Before leaving for Burma (way back in January!) a friend of mine wished me a good trip and said she was looking forward to the accompanying blog post. She also mentioned there was no rush as she knew I probably wouldn't be able to get to it until April. I felt incredulous at the time - April was so far away! - but looks like she was right, heck it's practically the end of May and I'm just getting to it now. I need to get better at this.
And so, here we are with the first of 4 instalments of our time in Burma over the Chinese New Year holiday.
Mandalay is a big city with a small town feel. Known as the key city to "Upper Burma" Mandalay is a well laid out grid of streets situated at the base of Mandalay Hill along the banks of the Irrawaddy River. Considering the true size of Mandalay (approximately 1.5 million) I was surprised by how sleepy the city felt. This is a place that knows what a siesta is and takes full advantage of it.
Overall Mandalay wasn't my favourite stop on our little trip, and though there are some good choices in terms of food, touristing and entertainment, if you're tight on time more than 2 days would feel like a waste.
The Green Elephant - This is one of those charming garden restaurants that always seems to have a clinking of glasses, tinkling of laughter, and an aroma that draws you in. The Green Elephant serves traditional Burmese food to those looking for a taste of local flavours in a setting that is relaxed and elegant, and it does it well. I particularly recommend the coconut rice and coupling dinner with one of the puppet or dance shows, both of which are near by.
Too Too Restaurant - To say this little restaurant is bare bones is a bit of an understatement. Hole in the wall is the term usually given to places like this, but that's usually where some of the best food is to be found and this place certainly didn't disappoint. Offering local Burmese food, this little place is a great little rest stop on a busy day of touring. Simply walk in, order from the display of dishes behind the glass, and enjoy. Set prices will include a main, rice, and side dish - extras cost extra (go figure!)
Marie-Min - This cozy little cafe and restaurant sits on the second floor with an open air balcony that looks into a popular thai restaurant across a tight alley, it also happens to be entirely vegetarian (score!). With a fairly extensive menu that will serve anything from tea leaf salad to avocado and coffee milk shakes (all three of which are recommended) we happily passed a couple hours resting our feet and escaping the scorching heat after several hours of touristing.
Mandalay Hill - While the barefoot climb to the summit of the 240 meter hill on a series of covered stairways (with plenty of stops and viewpoints on the way) is worth it, you can also travel up by a combination of car and elevator. I personally recommend the walk, but if you're not able the latter option will also reward you with a striking panoroma of the city and access to Sutaungpyei Pagoda. The combination of the view, and the old and new world charms that were visible in the refurbished pagoda are well worth the trip and was a personal highlight for me.
Shwenandaw Kyaung - I could have spend hours looking at this intricately carved teak monastary. Each panel had something to admire and the blend of it all together was nothing short of striking. Originally built as the royal apartment of King Mindon, it was once taken apart and put back together again just outside the palace walls and converted to a monastary after King Thibaw declared he could no longer stand the ghost of Mindon, who had died inside the apartment in 1878. Though not huge there is plenty to look at, and once inside men are allowed to explore the space that was once used as a bedroom where King Mindon passed.
Mahamuni Paya - One of the neatest, and most jarring, realities of the temples in Burma is that they are still widely used by local people today, which means the aesthetic has changed over the years to include neon lights and a whole lot of glitz. This is perhaps most evident in Mahamuni Paya where throngs of people still go to visit the 13ft seated Buddha. Again, only men are allowed into the main room that houses buddha, but open air windows allow for view from the outside of the golden statue. The courtyard and surrounding buildings of this Paya also hold many interesting artifacts to make note of and also offer some solice from the inevitable crowds.
Take a stroll - As I mentioned, Mandalay is a big city with a small town feel and it's worth just taking a walk along the unpaved roads to take in the sights and sounds that greet you. There's plenty to see, but watch out, traffic can get hectic and I only noticed a handful of traffic lights on my journey.