We chose to take the overnight bus from Inle Lake to Mandalay, thinking that we’d save the cost of a night’s hotel room- that and night buses are kind of the only thing going. Imagine our surprise when the bus pulled into the station at about 3:30am, well before dawn. Within seconds of our arrival, we were swarmed by the Taxi Cartel. All the taxi drivers in the country, it seems, have formed a union to set the price charged for tourists, which has gotten out of hand with the rise in tourism. We were appalled at the prices they were trying to charge us, but were stuck at the bus station, well outside of town in the middle of the night with all of our stuff. Since we were still hours away from sunrise, we didn’t have much of a leg to stand on and finally agreed to share a taxi with Dave and Laura, the Kiwis we met in Inle Lake, for a slightly lower price that we managed to negotiate after a nearly hour-long deadlock with the taxi cartel.
Dave and Laura had a hot tip for a reasonably priced hotel that a friend directed them to, so at least we were able to get into a hotel without the usual hassle. We slept for a couple hours, but forced ourselves up in time for breakfast so that we wouldn’t waste the day. Mandalay is even hotter than Yangon and Inle Lake and especially dusty- like Old-West-tumble-weed dusty. We tried to do some sightseeing and made it as far as the market where R bought a pair of flip flops (to replace his pair that we accidentally left at a lake-side monastery in Inle Lake) before we called it a day.
Early morning Mandalay
Monks collecting breakfast
The next morning, we arranged to get up at dawn with the Kiwis to tour around the ancient cities surrounding Mandalay. We rented one scooter per couple (roughly $10 per scooter) and took off around 5am, which was already much lighter than we thought. We made it to Amarapura just in time for a really lovely view of the ‘longest bridge in Myanmar’, which is a not very impressive looking footbridge that serves alms-begging monks and locals on their way to the market, although the early morning scene with the silhouettes of people heading over the bridge, going about their business is pretty evocative.
We tooled around all day, making requisite stops at the Snake Temple, the ‘Leaning Tower of Innwa’, the Bagaya Monastery, and the charming hill-side town of Sagaing, which is stuffed to the gills with temples and monasteries. We also made some unscheduled stops at a roadside tea stand (where we sipped on beverages that were about 70% condensed milk and 30% tea) and a road-side shack that functioned as an auto body repair shop. The Kiwis had hit a rough patch on a dirt road and dropped the scooter, breaking the taillight. They were worried about some kind of extortion from the guys we rented the scooters from, so we figured we’d just stop and try to get it fixed. We found this little shack on the side of the road, where there was a crowd of twenty-something year old men and their rides. When a quartet of Westerners rolled up, we got some funny looks, but Dave grabbed a teenager that appeared to be working there and pointed to the broken taillight. With no common language, we managed to get the taillight fixed (glue and a Bic lighter) and the kid even spotted an errant piece of plastic dangling in the ether, which he was able to set back into its rightful place. Total cost of the whole stop: less than $2.
Pagodas peeking through the trees
The Leaning Tower of Innwa
R and I cruising around Mandalay
The famous teak monastery at Bagaya- we tried to sneak in to avoid the $10 fee (money goes straight to the government, not the the monastery), but we got found out, so we had to flee!
The teak monastery shows some wear and tear
R talks scooters with Dave and Laura
Our last stop of the day was at Sagaing, the hillside town along the river that looks a little bit like a Buddhist Disneyland as you approach it. The place is home to dozens of monasteries and temples, plopped colorfully all over the hillside. We crossed the bridge and rode a short way into the hills. We had heard of other tourists just wandering into whatever temples they came across, as the guidebook doesn’t recommend any one in particular, so we saw a set of stairs off the side of the road, parked our bikes in the shade, and started climbing. We caught some great views of the river along the way, then came to the top of the steps where a pair of young monks were hanging out. They saw us coming and scrambled to get the gate open for us, pointing at our shoes to come off, then allowed inside the gate. We had found our way into a monastery school for young boys. There was an old woman who looked like she was a sort of house-mom, and a handful of boys in their red robes, none of whom appeared to be over age 12. It seemed a little strange that they let a group of tourists in unsupervised, but I guess that’s the Buddhist way. We found a balcony with more great views and took our leave after a few photos. We weren’t sure if we were supposed to leave a donation, as many temples geared towards tourists (and locals) feature prominent donation boxes, so we slipped the house-mom about $5. She didn’t seem to be expecting it, but we figured that she’d put it to good use, one way or another.
Angkor Wat has nothing on Myanmar
Basket on wheels
Balcony at the monastery in Sagaing
View from the balcony at the monastery
The day was brutally hot, as usual, but the breeze we got on the bikes made the day bearable and we were able to spend the whole day zipping from sight to sight in relative comfort. I’ve got to point out to anyone thinking of visiting Mandalay that a scooter rental is not only super economical, but way more comfortable than bumping around in the back of a taxi and horse-drawn cart. We also got to measure out our time however we felt like and never ended up at a cafe or souvenir stand that offer commissions to drivers.
We heard that the ‘ancient city’ jaunt is underwhelming, especially if you’ve already been to see Bagan, but it was one of our favorite days so far- I think mostly because it is so fun and freeing to be able to get around on your own transport. We chose to spend only one day around Mandalay and were geared to leave the next morning to head out to Hsipaw for some hiking and cultural enrichment. I think the town of Sagaing is worth a half-day trip alone (we only had about an hour there because it was our last stop) and we didn’t make it out to Mingun at all, which seems like it was worth a look. Nevertheless, we had plenty of snakes and monks and temples to fill our day and headed back to Mandalay satisfied with our adventure.
Bags on a truck!
Hay on a truck!
Monk on a bike!
Laura makes some friends