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.
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.
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.
A lot of the buildings look very similar but each had a specific function for the royal family.
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.
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.
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.
On our way out, we saw this Burmese couple taking wedding pictures. Cool to see a bride not wearing a traditional white wedding dress.
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.
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).
The inside of the monastery featured numerous very detailed teak carvings such as that one of elephants fighting which Mimi obviously loved.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The pagoda with Mandalay Hill in the background.
The temple itself is famous for its large Buddha statue carved in a single block of marble.
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.
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.
Here is a view of a group of aligned white stupas that the pagoda is famous for.
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.
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.
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 posing in front of the Buddha statue with her cheeks covered with Thanaka.
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!).
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.
On our way out, we saw groups of monks as well as nuns.
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.
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!