On Wednesday 16th May 2018 at 8pm we got on a night bus to head to Mandalay. We’d be arriving at around 5am the next day and had booked onto another JJ Express VIP night bus (which left just after 8pm) so we hoped for another comfortable journey.We had heard of Mandalay only from books and songs. It’s a city that’s seen as the capital of northern Myanmar and, even if you don’t spend a night here, it’s likely you’d at least pass through here sometime during your trip. We found there to be quite a bit to do in the city particularly as it’s surrounded by ancient cities from past centuries.

We arrived at our hostel at 4:30am after having to change buses an hour before to be taken to the bus stop in the city. I hadn’t slept at all and Niall had slept on and off for the entire journey so we were both tired. We had booked to stay at the Ostello Bello in Mandalay and by 5am we were both asleep on their rooftop rest area until around 10am. We were able to get checked in at around noon and then headed out around 1ish after showering to sightsee for the rest of the day.

It was hot. Mandalay is a very large city and so it takes a while to walk from place to place. Really, some places you need to get taxis but we tried to avoid this when possible to save money. Our first stop was Mandalay Palace which was built between between 1857 and 1859. This was the last royal citadel to be built in Myanmar and the royal family ruled from here until the British invaded. The Palace has had a rough time of it since being built with the British raiding and looting it and then, during World War 2, the Japanese bombed the majority of the city, occupied the palace and was then bombed themselves by the British. Mandalay at the time and the Palace itself were predominantly wood so little survived. The palace we went to see was a reconstruction of the original although made of concrete instead of wood and not to the grandeur of the original. I found it interesting that to build the reconstruction, all male residents of Mandalay were forced to work one day a month unpaid on the palace until it was complete. I can’t imagine being forced to work by my country, it must have been horrible and you can see why their heart may not have been in the reconstruction works!

The Palace is surrounded by a large moat and fort walls which is what we first came to. The moat is very wide and had a couple of partitions where you could then enter the palace grounds. I think a lot of the palace is now used as army barracks and the whole place has soldiers guarding the entrances to the palace grounds as well as there being a check point where you sign in and leave some form of ID during your visit. It cost 10,000 kyat (£5.50) for an archaeological pass combo ticket that got us into the palace as well as a lot of other sites around the city.

Once you’ve walked up the road to the main complex there are a lot of wooden and concrete buildings that are replicas of throne rooms, reception halls, monasteries and bedrooms. The rooms don’t have any furniture in so you’ll only know what one is by an information plaque but we still had a nice walk around and got to get a feel for the size of the place as the buildings were all really tall.

The best bit about the palace complex was the watchtower which showed us the true size of the palace grounds which we hadn’t realised from below. It also showed us how green the area was as the majority of what could be seen was trees. The palace buildings are all laid out in a grid in a small section of the grounds and probably looked more impressive from higher up than when we were walking around them.

We left the palace and headed to Shwenandaw KyaungMonastery which was originally part of the royal palace but was moved outside of the grounds in 1878 after the King’s father died inside the building. It’s believed the only reason the building is still here is because of the move as it meant that it avoided the bombs, fires and looting that the palace suffered. Just outside of the monastery grounds are a few shop vendors and one of the girls working in the shop (her English was fantastic) put the traditional thanaka onto my face for free. This actually did keep me cool as it slowly dried and felt like I’d just put on a face mask.

The monastery doesn’t have any monks living there anymore but is probably one of my favourite places we visited in Mandalay as the details in the carvings of the teak-wood building is very impressive. Everywhere you looked there were carvings on the walls, doors, roof and inside the main hall. We wandered around taking it all in and it was our first glimpse of this kind of architecture which seems to be quite prominent around the Mandalay area and I think would have been common throughout Myanmar in the 1800’s.

Next to the Shwenandaw Kyaung Monastery is another monastery called Atumashi Kyaung Monastery which is a lot more modern and is enormous. This was pretty much empty except for a couple of women working there and I don’t think it’s used much as a monastery anymore. We were in here for maybe ten minutes but it was all included in our combo ticket so there was no harm in having a wander round.

Our final stops for the day were two pagodas which are often visited together and are collectively referred to as the ‘World’s Largest Book’. Kuthodaw Pagoda was our first of the two pagodas and comprises of 729 marble slabs inscribed with the entire text of 15 Books of the Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures). Each slab is inside a small stupa and has lanes between them all so you can walk amongst them. A king of Mandalay once had 2,400 monks read all of the slabs that make up the books in a non-stop relay which took them 6 months!

