Advance bookings aren’t really necessary for day tours in Mandalay, the best thing to do is turn up, haggle a cheap taxi and draw together your own itinerary. Before reaching the hotel two local taxis had already quoted us unbelievably cheap Mandalay day tours but for comfort we book through the hotel at not much extra cost. For our Mandalay day tour (8 hours) travelling in a comfortable air-conditioned minivan the full price was 55,000 Kyat ($55US). The half day tour (4 hours) were also quoted at $32. Travel is cheap in Mandalay and the obvious perk of hiring your own taxi is that travel is flexible, you can put together your own itinerary and of course you avoid the annoyances of being bussed around in a tour group. While taxis do generally follow pre-planned day tour routes it is more of a guide and there is no problem to pick and choose along this route. Bring a map or guidebook and point out extras along the way. Simple as. We start our day tour early-ish (8.30am) from the city centre travelling out to surrounding areas including Amarapura, Sagaing, Inwa (Ava) and returning again through Amarapura for the U Bein Bridge. Note be sure to book hotels in advance when travelling in Myanmar as they are quickly booked up. Full list here.
So we skip past the first attraction of the day, the gold leaf workshop, which in hindsight was probably worth seeing as its relevance only shows as we reach Maha Muni Pagoda where local Buddhists climb to the central Buddha statue to press gold leaf to its exterior. The giant Buddha (Maha Muni Buddha) is sincerely impressive, one of the most decorative Buddhas I’ve come across in Southeast Asia and of course it’s highly revered in Buddhism. The temple complex at Maha Muni Pagoda is extensive and shoes are not allowed (as with all temples in Myanmar) so expect to potter round barefoot. On our visit random locals are celebrating (possibly a monk ordination) with dazzling traditional dress and decoration.
The scenes at Mahagandayon Monastery are quite bizarre which probably goes more so from the perspective of monks. Everyday, 10am, without fail, tourists swarm round a seemingly endless line of monks who are doing no more than queuing for their last meal of the day. There are said to be 1,000’s of monks at this monastery and the numbers are now closely matched by tourists. While incredibly touristy a visit to Mahagandayon Monastery does offer a glimpse into the daily life of a monk.
Sagaing Hill overlooks the Irrawaddy River and dotted throughout are numerous temples, the most prestigious being the central Pagoda (Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda) which brings some serious panoramic views from the top of the hill (Great with an ice-cream). The next popular spot is U Min Thonze or 30 Caves with a crescent shaped colonnade of arches and Buddha statues.On our tour we also pick a few lesser known temples in Sagaing but find little difference or excitement from one to the next. Again, as with temples in Myanmar, expect to go barefoot to these temples.
Leaving Saiging we stop at a local village to experience the local Burmese curry fare. We stop at a traditional and homely place called Panwar Restaurant where we find surprisingly delicious food. While there are numerous restaurants to pick from I’d happily recommend Panwar for the food but also for the local fresh market which sits directly next to it. For the curry fare chose your meat from venison, mutton, pork or chicken served with a variety of side dishe (hin) to share with. Expect a vegetable soup (slightly fishy), a watercress salad, a tomato curry (again a little fishy) and my personal favourite the bean curry. Eaten with boiled rice, fresh vegetables and a fish paste dip (ngapi). Expect to hear “You like my food?” from the owner, a lot (check here for more on eating in Myanmar).
Inwa is located on the opposite side of the river and is accessed by regular boats (800 Kyat return). This area still feels hidden and rural and to explore it follows a circle path passing the three main attractions including Bagaya Kyaung (Teak Monastery), the Ava Palace site (Watch Tower) and Me Nu’s Brick Monastery (Me Nu Ok Kyaung) among others. The best way to get around is by horse and cart which is bumpy but in no doubt fun. Note the horse and carts charge by the hour (around 6,000 Kyat ($6)) but the circle takes roughly 2 hours so expect to pay 12,000 Kyat ($12). There’s also a $10 entrance fee for the Mandalay Archaeological zone which covers the attractions of Inwa along with others dotted throughout Mandalay (e.g. Mandalay Palace).
On the return journey we again pass through Amarapura just in time for sunset at the iconic U Bein Bridge. This attraction is again littered with tourists but the views are spectacular and fortunately all tourists stay to the one side to photograph the sunset. To make the most of the scene take a quick boat journey into the lake and wait for the sunset silhouettes to appear. You can also walk the length of the bridge if your’re not on your last legs.
In 2o14 travel looks to be a lot less stressful after the slight hysteria of 2012/13 when Myanmar was ‘opened to tourism’. We touch down in Mandalay, withdraw local Kyat from a choice of airport ATMs, travel the free AirAsia shuttle bus to Mandalay city centre and speedily check-in to our pre-booked hotel suite. While not overnight, Myanmar is changing (as expected) so if you plan on going, go sooner rather than later. For me the most precious part of travel in Myanmar was the intrigue of locals which is still there, even in the tourist areas. Unfortunately as the more obnoxious of us travellers pass through this intrigue will no doubt fade, tourists will become ‘everyday’ and the smile of locals will be increasingly forced. Make the most of it while you can. For those travelling further to Bagan check our boat journey between Bagan and Mandalay as well as our Bagan to exploring Bagan.