After our last night bus experience, we were a bit anxious about our next one. At least in Nyuang Shwe it was only 800m to walk to the bus stop. Our bus arrived on time and off we went. This time the on-board entertainment system worked and we could watch some films rolled up in our blankets. We had to stop soon after because of the windy road though. This time we also received our booked meal during a stop at a road side restaurant. The journey was smooth and we both managed to get some sleep until they suddenly turned the lights on and stopped the bus at 4am some 15km outside Mandalay centre. Half the bus, including us had to get off and change to a smaller bus that was to take us into downtown. We got off at the train station and walked the remaining kilometre to our hotel. We were amazed to see the guard inside open the door for us and wake up the receptionist who was sleeping on some chairs. They checked us in, led us to our room and so by half past 5 we were fast asleep in a big and cosy bed. Matthias even got a free breakfast three hours later, while Zoë slept a bit longer.
Our first point on the list was our train tickets to Yangon. After three sleeper buses we decided to give the Burmese railway a try and take the overnight train back to the capital. As far as we knew, train tickets can only be purchased at the departure station. Online booking has not made it into existence yet and the staff have paper lists for each train to check availability. After two tries on the twenty-odd counters we were told to come back the next day as bookings start only three days before the travel day. As Zoë became peckish, we wandered the nearby streets until we found a nice little café.
By the time we finished lunch it was already too late to start any useful sightseeing and so we returned to the hotel to relax.
Mandalay has got a noticably higher number of inhabitants with Indian ancestry than other Burmese cities. We took advantage of that and went to an Indian restaurant for dinner. It was more of a mix between Burmese and Indian but still a lot more flavoursome than our last Burmese curries.
Unlike Yangon, Mandalay does not have a real city centre apart from the palace. So things are quite far apart. On our second day we kicked things of with the most obvious choice: the palace. It lies in the middle of a gigantic square surrounded by a high wall and a wide moat. The rest of the square around the palace is off-limits for foreigners and taken up by the Burmese military. Foreign tourists can only enter through the east gate after paying 10,000 kyat and collecting a visitor pass and leaving their passport as deposit. This fee is for the wider Mandalay archaeological zone, which reaches as far as Inwa. Even just getting from our hotel to the gates was quite a walk as we had to walk one and a half of the 2.3km long edgesof the moat. The palace was a big complex built from red and black painted wood with gold decorations. In the royal buildings were are replicas of thrones. Sadly, the whole palace was rebuilt after the Americans destroyed it during WWII, when the Japanese occupied it. It is also not the best reconstruction as it was done fairly simply (corrugated metal roof is definitely original) and maintenance is definitely not a Burmese strength. Just to the south was a big wooden watch tower which gave us a good look over Mandalay. Back out, we needed some lunch and found a bakery café not far away.
Freshly strengthened, we walked on towards Mandalay hill. Near the foot of it lies Kuthodaw pagoda, which is famous for housing the worlds biggest book. It was not obvious to us at the time, but the ‘book’ consists of 1776 marble slabs, engraved with religious stories by a hermit.
The stairs up the hill made a not too strenuous walk thanks to the roof and offered good views. The first temple was fairly busy, but the subsequent ones were occupied only by the people living there.Our map told us that there was a 1,000 kyat fee for foreigners for the pagoda at the top, but we walked around the terrace and enjoyed the views without having to pay. We were surprised how green Mandalay looked from above.
On our way back to the hostel we walked through a monastery and another one and a half sides of the palace moat. Just before we reached our hotel Zoë spotted an ice cream café, so we had to stop and reward us for all the walking in the heat.
We decided to keep the next day short and so we took the boat to Mingun. This boat departs at 9am everyday from Mandalay and 12.30pm from Mingun and is cheap (5000 kyat return for a 1h trip). Mingun is a small village on the west bank of the Irrawaddy, but has some big sight. Before we saw any of them we had to pay another 5000 kyat entrance fee. This archaeological zone includes Sagaing further south so hold on to your ticket if you want to go there. When you come of the boat it is impossible to miss the first sight. Right across the road are the half-collapsed remains of a monumental pagoda. Its base is about 70m square and maybe 50m high. The side facing the river houses a Buddha and has a set of stairs to go to the top. At the time of our visit, we could only climb halfway up before reaching a locked gate. The pagoda is not very well looked after and bits keep crumbling off so it is probably better for everyone that it is closed.
