Flying directly with AirAsia from Bangkok into Mandalay, I was a bit nervous when passing the Burmese customs at this small airport. Yes, nervous. We all know that Myanmar suffered from a strict military regime for a long time (1962-2011!). How would the country and its people look like? Would we be able to enter the country easily?
Well, I can reassure you. After only 10 minutes we passed customs and we could finally say: ”We are in Myanmar!”
What did we expect from Myanmar and its people? Ahead of our trip we watched videos and pictures on blogs and travel sites. These showed us small children running around historic temples, countless numbers of monks, farmers with ox cars, balloons over Bagan, and fishermen on Inle Lake. The stuff you will read about in every travel guide.
You will see the fishermen, farmers and buddhist monks of course. Lots of them! But we were pleasantly surprised to meet young hipsters with smartphones and Beats by Dr. Dre headphones already on day 1! That changed our initial perception of the people of Myanmar I can tell you that!
During our trip we felt that the Burmese people are really trying to find their own way after being repressed by the military junta for so long. Not all of them know yet how to deal or engage with the soaring number of tourists. Many are open-minded and friendly but also somewhat reluctant to be very pro-active or flexible. But all the things you will experience in Myanmar can be seen as the charm of a developing nation!
But enough about expectations…let’s show you how our Burmese adventure started in the city of Mandalay!
Mandalay is a far better start for your Myanmar trip compared to chaotic Yangon. Mandalay itself is honestly speaking nothing special. Home to over 1 million people it unfortunately lacks charm. Having said that, the area is still definitely worth a visit. Mandalay Hill, the ancient cities around Mandalay (like Sagaing and Inwa) and especially the famous teak U-Bein bridge make up for the lack of charm big time!
Mandalay hill and around
We arrived at our Yadanarbon hotel early afternoon and of course could not wait to start exploring! We called for a taxi that took us to one of the best spots in town: Mandalay Hill (with a pagoda on top).
Mandalay Hill is famous for watching sunsets. It’s popular with tourists for the superb valley views. And the area is interesting for Buddhist monks who grab the opportunity to talk to you and practice their English!
First afternoon on Mandalay hill is perfect to relax from your travel and really kick-off your trip. Go early in the afternoon because around Mandalay Hill you can visit some important temples and monasteries, like the wooden Shwe Nandaw Kyaung Monastery and the Kuthodaw Temple (with its 729 whitewashed pagodas each containing a marble tablet containing a part of the Tipitaka – the Buddhist canon).
Outside of Mandalay
Outside of Mandalay is where the real fun starts! Have your taxi driver bring you to the Mahagandhayon monastery (in Amarapura) where you can watch hundreds of monks getting in line for lunch. It starts at 10.30 and it might get crowded with tourists. It’s no problem to watch, as long as you pay respect to the tradition. Make sure to walk around a bit and watch the monks in their daily environment.
Highlight of our trip to Mandalay!
First the facts. It’s a wooden bridge. OK, it’s 1.2km (0.6 miles) long but again, it’s just a wooden bridge. Why on earth has this bridge become one of Myanmar’s landmarks?
Offering stunning (and romantic) sunsets is probably one of them. Travelers are also attracted by the photographic opportunities of locals crossing the bridge whole day long. Monks, kids going to school, couples in love looking for a quiet place to take a selfie, local men and women carrying baskets with vegetables going to the market. It’s just an overall fun place!
We went there twice. During our first visit we completely blocked the bridge because so many people stopped to take pictures of our kids! Really, tall with white hair and white skin gets you high on the local list of interesting object to photograph, and not only here in Mandalay!
Take your time when you visit U-Bein bridge. Rent a boat just before sun sets (7-8,000 Kyats), have a chat with people on the bridge and enjoy a drink in one of the nearby restaurants.
But there are more beautiful places hidden in the surrounding countryside of Mandalay. What about the former capital cities of Inwa (known also as Ava) and Sagaing?
If you traveling with kids you should visit Inwa. It’s actually a small island where you can hire a horse and carriage. First you take a small ferry after which you will find the horse & carriage rentals….