Sandamuni Pagoda, built in 1774, is the other pagoda that houses similar marble slabs covered in writing surrounding the main pagoda here but it doesn’t seem to be such a prominent feature as in Kuthodaw. There are golden stupas at both pagodas but you can walk on the one at Sandamuni. Whilst we were here there were a group of monks taking pictures in front of the stupa and two of them asked if they could get a picture with me as I walked past. I obliged and they let me get a picture on my phone too.

On our way back to our hostel, which ended up being a lot further away than we expected, we stopped to see the more unconventional Buddha statue known as the Skinny Buddha. This was cool to see as it was very different to any Buddha we had seen before and it was also huge. There were some people worshipping here and it did make us think what criteria people had for which statue they went to worship at as this wasn’t your standard statue! The Buddha itself had exposed ribs and very thin, spindly legs and arms. Around the Buddha were statues of people worshipping the Buddha including animals. Behind the statue, in the same site, there are also large reclining Buddha’s as well as a row of smaller Buddha statues but all of these were in the traditional style that the Buddha is portrayed in.

On Friday 18th May 2018 we shared a private taxi tour with two people who we first met on the bus to Inle Lake and then bumped into again as we were staying in the same hostel in Mandalay. Mark (from Germany) and Ali (from Mexico) were really nice and had organised a driver for the day through a recommendation in a Lonely Planet forum. For 40,000 kyat in total (£22) our driver took us to many different sites in Mandalay that were further away from the city and he was really great at explaining the sites we visited and getting us to see a lot during our time with him. The focus of the tour was on three ancient cities that are often combined into a single day of exploring.

First, we stopped at Mandalay Mahamuni Pagoda which was built in 1784 and houses a Buddha that was brought to Mandalay from Yangon. Every morning at around 4am, monks clean the face of this enormous statue and you can go and watch this being done (we chose against such a ludicrously early start). This 2000 year old statue is said to contain part of the Buddha’s soul and is one of the most sacred in the county. Buddhists from across the country will come to worship here and, most likely, add some gold leaf to the body of the Buddha which has already grown around 1cm larger from the amount of gold leaf added. Only men can add gold leaf to the Buddha as women aren’t allowed to cross the threshold of the golden room that houses the statue. The place was very busy with many people adding gold leaf and lots of people sitting at the feet of the Buddha praying. You really felt like you were somewhere meaningful and the Buddha statue itself was also very impressive. Only the body of the statue has gold leaf applied to it so the face has remained incredibly shiny and now looks quite small compared to the body due to the amount of gold leaf. We sat and watched for a while and there are even TV screens to make it easier for onlookers to watch people applying gold leaf to the statue.

The Buddha sits in a roofed section of the temple which has a courtyard surrounding it. The roof is intricately carved gold in the standard Burmese style that we have seen in other parts of the country.

Whilst we were there a ceremony was taking place where a young boy who was dressed up in traditional, ceremonial dress was getting pictures with his family in front of the temple. Our driver told us that in the next few days that boy would become a monk.

We were told that every man in Myanmar will be a monk at some point in their lives. As well as the spiritual and traditional aspect within the country, education is a huge reason why lots of people become monks for a considerable number of years so as to get an education. School is expensive in Myanmar and only 65% of the country’s population can go to a government school. Aside from the more affluent who may be in private schools, the rest of the population rely on monasteries or charity/volunteer schools to learn. This level of education is enough to help them get an entry level job but a government education is still needed to be able to get higher paid positions or attend university as the monastery schools aren’t linked to any official qualifications.

We drove through a street which was full of people carving white stone statues, predominantly of the Buddha here. Each statue was almost complete with a square block on the top where the head would be. We were told this was so that they could customise the face for their customer as some people want a smiling Buddha where others would want a serious Buddha. I asked how much the statues were and we were told that a previous passenger of his bought a 3ft statue for US$300 (£220) but then had to pay £150 just to have it shipped back to Germany – that’s a lot to pay to have a statue in your house or garden!

We then stopped at a handicrafts shop which had sewed tapestries and made wood carvings including wooden puppets. Puppets are a common craft in Myanmar and we have seen them being sold in almost all of the stalls we have passed whilst in the country. This shop exported their puppets all over Asia to be sold and also had their own shop for us to look around. I think this was a commission stop for the driver which every guide we have had has always done but some of the statues and puppets were pretty cool and we had time so it wasn’t an issue to stop here and look around.

