The road to Mandalay certainly wasn’t as enchanting as the poem by Rudyard Kipling, but it is often the journey that makes that makes the destination so worthwhile. Beautiful farm fields, still plowed with oxen, grazing cattle, communal wells, bamboo houses & hundreds of pagodas of all shapes & sizes, as far as the eye can see, was the view as we made the winding, bumpy 5-hour trip by bus to Mandalay from Bagan.
Mandalay, considered a relatively new city (est~1865), is named after Mandalay Hill. There is nothing really beautiful about the city, but it is so interesting in its own way. The air is extremely thick with dust & smog, traffic chaotic with thousands of motorbikes, trucks, cars & buses that ignore any rules of the road. Pedestrians are secondary & we were forced to walk on the street due to the lack of sidewalks or sewer smell. Despite all this & the 40C+ temperature, we were smitten with this weird discombobulation of things & of course the people who are so friendly & willing to help out a foreigner. The one thing though that we found quite humourous throughout Myanmar was that when the locals in each town/city we visited learned we were from Canada, they immediately equated the country with Justin Bieber! They just love him…not quite sure this is something we should be proud of though!!!! This is considered the dry season, hence the heat & layer of thick dust on everything. Apparently the countryside transforms into a lush paradise when the rainy season arrives in June & July. Wanting to take in the city sights on day one & we flagged down a local bus (truck) & headed to the Royal Palace which is housed inside Fort Mandalay, an active military compound. Cosy to say the least & Bob enjoyed tailgating it to our first destination. Foreigners are only allowed to enter through the east gate, one of 5 gates, & as we arrived we saw military trucks exiting the compound & a posted sign gave us a pretty clear indication of the continued military state of the country. Approached by a young cab driver who told us how big the compound was, with mid-day temperatures rising & a list of other attractions we were game for, we jumped in his cab & were glad we did by the end of the afternoon. The area is huge with a 64-meter wide moat & stone wall, each side measuring 2-kilometers, protecting the compound. The restored palace takes up only a small space in the centre of the grounds. The rest of the area is the military base, big signs & guards remind you that it’s a restricted zone. All you can do is walk down the pathway & straight into the palace area. No wandering!
Next up we headed to Kuthodaw Paya, aka as the ‘world’s biggest book’ housing 729 very large stone slabs, each in its own white stupa. These carved stone slabs retell the Tripitaka canon or Buddhist philosophy. We visited a beautiful carved teak monastery & then it was off to Mandalay Hill, 230-meters above the city. The entrance is protected by 2 giant chinthe (guardian lion-dog creatures). We opted not to do the 45-minute, 1000+ steps to the top (we do have our limitations) & let our driver whisk us up the winding road to the top, again to be rewarded by beautiful views of the city far below. Reading about the four ancient cities that surround Mandalay, we hired a taxi again the next day & set off early to visit the 4 sacred sites. So thankful we did this, despite the long day, it was so interesting & we saw/experienced so much. We started with a visit to Mahamuni Paya, a pagoda with a 4-meter tall Buddha image. It’s covered with a thick layer of gold leaf & we watched as men (women are not allowed to touch it) lovingly continue to apply the gold leaf as onlookers watched. Driving past several stone workshops carving out Buddha images, we headed to Sagaing Hill. These stupa studded hills loom over the Ayeyarwady River & the views are breathtaking. It is famous for the 45 Buddha statues & is a very sacred place for the Burmese people.
Winding through the countryside our driver suggested a stop for lunch before heading across river by boat to Inwa. By now it’s just 12:00 & we had seen so much thus far! At the restaurant we met some lovely young Burmese girls selling their wares & after chatting & picture-taking by both sides, poppa & momma as they referred to us, had to hop the boat to Inwa. What makes Inwa particularly interesting is that it’s built on an artificial island, made in the 1300s by connecting the Irrawaddy and Myitnge Rivers with a canal. The city was also once surrounded by a huge wall, which apparently formed the outline of a seated lion. Horse carts were waiting for us as we disembarked on the island & we enjoyed a leisurely 2-hour tour of the sights through fields of banana, rice & sugarcane. Bagaya Kyaung, an 1834 teak monastery where children are still taught by monks, a yellow brick-stucco monastery dating back to 1822 & the leaning Nan Myint watchtower were a few of the sights. We stopped at other ruins & stupas along the way, too numerous to mention.
Back on the road again we headed to Amarapura, home of the famous U Bein Bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge at 1.2K. This 200-year-old bridge, with 1060 teak posts, continues to connect Amarapura with Tangthaman, a small fishing village. We walked the full length of the bridge & back in the stifling heat of the late afternoon watching fishermen fishing & boats drifting by. Spellbound, we watched as the skies turned the sunset to orange bidding adieu to another beautiful day.