We set out on the road to Mandalay early in the morning and travelled for 8 hours with a couple of food stops. We were offered tea, coffee and bats… fried and wrapped in paper. No thanks.
It was a pleasant ride, albeit cold as they had the air-con turned right up so everyone had to wrap up in blankets. Mandalay is also colder than Yangon and we had no winter clothes – we would get some when we arrive.
As we got there in the evening, we took a taxi straight to the hotel and saw little of what Mandalay had to offer. We were very happy when we arrived though, as being cruisers on a tight budget, we tend to stay in the cheaper hotels and often get what we pay for. The hotel in Mandalay was luxurious for us – huge room, balcony, en suite, comfy, large TV, air con etc – we found out that Mandalay gets far fewer visitors and that everything is better value. The next day we set off exploring this magical city.
Mandalay used to be the capital of Burma but is now definitely the poor relation to Yangon. It was really dusty – due to the lack of rainfall and the lack of bitumen roads. There were far more motorbikes than Yangon and it had a feel of a city who lives in the past. It was just as busy with people everywhere and all of them doing ‘something’ – washing, cleaning, selling, building. No-one was just sitting doing nothing except a few very elderly people. Mandalay is the artistic centre, and produces many of Myanmar’s artifacts. The first morning we discovered the markets – not just your ordinary markets though. These markets were undercover markets but had no space to wander through the lanes, we literally had to climb over boxes, tables etc to get around. We noticed (again) that we were the only westerners here, but that they didn’t seem to sell individual items – mainly boxes of items. We were in the wholesale markets that serve most of Myanmar. We wanted to buy some wool socks – remember I said it was colder here – so we had to buy 10 pairs – only cost us $2.50 for the 10 though so we were happy. The further in we got the more old-fashioned it became. We found chinese medicine sellers, spices we had never heard of, and old fashioned tools that would fetch a fortune in the Portobello markets.. It was so much fun – like an Aladdin’s cave. If only we had space in our bags ….
These markets spilled out into the street where all the women were selling their produce – and it was mayhem. So many people, so little space and everybody smiling. Shopping at its best.
Later on that day we wandered down to the Irrawaddy river which was only a couple of kms from our hotel. We thought we would get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and get some air. We passed many small shops (everybody seems to have a shop in Myanmar) most of which were either wood carving, chopping wood, wood yards etc. It took a few minutes for the penny to drop – we were in Myanmar, and one of the main exports is still Teak. The river acting as the transport for the timber from the highlands down to Mandalay, where it was planked for shipment overseas. When we got there we found many small houses on stilts perched at the edge of the river and the women loading the logs onto the trucks. We didn’t see any huge trees, maybe they are planked further up river but there were hundreds of piles of logs all ready to go. It was such a busy workplace – and these women carry these logs up from the barges to the trucks 10 hours a day. Incredible.
Mandalay has a special charm – every street has its own generator for when the electricity goes off, and the trucks don’t have any bonnets so that the engine is exposed. The streets are dusty but dampened down frequently by hose and everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. They have public washing areas on the streets rather than haul all their washing down to the river.
The next day we walked to the Royal Palace. This huge palace dominates Mandalay and is situated right in the middle of the city. It is surrounded by four walls each 2km long. There is a moat around the walls 64m wide. It was bombed during the war and rebuilt in the 1990’s. It was an incredible structure but we didn’t actually go inside as it was late when we got there and we thought we had time the next day – but unfortunately we ran out of time. Looks like we will be visiting Mandalay again.
We did manage to go up the 240m Mandalay Hill to watch the sunset and see the city from its highest peak. What a magnificent treat that was. The hill is accessed either by climbing up or by car (we chose the car!) and then you go up this long escalator to the top. There were many people here to watch the sun go down, but that didn’t detract from the view of Mandalay and all the Pagodas you see. There is a Pagoda at the top and incredible mosaic work – very colourful.
The next day we went to see the U Bein Bridge. We had heard that it is best seen at sunset so we hired a taxi and did a bit of exploring during the afternoon on the way. The first place we went to is Kuthodaw Pagoda and the World’s Biggest Book.
This was an extraordinary place. The Kuthodaw Paya houses “the world’s largest book”, 729 marble slabs of Buddhist scriptures. It is hard to describe how amazing this place is. It is enormous of course, but each of these Stupas is lined up precisely so that when you look at them from afar, there is not one Stupa out of place. Each Stupa contains a marble slab that is inscribed on both sides with Buddha’s teachings – the Tipitika. It was started is 1860 and took 8 years to complete. We wandered through these rows of Stupas and marveled at how they managed to get it so precise. It was one of the most incredible places we have been to and it is a photographers dream. Many Burmese have their wedding photographs taken here.
We then set off for U Bein bridge. On the way our taxi driver stopped at a small village where everybody is involved in marble carving. The street was white from marble dust and the workers were covered in these fine marble particles. Some of the women held their scarves up to their face but the kids just breathed it in. The resulting statues were beautiful. Marble arrives in slabs and they carve out mainly statues of Buddha. These are then sent off to our corners of the globe – Yangon being one of the main destinations – we visited the Jade and Marble markets when we were in Yangon and now we were seeing them made. The workmanship was outstanding – all the polishing is done by hand and the carving just with a small drill or chisel. Health and safety would have a field day back in Australia with all the dust around.
We also saw some puppets being made, and also some exquisite tapestries. This was the artistic side of Mandalay.
At last it was time to head to U Bein bridge. We arrived at Amarapura about 4.30 in time for the sunset. This bridge is 1.2 kilometres long, was constructed in 1850 and is thought to be both the longest and the oldest teak bridge in the world. But what makes it so fascinating, is that you can sit in a small boat in the water or like us at a table sipping wine in the dried section of the river and watch the sun go down literally through the pillars.
The bridge is curve shaped in the middle to resist the assault of wind and water. The main teak posts were hammered into lake bed seven feet deep. The other ends of the posts were shaped conically to make sure that rain water fall down easily. The joints were intertwined.
Another feat of engineering from the nineteenth century.