We briefly stopped at the U-Bien Bridge which translates to mean ‘skinny man’. This bridge is in the once ancient city of Amarapura which is where the Mandalay Palace was originally from and had been the home of the royal family for 70 years until the move to Mandalay. We would be returning here in the evening to watch the sunset but our driver had brought us to see it earlier in the day when it wasn’t as crowded. The bridge is 200 years old and sits on a lake which was relatively dry when we were there but can get quite high during the rainy season, sometimes going over the bridge! The bridge is 1.2km in length making it the longest teak bridge in the world and it’s viewed as one of the most iconic sights in Myanmar.

Mahagandhayon Kloster Monastery was our next destination of the day being near to U-Bien bridge and I think my favourite. 1500 monks live here and, at 10am each day, they all line up and gather in a large dining hall for an enormous last meal of the day. All monks will eat in the same hall but are segregated to their tables depending on how long they have been a monk for. Our driver told us that he had been a monk when he was a child for 3 years. He said that they only eat in the morning and can then have nothing after 12pm until the next morning. We couldn’t believe this and he said that it was the hardest at the beginning as you aren’t used to it so are very hungry but that you get used to it after a while and then it isn’t so bad. It was great to have our driver know so much as it meant we could ask him questions that we had been wondering about without wanting to accidentally cause anyone offence from miscommunications.

We had seen a number of monks, including at the monastery, that were wearing different coloured robes. We learned that white robes meant that you were still learning to become a monk which is why these were worn mainly by children. Red and orange robes didn’t mean anything different but orange robes were more commonly wore by the those in Thailand or Laos and so our driver told us that this could mean that the monk was from another country but that wasn’t a set rule by any means. I wouldn’t be surprised if some monks just alternated what colour robe they wore for variation depending on what they fancied that day.

The monks all lined up in two rows and then walked down to where large pots were waiting on tables to receive their offering of rice and other food before taking their seat in the hall. People along the route also donated food to them in a similar way to alms ceremonies we have seen early in the morning on the street. Everyone was so patient and calm when they lined up and waited for their food even with people standing on either side of them taking photos. We were allowed to take photos but had to make sure not to cross the monks’ path or disrupt their procession to get food in any way. Apparently, there are sometimes hundreds of people watching the monks and they don’t follow the proper etiquette which must be hard when they’re probably very hungry. Whilst we were there it started to rain so we all left but many of the monks were still lining up for their meals and didn’t even react to getting wet. More monks continually added to the line so sometimes you couldn’t even see the end of it. It’s remarkable really that they have enough space and food to feed them all in one sitting and the quantity of rice they will go through must be astronomical.

We took a bridge over the Arrawaddy River which is the largest river in Myanmar to Sagaing Hill. This region has 500 pagodas of different sizes dotted about across it but we of course couldn’t go to them all. The name ‘Sagaing’ is Chinese as Chinese soldiers lived on the hill for thousands of years. We were taken to Roke San Monastery which is one of the most famous temples in the area as the monk here can speak five languages and turned the monastery into an international meditation centre. The temple was quite nice with lots of white and gold but the reason we came here was actually to see the great view over the hill. For miles you could see greenery as well as stupas and pagodas but even seeing it I couldn’t imagine there being around 500 pagodas out there.We carried on our tour to Umin Thounzeh Paya which is a temple that’s built into the mountain. After climbing lots of stairs you reach the temple which is a cave that has been covered over and filled with forty six statues of the Buddha. There was also a walkway which led to a stupa and showed us some more nice views so the climb was worth it.

We had a traditional Burmese dinner of curry which involved rice, a small bowl of curry and then a few sides such as vegetables, soup and sauces. It wasn’t the best but wasn’t terrible and I struggled mainly because my fish curry had lots of bones in which made it hard to eat. After dinner we were given pancha sugar which are natural sweets made of sugar that’s meant to help settle your stomach. It just tasted like brown sugar so, naturally, I really liked it.

Next we headed to another ancient city, Inwa, which was founded in 1364. We got a boat across the river to Inwa which only took 10 minutes at the most and we had all chosen to walk around the city instead of getting the standard horse and cart that charges 10,000 kyat (£5.50) for two people to ride in them to save some money. Despite some very persistent horse and cart riders we walked to or first temple, Mae Nu Oak Kyaung. This was a cool temple which was made of brick inside and stone on the outside. It had lots of tunnels at ground level that had bats living in them so you had to be careful which ones you travelled through. Above the tunnels was the temple which was a large stone structure with Buddha statues and a walkway around the building on the outside. This was probably my favourite temple of the day as it was enormous and reminded me of the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

We walked through banana plantations to the watch tower which leans slightly in a similar, but less noticeable, way to the Tower of Pisa. It’s 27 metres high and is on the sight of the palace that used to be here when Inwa was a capital. The watchtower has stairs going to the top but earthquake damage has meant that this is now unstable to climb so we just had to look at it from the bottom before continuing on our way.

