Pop quiz…raise your hand if you knew that the Mandalay Bay casino in Las Vegas was themed (albeit very loosely) after Burma/Myanmar? No takers? Well, never fear, I’m not sure many people have ever made that connection. I know I never gave it much thought until I started booking flights for Myanmar. Just a fun fact I thought I’d share with you all as we continue our 3-city tour of Myanmar. Mandalay is Myanmar’s second largest city and home to half of the country’s monks. But most people would be surprised to know that the city isn’t ancient at all. In fact, technically Las Vegas is older.
Mandalay was created by King Mindon Min of Burma in 1857 as the new capital of the kingdom of Ava. By contrast, a group of Mormons were the first permanent Las Vegas settlers in 1855. I know, I know, I am just full of fun facts today! After beginning our Myanmar journey in Yangon and then spending a few days in Bagan, we landed in Mandalay mid-morning, the final stop on our week-long tour. We piled into a taxi for the 45-minute drive into central Mandalay and to our hotel – the clean, new and very affordable (at just $41/night) Hotel Yadanarbon. After checking in and ditching our bags, we got a map and decided to take a walk over to check out the enormous Mandalay Palace complex which encompassed nearly half the map and seemed to be just a short walk away.
Due to the scale of the map it turned out to be a much longer walk in the heat (and occasional rain) than we anticipated so we stopped for lunch along the way to re-group in the A/C. Eventually, we made it around the enormous moat-enclosed complex to the eastern entrance (the only one tourists are allowed to enter and definitely not the closest entrance to where we’d come from), bought our tickets and entered the palace walls.
Built in 1857, the royal palace was reduced to ashes by the British during World War II. In the 90’s it was completely renovated and re-opened to visitors in 1996. The palace complex reminded me a lot of Beijing’s Forbidden City, both in its design and its massive size…except without the excessive crowds. In fact, like many of the tourist sites we’d seen throughout Myanmar, we practically had the whole place to ourselves.
We wandered the grounds going in and out of buildings for a while before deciding we’d seen enough and starting the long walk back out. This time we elected to take a taxi instead of walking the two or three miles back to the hotel. Outside our hotel, we were stopped by a local guide with an offer to drive us around to a few of the most popular sights later that afternoon followed by a trip up to Mandalay Hill for sunset. These were all things on our list and since the weather was decent (no sun but no rain either) and his price was right, we agreed.
We left the hotel at 4pm and started at the Atumashi Monastery. The monastery was one of the 7 monuments built simultaneously when King Mindon founded the new capital in 1859. The monastery burnt down in 1892 and was used as a Christian Church in the early colonial period. It was reconstructed along with the Mandalay Palace complex and also re-opened in 1996.
From the Atumashi Monastery, we walked next door to the Shwenandaw Monastery. Made entirely out of teak wood, the monastery was part of the original royal palace built by King Mindon. It was moved to its current location by his son, King Thibaw in the late 19th century and is adorned with beautiful intricate wood carvings. It is the only major building from the original wooden royal palace to have survived the bombing during World War II, and thus is the only authentic part of the royal palace which can still be seen today.
Next, we made a stop by the Kyauktawgyi Pagoda which means “Pagoda of the Great Marble Image.” The pagoda contains a giant image of the Buddha carved out of a single block of marble from the Sagyin Hill in 1865. For our last stop before heading up the hill for sunset, we wanted to see what we’d read was “the world’s largest book.” Located at the foot of Mandalay Hill, the Kuthodaw Paya was built by King Mindon in the 1800’s. The 729 white stupas within the complex contain the complete text of the Tripitaka, Theravada Buddhism’s most sacred text. Combined, they comprise the world’s largest book.
As the designated time for sunset approached (despite any real evidence of the sun), we moved on to our final stop, Mandalay Hill. There are two ways to get to the top of Mandalay Hill, drive up or make the one-hour hike. Figuring we’d already put in our walking miles today, we elected to drive. The top of the hill is dotted with pagodas and temples and there’s a terrific open area at the top that allows for 360-degree views of the city below. It was a fantastic view; unfortunately there was no sign of a sunset thanks to the cloud cover. So after enjoying the views from every angle, we decided to call it a day and head back toward the hotel to find a restaurant for dinner. Before leaving our guide and driver, we made arrangements to tackle the rest of our Mandalay agenda – a trip out to the former royal capital of Amarapura – the next morning.
Day 2 – The former royal capital of Amarapura
The next morning we awoke to a vigorous downpour outside our window. Pleased that we had hired a car and driver for our 40-minute ride out to Amarapura we grabbed our rain gear and figured we’d make the best of it. Meaning “City of Immortality,” Amarapura is situated just 7 miles south of Mandalay. King Bodawpaya (1781-1819) founded Amarapura to be his new capital in 1783 but despite the translation of its name, it was later moved. From 1841-1857, King Mindon decided to make Amarapura the capital once again, before relocating to his planned city of Mandalay in 1860. Today, little remains of the old city, as the palace buildings were dismantled piece by piece and moved by elephant to the new location, and the city walls were pulled down for use as building materials for roads and railways. Today, Amarapura is best known for silk and cotton weaving and is a popular day trip for tourists from Mandalay.
The plan for the day was to visit the Mahar Gandaryone Monastery and the famous teak bridge, the world’s longest. Since sunshine didn’t seem to be a requirement for either, we pressed on. But as soon as we stepped outside our hotel to meet our driver, we realized just how little rain it took to flood the streets of Mandalay. The rain had only been falling for an hour or so but the already suspect Mandalay street infrastructure had clearly admitted defeat. The street in front of our hotel (which was a pothole-laden dirt road) already had spots of rushing water and we stepped gingerly to get in the taxi while avoiding total foot submersion.
