22 Jul The Road from Yangon to Mandalay
We spent the first days of our trip to Burma in its surprisingly modern capital city Yangon. We weren’t expecting glass malls and offices or well-paved roads but that’s what we got, along with typical outdoor Asian markets, shiny pagodas and street sellers. Despite this familiar mix, we still felt that we were exploring a new destination, one not yet geared to western tourists and filled with hotels, 7-11s and hordes of English-speaking touts and Tuk-Tuk drivers.
Outside of our hostel we saw very few other tourists, instead the streets were filled with Burmese men in ankle-length sarongs named Longyis spitting chewed up blobs of blood-red bettle nut onto the pavements and women with chalky smears of make-up on their faces. The roads were choked with rusty trishaws, cars and open-window buses but unusually for Asia, there wasn’t a motorcycle in sight since they’ve been banned within the city.
Yangon isn’t geared towards sightseeing and most of our time in the city was spent getting lost; wandering around in the sweltering heat, taking local buses, riding the famous circle line train and being shown around by a local man named Htun. The one place we did see a lot of tourists was at the golden, diamond-encrusted Shwedagon Pagoda, which was crowded with westerners with cameras, Burmese people who’d come to pray, monks clad in burgundy robes and nuns in pink.
Burma is a big country with fairly poor transport links so travelling between the four main hotspots – Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Lake Inle – can be a slow, arduous process unless you can afford to fly. Flights to Mandalay were far too expensive for us so we went for the cheapest option, a 10-hour overnight bus ride which was actually quite pleasant; we were given free drinks and snacks and enjoyed our own individual TVs and wide reclining seats.
Things to Do in Mandalay – the Good and the Bad
Mandalay was an old British colonial hub which has been much romanticised in songs, books and the famous Rudyard Kipling poem. At first glance the city seemed like a dirtier, more chaotic version of Yangon, however a local Tuk-Tuk driver helped us to uncover some of the city’s charm with an afternoon tour of the main sights. Our first stop was at the ‘World’s Biggest Book’, a pagoda surrounded by 729 stone slabs inscribed with Buddhist scriptures.
Next we made the hot, barefoot 240 metre climb up Mandalay Hill, stopping to rest occasionally while our driver told us about the ongoing political problems in Burma and his experience of life as a monk – all male Buddhists are required to spend some time living at a monastery. When we reached the top of the hill we were greeted by misty vistas of flat, barren countryside and the smoky city – it wasn’t the clearest view but still impressive enough to warrant the long climb.
To finish off the day we stopped by the river to take in the warm, buttery sunset, watching the bobbing sillouettes of fishing boats and people having their evening wash. We stood on the dusty riverbank for some time, mesmerised by the beauty and colour of the sky while kids from the village next to us raced past with red kites streaming behind them – it was the most beautiful moment of our time in Mandalay.
Our Ancient Cities Tour
The next day we decided to take the advice of our hotel receptionist and hire a private car to take us out on a tour of the ancient cities surrounding Mandalay. This turned out to be one of our most difficult days in Burma because we were confronted by the ugly side of the emerging tourist industry in the country.
We were taken to the Mahagandayone monastery where over 1,000 monks live. Their 10am lunch procession has become a big tourist draw and we were ashamed to be part of the crowds who gathered to intrude upon this practice. While we hung back, we witnessed other tourists pushing forward to get photos of the monks; it looked so excruciatingly intrusive. If it weren’t for tourist donations, I doubt the monks would allow the monastery to remain open to the public.
We then climbed to the top of the hill in Sagaing, one of the ancient cities where we took in the now-familiar hazy views of paper-flat countryside studded with buildings before making the journey by boat to our second city, Inwa. On disembarking on the island we were hounded by people who wanted us to hire their horse and carts to get around; as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, our refusal to take part in what we consider to be animal cruelty was met with hostility.
Eventually a man agreed to take us around on the back of his motorbike instead and we sped off to more pagodas only to discover that on top of the £21.35 cost of the tour, boat to the island and motorbike hire we were expected to pay a further £12 in entrance fees to get into the main temples. Frustrated by the whole experience – the coach-trip crowds, the hostile, pushy sellers and overpriced attractions – we decided to stop at a handful of free pagodas instead and head back to the mainland.
Although we weren’t supposed to get to our third city Amarapura until late afternoon, in time to watch the sunset from the famous wooden bridge over the river, we actually arrived there at lunchtime, way ahead of schedule. As we walked along the bridge, watching fishermen wade through the river with their nets and children splash in the shallows, we reflected on how overpriced and underwhelming our morning had been, a reminder of why we usually avoid tours and choose to visit sights independently.
If you’re planning to visit the ancient cities in Mandalay I would highly recommend hiring a scooter and heading out to explore on your own, it’ll be cheaper and far more rewarding. You may not be able to avoid the tourist crowds or the insistent hawkers but you can get around without having to pay for a tour or use a horse and cart. You can also avoid the monastery or at least skip the 10am procession. We left Mandalay the very next day hoping to learn from our mistakes at our next stop, Bagan.