Day 31 | Biking to one more Mandalay temple and flying to Chiang Mai

Day 31 | Biking to one more Mandalay temple and flying to Chiang Mai

After yesterday’s whirlwind tour of Mandalay’s northeast temples and palaces, we had just the Mahamuni Buddha Temple south of our hotel to check out. Then we relaxed until the late afternoon for our evening flight to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

We rented free bikes from the Home Hotel (a nice little perk), they were relatively new one-speed cruisers.

Biking in Mandalay

The route to Mahamuni Temple is straight south 2.5 km, easy enough, but the traffic in Mandalay is hard to navigate. Very few intersections have stoplights. In this particular intersection the stoplights are broken so the cars, motorbikes and pedestrians are left to police themselves.

There were few foreign tourists at Mahamuni Temple. We took our time exploring the various buildings on the grounds.

Mahamuni Buddha monastery

In the vendor area, a local woman prepared a complicated dish-to-order from the ingredients which were all piled on a large platter she balanced on top of her head. Impressive!

In the main temple, women can view the huge gold seated Buddha live from a blurry TV.

Mahamuni Buddha on TV

Meanwhile, men can line up to touch the Buddha and / or add gold leaf to his body which is already 6-inch deep in gold leaves.

Mahamuni Buddha

I read about this temple in my Lonely Planet guide, a local grandmother was quoted as saying that nowhere in Buddhist scripture did it promote this gender inequality and she hopes to one day be able to apply gold leaf to the Buddha image herself.

The temple complex has lovely courtyards.

Mahamuni temple courtyard

Intricate metalwork.

Mahamuni temple door

And this adorable, curious baby who kept staring at me as I repeatedly waved at him.

Curious baby

Maurice, always a gracious celebrity, was asked to pose for a couple photos with a group of local men in front of a huge gong.

Maurice and his fans

After visiting the temple, we rode our bikes around to the more residential sections in west Mandalay near the Ayeyarwady River and various canals. Other than the 90+ Fahrenheit heat, this was a pretty pleasant ride. Unlike downtown, these neighborhoods had less stressful intersections. We paused at the entrance to the Jade Market, unfortunately we were told it was closed on this day (Tuesday).

We then biked back to our hotel the long way, more west and north and then back east. We returned our bikes, then set out for lunch. We went to Aung Lin Restaurant, a family run Chinese restaurant a few blocks from our hotel. The owners and the young boys working there were all very nice (they spoke English and Chinese) and the portions were big.

We walked to the nearby Mandalay Railway Station after lunch as Maurice loves train stations. This was in truly poor shape. The tracks, the train cars and inside the building itself were covered in trash and betel nut juice stains. At least a dozen families were camped out in the lower level of the train station. We suspected many of those families were homeless and used it as shelter from the harsh sun.

While walking to the train station, I noticed a bill on the floor, mostly covered by dust. I picked it up, finally, my LUCKY MONEY! I was now the proud owner of 5 kyats, yes, FIVE kyats, the equivalent of 0.4 US cents.

Lucky 5 kyats

I kept the bill as a souvenir, it was the lowest denomination bill either of us have come across. If we gave it to a homeless family, they would probably just laugh at us.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped to get some pastries at Gold Medal Bakery. Then we chilled in the lobby until our taxi arrived to take us to Mandalay International Airport.

The airport is 35 km south of the city. It was built in 1999 and is still the most modern airport in Myanmar. The funny thing is it has the longest runway in Southeast Asia and has the capacity to process 3 million passengers per year. However, it currently only connects 11 domestic and 4 international destinations and in 2012 processed less than 600,000 passengers – for comparison Bangkok’s main international airport (BKK) processes 53 million passengers a year.

We noticed the vast emptiness of the international departure area from check-in counters through to security through to the gates. International sanctions on Myanmar must have really dampened Mandalay Airport’s ambitions to be an important Southeast Asian hub in the last couple decades.

Here is our small Bangkok Airways propeller plane which took us to Chiang Mai.

Bangkok Airways plane

We took off during the sunset with rural Mandalay province below us.

We arrived after dark in Chiang Mai.

At Chiang Mai airport, we proceeded through to Immigration. We’re entering Thailand for the second time on our yolomimo trip. The immigration officer gave Maurice a hard time.

