|Sutaungpyei Pagoda at Mandalay Hill provides expansive views of the city, including the old palace and moat|
Arriving at 3:30 AM on a bus from Bagan to Mandalay – it’s streets dark, quiet and obviously abandoned – can be pretty unnerving especially right after the guidebook reveals to you that this booming city in northern Myanmar owes its burgeoning economy to the “red, green and white trades” – that’s rubies, jade and heroine. On the other hand, the last-minute read revealed that our arrival at unholy hours was timely… and, well, quite holy.
|Mahamuni Paya houses the country’s most venerated Buddha covered in six inches of gold leaf!|
After negotiating for a full-day tour with a friendly driver of a rundown blue pick-up taxi – the most practical way to see the Mandalay region in 12 hours – we rushed to Mahamuni Paya to catch the daily ritual washing of an 18th century Buddha image. The ritual happens before day break, at 4 AM. We arrived at the temple right on time. Accompanied by prayers and chanting, a procession of monks unlock the iron grills that secure the altar. After the devout and gentle washing, male pilgrims enter the central altar, and affix gold leaf on the image. A friendly temple caretaker ushered the men in our group to enter the central altar, and allowed us to observe how the gold leaf is applied on the statue. Women worship the image behind the men. As the most venerated Buddha image in Myanmar, it has accumulated over six inches of gold on its body!
|U Bein Bridge in Amarapura is the longest
teak bridge in the world!
After yummy breakfast of rice noodles at Shwe Pyi Moe Cafe (our cabbie’s recommendation) and purchasing our onward bus tickets to Inle Lake (via Taunggyi) at the city terminal, we drove to the foot of Mandalay Hill, where two white giant chinthes (mythical leogryphs) stand. Here, we caught a mini-taxi or “line car” to the top, and descended the hill on foot to save time. Since Mandalay Hill is holy ground, we left our footwear at the pick-up and explored the entire hill barefoot. (Note that visiting the hill before 8:00 AM is a way to avoid paying the USD 10 entrance fee.)
At the summit, Sutaungpyei Pagoda offers a spectacular panorama of the city – including the old city walls and moat, the surrounding plains and the Ayeyarwaddy River. Descending the saungdan (covered stairway), we reached another temple further down the hill, a giant statue of Buddha with his right hand pointing down towards to the city is an imposing sight.
Surrounding the city Mandalay are the townships of Amarapura, Sagaing and Inwa, all former capitals of Myanmar. We only got to visit the first two, as we were pressed for time. The star attraction of Amarapura is U Bein Bridge. A 200-year-old wooden footbridge spanning across the Ayeyarwaddy River for 1.2 km, it is the longest teak bridge in the world, built by salvaging over 1,000 unwanted teak columns from the old palace during the move of the capital from Amarapura to Mandalay in the early 19th century. At sunset, this bridge and its pedestrians are a photographer’s darling, providing a stunning silhouette to the retiring orange sunlight.
|A spicy breakfast of rice noodles|
Our last stop was the township of Sagaing, best known for its green hills peppered with more temples and pagodas, similar to Mandalay Hill. Getting here, we traversed the Ayeyarwaddy on the scenic Ava Bridge, a modern cantilever bridge built in 1954. The Burmese are some of the kindest people; our cabbie in Mandalay was particularly the kindest I’ve encountered. On our way to Sagaing, he stopped by a fruit stand to buy us a bunch of sweet longan. “A gift,” he insisted with an equally generous smile.
Courtesy of our clever cab driver, we also managed to bypass paying the entrance fees for foreigners (That’s another USD 5 saved per head!). Since we look Burmese, he suggested we dress up like locals by putting on our longyis (men’s tube skirt) and keeping quiet as we passed through the military checkpoints, while he hustled his way and paid only the minimal car fee. Sitting right next to the driver, I nervously pretended to be asleep as our driver spoke with the border guards.
Our driver then took us to base of the stairway to the top of Sagaing Hill, where, according to our trusty cabbie, entrance tickets are not regularly checked. At the top of Sagaing Hill was Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda, overlooking the other temples and monasteries perched on the surrounding hills… By 4PM, we had to return to Mandalay to catch a bus to Inle Lake.
|From Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda on Sagaing Hill, one can admire the stupa-peppered countryside|
For information on how to get to Mandalay, check out my seven-day itinerary in Myanmar.