Mysterious Myanmar – The ancient capital of Mandalay
Not only a sacred destination for Buddhists, Myanmar also holds many secrets for those who have a passion for discovery.
Text & photos: Thang The
Myanmar is separated from Vietnam by a small territory of Laos, but its climate is very different from our country. Myanmar has three seasons: summer from March to June, the rainy season from July to September and the dry season from October to December which is the best time to travel.
U Bein brigde
I took two flights from Hanoi to Yangon with a map and a camera. I had marked the map with routes to discover the highlights of Myanmar, including Yangon, Mandalay, Bagan and Inle Lake. I hoped to explore the local culture, learn about its history and get to know the people. I especially wanted to bring back beautiful photos of Myanmar.
I spent the first day of my journey in Yangon. After researching the various destinations, I chose to travel to Mandalay first.
I arrived in Mandalay at dawn after a long trip on a passenger bus. I believed Mandalay would be a peaceful place and the most typical city of Myanmar culture. This is the reason why I chose it as my first stop. The taxi took me to the hotel on a bright street still wet with morning dew. Here, local people were doing exercises while some monks started their new day as beggars. More surprisingly, the ancient citadel of the last feudal regime in Myanmar rose powerfully and pensively by the blue channel surrounding the imperial city.
Local people in Myanmar are very friendly and hospitable. They have many attractive, strange and extraordinary features. Myanmar men often wear skirts and chew betel nuts while women wear make-up made of herbal powder to beautify their faces. Most of the population in Myanmar is Buddhist. People in Mandalay express the most “Myanmar” characteristics. They are more easygoing than others that I met later in Yangon. I started experiencing Myanmar with such folk.
I returned to Mandalay’s ancient citadel at dawn. The sophisticated wall in typical fortress style looked serene in the sunrise and reflected on the quiet water surface. Mandalay reminded me of the Hue citadel in Vietnam. The wooden palace was built in 1857 – 1859 when Emperor Mindon moved from Amarapura to Mandalay. He constructed the capital city in the Mandalay foot hills based on astronomy and good omens. This was the home of the two last emperors of the reign.
I hired an old car with a friendly driver to tour the surrounding road of the imperial palace. It was huge! It’s a pity that the entire wooden palace was damaged in the second World War. However, for me, what remains is wonderful. It was the incompleteness that brought about a sense of mystery.
The faraway Mandalay Hill was shining with the huge gold rooftops of pagodas. I wanted to go there to see the panorama of the imperial palace. To travel to the top, my driver gave me two routes: driving along the curving paths surrounding the hill or walking up a thousand steps. I chose to walk up the steps even though it would take more than an hour. Despite this, I was still very eager.
The walking route took me past splendid pagodas on the hill with many enormous Buddha statues. Sutaungpyi Pagoda, which is located on the top of Mandalay Hill, has mirror paving stones on the walls and was sparkling in the sunshine. As with other sacred places in Myanmar, guests must be dressed neatly and go barefoot into pagodas, even when it is hot or cold. From Sutaungpyi, you can see in every direction. I looked at the ancient citadel from Mandalay Hill peak and imagined an intact imperial city with many opulent palaces.
After leaving Sutaungpyi, I visited Mahamuni Pagoda. It features a Buddha statue dressed in gold robes and an impressive hat with a 6-inch layer of gold made by generations of Buddhists. The ritual of face washing for Mahamuni Buddha takes place at 4a.m. in a sacred and formal environment. Near the western gate of Mahamuni Pagoda is the traditional stone carving village of Kyauksittan. The air in the village was filled in murky stone dust. For many people it was rather polluted but for me, I liked the atmosphere. Kyauksittan Village was founded right after the construction of Mandalay City by Emperor Mindon. I saw many stone statues of various sizes and numerous other decorative objects. It is said that Kyauksittan Village is the producer of stone statues for all of Myanmar.
I was on the way to Taungthaman Lake, where the famous U Bein Bridge is. I’ve seen many images of this place by international photographers and really wanted to see U Bein bridge at sunset.
U Bein (or U Bain) represents the link to ancient, enduring relics of Mandalay. It features over a thousand pillars made of teak wood. The bridge was built without using any nails. Governor U Bein took advantage of teak wood abandoned in the former royal palace after the capital was moved to Amarapura by Emperor Mindon. He built the bridge in 1850. The bridge now only serves walkers and peddlers. It attracts a large number of visitors every day. The exact number of tourists who come here is unknown but this is must-see destination for any guest in Mandalay.
I travelled to Taungthaman Lake at sunset. The light yellow sunshine dyed the surface of the lake. Gold rooftops of pagodas were hidden in the afternoon fog. U Bein was incredible. I am really amazed at its magnificence.
Here guests can walk onto the bridge or view it from the lake. In Taungthaman, a wharf with hundreds of boats is operated to serve tourists. Venturing on beautiful boats to see the view is a fantastic experience. I hired a boat for 10,000 Kyat (about $US5) for two hours on the lake. The boatman was very easy-going. I had a chance to view the bridge from both sides, and then stop at a distance to wait for the sun to set over U Bein.
I looked at the sun setting slowly on the horizon. Everything was serene while the sun turned red. People continuously passed by the bridge but I myself sat calm and still. I took many photos in the melancholy ambiance. I had viewed and felt the most exotic sunset of my life.
Read more: Discovering the fire land of Bagan
Mandalay is the second largest city of Myanmar, about 700km from Yangon in the north. Mandalay is a bustling trade center with a plethora of ancient Myanmar culture. Known as the art and architecture gallery of Myanmar, Mandalay is famous for its works of stone and wood carving, silver and bronze casting, gold-sheet making, decorative carpets, silks and other arts and crafts.
- You can take a bus from Yangon to Mandalay for 20,000 Kyat (about $US20). Other means include domestic airplane, train or public bus.
- In Mandalay, you can travel by cyclo, taxi or small bus. A taxi in Mandalay (and Myanmar in general) is rather cheap compared with those of Vietnam. You can bargain and the price may be around 350 Kyat/km (about $US0.3).
Famous sites in Mandalay
- Shwenandaw Monastery featuring sophisticated sculptures.
- Kuthodaw Paya – the pagoda containing the world’s biggest set of Buddha Scriptures with 729 “pages” carved on marble.
- Mandalay Hill with a walkway to the top to view the sunset by Ayeyarwady.
- Imperial Palace
- Mahamuni Pagoda
- U Bein Bridge and the Buddha monastery in Amarapura.
- Mingun Tower
Read more Myanmar travel guide at here.