Perhaps I judge a place too harshly on first impressions or go solely on my “feeling” for it right off the bat. What first turned me off of Mandalay was that I had visited Yangon first. Our first afternoon there, we decided to explore. We started by looking at a map, establishing where the city center was and caught a bus there. The center didn’t look that much different from the areas we had just past getting there; concrete buildings, little shops and food stalls. Now what? We did happen to find the market and the clock tower which serves as the stickpin on the map for the official downtown area. We discovered a dodgy place to have lunch and headed back to the hostel early.
The hostel was one of the things I enjoyed most about our stay in Mandalay. It’s called Yoe Yoe Lay and it’s located at the far end of 35th street. The staff was really friendly, the food was pretty good, the other travelers looked happy and they rented bikes for cheap.
My favorite day in Mandalay was not when we went on the city tour to all the important landmarks and pagodas, or to Inwa and Saiging, or even to watch the sunset on Mandalay Hill and the U Bein Bridge, but the day we rented bicycles and braved the traffic and exhaust on the city roads. Not really knowing where we were going led us into a flower market, back street neighborhoods, on the grounds of a crumbing monastery and on a wooden bridge where it looked like everyone in town was drying their colorful clothes out in the sun.
I don’t really want to waste time talking smack about Mandalay. Who am I to judge anyway? This is home to some people. Saying that, I have to admit that I loved watching all the crimson-clad monks and nuns in their conical hats in a pink parade gathering their alms in the morning. Mandalay also surprisingly had some of the best sunsets I saw the whole time I was in Myanmar, maybe it was the smog that made the colors so vibrant.
Strangely, one of the things that sticks out most about being in Mandalay was a visit to the marble carving street. Before you even turn the corner from the Mahamuni Pagoda you see the white dust. It covers everything and anything with a surface. It blankets the leaves on the trees that hoover above the stalls and the faces and eyelashes of the sculptures. Stall after stall for a few city blocks are small armies of Buddhas made from white marble. Many don’t have faces and it was explained to us that the buyer can choose the expression they want for their Buddha and it can be crafted custom order. So, Buddhas with block heads sit there like strange cubist museum pieces awaiting their assigned declaration.
Everyone who goes on marble carving street comments on the fact that none of the people working there wear any kind of facemask or protection from all the marble dust. A couple stalls had some fans blowing the dust outwards, but that was the only effort I saw. One guy had a mask, but he wasn’t wearing it. As I mentioned, the only things on marble carving street were marble statues and, not surprising, a clinic.
Our time in Mandalay ended sweetly with a bottle of red wine, real chocolate and a toilet bowl sized portion of noodle soup. No story in Myanmar would be complete without noodle soup.
Transportation: Bagan to Mandalay; we took the 19 passenger OK Bus which is door to door and a really good deal as well as being comfortable and fast.
Accommodation: If you are looking for a hostel, I have the impression that Yoe Yoe Lay is one of the best spots in town. It’s a little far from the center, but that wasn’t an issue once you’re out for the day. They have a full breakfast, bikes in good condition, any traveler’s needed for in and out of town, decent wi-fi connection in the morning and cold beers for sale all day long.
I also stayed at the ET Hotel on 83rd street the night before my flight which was cheap, central and had an all right breakfast. It’s within walking distance to the 9:00am free Air Asia Shuttle on 79th & 26th.
Food: there were a couple places with the usual soup and noodle options in the neighborhood where our accommodation was. From the looks of it, the food options were not the best I had experienced in Myanmar. Good luck.