Mandalay, the very name evokes the splendours of the Burma of old. But, most people will be surprised to learn that Mandalay is not an old city, not even a medieval one, but rather a new city that was created by King Mingdon Min of Burma in 1857 as the new capital of the kingdom of Ava. Only two Burmese kings ruled from there, King Mingdon and King Thibaw, before the British conquest of Upper Burma in 1885. It was a city of splendour between 1858 and 1885 but most of the magnificence is gone, destroyed by the fire that consumed wooden structures and by intensive bombing by the Allies during the Second World War. The city, neatly planned with its lettered roads and numbered streets, is a British creation. The once magnificent Royal Palace and the great Atumashi (incomparable) pagoda, King Mingdon Min’s finest creations, are modern reconstructions. Today, Mandalay lies at the end of the Lashio Road and it is, by Burmese standards, relatively prosperous as a centre for trade with China and as a centre for the growing trade with India. Despite the capital having been moved to Naypyidaw, Mandalay remains by far the main commercial centre of Upper Myanmar.
Weather in Mandalay
Mandalay International Airport, a gleaming modern facility, serves the area with flights to most places in Myanmar and some international flights. Asian Wings fly once weekly (Wednesdays) from Chiang Mai, Thailand. There are also daily flights to and from Kunming on China Eastern.
Air Asia has 7 direct flights a week from Don Muaeng Airport in Bangkok, Bangkok Airways has a daily flight from Suvanabhumi Airport (BKK), Bangkok as well as 3 a week (Su,Tu, Th) from Chiang Mai (CNX).
The airport is far from the city, 45km on a modern toll highway (with a few hiccups). As of November 2013, pricing from the airport to hotels in central Mandalay is USD15 or MMK12,000 (private taxi), or USD5 or MMK4000 (shared taxi). There are touts from several competing taxi companies in the post-customs arrival area who will approach passengers, although they all charge the same fares.
Expect to pay USD12 to central Mandalay, USD10 from central Mandalay), while shared taxis are MMK4000 or USD5 per person (Mar 2014). USD30 to/from Pyin U Lwin.
If you are going with a big group or family, you can arrange private transfers from hotels or travel agent in Madalay.
Air Asia and Golden Myanmar Airlines offer free shuttle buses from the airport to the city and back!
From Yangon There are several trains daily from Yangon. The tracks are old and, in some cases, the carriages may be old, and the fifteen hour journey is extremely bumpy. There are sleepers in the last train leaving Yangon to Mandalay, but note that it is all but impossible to sleep on the train as most of the journey is made on extremely bumpy rails. As of April 2014, foreigners can now pay in the local currency and are also charged the same rate as Burmese. Previously, the prices were significantly higher for foreigners and USD was the only currency accepted. Do not buy tickets at the main station in Yangon as they are not issued there. Go to the advance booking office which is not in the main station but in Bogyoke Aung San road on the south side of the tracks, opposite the Sakura Tower and diagonally opposite the Traders Hotel, look for the entrance sign. Depending on class, tickets range from MMK12,750-4,600 for an ordinary seat. In order to reserve a ticket for the evening train, you must go to the train station at 07:00 on the same day.
From Lashio, Hsipaw, and Pwin U Lwin There are two trains daily from Pyin U Lwin (USD4/2) and one from Lashio via Hsipaw and Pwin U Lwin (USD9/3 from Hsipaw). These trains are slow, crowded, but fascinating. The Pyin U Lwin – Hsipaw section includes the famous Gokteik Viaduct, a feat of Raj ingenuity (and American construction!).
From Myitkyina This twenty-four hour journey is on old rolling stock and even older tracks so expect it to be bumpy! There are at least four daily trains. The express train number 38 departs Myitkyina at 04:30 and arrives in Mandalay late in the evening (USD31 for upper class). (Express?) train 56 departs Myitkyina at 07:45 and arrives at 04.15 the next morning (USD27). Train 34 departs at 13:50 and arrives at 07.20 (USD45). Train 58 departs at 15:10 and arrives at 12.20 the next day (USD27). Express trains don’t call in at Hopin (for Indawgyi lake) or Nada (for Katha). Departures are on time, but arrival are later, sometimes significantly later. (Mar 2014).
There are at least three bus stations in Mandalay. The biggest one, Kywe Se Kan Highway station (aka Chan Mya Shwe Pyi), is the furthest away from city center, about 8 km.
Pyi Gyi Myat Shin bus station is south east of downtown (on the corner of 60th and 37th streets). Destinations includes Pyin U Lwin, Kyaukme, Hsipaw and Lashio.
Thiri Mandala bus station is west of downtown at the end of 23rd Street, and is the closest to city center.
