Mandalay – second largest city in Myanmar after Yangon and the last capital of the country, population 1.2 million.
The train journey from Yangon to Mandalay was one of the highlights of my trip to Myanmar, literally a step back in time. Apparently nothing has changed since the days of the British Raj. The carriage rocks from side to side, bounces up and down while swaying, all at the same time hahaha, you actually get bounced completely off your seat and get airborne. How on earth it stayed on the tracks is beyond me. I took the day train for the view, there is a night sleeper train but that would be a waste of time because you would miss the view, not get a wink of sleep and would finish the journey bruised and battered from getting bounced out of your bunk :-). The seats are narrow with more than enough legroom and the carriage was half empty. The travel agent booked my ticket which cost $10. We departed at 0600 on the dot and arrived at 2120, journey tine of 15:20 hours, distance 650km, average speed 40-50 kph. The train stops frequently and there is a constant stream of hawkers parading through the train, selling food, snacks, beer, water, etc. The noise is deafening with the rattling, banging, clattering of the carriage combined with hawkers shouting and most of the windows open letting in noise and dust. My ticket got checked 4 times, every time a new conductor got on the train I think, so keep it handy.
First stop today was a hand loom workshop, next to the Mahagandhayon Monastery which has 1400 monks, they parade along the street in the morning with bowls and tourists who are lined up on either side of the street put food and gifts into them. Next drove to the U Bein Bridge, a very long footbridge across the river, walked across it and back, lots of people out and about it being Sunday the one holiday of the week. Next to a wood carving workshop and then to a place that makes gold leaf the old fashioned way by beating it with a hammer. Lunch at a restaurant that stunk of cat pee really bad, did not want to upset anyone so sat down hoping I would get used to the smell, ordered Pork Mango Pickle and it only had one piece of meat the rest was fat, never order pork in an Asian country unless you like pork fat. After lunch was an unscheduled surprise we went to a Wedding reception, the drivers friends son/daughter. Next to the Palace, here you have to buy a 10,000 kyat Mandalay Zone Pass which gives you access to 5 sites. Wandered around the palace, the grounds are huge with a wall and moat around them, the military has barracks inside. Next to the Shwenandaw Kyaung Temple carved out of wood then the Kuthodaw Pagoda which has 700 something smaller pagodas around it. Last stop for the day was sunset from the top of Mandalay Hill, parked and then an escalator to the top 1000 kyat fee, lots of Buddha’s, mirrors and lights, waited for an hour until sunset, many foreign tourists. You have to wait for the escalator to reverse direction to get back down.
Day 2 in Mandalay I was woken at 0500 by the Muslim call to prayer so there must be a mosque in the area, this place has a Muslim population of various ethnicities. The day started with a drive to Mingun across the Irrawaddy river. There is a 5000 kyat zone fee, they gave me a sticker and a map but no ticket did not think of this until later, capitalism at work. First stop a huge brick monolith Pa Hto Taw Gyi, walked around it then kept going to Molmi Paya an abandoned Pagoda, next the Mingun Bell, after that another Pagoda and then the White Pagoda. This is a tourist area both local and foreign. Street lined with shops and stray dogs. With the new Government of Aung Sun See schools are now free, seatbelts are compulsory and many roads have been resurfaced. From Mingun we drove to Sagaing where there are a number of Monasteries, Meditation Centres, Pagodas and a convent or two. Pink robes everywhere, that’s what the nuns wear, looked fairly young but hard to even tell their gender with shaven heads. Drove to the top of the hill, a pagoda with a view and a pagoda built by the Japanese. Next stop the river for lunch at a local restaurant very good. After that I took a 5 minute ferry across the river to Inwa or Ava, about 50 “Horse Carts” as they call them waiting to take the tourists for a ride at 10,000 each, I declined and walked on. Small villages, very primitive, still using bullock carts and making everything by hand including cloth and houses with walls and doors made of palm leaves. Ruined pagodas, Museum closed, walked through the fields using Maps Me to navigate, back to the boat after 5.5km and 1.5 hrs.