My recent visit to Mandalay was the second time I had been to the country’s second biggest city. Earlier this year, I had made my way to Upper Myanmar and taken a brief stop in Mandalay. Only staying one night, I wasn’t much taken with the place. The city appeared like a giant village, one of those towns in this part of the world that was built up chaotically, without any forward thinking or planning. There seemed to be no downtown area, nowhere to go at night and no separated residential areas, but just one huge area gridded with wide lanes packed with motorcycles, cars and trucks. I saw few people walking, but that was hardly surprising given the fact that the sidewalks are practically non-existent or considered private property by the residents and used as such.
Still, when a friend recently visited the country, I decided to give it another try. Taking the overnight bus from Yangon, we arrived surprisingly well-timed enough for us to get straight out of the city and visit one of its most famous attractions.
Located in the former royal capital of Amarapura, U Pein Bridge is widely accepted as the world’s longest teak bridge. Arriving early morning, and with no other tourists around, we were able to enjoy it in a state that we might not have been able to otherwise had we arrived later in the day.
After a quick breakfast at one of the teashops overlooking the lake, we began to cross the impressive bridge. Every 300 metres are so are little shelters allowing passers-by to take a rest and watch the vibrant people as they make their daily commute across the bridge.
Back to the city and we were able to find a pleasant hotel near to Zegyo market in downtown, a place with a nice rooftop area and where we were able to enjoy the sunshine for the first time in some weeks after a rainy few months in Yangon. Mandalay gets an average of just eight days of rain in July and August and maintains a nice temperature.
In the evening, we visited the vast Ayeyarwady river which is much more acceptable in Mandalay than in Yangon. There is no real development riverfront but the residents have tried to make the best use of it and there are a number of pleasant beer stations from where you can watch the sunset. Local life is vibrant here too, and we were able to enjoy watching some local men play a game of ‘chinn lone’ a traditional game in the country which is a sort of hybrid of football and tennis, but with a ball made from bamboo.
The following day we rented motorbikes to explore the more remote parts of the town and tried to negotiate the relatively crazy traffic in the city, a great option for those wishing to have a little more independence in the city.
The Mahamuni Temple is the country’s second most sacred Buddhist site, behind of course Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda. The temple hosts a gold-leaf Buddha statue, which was brought to Mandalay from Rakhine state after the British invaded the State towards the end of the 19th century.
Sagaing, with apparently the highest density of Buddhist monasteries in the country, was next and as you make your way up the impressive Sagaing Hill, passing the dozens of nuns and monks as you go, it feels like the city plays host to no one except these pious people. The hill-top pagoda is surrounded by a viewing platform, giving visitors the chance to enjoy extraordinary 360-degree views towards Mandalay, the Ayeyarwady river and the Shan Plateau, which lies off in the distance.
The historical lesson continued with a visit to another former royal capital at Inwa. The least impressive of them measured by sites but it is a scenic village that sits on the bank of the river.
Nowadays it is dominated by flat fields but some of the impressive structures from the city’s heyday remain, yet the rural surrounding gives the place a more impressive feel. Highly recommended here is a large brick monastery to watch the sun make its descent.
Back in downtown Mandalay and one fixture of the city that should not be missed are the internationally renowned comedians, the Moustache Brothers. The leader of the troupe, Par Par Lay, sadly recently passed away but his brother Lu Maw continues to lead the group and revealed to Myanmar Business Today recently that he and his cousin will continue staging the daily shows. The show features a mix of comedy, traditional music and dancing and the group have contributed to an open and free Myanmar with their light-hearted criticism of the regime even during their most brutal rule. An additional benefit is speaking with Lu Maw after the show, who is just as charming and warm-hearted as he is on stage.
Mandalay is known to be the centre for Burmese culture and Buddhist faith in Myanmar and is home to a number of monasteries and Buddhism study centres. It is more homogenous when compared to the multiculturalism of Yangon and the presence of Buddhist monks and nuns is much bigger.
The main influences in Mandalay are not even Western or Indian but Chinese and roughly one-third of businesses in the city are Chinese-owned, according to some local residents. The architecture of the city shows off the Chinese influence clearly.
As we came to the end of our visit, we passed a friendly group of local guys who, after a quick chat, invited us into their recording studio to show us some of their work – a typical example of the hospitality and something that allowed me to change my mind somewhat from the previous visit.