Friday, 26 January 2018

Myanmar: why Mandalay should be on your itinerary

Mandalay is one of those places that ended up being an unexpected gem; we had to go there to fly home, but didn't really have high hopes. Oh how wrong we were!
Mandalay was the last stop in our three week Myanmar adventure. We started in the madness of Yangon before stopping off in the weirdly-desolate Naypyitaw, we then temple-hopped in Bagan, before trekking from Kalaw to Inle where we spent a couple of days in Inle Lake, ending up Mandalay before flying back to Chiang Mai.

Getting there
We got a minivan from Nyaungshwe (Inle Lake) which we booked through one of the travel companies outside the Mingalar Market. It cost 12,000 kyat each - around £6 in May 2016 - and took around seven hours. As per, we stopped in a fairly ramshackle road-side service stop. There was food on offer, but the uncovered chicken covered in flies looked pretty sketchy so we gave it a miss! Bring your own snacks to keep you covered. 

Where we stayed
We went pretty luxe in Mandalay and stayed in the Eastern Palace Hotel (Best Western), which cost around £27 a night for a double room with buffet breakfast. The room was the most Western we stayed in during the trip and was super clean and comfortable. Breakfast was fab, with loads of options including pancakes - the hotel wasn't authentic or Burmese at all, but I didn't care. It felt like luxury. Sorry not sorry.

What we did

Visit Mandalay Palace - dating back to 1857, the royal palace of the last Burmese monarchy is a must see. It was bloody boiling when we visited (40+ degrees celsius) which was hard work as it is fairly expansive and the outside areas lack shade. Be sure to walk up the watch tower for great views over the palace complex. And if, like me, you appreciate a peeling but pretty door - this is the place for you! (see image above).

Check out the world's biggest book - otherwise known as Kuthodaw Pagoda. Named as such due to the 729 marble slabs inscribed with Buddhist teachings, each sat inside a white pagoda. To do this, we booked a tuk tuk trip with a guy called Mr Take It Easy (true story) - who actually turned up on a moped with his pal; we sat on the back of their bikes! In hindsight, it would be hard work for them to do the trip in a tuktuk; as well as Kuthodaw we visited Shwenandaw monastery and went up Mandalay Hill. This half day tour cost us 10,000 kyat (around £5) and was a great way of seeing some of the other sights in Mandalay itself.

See a puppet show - the Mandalay Marionettes Theatre is an institution. With an octogenarian (now nonagenarian?) leading a small team of talented puppeteers, with a live band and dancing 'human puppet' it is a sight to behold. The guide gives you a written account of the story being told, so you're not completely in the dark. It was really quiet when we visited, but such a memorable experience. We bought our tickets on the door for 10,000 kyat each (around £5). 

Explore the ancient cities - get out of the city and travel back in time. We hired a driver to take us round these old cities for 35,000 kyat for the day (around £18) who we stumbled upon outside Mandalay Palace. They approached us and asked if we were interested, we negotiated a price and they collected us the next morning from our hotel. It was a husband and wife team who spoke little English, but were so lovely! They also ended up taking us to the airport, and on departure gave us a little gift of two hand-crafted wooden owls - just such a lovely story it makes me feel all warm thinking about it! Anyway, we started the day by driving to Amarapura to watch monks queuing for their breakfast - literally thousands of monks assembling to collect their alms. It was the most incredible sight, with tiny little child monks melting my heart. We were asked not to be too intrusive, so we sat back on the pavement and used my zoom lens to get a few snaps from a distance. We went on to visit Mahamuni Pagoda, where Rich applied gold leaf to the Buddha - women not allowed, sadly. Next up, Sagaing Hill, before stopping for lunch. We then hopped on a boat over to Innwa; an ancient imperial capital, where we commenced the most uncomfortable but hilarious two hour horse and cart trip. The temples are rustic and dilapidated but completely charming. We ended the day watching the sun set over U Bein bridge - such a beautiful sight and the perfect end to our Myanmar adventure.

As I say, Mandalay wasn't somewhere we were anticipating to be so beautiful. The warmth of the locals and the history of the ancient cities was second to none; definitely one to be sure you include in your Myanmar itinerary!


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