Officer: This, where is it? (He points at the birth place line on the passport that says “Ramat Gan”)
Maurice: In Israel.
Officer: Israel… And you live in New York? And you are from France?
Maurice: Yes.
Officer: Why do you keep moving everywhere like that? (He draws a big triangle with his hand)
Maurice: What can I say… I just live and work in New York.
Officer: What do you do, what’s your occupation?
Maurice: I am engineer.
Officer: An engineer? What kind of engineer?
Maurice: Computer engineer.
Officer: This is the last time you come here? (He points at the previous departure stamp on Maurice’s passport)
Maurice: Yes. I was just in Myanmar for vacation with my fiancée (pointing at me) and now I am back in Thailand for more vacation.
Officer: And you guys were together the whole time? (He points at both of us).
I nod my head.
Officer: OK, you go. (He hand’s back Maurice’s passport and shoos him away).

I went up to grumpy immigration officer next. It took me only twenty seconds.

Officer: Oh you are American Asian?
Mimi: Yes.
Officer: OK enjoy your trip.

Last but not least we took a short 4 km taxi ride – Chiang Mai’s walled old city is almost within walking distance to their airport – to our hotel the 3 Sis Bed and Breakfast, here is our obligatory hotel room walkthrough video.

That concluded our awesome week and half in Myanmar – the biggest culture shock thus far – we were back in the relative comfort and familiarity of Thailand and excited to plan day trips and explore Chiang Mai for the next three days.

Day 30 | Touring Mandalay’s top sights

Day 30 | Touring Mandalay’s top sights

Today was our first and only full day in Mandalay. Mandalay is Myanmar’s second largest city and also its last royal capital. It has a long and rich history and despite being much smaller than Yangon, it is considered by many to be the center of Burmese culture. It definitely offers a lot to see in such a short time so we planned for a very busy day. We decided to hit the top-rated touristy places namely the Mandalay Palace, the Shwenandaw and Atumashi monasteries, the Sandamuni and Kuthodaw Pagodas, and Mandalay Hill to hopefully end the day with a sunset view over the city. Fortunately, all these sites are conveniently located in the same area in the northeast of the city so we were able to mostly walk from one place to the next one.

After snoozing for a good half hour, we finally woke up and started the day by a late breakfast at the Home Hotel. Food was okay, pretty much equivalent with all the other breakfasts we had so far in Myanmar. We did come twenty minutes before breakfast ends and they were running out of some of the dishes so we’ll have to give it another try tomorrow.

We got a taxi for the old city and started our visit of the Mandalay Palace, surrounded by an impressive moat. The entire area is a 2 km by 2 km square but tourists are only allowed in specific parts of the complex and can only enter from the Eastern gate, for reasons that were unclear to us. In the 19th century, the palace was the royal residence for the latest kings of Burma. It got destroyed during world war II and rebuilt in place just about 25 years ago.

Inside the Hall of Victory.

Inside the Hall of Victory in Mandalay Royal Palace

Mimi at the entrance of a building in the Royal Palace.

Mimi at the entrance of a building in the Royal Palace

There were few tourists while we were there, and a sizable chunk of the ones that did come here were from Myanmar itself. It seems foreign tourists didn’t care much to learn about the history of Burma which is a shame because it’s quite rich.

Inside the Royal Palace

We kept walking around and taking small breaks in the complex. Even though it only occupies a small area within the citadel, it’s still relatively big and the sun was already very strong in Mandalay.

Chilling in the Royal Palace

A lot of the buildings look very similar but each had a specific function for the royal family.

Typical buildings within the Royal Palace

Inside the Royal Palace

Also check out this short 360 degrees tour shot by Mimi.

On the left is the supreme court building in the Royal Palace, called the Hluttaw in Burmese. This was were the official business of the court was conducted.

The Supreme Court building in the Royal Palace

From there we decided to check out the view from the watch tower. This tower is 24 meters high and offers a nice panoramic view of the city, especially on a clear day. The tower is also one of the two buildings that did not get destroyed during the world war II bombings.

Mandalay Palace Watch Tower

Here are a couple of shots we took from up there, showing the palace grounds surrounded by lots of trees and the Mandalay Hill in the background of the first picture.

