Mandalay & Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar

Highlights:

  • Mandalay Hill at sunset
  • Lonely Planet self-guided bike tour
  • Rainbow beer station
  • Motorbike ride from Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin
  • Horse carriage around Inwa

Many of the people we’d met traveling through Myanmar told us they were planning to skip Mandalay. People said they thought there wasn’t much to do, they thought it was dirty, they thought it wasn’t very nice, but for us, we couldn’t imagine not visiting the country’s 2nd largest city. Even while in Mandalay, we met many people who told us they were just staying for a night or half a day and were planning to spend the little time they had outside of the city. Come on guys, give Mandalay a chance!! While we really enjoyed Yangon and thought Mandalay was a bit grittier, to us, the sheer fact that Mandalay is so much closer to all of the other cities that tourists tend to visit (eg, Mandalay is 5 hours from Bagan and Inle Lake, whereas Yangon is 12 hours from them) makes this city possibly even a more desirable destination. Maybe it’s not the nicest city we’ve ever been to, but in my opinion, if you skip over it, you’re missing out.

By the time we got to our hotel in Mandalay and got settled in, it was late in the afternoon. We knew we wanted to do something that day, so we decided to rent bikes from our hotel ($2pp) for the night and go check out Mandalay Hill, one of the top tourist attractions in the city. Right in the middle of Mandalay, there’s a huge fort-like complex (probably about 1.5 miles on each side), inside of which is the Mandalay Palace. We were staying near this (in Central Mandalay) and to get to Mandalay Hill, we had to bike around half of the fort. It was a really nice ride.

We got to Mandalay Hill and climbed for about 30 minutes. We thought it would be shorter than what it said in our book, but it took us almost exactly 30 minutes. You can also take a taxi up to the top of the hill and then an elevator up to the viewpoint, but after 5-6 hours in a bus earlier in the day, our legs needed some exercise.

The walk up was ok. It’s mostly covered, so you can’t really see much, but there are lots of vendors as you go up. We got almost to the top and finally were able to get a good view of the city (including, much to Dave’s excitement, the Mandalay golf course). It’s always nice to get a good view of the city (especially right when you arrive) to help you get your bearings. It was almost time for sunset (I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many sunsets as I did while in Myanmar) so we decided to go all the way to the top. As we got up there, we saw a sign saying that starting January 1, 2016 (the day we were there), they would be charging people 1,000 kyat (about $1) to enter the viewing spot. We’re not sure why they had to put the date on the sign to make everyone feel bad for being the 1st people ever to have to pay, but luckily they hadn’t gotten their payment lineup situation quite down pat, so we were able to just walk right in. You can walk all around for nice 360 degree views of the city. It was another nice sunset.

After the sunset, we walked down and quickly checked out a few of the pagodas around the hill before riding the rest of the way around the fort to our dinner spot for the night. All throughout Myanmar there are “beer stations” (you can tell somewhere is a beer station because there will be a huge sign of whichever beer they’re serving outside), which serve draft beer and local bbq/food. This is something we both wish Thailand had, where it’s very hard to find good, cheap draft beer (craft beer is big in Bangkok but it’s like $10/glass). We picked the best-sounding beer station and had drinks and a great bbq dinner (whole fish, chicken liver, veggie, and fried rice).

The next morning we wanted to go to Mandalay Palace, and since we were up early, we decided to skip our hotel’s free breakfast for the day (GASP!!!) and run there. To get into Mandalay Palace, you need to buy a ticket (sold at the east gate only) for 10,000 kyat. This ticket will also get you into several pagodas around the city (we’re not sure how they determine which ones  to charge for and which not) and also several sights outside of Mandalay. If you’re just planning to go to the palace, it’s probably not worth paying the 10,000, but we were planning to spend a whole day outside the city and also go check out the pagodas inside the city, so we decided it was worth it. We spent a few hours walking around the palace, checking out some of the other pagodas covered by the pass, and then heading back toward our hotel (we actually had to switch hotels because we showed up a day earlier than planned and our original hotel which was much nicer didn’t have room for us). Later that afternoon (after one of our few local lunches of the trip, dumplings/wantons/noodles), we did one of our favorite activities in any city, one of the Lonely Planet’s self-guided walking/biking tours. This one was a biking tour. I love these not because of the actual sites you stop at along the way, but because you really get to explore whatever neighborhoods they take you through along the way. This tour, in particular, was through some very local areas that we definitely would not have found otherwise. During the tour, we came across a local carnival where 8 year olds were playing games for warm Chang beers, several huge pigs eating garbage along the side of a busy road (we’ve never seen pigs just roaming around in the city like this before and couldn’t figure out who they belonged to) and one more beer station, where we enjoyed yet another sunset (and a couple of beers).

