If you want to do yourself a favor please don’t take the bus from Hpa-An to Mandalay. And by ‘don’t take the bus from Hpa-An to Mandalay’ I mean ‘don’t take the bus from Hpa-An to Mandalay’ unless you like the antsy excitement of not knowing where, when or if ever at all the bus ride will come to an end. On the upside we were able to listen to hour long video calls on speaker, the A/C worked perfectly fine (constant 14°C) and we got 3 extra hours on the bus for free!!! Jokes aside: the only other way to get from Hpa-An to Mandalay is taking a bus to Yangon and then flying to Mandalay – timewise you won’t get much out of it but in hindsight we’d definitely spend a little more money on that second option.
Mandalay is the second largest city in Myanmar with 1.6 mio. Inhabitants and made an even more bustling impression on us than Yangon which is probably due to the fact that you’re never able to escape traffic – tuk-tuks and motorbikes are everywhere! Nevertheless, we really enjoyed Mandalay which seemed more diverse to us, offering all kinds of different adventures.
We had one of our best street food experiences in Mandalay eating at Usman’s chapatis – a great corner place where you can watch the 7 people making the traditional flatbread, each one having a very specific task assigned (kneading, rolling, swirling, tossing, grilling…) in order for you delicious chapaties with a curry of your choice.
Another great local experience is having your laundry done – we found a family run Indian place which also happened to produce papad, Indian crispy flatbread. So, our laundry ended up drying next to the bread which gave it an … interesting smell – and it also got ironed with a coal fired iron!
You can buy a Mandalay zone ticket for 10$ which allows you to enter most of the attractions in the city. The palace is an extensive area with mostly reconstructed buildings, some of which you can also enter. It is quite touristy but wandering around the area you’ll be able to escape the masses and explore the palace on your own
Atumashi Kyaung Monastery
From the palace we made our way to the Atumashi Kyaung Monastery which was a lot less frequented by tourists. Again, this is also an architecture that has been rebuilt, after a fire burnt it down to the ground in 1890. Inside you find interesting information on the history of the building and also how the British used the monastery to station parts of their army. From the stairs we were able to watch a procession with a lot of kids dressed up as princes and princesses, driving around sitting on makeshift thrones on the back of pick-up trucks.
This monastery is one of the most impressive buildings we saw on our trip. The wooden architecture features thousands of tiny figures carved out of the walls as well as wooden creatures, half man half animal, jumping at you from out of the gutter. You’ll be able to get some really nice portrait shots of the wooden artwork if you manage to shoo away the Chinese Insta Girls.
This Buddhist temple lies at the foot of Mandalay Hill and contains what is called ‘the world's largest book’. In the grounds of the pagoda you find 729 small stone caves each containing a marble slab displaying inscription on both sides with a page of text from the Tripitaka, the Buddhist scriptures. Imagining how long it took to finish the world’s largest book is quite fascinating, so take your time while you wander through the ‘pages’.
If you want to escape the dusty city streets, we recommend going up Mandalay hill to enjoy a great view and get in another sunset.
Mingun is technically a village on its own, located on the ??? river across from Mandalay. Since you can easily fit it in as a day trip during your stay in Mandalay you find it here. There are two ways of getting there: you can take a ferry at 9 am in the morning and return at 12.30 – we missed that opportunity wo we went with hiring a cab driver for the entire day which cost us 55$ and to us was worth the money because we were totally flexible. Because it is so densely packed with sights (and therefore also tourists), a quick overview:
Pay your fare for all the archeological sites (5.000 kyat) and off you go
Mya Thein Tan Pagoda: a white, circular pagoda which is called the ‘Taj Mahal of Myanmar’
Mingun Bell: the world’s largest intact bell
Mingun Pahtodawgyi: the world’s largest (yep, again) ‘pile of bricks’ – an unfinished pagoda, nonetheless the most impressive sight to us
U-Bein Bridge: the world’s longest (wait, what?!) wooden structure with the world’s largest number of tourists on it (ok fine, I made that one up)