View from the Mandalay Palace Watch Tower

View from the Mandalay Palace Watch Tower

On our way out, we saw this Burmese couple taking wedding pictures. Cool to see a bride not wearing a traditional white wedding dress.

Couple taking wedding photos inside the Royal Palace

We left the Royal Palace to the nearby Shwenandaw Monastery (or Golden Palace Monastery). This beautiful structure which follows traditional Burmese style was built by the king of Burma at the end of the 19th century.

Shwenandaw Monastery, the Golden Palace Monastery

Inside, several sections were reserved to men with signs explicitly forbidding ladies to enter. Second-class treatment of women seems to be an unfortunate constant across religions, including Buddhism (much to my surprise).

A section reserved to men inside the Shwenandaw Monastery

The inside of the monastery featured numerous very detailed teak carvings such as that one of elephants fighting which Mimi obviously loved.

Fighting elephants statue

Even though she could not enter some of the sections reserved to men, Mimi still had fun inside the building. Make sure you watch till the end.

This is a view of the monastery from the side. The building is also covered with teak carvings on the outside, making it an extremely picturesque structure.

Side of the Shwenandaw Monastery

We then moved to the Atumashi Monastery. Although much bigger, I found it less interesting than the Shwenandaw Monastery. Its design is somewhat notorious for its birthday cake design with five rectangular terraces rather than the more common multi-tiered spired roofs most pagodas and other religious buildings have. The original building was actually destroyed by a fire in 1890 and the new one was only rebuilt a century later, in 1996.

Atumashi monastery

The main room inside the monastery is impressive due to its size. When we were there it was almost completely empty and we were not sure if the building is actually used as a monastery these days.

Inside the largest room of Atumashi monastery

By the time we were done visiting the Atumashi Monastery, it was past 2pm and we were getting quite hungry. We tried to find a Burmese restaurant that was recommended for tourists on the map provided by our hotel but it did not seem to exist, at least not at the location indicated! Instead, we ended up in an open air restaurant catering to local people. As soon as we sat down I had a bad feeling about it. The place did not seem clean and there were very few customers (granted it was late for lunch, but still given the central location I expected to see more activity). A few minutes later, we got to witness something we will remember for a long time. A stray dog walked from the street inside the restaurant and relieved himself right on the floor, less than two meters away from a table where a customer was eating. The story does not stop there: one of the waiters saw the dog do his business but did not do anything about it. After the dog left, nobody from the staff came to clean up the floor and the puddle of pee stayed there while food was being served to customers… Mimi and I could not believe that none of them reacted. While we were already used to the general dirtiness of the streets and public facilities in Myanmar (and Mandalay was no exception), this was a new low. Despite this incident we still ordered food and drinks. The area did not seem to have other options and we did not want to try street vendors.

After that, we visited the Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda. This is the arch leading to the complex.

Arch next to the Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda

The pagoda with Mandalay Hill in the background.

Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda with Mandalay Hill in the background

The temple itself is famous for its large Buddha statue carved in a single block of marble.

Marble Buddha in the Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda

We moved on to the Sandamuni Pagoda, still in the same area south of the Mandalay Hill. The pagoda has 1774 white stupas arranged in rows and columns, creating an impression of infinity. Here is a close up of one of them.

Stupa in the Sandamuni Pagoda

The main Buddha statue is located in the middle of the temple, under a massive golden chedi. It is supposedly the largest iron Buddha statue in Myanmar, weighing over 40,000 pounds.

Buddha statue in the Sandamuni Pagoda

Here is a view of a group of aligned white stupas that the pagoda is famous for.

Stupas in the Sandamuni Pagoda

On our way out we bumped into a group of monks visibly very happy to be photographed. This was not the first time that we saw groups of monks happy to interact with foreigners in Myanmar. They generally seem very open and like to talk to strangers.

Monks walking in the Sandamuni Pagoda

We left the Sandamuni Pagoda for the nearby Kuthodaw Pagoda. That one is famous for containing the world’s largest book, a set of 729 large stones (the pages of the book) each contained in its own stupa. This is a miniature replica of the pagoda.

Miniature replica of the Kuthodaw Pagoda

The pagoda’s stupa was modeled after the one in the Shwezigon Pagoda which we visited just two days ago while in Bagan.