The second major sight was the biggest uncracked bell in the world. It hangs in a shelter and is open to touch and even ring. It weighs a hefty 90 tonnes which is one third of the tsar bell in Moscow (the largest bell in the world). From looking at it and people hitting it with wooden hammers we noted that it seemed cracked or at least has some faults within the material so their claim of it being uncracked might be disputed. It is certainly unbroken. After climbing the stairs to the top of a nearby pagoda and admiring the scenery, we made our way back towards the jetty. We still had over an hour until the boat’s departure and ended up spending it in a small café.
Our second daytrip was a lot longer. We made use of the free bikes from our hotel and cycled south to visit the old capitals Inwa, Sagaing and Amarapura. The roads were flat and were well-tarmaced. The further we got away from the city, the less traffic there was, which made the cycling actually enjoyable. There are two ways to get across the little Myitinge river and into Inwa: across the road bridge or by boat. The ferry is only suitable for anything up to scooter size and saves quite a few kilometres. We ended up paying 2500 Kyat per person for the return trip (1400 for us and 1100 for a bicycle). This was more than we read about (okay, sources were a bit old) bit still seemed cheap enough. It turned out to be well worth taking the bikes because of the distances and the heat. The street on the other side was lined with horse carriages as a lot of people drive to the ferry, go across on foot and do a horse cart tour.
Cycling around the old ruins was quite calm and very green; a welcome change from grey and smelly Manadalay. Our joy did not last long though: as we entered the archaeological museum somebody shouted ‘Ticket, ticket!’ at us. Inwa is part of the same zone as Mandalay palace (where we bought tickets), but somehow Matthias had lost them. We tried to explain this to the staff and even showed them photos of the palace but they would not move and let us in. Frustrated we rode on. It turned out that every major sight (apart from the wonky guard tower) wanted to see our tickets and none of them would have anything of our true story. And since we refused to pay $10 each again, we had nothing left to do but return to the ferry. Back on the other side we put the pedals down and rode across to the other old capital of Sagaing.
We did not see any old palaces but dozens of temples and pagodas. Most of them are sprinkled around the hills and form an impressive scenery with their golden roofs. Being all disappointed by our Inwa experience we were not really in a temple-exploring mood. We climbed up the long staircase from the one lion entrance to the Soon U Ponya Shin pagoda. The view from the hill top and the highest pagoda in the area was impressive. We decided to enjoy the views and stay in the shade rather than walk along the hill to see the other hills. They looked pretty, but maybe we have just seen too many round and pointy golden buildings to get excited anymore. Back down at the bottom and reunited with our bikes, we decided we were in dire need for something cold in a nice place. We found both in Aye Cherry ice cream parlor. They sold real home made ice cream which was really good. At first we only got single scoops and it was not until we enquired about more options that we found out about the fruit sundaes. They were really delicious. In the end we paid 2400 kyat for two drinks, two scoops and the two sundaes and decided that they were totaly underselling themselves.
On our way back to our hotel we took a small detour to see the famous U Bein bridge; at 1.1km, it is the longest ebony bridge in the world. We were really surprised to find lots of weaving looms rattling away in houses as we cycled along the back streets. At the edge of town were big racks with hundreds of freshly dyed thread slings drying in the burning sun. The bridge was great but strangely somebody had put benches nearly all the way along it. The four rest houses along it were obviously too far apart for the the locals to walk it.
On our last day we gave our legs and backsides a rest and chill before boarding our night train back to Yangon at 5pm.
In the end, after spending most of five days in Mandalay we were more than happy to leave. The city has some great sites, but they are kilometres apart. There is also no real city centre. Even the centre of Yangon was better. Wherever we walked, the streets were pretty dirty and smelly. There was a lot of poverty in this city. We know it exists in every city in this part of the world, but it is particularly evident and omnipresent in Mandalay. We don’t want to complain about this (coming from Europe), but we have seen other cities (even Yangon) with similar poverty where they at least manage to keep the streets clean. It was good to use the day trip opportunities to see some places nearby. We would have gone even further afield to Pyin oo Lwin with it’s botanical gardens but getting on a 4am train or expensive taxi stopped us.