Mandalay – 3 ancient cities tour

Day 72, Friday 16 March 2012, Mandalay

Yesterday we booked a car to take us on the ‘3 cities’ tour, it is a well worn tourist route that takes in three ancient cities that are near Mandalay. There is limited public transport available to tourists and this just seems to be the only way to get out of the city to see the sites when you do not have much time. It was just over $30 for the day for the car so not unreasonable. Jacqueline, who we met in Yangon joined us for the day as well so the cost between three was good.

The car was a small, old, Mazda ute and we sat on a couple of bench seats facing inwards in the back. I like travelling out in the open, though the dust and fumes got to us by the end of the day. We left the hotel at 8.30 into the tail end of rush hour, the roads in Mandalay are not as wide as those in central Yangon so there was a lot more traffic, mixed in with the scooters and the usual lack of any traffic control at intersections and it was a noisy stop start ride to the edge of town. It appears that Mandalay has every type of transport available to man, horse and cow drawn carts, cars, bikes, buses and trucks, all fully laden. I particularly love these small trucks and have yet to see them elsewhere, they are very loud, slow and belch out masses of dirty black smoke. I have seen a number of Toyota Hiace trucks with these engines bolted on to the front.

The main road out of town has been fortunately split into two separate roads, one for each direction, so reasonably safe, given the way they drive. On the way to Sagaing we hit a traffic snarl up, after a while I took a peek round the side of the ute and was staring at the bum of an elephant in a truck, not something I see every day !

The first stop was Sagaing Hill, sadly our driver had lousy English so we didn’t get any explanation about things during the day and I don’t think we got to see much outside of the big attractions. As we were walking around yesterday we were offered day tours from a number of people who had excellent English, but we had already booked through the hotel so had to turn them down. Next time I will wait and make better informed decisions.

I could have spent a day in Sagaing alone, the area has over 500 temples and stupas all seemingly connected by vast covered walkways up and down the small hills. Sadly, as it has been everywhere in Myanmar, the sky was foggy/dusty/smoggy so there was limited view and the glare really made photography tough. Like the other large stupas in Myanmar the main stupa on the hill is layered in gold leaf. 

Around all around Myanmar are these drink stations (I am not willing to try them) . I am quite fascinated by them, not sure why as they are mostly the same and quite simple, I will do a photo post of them at some stage.

From the hill we had the driver drop us off at the start  of the Ava Bridge, which crosses the Ayeyarwady river (Irrawady) and we walked over to the other side, with me stopping for photos along the way. Bizarrely the walkway over the bridge was infested with small moths, thousands of them, not something I have seen anywhere else. The Ayeywady runs pretty much north to south through central Myanmar and is the key source of transport and water for many people.

The next stop was the ‘island’ of  Inwa, largely cut off from the mainland, by the river and canals the island held the Burmese capital of and on for four centuries from the mid 1300s ,  but few remains of this exist, parts of the palace wall and one tower are all that are viewable.

[rant warning] I really liked the things we saw today, would loved to have spent more time exploring all the places we visited, and much more around Mandalay, but from Inwa till bed time I was very frustrated by unexpected costs. I didn’t realise you had to get a boat to Inwa (I didn’t know it was an island before we left, should have read more), so the boat was an extra expense for the day, it wasn’t much but by the end of the day we had shelled out a bit here and a bit there and I pretty much spent three times my daily allowance. Hopefully this will not haunt me later in the trip as the budget was tight and I cannot get more money as there are no ATM’s. Inwa was also the start of Siem Reap size hassle by children (and adults) trying to sell souvenirs, they are persistent and annoying. [rant over]

The boat ride was a couple of hundred metres and once on the other side we found we had to take a horse and cart ride around the sites (it was further than we thought – ignorance strikes again) this was a further $10 for the three of us. Again our guide spoke no English so I have no idea about the first stupa was stopped at as it was not in the book. The ogre motif is not something I have seen anywhere else in SE Asia.

Some extremely shoddy repair work had been done on some of the stupas here, it was a real shame as a lot of it is unnecessary, it wasn’t needed for safety reasons, and it was appallingly and slightly randomly done. I am glad this Buddha had not been touched as I liked the state of disrepair.

We made our way to Bagaya Kyaung a teak monastery from the mid 1800’s, which is still being used as a school. Here we had to pay $10 each for a week long pass to visit all the old sites around Mandalay, an expense I was anticipating. The monastery was bare but fascinating, the external carvings being quite weathered. The Buddha inside was a lovely alabaster creation, but too dark too photograph.

The monastery had a small working school inside, I am not sure if this was for the benefit of the tourists or not. Don’t get me wrong seeing kids in school was a great thing as most do not seem to go at all, so any education is good, but the monk was just sitting there while the kids did their thing.

