No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay . . .
Mandalay by Rudyard Kipling
We made it to our final destination, the city of Mandalay, romanticized by Rudyard Kipling in his famous poem. We’ve been on the road for twelve weeks having seen some of the most incredible wildlife and sights, with Bagan, being arguably the jewel of the trip. It seemed almost anticlimactic to end up in Mandalay given that the city itself isn’t that much of a tourist attraction. But the surrounding towns and villages have a ton of history and architecture worth seeing. We had 1.5 days, so we decided to dedicate a half day to Mandalay itself and one full day to see the surrounding sights.
Pagodas and Sunset Views from Mandalay Hill
Mandalay itineraries typically include the royal palace, a few pagodas and sunset on Mandalay Hill. The royal palace is an army base now, and what is visible to tourists didn’t sound particularly interesting, so we passed on it. Unfortunately, it was between us and the main pagodas and Mandalay Hill, so we embarked on a seriously boring 4 mile walk around the walled complex. We could have taken a motorbike taxi since there are very few car taxis in Mandalay, but G wasn’t too jazzed about that option and we were used to walking everywhere by now anyway.
We first hit Sandamuni and Kuthodaw Pagodas, with their classic, golden central stupas surrounded by forests of smaller white stupas, and we were glad we made the effort. Both were fun to photograph, at least from the outside.
A unique feature of Kuthodaw was that its small shrines contained stone tablets inscribed with the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism.
Unfortunately, the interiors of these 19th century structures were way overdone with mirrored columns and walls, and little of the charming, intricate metal and glass work of the older structures from earlier in the trip.
We thought they looked gaudy until we poked our heads into Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda and had gaudy redefined for us. They took the mirrored column and wall thing and added green lights on everything that couldn’t run away. You could put that baby in Las Vegas and it would fit right in.
Viva Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda!
Across the street was the beginning of the stairway up Mandalay Hill, which was hard to miss with two giant Chinthe (lions?) statues guarding the entrance.
The 700 foot climb from there took us past the Bo Bo Gyi Nat Shrine at the base of the hill and through a complex array of pagodas surrounded by vendor stalls. It was getting close to sunset and the fading light gave the now empty complex a sort of eerie feeling. When we reached Su Taung Pyi Pagoda at the top of the hill it was like a whole different world. The original structure supposedly goes back to the 11th century and it was covered with tourists having casual conversations with Buddhist monks practicing their English.
We got to listen to westerners and the monks exchange snippets of their lifestyles while watching the sun go down over the Ayeyarwady River. The contrast between the lives of people who own nothing and people who can afford to do leisure travel around the world was like night and day.
Taking a Motorbike Taxi and hanging on for dear life
And now we were faced with getting back in time to make it to the Mandalay Marionettes Theater to catch their nightly show. So walking back was out of the question. As we approached the taxi stand at the top of the hill, we only found motorbikes waiting to take us down the dark narrow hairpin-turn road. We were offered to ride tandem on two single bikes for 8000 kyats each. After some negotiations, we managed to get it down to 5000 kyats each, but G chickened out and we walked away hoping to find a car taxi further down the hill. When we reached the road that bisects the hill half way down, there were still no car taxis but one of the motorbike drivers from top of the hill just happened to be there waiting for us. So sneaky and clever. Exhausted and anxious to get back to the hotel, we took him up on his offer with a promise that he will go “slowly” down the hill. Against our better judgement, we climbed onto his bike with D sandwiched between the driver and G. All three of us barely fit on the bike and we prayed that we wouldn’t become Mandalay road kill. It was both exhilarating and terrifying winding our way down through the twisty turns and busy streets of Mandalay. When we got to the hotel in one piece, G had to pry himself off the bike from the death grip he had on the seat.
Marionettes and Mosquitoes
We asked the hotel to order us a cab for the Mandalay Marionettes show and they gave a lead time that would get us to the show 30 minutes late. Turns out there are hardly any car taxis in Mandalay. Who knew? Still, we got to see half the show and it was fun. The theater seats about 50, but there were only 5 of us inside not including the mosquitoes that kept feasting on us. Afterward the whole cast came out to say hi and thank us for coming. I hope it was just an off night. The puppeteers and musicians were quite good.