On the Road to Mandalay
The following series of reports on sightseeing attractions in Northern Burma was compiled after a ten day trip to a number of locations which included: MANDALAY, MONYWA, BAGAN, MOUNT POPA, PINDAYA, and INLE.
In the six years since I started compiling this website, I hadn’t managed to make a trip to Burma. Which is surprising really given that Burma (Myanmar) is one of the larger countries in S.E. Asia. In that time I’d completed multiple trips to Vietnam, Laos, and various locations in my chosen country of residence, Thailand. My reticence for jumping on what is relatively short flight from Bangkok to either Mandalay or Yangon, was nothing specific. For one reason or another I just figured Burma might be a difficult place to travel around due to poor infrastructure, communication issues, and the perceived government restrictions in place. I’m not a political animal so the ongoing problems occurring in Rakine State, weren’t really an issue. If I could put my finger on any underlying reason for avoiding the place I might venture to say that my interest in spelunking always drew me east to Laos and Vietnam. My change of heart regarding Burma has come about because I believe I needed to have some content from there, on this website, to provide a broader perspective of S.E. Asia. In other words, information on Burma has been a glaring omission for quite some time and its inclusion was long overdue.
The trip I undertook was basically a large loop in the North of Burma. It started and finished in Mandalay. To outside observers, a ten day trip to Burma may not seem very long but the fact is I’d done quite a bit of research in my planning (Wikipedia and Wikitravel are highly recommended in this regard) so I knew which places I wanted visit, how I would get there, the hotels I would use, and my modes of transport between each location. There was very little time wastage and I made full use of all my available time. My ten day Mandalay loop is as follows:
Day 1: Travel from Bangkok to Mandalay (Bangkok Airways)
Day 2: Mandalay – visit Grand Palace, Mandalay Hill, and Sanda Muni Pagoda
Day 3: Travel from Mandalay to Monywa by local bus – visit Thanboddhay Pagoda, and Maha Bodhi Ta Htaung (world’s largest standing Buddha)
Day 4: Monywa – visit Po Win Mountain and Maze Caves
Day 5: Travel from Monywa to Bagan by local bus – visit an elevated temple for sunset views over Bagan
Day 6: Bagan – visit an elevated temple for sunrise views over Bagan and visit various temple sites
Day 7: Bagan – Do a day trip to Mount Popa (53 km away) using a taxi and driver
Day 8: Travel from Bagan to Pindaya using local airline – flight from Bagan to He Hoe with KBZ Airlines, then taxi to Pindaya
Day 9: Pindaya – visit Pindaya Cave complex
Day 10: Pindaya – Day trip to Inle Lake using local taxi and make a boat trip across the lake
Day 11: Travel from Pindaya to Bangkok, Via Mandalay – use KBZ Airlines to Mandalay, then Bangkok Airways to Bangkok.
Flight time from BKK to Mandalay is approx. 1.5 hours. There are daily departures, non-stop, with Bangkok Airways. Some promotional fares for a return flight are available for as low as 6000 THB.
Mandalay Airport is relatively small and sits well outside the city limits. Its approx. 40 km from downtown Mandalay with a run time of 50 – 60 minutes.
A Minibus from the airport to downtown Mandalay is 4000 Kyats. Note: A private taxi is 15000 kyats. Note: 1 USD = 1340 Kyats (approx.)
Recommended hotel in Mandalay: The Royal Power Hotel http://www.megaworldasia.com/hotels-and-accomodation/burma/royal-power-hotel-mandalay/ is located nearby the grounds of the Grand Palace. A great uninterrupted view from the top floor (10th) looks out across the Grand Palace, and to Mandalay Hill beyond. Current room prices = USD 28 per night.
Currency use: The main foreign currencies used to exchange for Kyats are the USD, the EURO, and the SGD (Singapore Dollar). NOTE: If you are bringing foreign cash, check it very carefully as the Burmese money changers, or hotels for that matter, will not accept any notes with rips, worn areas, and discolouration. Notes with a slight imperfection will be accepted at a reduced exchange rate. If you buy USD in Thailand before coming to Burma, check all the notes before walking away from the money changer. If you pay for your hotel in Burma with foreign currency (USD) don’t take change in foreign currency as the tricky little blighters will give you the crap notes they can’t exchange at the money changers. Only accept change in Kyats.
A place to eat: Not too far from the Royal Power Hotel is the Shan Ma Ma Myanmar Restaurant. It seems to be a popular spot for backpackers and travelers as the food is reasonably good and relatively low cost. A nice ambiance with a street side setting.
Sightseeing in Mandalay: There are plenty of attractions within Mandalay. Getting around is fairly straight forward as the streets and roads are based on a grid system (much the same as in New York) and radiating out from the Grand Place, the central feature of Mandalay. There are other attractions outside the city limits (the U Bein Bridge at sunset being a favourite) but if you’re stretched for time, as I was, then the two main attractions are the Grand Palace and Mandalay Hill.