Stupa of the Kuthodaw Pagoda

While walking around the stupa, two little girls with baskets on their heads came to us and wanted to sell flowers and Thanaka to Mimi. At first Mimi declined but seeing how motivated they were, she had no other choice but to let them apply Thanaka on her cheeks. I was amazed to see how comfortable they were moving around and applying make up on Mimi while carrying baskets on top of their head.

The end result was pretty good and we naturally agreed to give them tips to thank them. Before leaving us to go after the next set of tourists, they gave flowers to Mimi and told her to offer them to the Buddha statue behind us which she did since we did not want to carry the flowers around.

Mimi with her make up artists

Mimi posing in front of the Buddha statue with her cheeks covered with Thanaka.

Mimi with her Thanaka at the Kuthodaw Pagoda

We completed our visit of the pagoda and realized it was time to go up to the Mandalay Hill to watch the sunset over the city. We took a songthaew up and the driver waited for us to return.

The view from the hill was indeed spectacular, we could see the Royal Palace with its surrounding moat and beyond it the city all the way to the river. There were hundreds of tourists trying to find the optimal spot to capture the beautiful sunset that evening. While looking for a spot of our own, we saw a group of monks that we attempted to photograph but our picture was photobombed by a doppelgänger of North Korea’s supreme leader (that was Mimi’s joke, but I loved it too much to not quote it here!).

Monks photobombed by a doppelganger of North Korea's supreme leader

After walking around for a while we finally managed to find a place that was not crowded. It was 6:30pm then and the sun was setting over the Irrawaddy River.

Sunset over Mandalay from Mandalay Hill

On our way out, we saw groups of monks as well as nuns.

Monks at the top of Mandalay Hill

Nuns at the top of Mandalay Hill

We also saw a Burmese family with two girls that had apparently never seen a moving escalator before. They were so petrified that their parents had to carry them!

Our driver was waiting for us and we asked him to drop us at an Indian vegetarian restaurant Mimi had found online. On the way there, we saw many buildings from the Royal Place lighten up with neon lights that suddenly gave Mandalay a very futuristic look. High in the back you can see the Mandalay Hill.

We arrived at Marie Min around 8pm. I love how all the vegetarian restaurants in Myanmar are called “be kind to animals” restaurants.

Marie-Min vegetarian restaurant

The food there was delicious and fairly cheap even by Mandalay standards. We walked back to our hotel and went to bed soon after. Today was another busy day!

Day 29 | Ayeyarwady River boat to Mandalay and the Moustache Brothers

Day 29 | Ayeyarwady River boat to Mandalay and the Moustache Brothers

Another early day, we spent 11 hours on a boat from Bagan to Mandalay on the Ayeyarwady (aka Irrawaddy) River, then had a real Burmese feast for dinner and watched the infamous Moustache Brothers show in Mandalay.

We woke and packed around 4:15 AM, checked out of the hotel, took our pre-scheduled taxi to the Nyaung-U boat jetty and stepped onto the modern boat taking us to Mandalay.

It was pitch black on the jetty at 5:20 AM with less than a dozen workers guiding us to the boat so I didn’t even know what our boat looked like from the outside as I stepped onto a narrow wooden plank into it.

The boat had two levels, the top level was separated into an indoor section and an outdoor section shaded with a tarp. Most of the seats in the shaded outdoor section were taken by the time we arrived, so we settled into seats indoors. These seats were very comfy and we reclined back to take a nap. Within half an hour of taking off, the staff handed us breakfast boxes. This was a pleasant surprise as we knew lunch was included but no one told us about breakfast.

Yay breakfast

It consisted of 2 pieces of french toast and 1 hard boiled egg. The toast greased through the box onto my hiking pants. Oh well, these poor pants have seen a lot between the vomit and monkey poop and everything in between. Don’t worry, we get laundry done every two weeks or so, trying hard not to fulfill the stinky backpacker stereotype. Then we watched the sun rise in the hazy sky over a bridge near Bagan.

Sunrise on boat to Mandalay

Many hours later, perhaps the midpoint of our trip, we passed by the same company’s boat making the trip in the reverse direction as us. We waved at the passengers on that boat.

Boat from Mandalay

Then it was time for lunch. They took orders for either fried noodles or fried rice. We took our lunches on the dining section on the lower level of the boat.

