Mandalay: The Former Capital of British Burma
Mandalay, located in central Myanmar along the Irrewaddy River, became the capital of Burma in 1857, only to be taken under British rule in 1885. It remained the capital of the country through British rule which ended in 1948, when Burma gained independence. The city is said to have had infrastructure on the same level as London in the early 1900s, but much of this was not kept up and deteriorated over time. Mandalay is now Myanmar’s second largest city and is considered to be one of the most important places for Burmese culture and education.
The city itself, though still crazy, has a much more organized and relaxed feel than Myanmar’s largest city, Yangon. Because of the years under British rule, the streets have a grid system, are wide, and are numbered. This makes it easy to navigate. Besides the dusty streets in Mandalay, the city feels much cleaner than Yangon.
To visit the five main sights in Mandalay, which include the Grand Palace, a few temples, and a few monasteries, one must buy a pass for $10. We heard the Grand Palace is not the most exciting place to visit since most of it is closed off to visitors. And after seeing so many temples and pagodas in Bagan and Yangon, we weren’t too thrilled about paying to see more. So we ended up passing on the admission ticket and trying other things.
Overlooking the Grand Palace and the rest of Mandalay, Mandalay Hill has become almost a short pilgrimage for locals. The 45-minute walk up hundreds of steps leads past several different Buddha statues and a small temple. We happened to visit the hill on Valentine’s Day, and the place had many visitors making the trek up. Vendors had small scenes set up where one could get a professional picture done. A funny thing about Valentine’s Day in Myanmar, we found, is that many teenage couples wear matching shirts. Some even had a half a heart on the boy and the other half on the girl. Something that a teenager in the US would never, ever been seen with.
In our time in Myanmar, we noticed that people really take an interest in foreigners and like to stare. On Mandalay Hill, for whatever reason, it was even more than usual. A majority of the people who walked by us were staring and/or smiling at us. We find it very funny, so we just stare and smile back. I’d never seen people so interested and so giggly. Kids walking by loved saying “Hello!” and others would say the Burmese greeting, “Mingalaba”. It actually became really fun. Without being able to speak to a good amount of people here, it’s good to have some kind of communication. And smiling is a way to communicate with anyone.
Amarapura and the U-Bein Teak Bridge
Another ex-capital of a kingdom of the region that is now Myanmar, Amarapura is a popular day trip from Mandalay. Now a small town, it now has a large Buddhist monastery. But it’s most known for the U-Bein Bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge. Built about 200 years ago, the 0.7 mile (1.2km) was primarily used for commuting fishermen and monks. Now it has become a tourist attraction, especially at sunset when the sky turns orange which makes for incredible pictures as monks and others are continually crossing the bridge.
There are a few options for getting to the bridge, which is about 6.5 miles (11km) south of Mandalay. One can hire a taxi for about 15,000 Kyatts ($15) round-trip. The other option, which has become a theme for us, is renting a bicycle. Our hotel rented out bicycles for 2,000 Kyatts ($2) per day. Since I write a blog named “Frugal Purpose”, I am sure you know which option we chose. Plus, renting the bicycle turned out to be even more of an adventure than I could’ve ever imagined.
Just like any city in Southeast Asia, drivers in Mandalay seem to be crazy, reckless, and just dangerous. Cars pass at any given point, forcing the drivers in oncoming traffic to move over and create space. Intersections rarely have traffic lights and are typically unmarked which turns into something almost like a 4-way yield with no rules. You kind of just go when you can. The bigger the vehicle, the less likely you are to slow down at an intersection. Motorcycles cruise through the streets, some even coming at you head-on on the shoulder of the road. Street vendors push their food carts on the far right side of the road. People, motorcycles, and vehicles are everywhere.
But somehow it just all works, no matter how chaotic it may be. Drivers are very aware and are great at giving others space. For example, if I am passing a parked car that is on the shoulder, the car or motorcycle sees this and gives a good amount of space as they pass by; or if they aren’t able to pass, they’ll slow down and wait for a better time to pass. There were times when I would pass a food vendor, while a motorcycle passed me, and a car passes the motorcycle, all at the same time. And it all works. Cars and motorcycles give a small honk before passing. As overwhelming as everything is, it feels much safer than biking in a city in the US, where drivers seem to be less aware and less worried about anything that is not a car. As scary as it all sounds, it was actually fun and exhilarating at the same time.
We arrived in Amarapura around noon and had the entire day to relax and enjoy the surroundings. Until around 4pm, we seemed to be the only foreigners in the area. The tour buses starting rolling in after 4pm to watch the sunset. We spent our afternoon by walking across the bridge, eating lunch at one of the local restaurants, and enjoyed a fresh sugar cane juice. This is something I had never seen before, but many street vendors and restaurants have a machine which takes in the entire sugar cane stick and squeezes out all of the juice into a pan. The 100% natural sugar cane juice is then put over ice in a pint glass and sold for about 500 Kyatts ($0.50).
The bridge is very cool to see, especially as many monks and other locals are using it in their daily lives. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to stay for the entire sunset since we had to cycle back, but we what we did see was really nice. It was well worth the day-trip from Mandalay, especially with the adventure of the bicycle.