Having been in Mandalay for over a week, I had taken in most of the important sites in the confines of the city itself. On the spur of the moment, a colleague and I decided it was time to head to the outskirts and beyond to see some of the points of interest a little farther afield. We packed our bags, sorted out a ride, and made the most of the day’s good weather by taking in a handful of greater Mandalay’s sights.
We hired a tuk tuk driver called Yelwin for the entire day to take us around our chosen destinations. He had dropped us off at our accommodation the previous night and, having found him an agreeable chap, we decided to take him up on his offer to utilise his services for the day. The agreed price was 45,000 kyat which, at the time, amounted to a meagre £22.50. Considering the distance travelled and the amount of time our driver spent with us (about eight hours), we thought the payment of £11.25 each was money well spent. Yelwin was professional, courteous, and a safe driver. He didn’t spend the entire journey chewing our ears like many lesser tuk tuk drivers I have used in the past. Additionally, I was suffering from a few nasty mosquito bites and he was even kind enough to provide me with plasters to prevent my wounds from getting infected. I would recommend him highly if you wish to visit any of the landmarks in and around Mandalay. His phone number is +959774558803 and I’m sure he would be more than happy to hear from you.
Our first stop of the day was the most remote destination on our itinerary: the snake temple just outside of Paleik. The main attractions here are a few Burmese pythons that took up residence in the temple a number years ago and, despite the best efforts of the local monks to remove them, kept returning to the spot over and over. Eventually, the monks began to wonder if the snakes were being directed by divine means and allowed them to take up permanent residence. Nowadays, locals flock to the spot to watch the as the snakes are bathed in specially constructed baths.
It is interesting to see these large reptiles up close and in the flesh, but the throngs of spectators gathered around the spectacle often make it hard to see much of any note. I managed to snatch my pictures with a mixture of elbowing my way through the mass of bodies and holding my camera high above the heads of the crowd and snapping away blindly. I did manage to catch the odd glimpse of the snakes with my own eyes but these opportunities were fleeting. The rest of the temple is rather unspectacular, offering the same meditating Buddha statues, clusters of garishly painted naga sculptures, and golden stupas that you’ll see at most other points of interest in Myanmar.
We visited the temple on a Sunday when a bustling market was taking place on the nearby grounds. The market sold a wide range of items, from basic kitchenware, old army style storage boxes, savage-looking machetes, and some of the most blatant and humorous fake branding I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure if the market is a daily event, but it is definitely worth a look if it is taking place during your visit. Keep your eyes peeled for children using lettuce leaves as hats to keep the sun’s rays at bay.
Our next stop was Inwa (known to the Burmese as Ava) which was one of the country’s old royal capitals. Getting to Inwa will usually require a short ride on the Myitnge ferry depending on which direction you are arriving from. The ferry port is located at the end of a rather scenic drive down a road shaded by a canopy formed from the arching limbs of the roadside trees. The ferry itself is a sight to behold: ancient and rickety, with an oil-streaked engine that coughs and groans like a 50-a-day smoker, barely managing to chug along the water’s surface. The cost of a return journey is 1,300 kyat.
The minute you step off the boat on the Inwa side, you will be accosted by persistent pedlars and horse and cart drivers who will follow you for mile after mile trying to guilt you into buying some fake jade jewellery (‘You buy, you make me happy!’) or to take a ride on their exhausted and, frankly, ill treated-looking steed. Once you manage to shake them off – which is easier said than done – you should make Maha Aung Mye Bon Zan, otherwise known as the brick monastery, your first port of call. The monastery, built in 1822, is loosely reminiscent of Angkor Wat only on a far less grand scale and will also act as a bit of a pre-cursor to Bagan should you eventually find yourself heading that way. Behind the mouldy facade of the building lie the red bricks that give the monastery its nickname and that are common in the construction of many ancient monuments and buildings in Myanmar. The interiors of the monastery are entirely without merit; the walls are bare of any murals or designs whatsoever, the dirt floors are strewn with litter, and the rafters are absolutely teeming with bats which, according to the doctor from our medical insurance company, are the main transmitter of rabies in Myanmar.
Foreigners are still much of an oddity in this part of Myanmar and as you wander around the temple, locals will quite openly stare at you in bewilderment and frequently ask you to pose for photographs with them as if you are some sort of celebrity. This is quite a pleasant, albeit unusual, experience and one that will no doubt soon die out as Myanmar continues to relax its entry restrictions in order to make it easier for tourists to visit the country. Before you head off to the next stop on your visit to Inwa, be sure to head a little way beyond the monastery where you can find a lovely riverside view which affords a glance of nearby Sagaing hill as well as a chance to glimpse fisherman working their nets and lines in the traditional way and farmers rounding up their cattle.
We decided to walk the couple of miles to the highly-rated Bagaya teak monastery which was extremely arduous in the unrelenting rays of the midday sun. The journey there was made even more difficult as we attempted (unsuccessfully, may I add) to throw off a relentless horse and cart man by going down a myriad of tiny, almost inaccessible dirt roads. This protracted walk was, however, quite rewarding as the pathways we used took us through banana plantations, bisected small settlements teeming with busy locals, and past a number of ancient temples and structures.
When we eventually made it to the teak monastery we were confronted by a booth at which foreign tourists must pay a 10,000 kyat fee in order to enter. If you have already been to Mandalay and visited the palace you will have already purchased one of these Mandalay Archaeological Zone combination tickets. If you have, be sure to bring it along to avoid being stung for entry to this site which, quite frankly, I wish I’d never bothered visiting. The combo ticket lasts seven days from the date of purchase and gets you entry to a handful of other landmarks in the greater Mandalay area.
