“A golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire..”
Many years ago, the whimsical writer Rudyard Kipling rested his weary feet in Mandalay, marvelling at the majestic beauty of the place. Times have changed since then, the poetic romanticism of Mandalay has been replaced by a bustling town filled with travellers whom start or finish their journey here- thanks to the international airport here. The tree lined quiet streets that neighboured next to empty villages and overworked ox pulling logs out the river has vanished, overflowing streets filled with guesthouses and restaurants are now what stands here.
Mandalay has faced a lot of criticism from travellers due to the high expectations created by the literary genius, but although commercialisation has transformed the city, you must scratch beneath the surface to really appreciate what Kipling was talking about. The city is immersed with pagodas and my favourite has to be the one at the top of Mandalay Hill, Su Taung Pyae Pagoda. Renting a motorbike at 8 thousand kyats, my friend whizzed through towns whilst I admired the views on the back, with the wind blowing in my hair wildly. I was content. I feel that riding on a back of a motorbike or even driving one, is an unforgettable authentic Asian experience. Ignoring health and safety concerns and biting my lip hiding my worries, we snaked up to the top of Mandalay Hill, winding around sketchy corners. After paying a cheap toll (as per usual in Myanmar, paying a toll is common) and parking the bike, we took escalators to the top of the pagoda- a strange and bizarre feeling might I add, standing barefoot, reaching closer and closer to the peak of the hill by escalator. Walking clockwise around the shimmering pagoda (for good luck of course), we were rewarded with the panoramic views of Mandalay. Mandalay Hill is a popular destination for sunset, and I could see why.
The Royal Palace is a tourist attraction in Mandalay, although honestly I am not sure why. The entrance fee is high (foreigners have to pay an entrance free everywhere) and if you are not planning to visit the ancient cities, the ticket is a waste really. Foreigners are only allowed to view the immediate complex and although lovely architecture, all buildings are of the same style and design. All replicas with nothing inside them, but an occasional replica of a royal bed and lots of bird poop- delightful on the feet.
There are also famous white Hindu temples and Botanical Gardens that if you are in Mandalay for a while, are worth the visit, but other than that, are really nothing special. Through my hostel, I went on an Ancient Cities Tour, which included the Mahamuni temple in Mandalay and the cities of Irwa and Sagaing. Whilst in Mandalay, we were shown the delicate process of making gold leaves to be placed on temples, a lengthy and arduous process- however the trip around Mandalay became a bit of a tourist trap, stopping at every workshop and shop possible, which was an incredible annoyance especially organised by a backpackers hostel.
Leaving Mandalay behind, we crossed the rusty bridge to Sagaing, where an array of luxurious and opulent temples were varying in style and size; such as the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda and the Sin Myar Shin Pagoda. Swapping glitz and glamour for rural charm, we headed to Irwa by boat (another tourist trap). When landing on the island, we were then told we had to take a horse and cart to the crumbling ruins and teak monastery (which ended up being more of a scam as we saw cars had driven from the main land across to the temples avoiding boat and horse fares).
Finally arriving at the long awaited ruins (or so it seemed) we were amazed at the simple, yet more beautiful designs of the pagodas, where rice fields and hanging laundry neighboured the ancient relics of the past. Watching young local children use these historical monuments as a playground, jumping from stupa to stupa, highlighted an eerie realisation of generations and the appreciation of the past. Continuing on, we reached a teak monastery and more crumbling ruins hidden amongst corn fields and local families bathing in a murky river.
The trip cost 16 thousand kyat for a private car and guide who was around for only half of the trip (what did we actually pay him for?) although the day quickly added up to a 30 thousand kyat day with entrance fees; the horse and cart, boat rides and lunch too. It seems that we had fallen for the scam of Mandalay, easily set up by our hostel too which was disappointing. I would advise hiring a motorbike and using a good quality map to reach the sights of Mandalay, discovering the ruins in Irwa and cherry picking the pagodas in Sagaing as it will save you money and be more of an adventure.
A visit to U Bein Bridge is compulsory for many visiting Mandalay. Once again, I had heard mixed reviews of the creaky wooden brige from travellers, which made me want to experience it myself even more. Going out at sunset was mayhem, crowds of tourists and locals jostled for the perfect Instagram opportunity and many even splurged out and got photos of the disappearing red orb by boat. The bridge itself is as if the tube in London, squeezing too many human bodies in one contained space. Shoulder to shoulder, you pass the shop stalls selling unusual trinkets and street dogs salivating after your evening snack. Although the view was beautiful, the atmosphere was hectic.
Coming here at sunrise however, is another matter. Although at the time the weather was cloudy leaving little visual satisfaction, the U Bein Bridge had a calm, serene atmosphere. Street dogs followed us as we plodded along the bridge, early rises stretched and limbered their tired bodies, waking up for the day, whilst fisherman sat patiently waiting for a catch and monks flocked across the bridge heading towards morning prayer. Try visit U Bein Bridge for both sunrise and sunset, each are a unique experience.
Other things to do around Mandalay are a visit to some waterfalls 45 mins away which act as a perfect escape from the stifling heat, or head to Pyn Oo Lin, where majestic waterfalls and caves are a plenty. Many head there to go on wards to Hipaw, catching a train along the famous gorge and trekking through tribal communities.
I stayed at Ostello Bello once again, an expensive flashpacker style hostel but a perfect place to meet solo travellers (the day trip I went on we were 12 in total and we were all solo travellers). A room in an 8 dorm bed with AC and a large breakfast was 12 dollars but the best thing about the Ostello Bello in Mandalay is the rooftop bar and lounge area- a safe space for travellers to relax and let go. I did hear good things about Soe Lay Guesthouse, a more personal family run guesthouse which hosts cheap clean rooms and would be more ideal for a backpacker on a budget.
Following recommendations, we went to a night market which lacked stalls- although a cheap Chinese meal is easy to find here (I tried chicken feet!) Near to Ostello Bello, I also ate at Rainforest Cafe where delicious Thai food is serviced in an artsy establishment – which also does laundry and motorbike rental. It is actually illegal for foreigners to ride motorbikes now after a tragic accident in Yangon, hence why all non government official motorbikes are banned in Yangon, however as like many areas in Asia, there are loopholes. A cheaper more local eatery is White House restaurant (nothing like the houses of parliament in Washington-believe me). It’s only open at night and is popular with the locals thanks to its 800 kyat Turborg on draught and local dishes varying in price but all a large style- perfect for a backpacker.