I will keep this pretty short and sweet. We didn’t spend very long in Mandalay, only spent about 2.5 days there and easily could have skipped it.
The city is more sprawling than others we visited, traffic was just as bad as Yangon but places you’d want to go for sightseeing are spread further apart, and streets are wider and even less walkable. We like to walk and when that’s less of an option, we aren’t as happy.
We arrived after a 10-hour bus ride from Inle Lake on the night of Christmas. Our hotel, Hotel 8 was lovely for the low cost and even had a small Christmas present wrapped for us. So the only present I unwrapped this year was a small purse from our hotel.
Then, I had looked for a place to treat ourselves to a nice Christmas dinner to make up for being cooped up all day and luckily there was a very nice German restaurant (go figure) only a couple of blocks from our hotel. So we enjoyed a fancy 33 USD dinner (very high for Myanmar but still felt like a steal to us) with drinks and chocolate lava cake and then made some holiday phone calls to family.
Our first full day in city we struck out to walk around and visit the Glass Palace. Like so many visitors to Myanmar, I had read the book by the same name as pre-reading for this trip and even though I had heard it was underwhelming I still wanted to visit.
We could have taken one of the many many taxis soliciting us along the way to reach the eastern gate where tourists are allowed to enter but instead walked the 5km+ along the moat. It’s a nice walk once you have gotten off the city streets.
All the people who told me to be prepared to be underwhelmed by the palace were correct though. After paying the entrance fee, handing over a passport as a deposit of sorts, and putting on the badge that labeled us as tourists, we were able to walk down the road to the palace entrance. There are military buildings on either side that we were not allowed to leave the main road or take any photos.
Once at the palace, you can see how the government rebuilding has not really lived up to the splendor that is described in Ghosh’s novel. Still, after being largely destroyed in bombings during WWII the government has recreated many structures that would have existed though the teak and jewels are now just plywood and mirrors or colored glass.
The palace was also the place where the most Myanmar nationals asked us to pose in photos with them. This happened more than we had expected in both Mandalay and again in Bagan. Most of the time it was women, sometimes boyfriends would ask for their girlfriends or fathers for their daughters, and with limited English we never understood more than that they wanted a picture with a foreigner. So, now Nate and I will pop up in family photos for about a dozen Burmese people.
Unfortunately, after touring the palace, I started feeling terrible (yet another visit by a minor stomach bug) and we ended up cutting the rest of our day short so that I could rest at the hotel. We did make it back out for dinner at Shan Ma Ma for some Shan noodle soup to soothe my stomach but that was about it.
To salvage our second day and take advantage of the fact that I was recovered, we booked a bike tour of Inn Wa with Grasshopper Adventures. Biking in Mandalay itself is not very safe and so instead they picked us up and drove us out of the city about 45 minutes where we hopped on some very nice trail bikes (a huge improvement from the bikes we used in Inle) for a 20km ride.
Along the way we stopped briefly to see some local crafts like weaving and making cheroot cigars, as well as visiting some pagodas and the ruins of a monastery. The highlight of the bike trip was sunset at the U Bein bridge though. The U Bein bridge is 1.2 km long and we were told it is believed to be the longest and oldest teakwood bridge, though I don’t know that there is stiff competition. The bridge was built with repurposed teak from monasteries around 1850.
We were at the bridge during one of the last days of an LED light festival and so in addition to the boats that took us out for sunset there was a collection of LED light installations ranging from giant high heel shoes to an Eiffel Tower. There were a surprising number of locals there to enjoy the show. We left right after sunset though to get our bus back to our hotel so only got a passing glimpse of the festivities.
After our two days in Mandalay, we left on the popular MGRG ferry boat from Mandalay to Bagan. The trip takes most of a day and is a peaceful way to make the trip, much better than the minibus trip we took to get to Mandalay. It requires an early start with boarding starting at 6am but both breakfast and lunch were served on-board and we were able to sit on the covered upper deck and enjoy the passing scenery or read while enjoying a light breeze off the water.
In the end, Mandalay was missing the old-world charm of Yangon and wasn’t as interesting as either Inle Lake or Bagan. Itwasn’t easy to walk around and though we had some good food and a perfectly good bike tour, we left feeling very much like we could have skipped this stop.