It’s not often that I pay to enter a lauded historical site and leave feeling short-changed but this was one of those rare occasions. The creaking monastery is rundown, poorly maintained, and unimpressive. I spent a fruitless half hour circling the site in order to try and find a nice shot I could use as reference for this blog but I couldn’t find a single view that was noteworthy. As this is a Buddhist monument you will be required to enter it barefooted. You should be extremely cautious when traversing the boards (which will be baking hot if the day is sunny) as many of the planks are in very poor condition with protruding splinters of wood and, more worryingly, evil rusty nails waiting to gore the soft flesh of your underfoot. There are, in addition, more bats to contend with in the interior of the monastery, which is utterly filthy with their guano.
In my opinion, Bagaya is unspectacular and I certainly wouldn’t recommend going out of your way to visit it unless you already have the combo ticket or an inexplicable hankering for a round of tetanus shots. The Lonely Planet, which apparently looks for merit in places that often have none, describes Bagaya as ‘lovely’ which is patently untrue and, not for the first time, had me questioning the veracity of the guidebooks they produce.
Feeling ripped off, a little fed up, and exhausted from the heat, my companion and I couldn’t face the long return walk ahead of us so we opted to share a bike back to the ferry port. I really should have realised something was amiss from the knowing glint in my friend’s eye and the speed in which he jumped on the back of the bike itself rather than share the sidecar with me. What followed was one of the most terrifying and uncomfortable rides of my life. Our driver, who obviously didn’t have a minute to spare, took corners at breakneck speed and I was buffeted and thrown around my unforgiving steel and wood torture seat with excessive force – all I could do was cling to the sidecar’s frame for dear life and hope I wasn’t thrown from the bike at the next bend. Thankfully, we made it to the ferry without being killed, but we were both left shaken by the experience and I discovered a nasty cut on my elbow and, later, a few savage bruises on my legs and bottom. As the driver tore off at top speed looking for his next victims, my workmate and I just looked at each other and laughed. A memorable, if unpleasant experience that I hope never to be subjected to again – think twice before opting for this means of transport in Inwa!
After taking the short ferry ride back to the other side of the Irrawaddy river, we jumped back into our tuk tuk and drove off to what turned out to be our final stop of the day: U-Bein bridge. The drive there took us down a busy motorway which really exposed to us just how poor some of the residents of Myanmar are. Between the two lanes of the road stood a procession of ramshackle wooden huts, often fully open to the elements, in which locals made their home. Seeing these wretched living conditions gave me pause for thought. I was filled with an almost overwhelming sadness and a realisation of just how fortunate I am to have been born into the life I was in England.
With my mind still on other things, we arrived at U-Bein. The immediate area that surrounds the start of the bridge was absolutely teeming with life. The crush of people was a sight to behold as individuals jostled for position at the stalls and eateries that hug the shoreline or simply fought their way to the bridge proper. Apprehensively, we hopped out of the tuk tuk and were immediately swallowed by the huge swathe of human bodies.
After much struggling, pushing, and elbowing to the head/body, we reached the bridge itself. I must admit to being initially disappointed as the bridge, like the teak monastery before it, is a visually unspectacular structure. Its beams and supports are made of aged, faded teak which is not at all easy on the eye. However, its charm lies in the feat of its construction, its staggering length (some three quarters of a mile), and the sights afforded from it.
The bridge, like the shoreline, is absolutely crammed with Myanmar tourists from beginning to end and is no place for those with a nervous disposition. The bridge is almost bereft of railings so it would be quite easy to be knocked, accidentally or otherwise, into the brown waters of the lake below. It is so full of people that you can quite noticeably feel the structure wobble and sway as the masses make their way across it – if you know the myth of the army bringing a bridge down with the vibrations of their marching, you will almost certainly find yourself thinking about it numerous times during your trek to the other side! I would also recommend not looking down as you can see the water quite clearly between the ageing slats beneath you!
If you can steel yourself enough to make it from one side to the other and back, you will, however, be richly rewarded. Watch in amazement as fearless young men somersault from the bridge into the murky waters; sigh in amusement as you are asked for the millionth time that day to pose for photos with awed locals; take a break at one of the few seated areas and watch the fishermen go about their business in their colourful boats; marvel at the weird celebrations that take place on the surface of Taungthaman lake.
Our visit coincided with the wet season so the lake was at its highest. The views from the bridge of the almost endless stretches of water included huge trees submerged so only their very tops are visible above the waterline as well as, towards the far side of the bridge, a number of beer stations and market stalls that had succumbed to the ever rising tides. If you have time, you can stop off at one of the surviving beer stations that line the very edge of the lake and enjoy a cold one as the nearby waters lap at your ankles.
The highlight of my walk across U-Bein bridge was being stopped by a curious monk for a conversation. He spoke exceptional English and was very chatty, taking a great deal of time to discuss with us how life around the lake changes during the rainy season. During dry season, he explained, the waters recede and reveal rich soils which are perfect for cultivating rice paddy fields and seasonable vegetables. We continued to chat for some time about both England and Myanmar, and it was great fun asking questions and sharing information that bridged the gaps between our nationalities and cultural differences. As the day was slowly drawing to a close and aware that our tuk tuk man was patiently waiting for us, we reluctantly said our goodbyes and parted ways with our new friend. The chat with this monk was a really enriching experience and is easily the most memorable of the time I have spent thus far in Myanmar.
Back at our tuk tuk, we slumped into our seats and savoured the fact that we were no longer standing on our overworked feet. We had planned to take in the sunset at the Irrawaddy River, but incoming cloudy weather and exhaustion put paid to that part of our plan. Our long day had finally come to end. We had covered a good few miles, were sun beaten, and very foot weary, but we did have a collection of memories and stories to tell that would stay with us for much longer than our aches, pains, and motorbike injuries.