Once in the confines of the dry taxi, we settled in for the ride to Amarapura. Along the way we passed numerous intersections filled with standing water with locals wading through as if this happens every day (and it might this time of year). Miraculously, we eventually arrived at the monastery without the car being swept away at an intersection resulting in a CNN-worthy rescue attempt. The rain was pounding on the roof of the car but our driver pointed in the direction we should walk and indicated that it was time to get out. Here goes nothing.
Founded in 1914, the Mahar Gandaryone Monastery and religious institute is one of the largest teaching monasteries in Myanmar. More than 3,000 monks of all ages (including some very young novices) reside at this center for monastic study and strict religious discipline. We’d come to the monastery for the same reason the other tourists had, to witness the ritual of the monks partaking in their main daily meal.
But as soon as Angela and I got there, the whole thing just felt wrong. The novice monks were busily setting row after row of tables with bowls of food in the open air dining room. There were a few other tourists around and none of us knew exactly where it was okay to stand and it was all just a bit awkward…like we really shouldn’t be there.
Yet for some reason tourists are apparently invited to witness this process each day. When it was lunchtime the monks began to arrive by the dozens, all carrying umbrellas that perfectly matched their burgundy robes (just because you’ve sacrificed material possessions doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice style) to protect them from the torrential downpour. Eventually, one of the monks who seemed to be in charge came around to the side of the dining hall where we were standing and directed us around to the other side for photographs. At least then we knew we were in the right place but it still felt strange to just watch them eat. It didn’t seem to bother the monks but they also didn’t seem overjoyed about it.
After the meal was done, one by one they reclaimed their discarded umbrellas and returned to their studies. When everyone had filed out, Angela and I still couldn’t shake the feeling that tourists shouldn’t be coming here and intruding on a monastery like this. It just reeked of disrespect. We searched the monastery grounds for a donation box to ease our Nikon-carrying tourist guilt but were unsuccessful. Unsatisfied, we gave up and headed back to the car.
Our next and final stop in Amarapura was the U Bein Bridge, more commonly known as the “teak bridge.” Stretching for nearly a mile across Taungthaman Lake, the 200-year-old bridge is the longest teak bridge in the world and a popular place to watch the sun set each night. Since we weren’t counting on a sunset while in Mandalay, we decided to just see it in the morning after the monastery and call it a day.
Typically, tourists elect to walk across the bridge and then take one of the colorful local boats back. Since it was all we could do not to slide off the bridge in the rain, we decided to skip that part. After walking a quarter-mile or so across, we returned to shore and the dry interior of the taxi. Back in the car, the plan was for our driver to drive us back into town and drop us at Mandalay’s main market, Zay Cho, so we could do a little shopping. Unfortunately, after walking through the market stalls for a bit we found everything a local might need (clothing, electronics, toiletries) and nothing a tourist might want to buy (souvenirs, jewelry, gifts). As it turned out, Mandalay was definitely not the place to go if you were looking to shop. There aren’t many (or any) shops that particularly cater to tourists (luckily, we managed to pick up a few last-minute souvenirs at the airport the next day).
At this point we were technically walking distance from the hotel but the rain continued unapologetically creating newly-formed rivers of water that would make navigating on foot tricky. Of course, there weren’t really taxis around either so we started walking, varying our route every time we came upon a flooded road. While most of the locals drove, biked and walked right through the ankle-deep water, I couldn’t help but be wary of whatever lurked below the surface of the water. We almost made it all the way to the hotel without having to submerge our feet in the water until we reached one last intersection where we were trapped. So we waded in and it was just as gross as I thought it would be. But at least nothing bit me or crawled on me. I considered that a win. Finally, we made it back to the oasis of the dry hotel and since we couldn’t bear the thought of heading back out into the flooded streets, we stuck with the hotel’s restaurant for dinner. The next morning, it was time to leave the rain-soaked streets of Mandalay, and the rest of Myanmar, behind.
Final thoughts on Myanmar
It was an incredible week in Myanmar. The somewhat lackluster city of Mandalay notwithstanding, the country has a startling number of impressive sights to share with the world. And we didn’t even see the region many say is Myanmar’s best, Inle Lake. But despite recent improvements, Myanmar remains a very troubled land.
In 2011, a quasi-civilian was sworn in and national hero Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest. But the government is still one of the world’s most corrupt and much of what tourists spend within the country on flights and hotels will end up lining government coffers. For many years the tourism boycott persuaded most to steer clear of Myanmar entirely.
Today, that ban is lifted but it’s still up to each traveler to decide whether to visit. While much of the initial cost of your visit will go to the government, once inside the country you still have the choice to spend your money with local guides, at family-run restaurants and on traditional crafts.
The people of Myanmar are not their government. They are gentle, inquisitive, engaging and passionate. They are eager to share their country and their way of life with the world. The women are strikingly beautiful and the children will steal your heart. The country has such a rawness about it. There are none of the ubiquitous 7-11’s that have invaded Southeast Asia. In fact, you won’t even find a modern gas station (though these days you will find plenty of ATMs). I got the joy of experiencing a country that has been shut off from the rest of the world for so long and seeing the excitement on the faces of those who are ready to share their home with the world.
It was truly a magical experience and one I will always treasure. So yes, the doors are open…but should you go? It’s up to you, of course, but I say go. And go now while that initial purity still remains. Go while the women still wear thanaka and there’s not a McDonald’s or KFC to be found. Go before the hawkers spread out from Bagan and color the beauty of the country’s other majestic sights. Go before there’s a Hilton or a Marriott or reliable power or monsoon-proof streets. There aren’t many countries in the world with so much as yet undiscovered grandeur left for travelers to explore. So go now. And smile at everyone. You’ll be immensely glad you did.
Next stop…back to Thailand.