[edit] At breakfast on our last day in Myanmar I was talking to an American volunteer teacher who said that school is mandatory in Myanmar, and most kids go, maybe she hasn’t been to Inwa or maybe the school day is short and kids go in shifts as is the case elsewhere in Asia. I was pondering a post on ‘well meaning’ christian teachers after listening to a couple at the airport in Yangon as I was leaving the country, but I wont as I may offend. [end edit]

The next pagoda we stopped was mostly collapsed but had a very nice, weathered Buddha figure with a monk on each side. I haven’t seen this style, I particularly liked the peaceful expression on the kneeling monks faces.

The royal palace watch tower was built in 1822 and is virtually all that remains within the palace walls, the tower was badly damaged in an earthquake in 1838 and has been partly restored the view from the top was pretty good (though of course hazy !) and we got to share the space with some young girls trying to sell us post cards, we didn’t stay long. The tower is on an angle and is known as ‘the leaning tower of inwa’.

The final stop on Inwa was the Maha Aung Me Bonzan monastry, which was started in 1822.

After the monastery it was back in the boat and back to the mainland, where we pretty much were forced to stop and buy lunch at the local cafe for about twice normal prices. The food was BAD, so we were not entirely amused. At lunch I  ran into Giovanni, the Italian guy I did the night visit to the Thaipusam festival in Kuala Lumpur with back in Feb. It was good to catch up. [edit] and the first of many catch-ups!

From Inwa we went to Amarapura and for the me the highlight of the day [edit] maybe of all Myanmar[end edit] – U Bein’s bridge. This is the world’s longest teak bridge at 1.2km, during the rainy season the river is almost to the bridge – there must be a huge amount of water going through.

We arrived too early for sunset so we took a leisurely walk across the bridge and visited a small temple on the far side, we then took a slower stroll back. In theory we should have spent more money and hired a boat to row us out into the river to take photos of the sunset over the bridge. Instead we walked down some steps to a sand bank in the river and hung out there until the sun set, which was entirely unspectacular. Giovanni joined us here for an hour. (and I run into him again in a couple of days). I loved the bridge and had a good time on the river bank taking photos of the people walking across.

I was desperate to get a good monk shot here and I was rewarded with a few.

After the sunset over the bridge it was a dirty, dusty, fumey, eye watering ride back to the hostel. Jacqueline and I had decided to meet with some others from her hostel to go and see the Moustache Brothers political cabaret show. So it was a quick shower and out down to her hostel to get a cab to the show. We were expecting normal cheap SE Asia prices but we were told it would be $10 return and no negotiating. We told the driver no and went and found another driver who said the same thing – i suspect a rort, the ride is about 4kms, and basically it is the only way there. I would feel safe(ish) walking the streets of Mandalay, well safe from being robbed, but there are no sidewalks, a lot of the cars and bikes have no lights running and the air is foul, so we took the cab.

The beer at the cafe next to the show was twice the price of beer at the hotel, but we had a local guy with us so paid a normal price for beer and some snacks. The show also cost $10, which was more than it was worth and way more than we all expected, I had to borrow a couple of thousand kyat (pronounced chat) from Jacqueline as I didn’t have enough money on me. The show was interesting I suppose a mix of political jokes (the govt.  Does not like burglars as it doesn’t want the competition) comment on their past and a song and dance show showing Burmese dress styles (weird)…. The Moustache brothers have been doing the show for many years and have been arrested a couple of times, in 1996 they were sentenced to six years hard labour for dissent after a show at Aung San Su Kyi’s house. They are only allowed to perform the show  in their house and in English, which they do nightly – it was funny in parts and weird in others, regrettably I did not think to take my camera.

Internet was off when I got back to the hostel.

The text was written at the time, but not posted till 12 days later due WordPress being blocked in most of Myanmar, and slow internet where it wasn’t. I have noted where I changed from the original.

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Wannabe writer and photographer. Interested in travel and place. From Auckland, New Zealand.

7 thoughts on “Mandalay – 3 ancient cities tour”

      1. I would highly recommend taking a netbook and at least doing the core of the blog while you are away, I am trying to catch up on 10 days worth and it is hard work !

  1. Wow. Some A-M-A-Z-I-N-G photos here, Phil 🙂
    Particularly struck by the one of the 3 girls bathing. Awesome.

  2. Hi Phil – I was researching your post to remember a few things from this similar tour I took in 2015. FYI Inwa is not an “island.” This is part of a little scam to get more money out of tourists. It’s actually a quick 5 minute car ride to get there if you go around. They simply bring you to that spot along the river with the boats (and then the horse carriages on the other side) as a way to earn more money. The driver may have offered to drive you there for more money instead. I did the tour twice and made my driver drive straight there at no additional cost. (I hate when they try to pull these tricks on you in Asia!)

    1. Hi Jaime

      Thanks for checking out my post. I never knew that about Inwa ! If/when I go back, I will look out for that one!

      I have enjoyed a quick tour of your blog, liked the Phillies stories!


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