We arrived at Mandalay airport from Bagan ($46/flight) around 9am amidst pure chaos dealing with bags and transportation. Forget baggage claim, your bags just appear in the hands of the baggage boys from the runway. Luckily, we had purchased a taxi transfer while staying in Bagan. It cost 8000 kyat ($10) vs. maybe double locally. The airport is way out from the city center, a 40 minute ride to the Royal City hotel ($30/night) near the palace. We read that Mandalay was more modern than Yangon hearing things like the palace had been rebuilt since the British invasion. In reality, the confusion left by King Thibaw’s ouster on November 28th 1885 still exists today. Late 19th century Burma had a population around 5 million.
Today, there are over 50 million Burmese lining the dusty streets in search of your US dollar. Their culture is an amalgamation of Indian, Chinese and Thai ancestry. Buddhism rules all aspects of daily life. Despite great efforts to expel Indians from the British-India era, many exist and generations since have bread with the “ethnic Burmese” people. There is a booming Chinese population (from Yunnan) helping keep Mandalay the economic hub of Northern Burma. All men still wear the “lungyi” cloths introduced by the British.
There are no traffic lights, trash cans, trains, reliable roadways…… and all the other things you’d expect from the government. But, the palace has been rebuilt and you can tour the famous Mahamuni Temple! And, there are lines of drivers and tour guides ready to charge you double other Southeast Asian countries. Food in Mandalay is relatively cheap ($6 meal for two), especially if you are vegetarian. We ate constantly at Marie Min vegetarian restaurant (We are vegetarians since chicken toenail incident) before heading out on day trips to the Mahumuni Paya and the ancient cities of Ava (Inwa) and Amarapura.
We hopped a pickup truck (main form of transport in Mandalay) (#6 bus, 80th & 29th) to Mahamuni Paya 20 minutes south of city center (200 kyat each – $.25). Very cheap transport but boy do they pack those trucks with people sitting on the roof and handing off the backs and sides. As not too many tourists travel this way, when we boarded all the locals were staring at us as if we were from another planet. We felt a little awkward at first, but everyone was very kind and we knew the stares were because they probably don’t see many people like us everyday. It may have not helped that Christie was wearing shorts instead covering her legs like all Burmese women. Also, didn’t help that I’m super white.
After an interesting ride with the locals in the pickup truck, we arrived at the Mahamuni Buddha. As our legs were not completely covered we were both required to wear a lungyi. While chuckling, two kind Burmese women wrapped us in our lungyi and we left our shoes behind as collateral. We walked down the long hallway of vendors before approaching the main worship area where the Buddha lives. The Buddha is covered with 6-inches of gold leaf and may be as old as 1st century AD. Only men are allowed to approach the gold Buddha statue.
All women are prohibited to go inside with the Buddha and must worship from afar only seeing through a small opening. We walked all around the temple grounds to a nice courtyard with water, turtles, and street vendors. One thing we’ll never forget was being approached by a poor young woman and her son. They were obviously starving and had satanic stares in their eyes. It was like they were possessed with a disease and kept making gestures from hand to mouth. On one hand it was scary and the other made us realize how fortunate we are.
Walking to find a ride back to the city center was quite interesting. We encountered hundreds of outdoor Buddha statute factories. Every local wanted to speak English with us or offer us a ride. We finally found a “bus” (aka – pickup truck) and went back to the downtown near the palace (200 kyat each – $.25)
Our first day in Mandalay ended while eating tasty street chapati with tasty curry dips at Nay Cafe for 300 kyat total ($.40). Chapati (Indian dish) is a thin pancake of unleavened whole-grain bread cooked on a griddle. It’s very tasty! We then dashed to the rooftop of our hotel to watch the beautiful sun setting over the city of Mandalay and a horizon of rooftops and satellites.
See our Photo Album:
Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)