Mandalay is Myanmar’s second largest city. The city iself is kind of generic and not particularly nice – there are a few sites to see in the city, and a bunch more to see in the surrounding areas outside the city. To be honest, we might have skipped Mandalay altogether, but we were meeting our friends Seth and Maryana for NYE. We ended up spending most of our time in Mandalay with them, so even though it was a less exciting destination, we had a really great time with them hanging out and sightseeing!
The city center has an old palace which was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt in 1996. Although it is one of the main sites to see in Mandalay, based on the excessive number of extremely negative reviews we read, we decided to skip it.
Instead we went to some of the city’s other sites, which were actually pretty cool, including Shwenandaw Monastery, made of teak wood with incredibly detailed carvings, and Kuthodaw Pagoda, a pagoda surrounded by 729 shrines, with each shrine containing a giant marble slab with Burmese Buddhist writings on both sides – together these make up the world’s largest book. Just like in Bagan, all tourists are on the sunset shedule, and we attended the requisite sunset viewing on Mandalay Hill.
No ladies here!
Shrines containing the world’s largest book
One slab of the world’s largest book
Sunset from Mandalay Hill
At night we went to see a performance by the Moustache Brothers (actually two brothers and one cousin). They’ve been performing shows that combine political satire with traditional Burmese dance for years, and became internationally famous when their jokes landed them in jail in the 1990s and they were sentenced to hard labor for seven years. Amnesty international and a host of others got involved to help get them out, and they continued performing. Now two of the brothers have died, and the remaining brother and his family members (who also perform) are quite old. The performance takes place in a garage, and the family still lives upstairs. Online we read very mixed reviews and weren’t sure what to expect. It was super low budget (which actually added to the atmosphere) and the English was hard to understand, but it was funny, highly interactive and a really unique experience. We loved it!
The next day the four of us arranged for a tour guide (actually just a man with a license and a vehicle and zero English skills) to take us around for the day.
In the morning we went to a monastery and school for monks/novice monks/pre-novice monks to watch the monks’ morning assembly. What I always find incredible when I see large groups of monks is how so many individuals can appear so the same while still being individuals. They dress the same, they all have shaved heads, and for the most part they all maintain a neutral expression (with the exception of the occasional young monk you catch smiling – which I love). But they’re all individuals too, with families at home in the cities they’re from.
On this particular day, we found one monk who was extremely eager to practice his English and talk to us. We had a really nice conversation, which other tourists dropped in to listen in on since most of the other monks keep to themselves and don’t interact with the tourists. After learning a lot about life as a monk, and becoming his Facebook friend, we went off sightseeing for the rest of the day.
For me, one highlight of the day was dropping by a school. We interacted with the kids, played and talked with them, and Adam jumped rope with the little girls. I was particularly annoyed when another tourist actually interrupted my conversation with a kid who wanted to practice his English to ask me to move so he could get his perfect photo. Maybe he should come out from behind his lens and have an experience once in a while. Obviously I also want great photos with no tourists in them, but sometimes you have to wait, take a different photo, or even (gasp) stop taking photos to more fully be in the moment and live the experience. That’s the deal.
The best part of the day was U-Bein bridge. This iconic bridge is one of THE things that shows up in every guidebook or postcards collection of Myanmar. We grabbed a boat and beer to watch the sunset. Every photo was photogenic and incredible. Simply amazing.