotel, so it was a welcome relief when I got to that wonderful, clutter free sidewalk fringing the moat. Unfortunately, I was on the southwest corner; foreigners were only allowed to enter the palace via the east gate, and the other sights I was headed to were all on the northeast corner, so it was still a trek to get there.
Mandalay Palace is set on a very large compound. The military uses most of the compound, which is why the public can only access one road and the palace in the center. The palace itself wasn't terribly interesting - there were throne rooms, lots of little buildings, and a cool watch tower. The buildings were all very dark inside. It was the military that made the place interesting. We had to surrender an ID or passport to enter (locals did not seem to have this
Ominous sign at the front entrance. My understanding is that "tatmadaw" is the word for army.
restriction) and we had to wear a pass. At the front gate was a big sign that said that the army will crush those who threaten the union, or words to that effect. It isn't everyday that you go to a tourist attraction with armed soldiers patrolling the area.
Next up was Kuthodaw Pagoda. This one was interesting. It houses the world’s largest book - over 1,700 identical whitewashed stupas, each one containing a big stone tablet with teachings from the Buddha. This was a fascinating place to explore, even though the stupas themselves were out of bounds. This temple was so large and all its stupas were so uniform that I entered through one place and exited through another and I totally lost my bearings for my next stop, Mandalay Hill.
Mandalay Hill overlooks Mandalay and the surrounding countryside. To get there, one must climb lots of steps. I was disoriented when I got out of Kuthodaw Pagoda. I walked around looking for a pair of lions that marks the start of the climb up the hill, but a local pointed me to some steps, so I just took off my shoes and climbed. En route, surprise
World's largest book. Each stupa - all 1,700+ of them - housed a stone tablet with Buddhist teachings.
surprise, here were yet more temples. This was by far the nastiest barefoot walk I have made so far - there were lots of caterpillars crawling on the steps, and there was dog poop, bird poop and unidentifiable poop smeared by people who stepped on them. But, I was here to climb the hill and enjoy the views from the top, so I carried on and tried not to think about what I was stepping on.
The temples along this route weren't particularly noteworthy, and they got gaudier and gaudier. I am used to climbing steps (my regular Saturday morning workout at home is a 1,000 step climb up a disused railway), but it was slightly demoralizing climbing as each time I thought I was at the top, I spied yet another flight of stairs. I knew I hit the top when I was asked to pay 1,000 kyat to view a spectacularly gaudy pagoda - think pink tiles juxtaposed with green ones. But, the views were great. Coming down the hill, I realized I had deviated from my route up. I eventually came down to the (anatomically correct, it turns out) lions I was looking for to start
View from the top. This is the east moat of Mandalay Palace.
my climb. At the lions, I procured another motorcycle taxi to take me to my hotel.
That evening marked another first - I ate street food! I wouldn't hesitate to eat street food in Indonesia, Thailand or Malaysia because I know what I am eating, but I have been wary of street food in Myanmar because the cuisine is unfamiliar and I was unsure of hygiene standards. Anyway, I ate this amazing Indian meal just next to my hotel, while enjoying my street level view of the evening's activities.
Exploring By Car
There are, of course, downsides to traveling during the low/wet season. I contacted several travel agencies to ask if they were running their Ancient Cities tour, and none of them had the requisite minimum participants. I had no choice but to call the driver who drove me to my hotel from the dock. Fortunately, he was available and we negotiated a fee of about US$20 for the day.
Win Aung picked me up at my hotel in the morning. It was raining when he came, and I immediately knew I had made the right decision to hire a car and not a cheaper motorcycle
Maha Gandayin Monastery
This is one of my favorite photos ever. I freeze framed a kid (wearing a Frozen t-shirt that some Western kid probably discarded) begging the monks for food as they depart their dining hall. Artistically, this is a great shot. It was hard to ignore the poverty, though.
taxi (I didn't fancy riding pillion that long anyway). The tour covers three ancient cities on the outskirts of Mandalay - Amarapura, Inwa, and Sagaing.
Our first stop was Maha Gandayin Monastery in Amarapura. The attraction here is that at 10.15am, all the monks will line up to get their main and last (yes, you read that right) meal of the day. After about 20 minutes of waiting, a bell was struck three times and hundreds of maroon robed monks started lining up and shuffling into the dining hall. It was quite a sight.
Next up was Sagaing. To get there, we crossed one of the two bridges over the Ayeyarwady which I saw as we were entering Mandalay by boat. The tour covered just two sights at Sagaing Hill. Like Mandalay Hill, one can climb up Sagaing and access many temples via what appears to be a series of walkways. I could easily have spent more time exploring this place. Win Aung drove me to the top. The first site I visited required some uphill climbing up a covered walkway to a fascinating temple with lots of Buddha statues in a curved row. I also climbed up
Cool temple with a neat row of Buddhas.
to other temples beyond this one. The walk was a little treacherous because part of the walkway was inclined and it was on tiles, and these were slippery in the rain. The view from the top was great, though. The second stop was another temple and clock tower. Nothing out of the ordinary, but I still got good views.
Inwa was the next ancient city on the itinerary. This is where I should have done some research. I didn't know what Inwa was an island, and a waterlogged one at that, until Win Aung deposited me at a pier and told me to take a ferry across and hire a horse drawn cart. The ferry took me across the channel in a matter of minutes and deposited me at a very muddy dock strewn with horse poop. There, several persistent souvenir sellers came right at me. They were annoying. They even tried the "you buy later" trick on me which I wasn't going to fall for. These souvenir sellers were at every stop, shoving postcards in my face even before I could disembark from my horse cart. Anyway, there were four stops here - a teak monastery, a concrete
monastery (this one was pretty spectacular), a watch tower, and a ruin. The sights were great. At the ruin, I fell for a scam. A souvenir seller waved US$10 at me and said she needed kyat. I asked how much kyat she needed and she said 14,000. It wasn't until after I left that I realized she made about 700 kyat (40 cents) off this transaction. While I don't begrudge the 40 cents, I do dislike the disingenuousness. Other souvenir sellers tried the same trick with me and quoted even more outrageous exchange rates.
Our final stop was U-Bein Bridge back at Amarapura where we started the day. U-Bein is the world's longest teak bridge spanning two sides of a body of water that was part of the Ayeyarwady floodplain. I walked the length of the bridge and back. My app recorded the distance as 0.8 miles one-way. Along the way, I observed the people on the bridge. It was pleasant experience.
I headed back to the hotel after that and had a nice dip in the pool before setting out to dinner at a Thai-Chinese eatery around the corner. The owner was very happy to converse with
World's longest teak bridge.
me in Thai.
Tomorrow, I head off to Inle Lake.
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