The grand Palace: This is actually the old, historical walled city of Mandalay and is formed by one massive four sided fort, inside a protective moat. If you’ve been to Angkor Wat and been impressed by the size of that structure, and its encompassing Baray (moat), I can confidently say that is small in comparison to the size of Grand Place’s perimeter. Each side is a highly impressive 1.6 km in length. Try something different, as I did, and set out early on foot around the perimeter of the Grand palace to get a close up view of the locals out on the street selling their wares, or exercising in the cool morning air. Due to the fact the Royal Power Hotel was just 200 meters from the South Western corner of the Grand Palace, I decided to walk two sides of it then walk up Mandalay Hill. For those who are pushing on in years, as I am, it’s advisable not to drink too much water on the way as there’s no public lavatories until reaching the bottom of Mandalay Hill. The following is a series of shots I took on the walk:
Mandalay Hill: To the north of the Grand Palace is Mandalay Hill. This is probably the most popular attraction in Mandalay and seems to get a lot of sightseers for the sunset view out over the surrounding terrain. It sits, pretty much, near the north east corner of the Grand Palace and if you are coming up the eastern side you will have a clear view of the hill all the way. From the north east corner, cross the road and 200 meters further on you will be at the base of the hill. As with any major tourist attraction, in any part of the world, there is a melee of taxi’s, touts, trinket sellers, and street side restaurants to be seen here. There is actually a large intersection formed by the junction three roads, with the hustle and bustle of vehicles (including horse and buggies) coming and going. On the left side, as you are facing the hill, is a large and gleaming Pagoda. I didn’t bother going in, so I can’t comment on whether or not it’s worthwhile looking at. To get to the top of the hill there are two options; go up in a taxi, or take the flight of stairs. Having done both it’s a no-brainer a taxi is the easy option. To avoid potential accidents on the narrow track, the road up and down runs in one direction. Basically, you go up one side of the hill and down the other. Once you arrive at the congested parking area at the top you disembark, and then take an elevator the final twenty meters to the summit. For those feeling active there’s a stairway all the way to the very top. There are two starting points but the one at the “Two Lions” runs up at a fairly gradual rate, and takes in a number of small pagodas on the way. NOTE: it is a requirement for all visitors to remove their shoes before entering all Pagodas in Burma. If you walk up from the bottom (the Two Lions) you will be asked to take off your shoes at the very beginning. Meaning the entire walk to the top is done in bare feet. NOTE: the stairways are fairly clean and smooth so there’s issues with potential cuts and scrapes. As mentioned, it is a fairly lengthy hike but one of the benefits of doing it is you get see other smaller Pagodas on the way up which those going by taxi don’t see. Entry price at the summit is just 1000 kyat. The following is a series of shots on the walk to the summit:
After doing the walk to the summit a sensible option is to get a taxi truck back to the bottom. A fare for a ride in the back of a taxi truck, a mere 1000 Kyats. One of the benefits of doing the trip to the summit in the morning, as opposed to the late afternoon is you’ll have time to check out the other pagodas at the bottom of the hill. One which is well worth a look is the Sanda Muni Pagoda, just a across the road from the base of Mandalay Hill. The main feature of this site is it has hundreds of white topped, small stupas around a large central golden one. For one reason or another, the Sanda Muni Pagoda is always far less crowded than the summit of Mandalay Hill. The importance of this Buddhist site is that it apparently has the world’s biggest book. At the base of each stupa are three sided alcoves housing inscribed stone tablets which, apparently, are individual pages of the book. There is also no entry fee. Leaves your shoes at the gate and make the short walk to the central area, then climb a few steps up to the large elevated golden stupa. From this raised position you can look out over the white stupas and also see the temple on the summit of Mandalay Hill.
Sunset on Mandalay Hill: Viewing the sunset from the summit of Mandalay Hill is probably the most popular tourist activity in Mandalay. I went a point of going in the morning and for the sunset to see what the contrast is between the two. Having done so I can quite confidently say where it’s quiet and serene in the morning, it’s chaotic and crowded in the late afternoon/early evening. The sunset, obviously, can only be viewed from one side of Su Taung Pyae Pagoda so getting your own little piece of the western perimeter wall is a priority if you want to get an uninterrupted view and/ or some good shots. Arrive early to get a spot and you won’t be disappointed. To ensure I got a spot along the wall I arrived an hour before sunset. To find out what time the sunsets, ask one of the locals or do a search on-line. Is it worth going up there? I would say yes but having ticked it off the bucket list, I won’t be back. NOTE: when you go up to the summit for the sunset, arrange to have your motor bike taxi, or taxi, standing by for you for the trip back down. You can negotiate a round trip fee before setting of from the bottom of the hill. As soon as the sun sinks beyond the horizon, clear off the viewing platform straight away because there’s only one lift to the bottom and if you linger too long, the queue waiting to get down to the car park area is lengthy. There are no toilets at the viewing platform area so if you busting to go, it’s going to be matter of crossing your legs and holding on for quite some time.
TBC in the report on MONYWA…..