To finish our short two and a half weeks in Burma, Mitch and I headed to Mandalay. Overall, we found city life in Mandalay similar to Yangon, except people utilize their car horns even MORE than in Yangon (we didn’t think this was possible). We did enjoy getting out of the city to the surrounding points of interest, especially Inwa, where the scenery was more natural.
Check out Part 1 of our Mandalay highlights below:
The Mandalay Royal Palace
Visiting the Mandalay Royal Palace was interesting… The palace was the old palace of the last king before the British colonized. It was built in the mid 19th century but almost completely destroyed during World War II. After being rebuilt in the 90’s, it is now surrounded by military barracks. Foreigners are only allowed in a very small portion of the grounds and are inundated with messages of power and military might from Tatmadaw. Have you not heard of the Tatmadaw? A quick Wikipedia search will give you a very eye-opening and overview of their history and current practices.
The Royal Palace is still an important symbol in Burma, which is why we still decided to visit it despite its strong military presence.
Sandamani and Kuthodaw Temples
What’s a day in Southeast Asia without visiting at least a handful of temples!? I jest, but really, every city has at least two or three temples on the must-see list. We were quickly becoming templed out, but we made some time to see the unique Sandamani and Kuthodaw Temples which feature hundreds of white pagodas each housing a stone tablet with Buddha’s teachings engraved.
Shwenandaw Kyaung Temple
Next up on the temple circuit was the beautiful Shwenandaw Temple, made entirely of teak. It was once completely covered in gold leaf, which has now almost completely rubbed off, leaving the even more beautiful teak exposed. Shwenandaw is the only original building of the Mandalay Royal Palace still surviving today.
The doorways featured beautiful carvings from Buddhist myth I absolutely fell in love with. It was easy to enjoy the atmosphere and architectural beauty of Shwenandaw, as the surroundings were quiet and peaceful with the distant sound of chanting monks wafting through the air.
We ended up picking an overcast day to climb to the top of Mandalay hill, which did have a silver lining, as it was much nicer to climb in cloudier weather. Unfortunately, the views were not as spectacular as they could have been because of the haze. The climb took about an hour and a half including photo taking breaks and had to be done completely barefoot, since there are many temples along the way through which you walk. Our favorite temples were towards the top.
While passing many temples, we noticed that some families lived in or immediately next to the temples. They were temple caretakers, and many had their homes set-up right in the temple as you walked by. Their living quarters were usually a small, square space with a bed or two, a television, and a portable kitchenette set up. Many sold souvenirs to passersby as well.
The Ubiquitous Cane Ball
Each evening in Mandalay at around sunset, we would walk into the streets to see groups of young men playing some variation of ball game using a hollow, rattan looking ball. We learned the ball is actually made out of sugar cane reeds. Some guys played in a circle just kicking the ball around using only their feet; this reminded me of the similar hackey sack game, except these guys were much more talented than anyone I’d ever seen play hackey sack. Other young men had a volleyball-like net set up and were playing a game similar to volleyball using only their feet; we learned the game is called chinlone.
Overall, we quite enjoyed our time in Mandalay proper. Being in a big city in Burma does take some time to get used to, but after a few days, we adjusted and were able to enjoy ourselves, the food, the people, and the culture.
I think one of the most eye-opening moments for me in Mandalay was being a westerner on vacation, staying in a hotel (granted, it was very budget-friendly and modest) across the street from families living in tents. Walking outside each morning felt like a rude awakening and was hard to see.
I don’t believe I am naive or unaware of how lucky I am, but I do think it’s easy to take our everyday conveniences for granted (even though we may be socially conscious and aware people). Even having some aspects of my personality (the part of me that is particular about cleanliness and hygiene) is a true luxury to have. This is not to mention having access to running water (not even warm water), electricity that doesn’t randomly go out (this probably happened at least six times during our stay in Burma), healthcare (Burma/Myanmar spends about 2% of its GDP on healthcare and is ranked last by WHO in a list of 190 countries with respect to “overall healthcare performance” [Forbes]), true freedom of speech, one could go on… Despite this, everyone we met was incredibly welcoming, and we never felt anything other than warmth and kindness from everyone we met. It really made me think about how I’d like to return the hospitality for each country we visit.
Next up: we take a day trip to beautiful Inwa.