Duration: 6 days, 5 nights
Destination: Mandalay, Myanmar
Currency: Khat (kjɑːt)
Mandalay is a beautiful city that should be on anyone’s check list of places to see when visiting Myanmar. It may be second to Bagan, the city with more than a thousand Buddhist temples and hot air balloon rides to take in that amazing vista, however, the formal Royal capital has quite a few noteworthy gems of its own to marvel.
A lot of commenters on travel sites, like TripAdvisor, recommended one-day visits or short overnights almost as an afterthought but that itinerary is barely enough to see Mandalay like Clark Grizwald saw the Grand Canyon (check out the original Family Vacation from the 80’s to get that reference). I spent five days taking in as many of the sites as I could, and I did not get to see all of the places I’d set out to see.
Some of the most notable were Mahamuni pagoda to see the morning ritual – cleaning the face of Buddha, watching sunset from the top of Mandalay Hill, visiting Kuthodaw Pagoda – the world’s largest book, taking a walk across Ubein Bridge – a teakwood foot bridge built in the mid-1800’s, and watching stone carvers etch and sculpt marble images of Buddha.
- Sight Seeing 100% 100%
- Food 70% 70%
- Transportation 70% 70%
- Activities 90% 90%
The culture of Mandalay was so rich and inviting. The culture was so much its own. It was easy enough to get around without speaking the local language. Enough people working in hospitality (restaurant and hotel staff, drivers, etc) – those people we had the most engagement with – spoke moderate to fair levels of English. Once outside that bubble of the travel industry, though, the majority of the city remains very much untouched by outsiders and tourism. There are no international brands that I saw. No Starbucks. No McDonalds, or KFC’s. It was refreshing not to have that “crutch” of something familiar to get stuck in. It gave us the chance to fully immerse ourselves in the local culture – local eateries, local coffee shops. Access to things like money and Internet were not a problem. ATM’s are scattered across the city. And 4g cell service was fast and easy to get right at the airport upon arrival.
Best Things to Do and See
1. Mingalabar Restaurant – Best food
Located near the south facing wall of the palace, this restaurant was our favorite place for dinner. The prices were right about average for the city (roughly 20,000 khat for two) and they served authentic seafood and vegetarian cuisine.
2. Innwa Spa – Best massage spa
Just one block from Mingalabar restaurant, Innwa Spa is this other-worldly oasis of peace and serenity. From the moment you walk into the luxurious lobby – with its two-story high vaulted ceilings and professionally dressed welcome staff – you feel as if Mr. Roarke from Fantasy Island would step out from the behind the corner to welcome you.
They offer a dense menu of different spa services but we were just looking for a great Thai massage after a long day of trekking across the city. They offer a traditional massage, which is as close to a Thai massage as they come. It was fantastic!
3. Mahamuni Temple – Best cultural activity
Sacrifice getting up before dawn to witness this spectacular display of culture. You may only be in Mandalay once in your lifetime, and this truly is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The gates open at 4 am and the ceremony begins soon after. The entire ceremony lasts roughly two hours.
You’ll see devout Buddhists wearing traditional all-white clothing and you can buy floral bouquets to lay on the offering table inside if you wish to participate further in the ritual.
We woke up early to get to Mahamuni temple by 4 am so we could watch the morning ceremony where the monk washes the image face of the Buddha. This ritual has been going on for more than two centuries. Every morning at 4 am, the monks open the inner chamber to the image of the Buddha and wash the face. It’s said that this image was carved during the time of the living Buddha and that he even looked upon the image during a visit to the temple. To take part in the ceremony is one of the great pilgrimages for Buddhists worldwide.
At mid-day we began climbing the 1,700+ steps on Mandalay Hill to see sunset from the top. Along the foot path there are other famous (and ancient) Buddhist temples to stop and see.
Sunset was a surreal experience. Between the hill and the distant mountain range is a pancake flat wetland where the river fans out into an alluvial plain. As sunset came, the waters turned into a glimmering reflecting pool. As the sun approached the horizon, finally dipping below the tips of the mountains, the sky ignited into the most breathtaking view of fiery colors.
U Bein Bridge
We went to see sunset from the bridge on our last night in Mandalay. It was a fitting end to the trip (and to the summer). Like everywhere we’d been in the city, the mix and diversity of visitors walking across the bridge was invigorating. So many monks and sisters, adorned in their modest robes, interspersed with customary longyi on the men and women wearing sarongs, along with non-locals in cargo shorts, and almost everyone wearing sandals (of different variety) passed by one another with smiles and polite nods.
On the eastern shore at the bridge, as the sun was getting low in the sky, we watched as children dared each other to do evermore acrobatic leaps from the bridge into the lake below.
Smoke and the smell of barbecue from bordering restaurants and street vendors wafted through the air, giving that thin veil of haze which accents every great summers-end family barbecue growing up.
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