During the trip you pass by some nice historic sites like the Maha Aungmye Bonzan monastery, Bagaya Kyaung monastery, and the Nanmyin Watchtower (also called the Leaning Tower of Inwa). In total a visit to Inwa will last around 2-3 hours.
In Sagaing you can visit as many temples as you want. Sagaing Hill (with the famous viewpoint at the Sun U Ponya Shin Pagoda) is a bit like Mandalay Hill. We unfortunately didn’t have the chance to spend hours in Sagaing because we wanted to be back at U-Bein bridge in time for sunset!
By the way, also at Sagaing Hill we met many, many locals that wanted to take a picture of our kids…so much fun!
All in all great days to get introduced to Burmese life. And Mandalay was only the beginning of our trip. Next stop: the surreal Buddha figures and temples in “Crazy and Surreal Monywa“!
If you want to read our general itinerary overview of our Myanmar trip, please click here.
Let me shortly share some practical tips about traveling in Myanmar. If you want to know more details, just leave a comment below or send me an email.
– We stayed in Hotel Yadanarbon. We asked the hotel to assist in booking domestic flight tickets which worked out perfectly well.
– Right across the Yadanarbon hotel you will find a very nice restaurant. Service is very slow but we were not in a hurry…(we only wanted curry)
– You can exchange money at the airport or hotel. Rates are almost the same everywhere.
– We found some ATM machines, even one in the Yadanarbon hotel lobby! We didn’t use them though as we brought lots of cash after reading all the travel advice on internet.
– AirAsia offers a free shuttle bus from airport to Mandalay city center (departing daily at 13.00h)
Hello Emiel, I am excited to be traveling to Myanmar in February and was curious to know if you saw any solo travelers and if you thought the environment safe enough for solo travel?
Dear Carolina. We might have seen solo travelers, but I was not aware. We did see lots of families (even with very young children) and feel that the country is quite safe to travel in. Yangon can be quite chaotic, but Bagan and Inle Lake are quite relaxed to travel in. You might want to check the blog called Legal Nomads and ask Jodi about her experiences in Myanmar. Here is a link: http://www.legalnomads.com/2012/01/photos-myanmar.html Sorry for not being able to help you with better answers. 🙂
Thank you so much. It is very helpful!
What an interesting family trip. How did your kids react to being the ones photographed? Looks like you had loads of interaction with people and nice to see the hipster shots as well.
They felt a bit overwhelmed at first. After the first days they really enjoyed it but at the end they had enough and didn’t feel like continuously posing anymore… But they never turned down a request! They are so well-behaved… 🙂
Your photos of these places capture many beautiful moments. I love that you were able to interact with local people so much–all those smiling faces make that boat ride look fun!
Thanks Jenna. There was a lot of smiling going on. Burmese people do not all speak English very well, but you manage a lot with a big smile and some hand gestures!
Hi Emiel. This reminds me of my trip to Yangon back in early 2012. I was impressed with the street scene as there were so many old cars and buses with beautiful British colonial buildings as the backdrop. However a friend who went to the city this year said that it has changed a lot. There were more new cars and rapid developments were evident. I do hope that those colonial building won’t end up being torn down as happened to many such buildings across Asia.
Hi Bama! Yangon indeed was a very chaotic place. The Shwedagon pagoda was really impressive (must-visit) but the city itself didn’t really capture our hearts so to say… In down-town Yangon you will still find these colonial buildings. Just outside the city center high-rise buildings are being built as we speak. Who knows how Yangon will look like in 20 years from now…like Bangkok maybe?
That’s what I’m thinking, Yangon might look like Bangkok in the years to come. A better Bangkok I hope.
This looks amazing. We were only in Myanmar for about 10 minutes for our first border run from Thailand, a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately, there had been a flood and we couldn’t even spend the day there. Now you are making me want to go. We get stopped for photos too, as our kids are blonde and tall.
Only a couple of weeks ago! But from the border of Thailand it’s still a long trip to the most important highlights like Bagan and Inle lake. However, next time please go. And about the floods, it’s indeed true that during the rainy season the whole South area of the country (with all the beaches) is not accessible. So that’s why we didn’t went to the beach this year.. 🙂