As soon as we left the airport and hit the road to Mandalay we saw there was a bigger variety of vehicles sharing the steaming hot tarmac than Yangon. It was much more reminiscent of India, but also Cambodia and Vietnam because of the sea of motorbikes.

As with those countries there were often multiple people and whole families on one bike. The best (or worst) we saw was two women with a toddler standing at the front of the bike. As we passed we could see he was asleep standing up. The collective stares of horror from us, our guide and driver prompted the mother to move her mirror so she could see him and she quickly tapped him awake.

MandalayThe other dominant feature in the city is the moat and fortress walls that have Mandalay Palace at their centre. They are a mile square so we seemed to regularly drive alongside them for quite long periods of time. We didn’t go inside though as there’s nothing left of the original royal palace having been bombed to bits in WW2. Parts of it were rebuilt by the government in the 1990s, but it’s occupied by the military and our guide, Man, didn’t recommend or really want us to visit.

MandalayWe decided to hire a guide and driver for our two days in Mandalay as the sights to see are quite spread out and would be pretty difficult and slow to get to without a driver (unless you’re up for hiring a motorbike). A guide isn’t essential but makes life easier if you’re not fluent in Burmese as taxi drivers are unlikely to speak much if any English. The guides also add local colour and culture with the stories they share.

Somewhere we all thought was well worth a visit is Shwenandaw Paya, a fabulous intricately carved teak building that started life as King Mindon’s apartment at the royal palace. After he died in 1878 his son decided to honour his father by donating it as a monastery. It was moved out of the palace which meant the gorgeous building was saved from the bombing years later. Serendipity at work.

MandalayOur favourite part of the King’s story was that he had around 300 wives and mistresses so as he approached death there were a lot of crown princes waiting in the wings. His successor got there because his ruthless wife murdered at least 80 of them. Man showed us a photo of her and said she had a very hard face. He seemed quite perturbed and as we wandered through the huge meditation hall with its many pillars I wondered if her story was used to scare small children when they were behaving badly.

MandalayThe monastery is in Royal Mandalay which also home to Mandalay Hill, probably the most visited spot in the city, particularly at sunset. We went in the morning when it was less busy and as it was already pretty hot Man suggested we save our energy and drive instead of taking the 45 minute walk up many many steps. Once you leave the car there’s even lifts and escalators for the last part which worked fine, but it’s a bit odd going on an escalator barefoot. If this is the first of my Myanmar posts you’ve read, you won’t know yet that taking footwear off happens a lot, so sandals or flip flops are much quicker than socks and trainers.

At the top of the hill is a wish granting temple, Sutaungpyi Paya, and some great views of Mandalay, although it can be very misty, inevitable with the high humidity. We did the full circuit and liked getting a feel for the size and layout of the city as well as meandering through the lovely sparkly pillars of the temple.

MandalayNot far from here is Kuthodaw Pagoda, known as the world’s biggest book – world record breaking stuff seems to be a bit of a theme in the Mandalay area. In this case the King commissioned the 729 marble slabs that circle the pagoda to be made and engraved with the Buddhist Tripitaka scriptures. Each one sits inside a mini stupa with iron bars at the front, presumably to ensure no touching.

MandalayAway from Royal Mandalay I think the most interesting part of the city centre to visit is the gold pounding district. This is where thousands of one inch square sheets of gold leaf are churned out for people to buy and place on Buddha images.

The gold is mined, or panned in the nearby river, and initially heated and stretched into strips by a machine. The strips are cut and put between sheets of bamboo and straw and then the pounding starts to make it bigger. Initially its just for half an hour, then the same amount of time again and then it’s cut and pounded for another five hours using enormous hammers. A sort of egg timer is set for 3 minutes at a time so the pounders can change the spot they are hitting. Meanwhile in another room ladies package up the gold leaf squares ready to be sold – and very kindly gave my friend and I a gold leaf bindi for visiting.

MandalayOur next stop was to see the gold leaf squares in action at Mahamuni Paya. Thousands of worshipers visit the 24 hour complex every day to kneel down and apply gold leaf to a 13ft seated Buddha. Well, the men apply it as women aren’t allowed. As a result the statue has changed shape considerably over the years, getting increasingly bigger as more gold leaf is attached. Only the Buddha’s face stays the same as the gold leaf can’t go there, instead it’s ceremonially polished at 4am every day. As with many temples the corridors leading to the centre are lined with shops – this one is definitely the place to go if you’re in the market for a very large gold Buddha.