We had been walking for a while and it was very doubtful that we would get to all of the sites before we needed to get our boat back to the mainland. As we admired a temple called Thisa Taik Paya, a man in a horse and cart went past and offered us a ride for 10,000 kyat (£5.50) for the four of us so half the price had we got horse and carts at the jetty. The man was called Sotu and his horse was called Sula and he was very friendly, took us to all of the remaining sites and got us back to the jetty in time for the boat back.

He dropped us off to Bagaya Monastery which is a large teak wood monastery. The entire structure is very impressive and enormous. Some of the gigantic wooden posts that the monastery rest on and holds up the buildings can be as high as 18 metres and as wide as 3 metres and had been brought there by using elephants. Some young monks were hanging around here and apparently this place also doubles as a classroom but we didn’t see class in progress when we were there.On our way back to the jetty we also got taken to see some other temples which were pretty and, in the end, we got to see a lot of what Inwa has to offer. It’s definitely too big to walk the entire thing so really Sotu saves us from what would have been a pretty pointless trip walking through banana fields and seeing only a temple or two.

Back on the mainland we headed to Aung Dsae Tit which is an unknown stop to most which I’m surprised as it had loads of statues to see, some of which are really big. Our driver told us that this wasn’t a tourist site and you could tell as the only other people there were some local kids playing football. This pagoda has loads of Buddha statues worth with the two main ones being a reclining and the other a sitting Buddha. It was a cool place and I’m glad we got to see it, I still don’t get why it’s not on the tourist route more.

Back at U-Bien bridge for sunset and it was a lot busier than it had been earlier that day. Despite the day being relatively nice, it was now quite cloudy so we weren’t sure how much of a good sunset we would have. We had finished everywhere with plenty of time for the sun to set and so all went to get a drink at one of the nearby restaurants that are dotted along the edge of the lake by the start of the bridge. We then walked along the bridge which didn’t always feel the most secure but there were the odd metal or concrete column that had been added as well as some newer looking sections of wooden bridge which shows that reconstruction is occurring and so we could walk in the knowledge that we weren’t in any danger – plus, there were a lot of people walking on the bridge so if they were fine, so were we. We got a few colours but as most of the sky was cloudy where the sun was setting it was relatively minimal and so we didn’t bother waiting for it to get completely dark before we left the bridge and headed back to our hostel. Having the driver had been great and we were very thankful that Mark and Ali had asked us to join them on the tour as it made it cheaper for all of us. Luckily, they were very budget conscious too so the day didn’t end up costing us all that much which was an added bonus as that can be hard to control when you’re on a semi-organised tour.

On our last full day in Mandalay, Saturday19th May 2018, we headed to the jetty to get a boat over to Mingun. A motorbike took us to the jetty where a man said we would have to wait to see if other people turned up to get the boat across with. The man wanted six people to get his 30,000 kyat fee (costing us 5000 kyat/£2.70 each for a return trip). Thankfully, by the time it reached 9am when the boat was meant to leave we had 6 people and so we were able to make the journey – it would have been really annoying if we hadn’t been able to go. The journey took around one hour up the river to the small village of Mingun and would wait for us all until 12:30pm when it would take us back to Mandalay.

We had to pay an entrance fee of 5000 kyat (£2.70) to see all of the historic sites. All of the sites are along a single road so it’s really easy to find them all. We met two young men, just a few years younger than us, who took us around the village. They had just been chatting to us and showing us short cuts and when I had said that we wouldn’t be paying them they either ignored it or didn’t understand as they still asked for money at the end. Despite that, they were very nice lads and took us through the small village streets to get from on site to another which meant we got to see a lot more of Mingun. At least one of the lads was at university studying history and so he hoped to be a tour guide when he graduated. Both of their English was very good and one boy even knew German as well.

Mingun has 200 monasteries and around 3000 monks, according to our new friends who had decided to show us around. One of them told us about when he was a monk and, like with our driver from the day before, he had found the hardest part to be not eating any food after 12 o’clock in the afternoon. He told us that all boys will become monks at some point, most often before they go to high school, and that all girls will become nuns at some point as well. He said they only have to be a monk for a short amount of time and after the required time, they can make their own choice on how long to continue being a monk for or to stop being a monk all together (he was a monk for a year). It was very interesting to get to talk to them about being a monk and it shows why we had seen so many monks around Myanmar as well as so many who spoke to us or were out taking pictures, sightseeing or spending the day with family.