From the bike tour, we biked back toward our area and went to meet up with our friend Brian, who we’d seen in Bagan and had been just a day or two behind us throughout the whole trip. We checked out his area a little bit (a little fancier/trendier than ours) and all had dinner together at another beer and bbq spot (though this one a little more upscale/expensive but not surprisingly not as good).

The next morning, we got up early, rented a motorbike, and started on the 2 hour journey through the mountains to Pyin Oo Lwin, which is where we heard many of the more wealthy Burmese people go for their holidays. We had yet to really see any wealthy Burmese people, so we were interested to see what they were like.

The ride to Pyin Oo  Lwin was very pretty and nice (minus the woman in one of the pickup trucks in front of us who was vomiting out the back of the truck the whole way up the mountain), but it was much, much colder than we’d anticipated. We were really unprepared for the weather on this trip. In fact, one of the people working at our hotel tried to warn us that it was so cold it might even be snowing, but we didn’t quite believe him until we got there and were freezing. We each had to buy an extra sweater to match the hat and gloves we’d already purchased for our trek. We spent the day riding all around the cute town (and the not so cute main street where we were staying) and then went to one of their top attractions, the botanical gardens. The one reason Dave wanted to go into the gardens (he’s not the biggest fan of flowers) was because there’s a huge tower you’re supposed to be able to go up to get a view of the whole town. The tickets to the garden cost 6,000 kyat each (about $5) and we thought it’d be worth it for the great view, but when we got to the tower, there was a huge board blocking off the stairs and we were told that it was closed for renovations. Of course, we went to complain and demand our money back (we never would have come in had we known!) and the people working there refused, but told us that they’d give us special permission to go up the tower. So, in the end, we not only got our view, we had the whole thing to ourselves.

That night, Dave treated me to one of the best meals of our trip at one of the nicest restaurants in Pyin Oo Lwin. We got a sushi roll, an appetizer that was supposed to be fried fish stuffed with cheese but tasted more like chicken (I know this doesn’t sound great, but we’d seen it on every menu we looked at so had to try it and luckily it was really good), and an Asian chicken and rice dish.  The meal was great, especially with the bottle of local strawberry wine (Pyin Oo Lwin’s specialty) that we ordered. This meal was the first time that we got to see some of the more wealthy Burmese in action.

One of the reasons we’d wanted to come to Pyin Oo Lwin was because we’d read they had a good (and really cheap) golf course. Dave loves golfing and he’d been wanting to play for a long time, so we’d planned for him to do it there. Unfortunately, it was just too cold. But, we didn’t want his golfing dreams to get crushed, so instead, we stopped at another course we’d seen on our drive and he played there instead. It was twice the price, but it was also a much nicer course and the weather was much better (because it was at the bottom of the mountain instead of the top and also midday instead of morning) so it was worth it. The course was beautiful and aside from our not-so-great caddie who tried to rush Dave the whole time, it was a great day. My favorite part about the course was that unlike most courses where there’s only food after the 9th hole, this course had local food set up at literally every hole. I told Dave that I would go golfing with him at a place like this anytime!

After getting back to Mandalay, we had a great (and very cheap) dinner at a street side Indian place (chapati, chicken kebobs, etc).

On our last day in Myanmar, we hired a taxi driver (35,000 kyat for the day) to take us to several sights outside the city. This is a pretty popular “tour,” and some people hire motorbikes (and drivers) to take them, while some opt for the taxi. Ordinarily, we would have gone with the motorbike (it would have been about the same price), but after being on a motorbike for the past two days, we thought a taxi would be better.

Throughout the day, we probably made 10-15 different stops. A pagoda where Dave decided he was through taking off his shoes, a monastery where we got to see over a thousand monks line up and then eat their lunch (and I was peed on by a dog – dogs in Asia hate me), U bein bridge, the longest teakwood bridge in the world (1.2 km), Sagaing, a huge hill with hundreds of pagodas where we stopped for a great local lunch, and finally Inwa, an ancient imperial capital of Burma, which you can only get around by horse carriage. We were supposed to go back to U Bein bridge at the end of the day to see the sunset, but after all of the sunsets we’d seen already, we decided to skip this so we could get back a little earlier and have some time to relax before dinner. It was a really nice day checking out some of the sights outside of the city AND we even got to put our Mandalay Palace passes that we’d purchased to good use.

For our final dinner in Myanmar, we had to have one last beer station and bbq meal. It was the perfect way to end a great trip in a country that surpassed all of our expectations. Between the people, the food, and some of the sights we’d seen/places we’d visited, it had been a truly unforgettable trip, but after 19 days, we were ready to get back to Bangkok and all of its 1st world amenities (eg, good Western food, huge shopping malls and cinemas, good public transport, etc).

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