MandalayMan was quite bothered by the fact that people spend money on gold leaf to stick on Buddhas when they could be giving it to the poor. He volunteers as a teacher outside of the tourism season and having been university educated had lots of views about life in his country. It would definitely be fair to say he wasn’t a fan of the military controlled government and was looking forward to late March when the democratic party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, aka The Lady, would be in charge – albeit behind a front man until they change the clause in the constitution that prohibits someone who’s children are another nationality (in this case British) from becoming president.

One thing Man was a fan of was sitting down and getting busy on one of his two mobile phones. And there was plenty of opportunity to do that on our journey to Mingun, a small village that we travelled to on a surprisingly large boat for just the three of us along the Ayeyarwady River.

Mandalay

You can get to Mingun by road too, but arriving by river means you get a great view of Mingun Paya, essentially a big old pile of bricks, but what would have been the world’s biggest pagoda (told you there was a theme here) if it had been finished. Work stopped following the death of King Bodawpaya, who commissioned it, so only the bottom third was completed, but that part is massive and gives a sense of the vast size it would have been.

Mandalay

On the way from the boat jetty you can also see the ruins of two chinthe (half-lion, half-dragon). Only the haunches are left and they are enormous, so you can imagine what the final versions of those would have been like too. Walking around the pagoda itself some scary looking cracks caused by a couple of earthquakes are very visible. After the most recent one in 2012 climbing to the top was banned, but we still saw a few crazy people clambering up.

MingunNext stop was the Mingun Bell and yes you’ve guess it, the bell is huge – 13ft high, 16ft wide and weighs 90 tonnes. King Bodawpaya commissioned this too and for years it was the biggest ringable bell in the world. It was overtaken by one in China but that doesn’t mean its not popular with visitors, particularly young monks. I struggled to get a photo without one of them posing on it. Check the gallery at the end for the evidence.

Our final stop in Mingun was Hsinbyume Paya, which I really liked and thought was one of the most unusual pagodas I’ve seen. Its whitewashed and has seven terraces in a wavy design that evidently represents Mt Meru, the Buddhist mythological mountain and the seven mountain ranges around it.

MingunHeading back to the boat we meandered around a few stalls and shops selling art as well as spotting a Buddhist home for the aged. But then it was back along the Ayeyarwady for one of the day’s highlights, a fabulous sunset. We saw a fair few during our trip around Myanmar but this was a definitely one of my favourites – there’s something very indulgent and restorative about spending an hour drifting slowly along a river watching the sun go down.

MandalayThe rest of our time in Mandalay was spent south of the city visiting some of the fabulous ancient capitals of Myanmar that I’ll write a separate post about or this one will get really long. So the only final things to mention are our hotel and what we learned about going out to eat and drink in the evenings.

We stayed at the Mandalay City Hotel which was very central but in its own courtyard set back off the road, so a bit of an oasis in a busy area. Would definitely recommend it. We also ended up eating there on our second night and while the restaurant looked a bit functional the food was lovely.

MandalayThe previous night we’d decided to go out and as it had been pretty easy to do that in Yangon we’d thought the same would be true of another large city. The places that were walking distance weren’t recommended in our guide book, so we got the hotel to order us a taxi to go to BBB, billed as a bit of a ex pat place but actually only had locals that night, albeit probably better off ones.

The food and wine was really good but getting home to the hotel wasn’t. Turns out that unlike Yangon taxis are not so easy to get in Mandalay and we should have booked a return trip with the hotel. The waiter simply said there wasn’t one available and there were none to hail on the street.

Ever resourceful, I approached a group of local men at another table for help getting a cab as was sure one spoke good English, which he did. After some debate with the waiter he said “my brother will take you” and a young guy at his table instantly jumped up, keys in hand. He led us to a car right outside, drove us to our hotel and flatly refused to take any money when we got there. All through our trip around Myanmar we met nothing but friendly, smiling local people and this is a great example of just how friendly (and in this case extremely kind and helpful) they really are.

Click on an image below to scroll through the gallery and check the Myanmar section of my blog now and in the future for more posts about this amazing country, including part two of Mandalay.