We started our sightseeing at Settawya Paya which was on the river and looked like a large, white box with carved windows. It was a brilliant white and looked impressive particularly when you came up from the huge stairs then went down to the river. These steps are lined with statues and this, I imagine, is how the temple was originally meant to be entered by and is where the entrance into the temple is. The inside of the temple is relatively simple with a few Buddha statues to worship so the highlight of the place is definitely the outside.

The main attraction in Mingun, and one you can see from the river, is Mingun Pahtodawgyi Pagoda. This 50 metre high pagoda would have been the tallest in the world had it been finished. A third of the original planned size, this pagoda is made up of 7 million bricks. The majority of the structure is solid with a small entrance inside that had a statue of the Buddha in it. The pagoda was never finished due to a prophecy that the completion of the pagoda would cause the destruction of the country. You used to be able to climb to the top of the pagoda which would have given fantastic views over the river considering its height but an earthquake in 1839 (Mingun has suffered quite a few earthquakes) meant that the structure is now unstable with some of the structure having collapsed and cracked. It’s probably for the best it never got finished to its full height due to the earthquakes but at the same time, considering the size of the pagoda as it currently stands, seeing something three times the height would have likely put Mingun on the map with the likes of the Egyptian Pyramids and would have been spectacular.

The boys who had joined us as our unofficial guides took us next to Molmi Paya. This was a nice enough temple but was reasonably modern. I think it commemorates a man who was influential in the area.

The second largest bell in the world is also located in Mingun and was originally planned to be placed on top of the unfinished pagoda. Niall was told to ring the bell once and I was told to do it five times so as to bring luck to my family (your welcome guys). The bell was enormous and was hung in a building along the main road in Mingun. We were able to go inside of the bell too which was cool and I imagine it would have been heard for miles had it ever made it on top of the giant pagoda.

We were led through residential streets including where one of the lads lived and taken to Hsinbyume Paya which is also called the White Elephant Queen Temple. It was brilliantly white which apparently is down to it being painted every year by a team of 20 painters

The temple was commissioned in 1816 by a king in honour of his favourite wife. The temple’s design is inspired by legends of Mount Meru which is the home of the gods in Hindu mythology. Mount Meru has seven mountain ranges around it which are represented in the temple by seven levels of small shrines. We were told it was 100 steps to the top but it certainly didn’t feel like that many. When we were there the temple was quite busy despite the minimal room inside the temple. I really liked this temple and because of the height it also gave nice views over the countryside and river.

Our final stop before getting back on the boat was to two giant lion statues that were built to guard the enormous pagoda. They face out over the river but due to the earthquakes Mingun have suffered, both heads have separated from their bodies leaving different degrees of the body standing. One head rolled into the river and the other had fallen face down and sits in the ground next to the body. The remaining bodies look more like elephants than lions and it’s such a shame the earthquake did so much damage as even the bodies are enormous and again, they could have been up there with the Egyptian statues of Sphinx’s and Pharaohs.

The boat left at 12:30pm to take us all back to the mainland where we had our motorbike rider waiting for us to take us back to our hostel. We hadn’t known he would come back for us so it was very handy that he did as it meant we didn’t have to haggle for a ride back.

We spent the rest of the afternoon watching some of the Royal Wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. It was nice to get to watch some of the event even though we were half way around the world particularly as it would be the last royal wedding for a long time. We didn’t get to see Harry and Meghan say ‘I do’ though as we had Mandalay Hill to climb in time for sunset. This hill has steps going to the top and lots of small pagodas, Buddha statues and golden shrines along the route as you climb. It wasn’t a bad climb except we had to do it all in bare feet because of the statues and shrines so our feet were very dirty by the end!

At the top there were great views over Mandalay and we then paid 1000 kyat (50p) to enter the temple at the very top of the hill which had lots of mirrors and details to look at but mainly was good for giving you 360 degree views of the city. Whilst I looked around Niall ended up spending some time talking to a couple of boys from Myanmar who wanted to practice their English. The top of Mandalay Hill is a really common place for people to come who want to speak to tourists and practice their English so it wasn’t surprising that one of us was seeked out for this. We didn’t get a good sunset but we hadn’t really had any good ones whilst we were in Myanmar so we weren’t overly surprised. We’ve had some incredible sunsets during our time away so it’s not the end of the world if every day doesn’t produce a good one!

As a city Mandalay is standard and isn’t really anything special. It’s also incredibly big so not the easiest to get around or find food if you’re not in the right area. Saying that, there is a lot to see in the surroundings of Mandalay and we had some busy days. We saw some nice stuff and really enjoyed ourselves so we’re glad to have dedicated some time here.

Next stop: Bagan

Sending love x

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