Yay lunch

For most of the trip we alternated writing blog posts for yolomimo as we passed through many rural villages. Sometimes waving at the fishermen and women and children washing or playing on the riverbanks. In the afternoon we finally saw more bridges and bigger towns on the riverbanks signaling we were soon reaching Mandalay.

Bridge up ahead

This pagoda on a hill is in the ancient city of Sagaing, about 20 km southwest of Mandalay on the west bank of the Ayeyarwady River.

Sagaing Hill

Maurice was enthralled to finally approach our destination.

Watch out!

We were happy to pass by a real working ship modeled after the Burmese royal barge carried on karaweiks. It was probably a luxury cruise.

Karaweik cruise

We finally arrived in Mandalay’s boat jetty at 4:30 PM. We found an eager taxi driver who lifted our bags and walked them off the wooden plank before we could even negotiate a price. We were surprised when we got to his taxi. It was actually a converted pickup truck like the shared taxis or songtaews we took in Thailand. However, this one did not have benches, only a rug laid out for us to sit on. I called it our magic carpet ride.

The traffic in Mandalay, while not as choked up as Yangon with its 4-minute long streetlights, is extremely chaotic. Mandalay has the problem of not having any streetlights (except for 1-2 major north-south and 1-2 major east-west roads). Also unlike Yangon, motorbikes are allowed, so every intersection is plagued with cars, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians determining on-the-fly whether to proceed or wait. We saw a young monk calmly walking the “middle path” through this city street.

Walking the middle path

We checked into The Home Hotel which had a very nice hard-working staff of all young people. The hotel was tucked behind the street hidden in an alleyway. There is no elevator to our fourth floor room, but the view from our room was nice (good enough in my book that we have a view at all) and it was a triple room so we had a refreshingly huge room for the two of us.

From the recommendation of the hotel, we had dinner at a popular Burmese restaurant called Aye Myit Tar. The food was very good, but there was just so much. We each ordered one entrée and it came with at least six small dishes, rice, tea leaves salad and fruit. We tried our hardest to eat every thing in front of us, but the young waiters would come and refill the emptied plates.

Burmese feast

We tried green mango for the first time. Maurice tried a slice of what looked like a granny smith apple and asked the waiter what it was. Interesting that once we knew it’s a mango, you realize oh well of course it tastes like mango. Before that we were scratching our heads, what kind of exotic fruit is this?

The restaurant was packed with locals and sprinkled with tourists throughout. There was a surplus of waiters, perhaps one per table and most of them were school aged boys.

Aye Myit Tar restaurant

After the restaurant we walked a few blocks south to watch the Moustache Brothers’ show. The sign in front of their one-room home / store-front theatre claims “If you have not seen our dancing, you can not say you have been to Mandalay!” Mandalay is well known as the arts and culture capital of Myanmar. This entire street is known for its dance and theatre performances. Moustache Brothers is perhaps the only show that locals are banned from attending.

The brothers Par Par Lay, Lu Maw and their cousin Lu Zaw form the comedic trio, who’s claim to international fame comes from criticizing the dictatorship during a performance in Aung San Suu Kyi’s home in 1996. For the joke about government corruption, Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw received and served a six year prison sentence breaking rocks in a forced labor camp on the Chinese border. The leader of the troupe Par Par Lay was arrested a total of three times lastly in 2007 for his involvement in the anti-government protests, he died in 2013, his brother Lu Maw suspects his death was caused by lead poisoning from the horrible prisons. The remaining Moustache Brothers (Lu Zaw left, Lu Maw right) continued the show since then.

Moustache Brothers

The form of the performance is an old-fashioned Burmese variety show with traditional Burmese dances interspersed with stories and jokes.

Moustache Brothers dancers

Lu Maw as the only English speaker, emcees and tells most of the jokes. He takes light jabs at the countries where the audience members (about 10 people today) are from, jokes about his relationship with his wife (the primary dancer in the dance troupe) and heavily criticizes the Myanmar government.

Moustache Brothers joke

We thought the show felt aged in that the dancing was not great (almost all the dancers are part of the Moustache family too and have been doing the show for 20+ years) and many of the jokes were cheesy. However, I would definitely recommend going as it’s a unique experience to see the bravest comedians in Myanmar and learn about an important (and sad) part of Myanmar’s history and society.