A Guide to Mandalay
Immortalized in prose and verse, the last royal capital of Myanmar is leaping off the page into modernity. Photos by Jason Campbell
Mandalay. The name alone is enough to evoke romantic images of bygone times: palm trees swaying in the breeze, endless rice paddies, streets lined with teahouses, elephants, teak and gold. Sat on the east bank of the Ayeyarwady River, Myanmar’s second largest city is home to countless temples, monasteries and pagodas, but just as fascinating is its rapid modernization. To some, present-day Mandalay is a charmless, bustling city whose streets are choked by the noise and pollution of cheaply purchased motorcycles. But navigate your way past the persistent taxi-touting hawkers, clad in longyi (traditional sarongs), at the otherwise empty Mandalay International Airport, and you’ll discover a city, and people, still largely untainted by the ravages of tourism.
Take in the Views
At the center of town is Mandalay Palace, the nation’s last royal palace (ending 1885), surrounded by a large square-shaped moat. As much of the palace compound was destroyed in World War II, what exists today was mostly restored or rebuilt in the last 20 years using forced labor. When you factor in that the US$10 entry fee goes to the government responsible and that foreigners can’t visit most of the grounds, it’s perhaps best experienced from the outside with a nice evening walk around the moat, when you can also witness an endless stream of young couples meeting secretively in the shadows. A short motorbike ride away, the 240-meter-high Mandalay Hill (entry US$4) is the ideal place to fully take in your surroundings. The 45-minute climb, all barefoot, will take you past countless souvenir and refreshment stands (mostly manned by sleepy, un-pushy matrons and their playful kids), but you are rewarded with fine views of the city’s sprawl (complete with decorative plumes of dust) and the surrounding farmlands dotted with stupas. The site is especially popular at sunset when young monks and aspiring tour guides alike converge to test out their English.
Walk the Markets
Downtown Mandalay is bustling with life, and traffic, but it maintains a small-town feel mainly due to the welcoming smiles of locals at every turn—and it’s the small everyday encounters that leave the biggest impression. A stroll around Kaingdan Zay, the busy morning market near the famous Zeigyo central market (west of 84th St, between 26th and 28th St), makes for a multi-sensory experience as garrulous vendors line the streets with their fresh produce, spices and dried fish. With barely any foreign tourists to be seen, you’ll be free to immerse yourself in the colors, sounds and smells as hawkers, many of them women clad in ethnic clothing and with faces bearing the distinctive smears of dried yellow thanaka paste (a traditional cosmetic), go about their day. Not far away, a small shophouse simply named Hobby (82nd St, between 28th and 29th St) is a treasure trove of old watches, sunglasses, Burmese-language magazines and folk art. Strike up a conversation with the wizened stall-owners and settle in for a lengthy history lesson.
Make Friends at the Teahouse
Put aside any romantic notions you may have of Mandalay’s many teahouses; come night-time, these male-dominated establishments are boisterous affairs, especially if there’s a big football match on-screen. Crouching on low plastic seats that spill onto the road, the clientele beckon wait staff (some tiny children) with a shrill smacking of lips as they unceremoniously spit red rivulets of betel onto the curbside. In many cases, the drinks, too, are hardly cause for much fanfare, unless you’re a fan of tea and coffee mix served with a liberal dose of sweetened condensed milk. Yet beyond this rough exterior, you’ll meet cheery National League for Democracy card-toting youths and charming family men, red-stained teeth and all, who’d like nothing more than to buy you a cup of tea, ask you your favorite football team, and hear your take on Aung San Suu Kyi. It’s a common claim from tourists that Mandalay lacks nightlife options, but while there are no nightclubs, there is a smattering of what the locals call “beer stations”—not too different to the teahouses, only with selections of cheap local beer (beware Dagon Extra Strong) available on tap and in bottles. Try walking down 73rd Street, south from Mandalay Palace, and start by joining the crowds at the “world-famous in Mandalay” J&J bar. With the amber nectar and milk of human kindness in full flow, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t so long ago that Myanmar was morally off-limits to tourists. Oh, and don’t underestimate the power of “Gangnam Style” as an ice-breaker.
