8 Things to do in Mandalay

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Temples and monasteries are an integral part of life in Myanmar, and so we spent the good part of our visit in Mandalay temple-hopping.  There are so many to visit, and each one is unique in its own way. Most of the pagodas we visited are within walking distance to each other located at the foot of the Mandalay Hill.  Some of the religious sites charge a small entrance fee for foreigners, but you can buy a Mandalay archeological zone ticket that allows you to see all the places within the city and surrounding town for 10,000 Kyatt per person, valid for 5 days.  On our first day we found a taxi driver, Mr. Po, who shared his expert knowledge of the area and helped us navigate the city.  He would drive us to each destination and waited until we were done.  It was especially helpful when we wanted to go to Amarapura and other nearby towns. 

One of the best things for me to do after each trip is to go through my notes and photos as I start to write about my trip.  It allows me to relive my trip and recall memorable experiences.  Here are some of the places we visited in Mandalay:

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1. Golden Palace Monastery (Shwenandaw Kyaung) –  There are a few temples in Myanmar made of teak wood, and the Shwenandaw Monastery is one of the finest examples and the best preserved. The building was originally the king’s private residence and part of the royal palace.  When the king passed away, his heir donated it to a monastery, which saved it from being destroyed during WWII.

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The monastery is completely covered with wood carvings of mythical creatures and motifs from the golden period of Mandalay.  It was once covered in gold , but now most of it has worn off and only the wood details remain.  We spent some time admiring the intricate designs and all the work that must have gone into creating each door and window.  The detail is phenomenal.

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2. Atumashi Monastery – A short walk from the Golden Palace Monastery you’ll find the prominent Atumashi Monastery, built by King Mindon in 1857 when the capital was first moved to Mandalay.  The building has a unique design consisting of five tiered terraces instead of a traditional spired roof.  A fire in the city in the late 1800s completely burnt down the original teak structure and destroyed the Buddha image within.

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The rebuilt monastery has not come close to the magnificence of the original building.  The gold trimmed white building still looks impressive from afar, however you’ll quickly realize that the interior is just a huge empty hall.  Since there is not much to see, you’ll most likely have the place to yourself for a leisurely walk around the terrace.  If you are nearby, it’s worth a short detour, especially if you bought the archaeological ticket.

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3. Kuthodaw Temple – In our modern age, where the pages of a book are often found on our hand-held devices, it’s refreshing and unexpected to encounter a book etched in solid stone.  The “world’s largest book” can be found at the foot of Mandalay Hill, in the Kuthodaw Temple. The white washed shrines surrounding the gilded temple house 729 marble slabs, each inscribed with teachings of Buddha.

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Each thick tablet contains the text from the pages of Tipitaka, the Theravāda Buddhism’s religious canon, written in Burmese script.  The writing on the stone was initially filled in with gold ink and decorated with precious stones.  Unfortunately, after the British invasion in 1880s, the temple was looted and the gold and jewels were taken. Today the sprawling book still stands, but the writing has been refilled with simple black ink, keeping the messages of the writings alive for future generations.

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4. Mandalay Hill – As sunset approaches, people make their way up to Mandalay Hill, the high point located near the city centre. This is the best place to watch the colorful spectacle as the sun sets over the city.  There are four covered stairways at the cardinal points leading from the base to the top of the hill. You can either climb up the 1,729 steps or  drive up the one-way road to the entrance of the escalator which takes you to the summit of the pagoda. The cost to enter the pagoda is included in the city ticket, but as foreigners, we have to pay an additional 1,000 Kyat for photo taking privileges.

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At the top of the hill is the Sutaungpyei (translation: wish-granting) Pagoda.  When the sun sets, the multi-colored glass mosaic on the walls light up and glow softly in the evening light.  The panoramic view of Mandalay from the top of hill is beautiful in the evening hours, attracting quite a few numbers of visitors, both local and foreigners.  During the busy hours, you’ll often find young monks happily conversing with foreigners to practice their language skills.

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Overall, I thought the experience was incredibly claustrophobic. At times it felt like the whole tourist community is on top of the hill.  There was no quiet area where you could sit and enjoy the changing lights, and I was tired of being elbowed.  I ended up walking around and taking pictures of other people instead.

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5. Mandalay Palace – The Palace was built in 1859 when King Mindon decided to move the capital city to Mandalay.  The last royal palace of the last Burmese monarchy was mostly destroyed during World War II by allied bombing. The only major wooden building to survive was the Shwenandaw Monastery, which was moved to the base of Mandalay Hill.  The rest of the Royal Palace’s 40 buildings was reconstructed from scratch to resemble to original.  Even though the entrance fee to the palace is included in the city ticket, we opted to not visit due to timing issues.  Instead we stopped by the outside and took some pictures of the watch tower reflected in the river as the sun was about to set. 

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6. Mahamuni Pagoda – The Mahamuni Pagoda is one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Burma, housing the most revered Buddha image in the country. The 6 ton Mahamuni image is enshrined in a small chamber atop a tall pedestal.  The statue is covered in thick layers of gold leaf and wears a crown set with many precious stones. Only male devotees are allowed within the inner sanctum to pay respect to the Buddha image and apply the gold leafs.  Women are supposed to pray at the bottom of the steps.

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7. Stone Carvers – After exiting the Mahamuni pagoda, you’ll hear the gentle hum of the grinder from across the street.  This is the stone carving district where the expert artisans carve Buddha images out of large slabs of marble.  It’s fascinating to watch the artists at work, there are no drawings and the freestyle carving is done purely from memory.  The dust was flying down the street as young men used a grinder to smooth out the edges of a newly formed Buddha image emerging from the stone. At another shop, women were giving the finished Buddha a bath. Then the statue gets painted and shipped out. A small Buddha costs about 100 USD.

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8. Mahagandayon Monastery – One of the “must-visit” places, on top of every tourist travel book is Mahagandayon Monastery, the largest teaching monastery in Myanmar.  The complex, located in Amarapura on the outskirts of Mandalay, is home to several thousand young monks. The Monastery, founded in 1914, is regarded as a center for monastic study and strict religious discipline.

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Theravada Buddhist life in the monastery revolves around a strict daily routine of prayers and religious study.  Each day the monks wake up before the crack of dawn and take their last meal of the day around mid-morning.  It is during this time that the monastery opens for visitors to observe this daily ritual.  The silent monks lining up to receive their food is fascinating to many foreigners, who take the opportunity to capture the moment.

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When I first read about this place, it sounded like a great opportunity to be able to witness a fascinating ritual, and get some insight into the monastic life.  In reality, the proceedings felt like a circus.  The monks look like they parading in a zoo, surrounded by hordes of tourists, who are shoving packages of chocolate cakes and candies into their alms bowl.  It’s a miracle that they don’t have diabetes.  People were jostling for position and being inconsiderate.  You can tell that some of monks hated the whole experience.  I know if it were me, I would definitely be bothered by the paparazzi treatment.  Aside from providing an ideal setting to see a procession of monks, I think this was one of the worst experiences.   It’s better to go at less chaotic time, when you will have a chance to learn about the monks and their life in the monastery.

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