A bite of royal Myanmar – Mandalay

Mandalay has been the last Royal Myanmar capital before the British conquered the realm and moved the capital south to Yangon. Until today the lively city is one of Myanmar’s cultural centers. It has a large intellectual scene and very popular pagodas. All in all, Mandalay is big, lively, dirty and exciting.

The streets of Mandalay

We take three days to explore Mandalay by bike. The city has a lot of traffic and is not really bicycle friendly, so we try to stick to small alleys whenever possible. While this leads us on a few detours, it also reveals another side of Mandalay. Aside from the main tourist attractions we get insights into the life of the people in the city.
Mandalay is very lively, during day and night time. Social life takes place in the streets: People talk, sing and laugh. Children are playing with balls made out of dried palm leaves, smoke rises into the air from many small barbecue stands. Men and women are chewing Paan (see our dedicated post for details on this widespread Myanmar habit). They color the sidewalks with tons of red saliva they spit out afterwards.

At night we stumble upon a township festival in the area south of the Royal Palace. A live Burmese orchestra with high pitch singers performs (painful) traditional music. In another corner loud electronic beats massage our bellies. Several stands offer gambling games and Chinese plastic souvenirs.
We are attracted to the street crossings where a variety food stands gains or full attention. One huge stand offers sweet dishes made of sticky rice and coconut, while at another, a young woman prepares one of my all over the world favorite dishes: a tasty, spicy and fresh South Indian style dosa. Her boyfriend stands behind her wearing a shirt with a front side filling portrait of the popular democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi on a colorful batik background. We dine, listen to the music as long as our eardrums allow it and talk to many friendly and curious people.

travel tipp infoFood tip: Just around the corner of our hotel we find a local eatery (Google Maps Pin). Its signs are green and only in Burmese, but we manage to order tasty Burmese food from the laughing and helpful waiter. The menu has many all Burmese favorites, including the following highlights:

In contrast to the waiter, the cook, possibly the wife, seems to be the grumpiest person in the whole country. But after we have returned for the third time in a few days to admire her cooking, she only feigns her grumpiness. I am proud of us that we almost make her smile.

The Royal Palace

The original Royal palace was constructed by King Mindon in the 19th century where he resided until the British troops conquered Mandalay in 1885, forcing the royals into exile to India. The whole area around the palace is protected by strong fort walls and a 64 m wide water trench. It serves today as a restricted military zone.

At the military controlled entrance gate, we are “welcomed” by a huge banner reading “Tatmadaw and the people cooperate and crush all those harming the union” printed in large letters. After buying our K10,000 entrance ticket, which is also valid for most of the other attractions in town, we proceed to the palace.

During World War II, the Japanese invaders used the palace as supply depot for their military campaigns. Consequently, the Allies bombed the whole compound. Most buildings were destroyed in this attack and while the reconstruction under the regime of the military junta in the 1990 is adequately replicating the architecture and design, the construction methods and, more importantly, the construction materials that were used differ from the original. Only the main palace structure has been reconstructed and is accessible for visitors. Still, we get a good impression of what the place might have looked like while exploring the vast compound. Most noticeable buildings are the palace platform hosting the Great Audience Hall and the Lion Throne Room as well as the 24m high Watch Tower from which the queen was observing the arrival of the British troops. The attached museum gives a hint on how magnificent the wood carvings in the original palace must have been.

The Shwenandaw Monastery (“Teak” Monastery)

The Shwenandaw Monastery has a moved past owing its survival to the superstition of a King: The construction originally was part of the royal palace at Amarapura. King Mindon relocated the building to integrate it into the Royal Palace in Mandalay. His son King Thibaw Min decided to remove the building again from the Royal Palace compound in 1878. He believed that his father’s spirit haunted the place where it stood.
King Thibaw ordered the workers to strip the structure off all the expensive decorations made of gems and leaf gold and sold them. He then used the money to keep the building as a plain teak wood monastery in the honor of his father.
In a twist of fate, King Thibaw unknowingly also saved the beautiful building from the Allied bombing during World War II. The Shwenandaw Monastery is the only surviving remnant of the Royal Palace today.

We stand in front of the intricate Buddhist wood carvings adorning the walls and roofs. The dark teak wood on the outside parts of the monastery provides contrast to the clear blue sky, presenting the extraordinary craftsmanship in its most beautiful way. Inside the building sits a small, golden Buddha statue. Some golden ornaments on the walls and a row of delicate woodwork plates remember its royal past.

The world’s largest book – Kuthodaw Pagoda

Right next to the teak monastery at the foot of Mandalay hill we find another unique sight: The largest book in the world. The book comes in form of a small pagoda surrounded by 730 white stone pavilions. Each of the pavilions contains one large stone plate encarved with a part of holy Buddhist scriptures. For the inauguration festivities King Mindon let 40 monks read aloud all scriptures from the stones. It took them 6 months to finish!

We walk through the seemingly endless rows of white pavilions to get an idea of the enormous size and enjoy the afternoon sun before climbing Mandalay hill.

Mandalay Hill

The 240m Mandalay hill is a temple area, requiring us to take off our shoes before starting the ascend along the many flights of stairs leading to the temple at its summit. Going up takes about 30 minutes, but you can rest almost everywhere as there are many benches on the sides. Buying water (and souvenirs) at the many shops around is not a problem either. We enjoy pausing here and there: many small pagodas are on the way. Some overly sweet marriage photography scenes, oddly including a living turkey (a fat, black turkey, not a graceful peacock), are too colorful to walk by unnoticed.
Once up, we have to pay 1000 Kyat for each camera we have. Yes, smart phones are cameras. Of course nobody told us about that at the entrance where we had to leave our shoes. Whether it is a temple donation, a scam, or government fee is hard to tell. Maybe the money would find its way into the same pockets in any case given Myanmar’s still highly corrupt system.

We meet up with all the other visitors of Mandalay for the sunset over the city. You have a nice 360 degree view overlooking the smoggy city and a back country full of rice paddies.

travel tipp infoA better sunset spot is not the uppermost platform, but one further down. You don’t pay the camera fee, have fewer tourists to compete with for the best photo spot and have the better view on the sunset. No 360 degree view though, for that you still have to make it to the top.

Boat ride from Bagan to Mandalay

We travel to Mandalay by taking the boat from Bagan. The ten hour boat ride is very calm, comfy and… in contrast to the opinion voiced in the (very outdated) Lonely Planet …mostly boring. The monotonous Irrawaddy river shore changes scenery only about two hours before arrival in Mandalay. The last two hours we drift along one nice bridge, some golden stupas and a huge Buddha statue on hills at sunset. So be prepared to take some good book with you or take a long sleep during the rest of the trip.

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