Get Out of Town
While there’s nothing to quite rival Yangon’s iconic Shwedagon Pagoda, Mandalay is widely considered Myanmar’s cultural hub for the preserved heritage of several ancient kingdoms. In this respect, Mandalay’s best sights are located outside the city, many making for easy day-trips. One popular excursion involves hiring a minivan or, even better, a motorbike with a guide (our hosts at the Rich Queen Guesthouse organized this within half an hour, 21,000k/day) to visit three former capitals: Amarapura, now a small township best known as the home of U Bein, the world’s longest teakwood bridge at 1208 meters; Inwa, where the remnants of a former royal capital of more than five centuries can be explored by horse-drawn cart; and Sagaing, best known for its stupa-strewn hill and views of over 400 monasteries (warning: there’s another 240-meter climb). Depending on your time constraints, you may choose to mix and match your destinations to fit in a trip to Mingun (also reachable by boat), home to Mingun Pahtodawgyi, the ruins of a huge unfinished stupa, and the “largest uncracked ringing bell in the world” (weighing in at 90 tons), or Paleik, better known as the “Snake Pagoda.” There, at 11am daily, the three huge resident pythons (seemingly doped) slither out for a bath and some photo time with visitors, a mix of Buddhist devotees and inquisitive tourists. Further afield, Pyin U Lwin (2 hours by bus), a former British colonial retreat, where much of the country’s coffee and wine is produced, makes for a desirable overnight stay, with its cooler temperatures and sophisticated dining scene.
Street food abounds in Mandalay, but at first it may seem a tough place to get a nice, hygienic bite. You can get your good-but-not-great fill of Western fare (and American diner kitsch) at Café City nearby the moat, but for something more elevated try A Little Bit of Mandalay (No. 413/B, Block 803, 65th St, between 27-28th Street, [95-2]61295). Set in a peaceful garden in a quiet part of town (the only din provided by tour buses) and with a menu boasting quotes from Voltaire, prices are a bit steep by local standards, but at 9,000k, the “Myanmar Set Menu” provides a solid intro to the local cuisine, with options including crispy tofu chips, lentil soup and a delightfully salty Myanmar curry (chicken, beef, pork or prawn). Less extravagant but even more delicious is the Indian fare served up at Pan Cherry (No. 283, 81st St, between 26-27th St, [95-2] 39924). Favored by motorcycle taxi drivers (a gaggle of whom pointed us here), the specialty duck and chicken curries (2,500k each) are complemented by endless refills of rice and an abundance of side plates (roast eggplant, potato, mungbeans, relishes, you name it), so that the end result is something that resembles Indian thali.
See It All
Mandalay is the major transport hub for northern and central Myanmar. The rest of Myanmar’s “big four”—Bagan, Inle Lake and Yangon—can all be reached overland or by domestic flights, though travel can be sketchy. Bus trips can veer from the mildly uncomfortable to the tortuous; expect air-conditioned comfort but you’d better pack those noise-canceling headphones: Myanmar’s soap operas are possibly more obnoxious than lakorn and are likely to be blaring through the bus’ sound system. At least you can generally trust the driver to stop somewhere decent for meals.
AirAsia flies directly to Mandalay from Don Mueang Airport four times a week (from B1,500 one-way). Mandalay International Airport is located some 35km (about one hour’s drive) from Mandalay city center. There is no public transport, so choose from the range of old, beaten-up sedans that function as private (about 12,000k/US$15) and shared taxis (4,000 k/US$5 per person).
WHERE TO STAY
Travel guides warn of accommodation shortages during the high season, but this mostly applies to high-end options. Of these, Sedona Mandalay (www.sedonahotels.com.sg), situated in the leafy part of town to the south-east of Mandalay Palace, is popular among retiree tour groups and high-fliers alike, for its massive outdoor pool and views towards Mandalay Hill. It’s also something of a landmark for locals, including the erstwhile taxi drivers that gather at street corners. Rooms are from US$300.
If you get stuck, there are plenty of mid-range Chinese-style hotels around 83rd Street, including Universe Hotel ([95-2]33245); think dreary lobby manned by dour and unhelpful staff, carpet smelling of cigarettes, painfully slow elevators, and lukewarm buffet breakfast. Rooms are from US$25 (so long as they don’t smell your desperation).
Going cheaper, the barely eight-month-old Rich Queen Guesthouse ([95-2]60172) offers the closest thing Mandalay has to backpackers’ accommodation. At the time of our visit, it was undergoing expansions, so a little on the noisy side, but it’s location right by the hustle and bustle of Kaingdan Zay produce market assures you a colorful stay, as do the young, helpful staff, who are quick to organize day trips and travel tickets. There’s nothing fancy, but you get air-con, hot water and free Wi-Fi (still quite a rarity). Rates are from US$13.
US$1 = B30
B1 = 28 kyat (pronounced “chat”)
Note that ATMs are still scarce, though late last year it was announced that Visa cards would be accepted at nearly 90 ATMs across the country. Travelers are still advised to carry plenty of US dollars (US$1 = 853 kyat). Most money changers are only open Monday-Saturday, closing by 3pm on these days, so it pays to think ahead money-wise to avoid a dodgy black market exchange rate.
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