From Yangon There is a night bus with air-con, and there are 5 options: 17:00, 18:00, 19:00, 21:00 and 21:30 departure, MMK10,400, 8.5-9 hours to Mandalay. “Sleepers” in overnight buses are more expensive than seats. JJ express company has buses leaving in the evening and arriving in the early morning (ex: leaving at 9pm, arriving at 6am); 18500 for a sleeper un a premium bus. Almost certainly the cheapest – and by far the most comfortable – option for getting between the two main cities in Myanmar.
From Bagan a comfortable bus is available for MMK14,000 and MMK16,000 for a minibus(6-7 hours). There are many bus options to choose from. As of Apr 2013, there are 3 daily minibuses, and 2 daily coaches. It’s claimed that the minibuses are faster than the coaches, but they still take 6-7 hours. The buses leave daily at 09:00 and 14:00. The minibuses leave at 08:00, 12:00, and 16:00.
From Inle Lake, Kalaw or Mid-Eastern Towns There are buses available along this route, either a day minibus (05:00
departure, MMK9,000, 9 hours) or a night bus with air-con (18:00 departure). The minibus in the day takes a slightly shorter route than the larger (and some say more comfortable) full-sized night bus. Expect windy and bumpy roads, stops for picking up and putting down passengers, and, if you are lucky, a search of the bus by un-uniformed and just-bribed police officers.
From the Highway Bus Station you can either take a taxi or pick-up into town. Taxis are overly expensive (quoting prices as high as MMK2,000 per person or MMK7,000 for the car), and often bargain in a mob fashion except they all offer the same price and try and gang-up on you. As of May 2014, a taxi ride to city centre costs MMK6,000 with a little bargaining. A far cheaper option is to simply walk out of the bus station yards to the West (perhaps 10 minutes to the larger north/south road, look for traffic lights) and find one of the pick-ups which just ran a load of people to the station from town (MMK500 per person) – they are normally more than happy to help and there is no commission issues to worry about. A motorbike taxi for the same journey costs MMK2,500.
There are boat services at different levels of luxury. The trip is about 10 hours travel time and around USD40. The ferry services from Mandalay to Bagan will be shut down, except for the slow ferry ( available only on certain days in the week), during the months of April, May and June when the water level in the river is low.
By pick up
From Pyin U Lwin there are pick ups and shared taxis waiting outside the train station to transport passengers to Mandalay.
While the train journey between Pyin U Lwin to Mandalay can take about six hours, the journey by pick up or shared taxi takes only two hours. The journey costs about MMK1500 – 2000 / person in a shared pick up. Expect to be crammed in with other local and foreign passengers.
The world’s largest book stands upright, set in stone, in the grounds of the Kuthodaw pagoda (kuthodaw, “royal merit”) at the foot of Mandalay Hill in Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma). It has 730 leaves and 1460 pages; each page is 107 centimetres (3.51 ft) wide, 153 centimetres (5.02 ft) tall and 13 centimetres (5.1 in) thick. Each stone tablet has its own roof and precious gem on top in a small cave-like structure of Sinhalese relic casket type called kyauksa gu (stone inscription cave in Burmese), and they are arranged around a central golden pagoda.
Bagan, on the banks of the Ayerwaddy River , is home to the largest area of Buddhist temples, pagodas, stupas and ruins in the world – many dating to the 11th and 12th centuries.
The shape and construction of each building is highly significant in Buddhism with each component part taking on spiritual meaning.
Bagan became a central powerbase of the mid 9th century King Anawratha who unified Burma under Theravada Buddhism. At one time, it’s estimated that more than 13,000 temples and stupas once stood on this 42 sq km plain in central Myanmar . Today, approximately 2,200 remain today.
Once called Pagan, the city became a central powerbase under King Anawratha. Marco Polo once described Bagan as a “gilded city alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes”.
Ananda, Bagan’s holiest temple, was built by the third king, Kyan-zit-tha in 1091. Ananda comes from the Pali word ‘anantapannya’, which means ‘boundless wisdom’. The temple houses four Buddhas facing the cardinal directions, which represent the four Buddhas who have attained Nirvana. The fifth, Maitreya, is yet to appear.
For an unparalleled view of the Bagan plain, you can take a hot air balloon ride at sunrise through a company called Balloons Over Bagan.
The largest bell still in existence may be the Great Mingun Bell in Myanmar which weighs 90 tonnes (200,000 lb).
Pyin U Lwin
Pyin U Lwin is relatively free of the ubiquitous pagodas. Some colonial Tudor style houses still stand (mostly around the National Kandawgyi Gardens), albeit in poor condition, and walking around is an interesting way to see how the Raj lived. There are many churches as well, the oldest dating back to about 1910. Visit: The Botanical Gardens, Candacraig, English Cemetery, Shiva Temple, Chinese Temple, The Great Railway Bazaar, Purcell Tower and the Anisakan Falls.
All pictures by the author
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