Mandalay is a perfect Asian town : busy, noisy, polluted… Yet, spending a few days there was highly rewarding! Risking our lives zooming in the crazy traffic on two old semi automatic scooters, we’ve been able to visit the highlights of the area. Join us on our trip around the city to discover some of the most beautiful wonders of Myanmar!
Our first destination is Inwa, an ancient imperial capital sitting by the river thirty kilometres south of town. To get there we choose to follow the banks of the mythic Irrawaddy river which provides beautiful views on the way. But Mandalay is also a town of contrast, and if it offers amazingness, we discover it also provides a clear insight of the poverty of Myanmar, since many families and people live on the banks of the river with hardly any resources at all but a wooden plank above there heads and walls made of plastic. Plastic which is everywhere by the way. Those people are litteraly living on piles of rubbish. It is sad, and even if the poverty is less important than in what we saw in the way to Mrauk U in the west next to Bangladesh it’s still more shocking here than in other places we visited in the country, for here it is so starkly contrasted by the shiny lights and luxury cars of rich Mandalay. We could talk about that for hours but, while this would certainly be interesting, it is not the point of this article, so let’s go back on more joyful subjects!
We finally arrive in Inwa, which turns out to be a very interesting and photogenic kind of place. We will spend most of the day there, driving along the ancien wall, going from a beautiful ruined temple to a leaning watchtower, stopping on the way to pay our respects to a serene Buddha sitting under a large tree.
But our favourite place in Inwa is certainly Bagaya, the wondrous teak monastery, with its stunning architecture and lovely carvings, its dark corridors and pillars and its heady smell of hot dry wood… Amazing atmosphere!
U Bein bridge, a piece of heaven in the heart of Mandalay
On our way back from Inwa, we have to stop to the unavoidable U Being Bridge, the longest teak wood bridge on our dear planet! If you are staying in Mandalay, it is absolutely mandatory that you would go and watch a sunset there, as it is one of the most stunning things you can ever see in Myanmar! Many photographers have given their best to capture the surreal atmosphere of this place at sunset and now it’s our turn to give it a try. As we start our way on the long bridge, our footsteps resonating on the century old wood, we are first entranced by the gracious movements of the slender silhouettes of the fishermen below, throwing their nets in the shallow waters. The light is amazing at this time of the day, and the whole thing looks like a mesmerising danse.
Somewhere midway we get off the bridge to take place on a small peninsula while a larger and larger crowd starts gathering on top of the bridge, waiting for the famous sunset show. For once, we are perfectly happy with the crowd, since from where we stand a beautiful harmony between people and architecture is created, enhanced by the fact that the whole scene is silhouetted against the bright natural golden light. It is a perfect fantastic foreground for taking pictures and we are getting more and more excited and frantic as the sunset turns out to be particularly glorious tonight, getting more orange by the minute, mingling playfully with the wooden pillars before dying in a slow explosion of striking pastel colours. As we told you before, it was a moment definitely not to be missed and it will definitely stand as one of our fondest memories of Myanmar!
Mingun sits 11 kilometres north of Mandalay, on the right side of the Irrawaddy. A boat takes us there in one hour, giving us time to get a sight of the river life. But before, we had a little bit of time to explore the muddy docks. Another world of poverty and plastic. Burmese guys are making round trips between trucks and cargos with bags of 100kg on their shoulder to empty a rusty boat, kids are playing with trashes, and whole famillies lives in house built with old cars, plastic, sheet metal, and everything else they find…
The main reason to visit Mingun is the famous unachieved pagoda Pahtodawgyi. A megalomaniac king (well, a king, uh…) wanted to enter in History by bluiding the biggest pagoda in the world. Unfortunately the construction ended when the base of the pagoda was just finish. A violent earthquake open impressive gashes on its facades and destroyed any hope to finish it. Yes, what we saw, that gigantic 50m high cube made of tiny orange bricks is only the base (one third) of what should have been the building… The view from the top is also quite enjoyable, as you can see!
Among other curiosities, you can also take time to visit an intriguing giant bell, two giant lion statues or a frivolous white pagoda, Asian version of our Sacré- Coeur. Everything can be done on foot in Mingun, yet some people choose to tour the site in an original kind of « taxi » (see picture below).
The royal palace
If you get the time, this could also be quite a cool place to visit. It is maybe not the most impressive complex we went to, but the different buildings are still quite beautiful and nicely preserved, and beside a high watchtower gives you the opportunity to admire the lovely harmony of rooftops from above.
Unfortunately, our burmese visa is running short already, and we have to think about our return. The come back from the mountains of Mindat, the sactuary of the face-tattooed Chin women, has been hard, but we finally enjoyed that city trip and discovered a lot of other beauties. To leave Myanmar, we have two solutions: to take a plane from Mandalay to Bangkok (total trip: not even two hours) OR to take a train ticket to Yangon, then another train ticket to Mawlamyine, then one or two more bus tickets that would get us to the Thai capital (total trip: 3 days). As we didn’t have enough time to enjoy the unbelievable comfort of burmese public transports, that we are beside highly rational (everybody knows that) and arguing moreover that our burmese experience wouldn’t be complete without a train trip, the second solution is voted without the slightest hesitation. We book the first train ride to Yangon (10 hours) in first class. Yeah, completely posh we know… The seats are quite comfy, burmese-blue-green, and we are allowed to get our head through the windows like crazy dogs to enjoy the beautiful panorama and the outside dust at their maximum. Choo chooooo!
For our second train ride (also 10 hours), we travel in economy class, in a wooden wagon, on hard wooden seats on which we earned a lot of grumpy complaints from our backbones…. We forgot to tell you that burmese trains seem to be actually driving on springs, bouncing and bumping joyfully around, ready to get off the rails at anytime, or so it feels, to enjoy a run in the wild.
Quite surprisingly, everything went well, the trains being pefectly on time everytime, and we finally arrive whole and healthy in Mawlamyine. Still 14 hours to go and we will be in Bangkok wolfing down a greasy pad thai! Bye bye Myanmar!
Tintin & Riette