Sunset in Mandalay, Burma

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.

Central Yangon, Burma

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.

Market in Yangon, Burma

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.

Burmese Boy Wearing Make-up

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.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, at night

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.

Views Over Mandalay

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.

Buddha Statue in Mandalay, Burma

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.

Sunset in Mandalay, Burma

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.

Monks at a Monastery in Mandalay

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.

Views over Mandalay

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.

Buddha Statue at a Pagoda in Inwa

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.

Wooden Bridge in Amarapura

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.

  • Catherine
    Posted at 19:49h, 22 July Reply

    Shame the tour didn’t live up to expectations, but I guess it’s a good thing if it means you won’t be making the same mistake again any time soon! Looks like you saw some impressive sights though, love the photos!

    • Amy
      Posted at 08:26h, 23 July Reply

      The sunset over the river in Mandalay was worth the trip alone Catherine but we also enjoyed Mandalay Hill and the pagodas. Our photos from Burma are some of the most beautiful from our entire trip I think.

  • Tyler
    Posted at 03:19h, 23 July Reply

    Our post about Mandalay is going to read pretty similar to this. The ancient cities tour was a poor value and hiring a motorbike is the way to do it, if you’re going to. The sunset at the bridge was nice, but the rest of it was a pass in my mind. We preferred the view from atop Mandalay Hill to Sagaing and the monk processional was just saddening. The stops at the various shops weren’t too pushy, but you could find it all on your own.

    Did you guys eat at the chapati place at the corner of 27th and 82nd?

    • Amy
      Posted at 08:31h, 23 July Reply

      Hi Tyler, interesting to hear that you had a similar experience in Mandalay. It would have been nice to see sunset from the bridge too but there was just no way we were going to hang around from lunchtime till 6-7pm, especially when we were feeling so dispirited. We didn’t even have lunch because we were so over everything – did you have some good food at the chapati place?

  • Alex Taylor
    Posted at 10:17h, 23 July Reply

    Hi Amy, Thanks for the post! I’ve been trying to find the cheapest way of doing the Yangon to Mandalay trip. Muchly appreciated!

    • Amy
      Posted at 18:45h, 23 July Reply

      No worries Alex 🙂

  • Steven Martin
    Posted at 12:52h, 23 July Reply

    Sorry to hear you had a negative experience in Mandalay. I only managed to get to one of the ‘ancient city’ sights, due to a stomach bug. I rented a motorbike with a driver (who I’d met when arriving off the early morning bus from Inle) for the afternoon. We went to Amapura. The motorbike driver was great, not too pushy and as this wasn’t a tour but just a driver I was free to do what I wanted and spend as much or as little time as I wanted at different places. Maybe this compromise of getting a driver but not going on a ‘tour’ is a good option.

    • Amy
      Posted at 18:49h, 23 July Reply

      Sounds like a good option Steve if you’re not confident riding a bike, it would have been a good plan for us I think. We did enjoy the time we spent going up Mandalay Hill and watching the sunset over the river though.

  • Kendra (the Escapologist)
    Posted at 13:23h, 23 July Reply

    Thank you for the advice. I hope to travel to Burma sometime next year. Sorry your tour was…well…touristy. It’s good you got out of it when you did. Your pictures are beautiful!

    • Amy
      Posted at 18:52h, 23 July Reply

      Thanks Kendra, we did get some amazing pictures in Burma – the scenery was beautiful. I hope you get to Burma, it was definitely a memorable country for us.

  • Katie
    Posted at 02:11h, 24 July Reply

    We just learned the hard way (again) about tours too… it’s really too bad – they can be a lot easier! But I never like them. I loved your sunset shot though! It doesn’t sound like Mandalay was one of your favorite stops… I hope Bagan is better! 🙂

    • Amy
      Posted at 09:07h, 24 July Reply

      Bagan was beautiful Katie and we found some really good food there too so it was a great stop! The sunsets and sunrises in Burma were really spectacular in general 🙂

  • The Guy
    Posted at 07:19h, 26 July Reply

    A very interesting experience you’ve had and hopefully anyone planning a trip to Burma/Myanmar can learn from your experience.

    Now the country is opening up to the world the tourist industry could really blossom, let’s hope it is more respectfully and professionally than some of the people you came across.

    I couldn’t help it, but as soon as I saw the title for this article I couldn’t stop the Robbie Williams song going around in my head! 😉

    • Amy
      Posted at 21:24h, 29 July Reply

      Ha, I think the song inspired the title for this post 🙂 I will be really interested to keep an eye on how tourism develops in Burma; it’s a tough issue but I hope it works out so that the Burmese people benefit from tourism and tourists can visit and enjoy the country respectfully.

  • Stefan Arestis
    Posted at 18:01h, 15 December Reply

    Noted to skip the ancient cities then! LP seems to speak quite highly of Mandalay but I noticed you used Yangon as your transport hub for entry/exit to Thailand – any reason why? Or just because the flights were cheaper? (We’re about to book ours you see, and also wondering to do 2 weeks or 3 weeks like you guys, any longer would seem to bankrupt us! lol)

    • Amy
      Posted at 12:21h, 16 December Reply

      The cheapest flights we could find were from Bangkok to Yangon, which is why we went for that option. It would have been more convenient to then fly out of Mandalay but we couldn’t spare the cash so that’s why we travelled in a loop and flew back out of Yangon again. Good luck with booking the flights!

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