Most travelers nowadays seem to skip Mandalay, with its heat, smog, and so-so attractions. Our Air Asia flight was cheaper from Mandalay to Bangkok than Yangon to Bangkok, so we figured it was worth seeing a new place rather than backtracking.
See and Do
We spent a day and a half in Mandalay and then did an overnight trip to the mountain town of Pyin Oo Lwin. The only thing that was a must in Mandalay was the Mahamuni Paya, with its huge gold Buddha stolen from the Rahkaing State.
To be honest, the pagoda and Buddha weren't as impressive as the spectacle of local families, all decked out, coming to pray and have their photos taken.
You can (and should) avoid the camera fee, since you can't even take pictures when you're at the Buddha statue. If you are a man and don't wear long pants in 100 degree heat, longyi are available in the south wing. Rob wishes he remembered the bottoms to his zip-on pants.
The U Bein Bridge in Amarapura, a cab or bike ride away, was worth seeing, though the smog prevented the gorgeous sunset we'd hoped for. Sunrise was supposedly better. This is also where you can see hundreds of monks eat their breakfast in the morning, though according to travelers we met, this activity has started to lose its appeal as there are so many tour buses coming in just for the spectacle.
If you have extra time, Pyin Oo Lwin is a worthy sidetrip. The air is fresher and the temperatures lower than in Mandalay. The gardens outside of town make for a nice afternoon and are where we had our first non-farm animal sighting: monkeys playing in the branches right overhead.
The short motorbike trip to the falls in Anisakan is also worth it. The falls are beautiful and refreshing, so cold in fact that we didn't even swim. Allow 30 minutes down, 45 minutes back up, plus the trip out of town.
We found our hotel the old-fashioned way, through a tout at the bus station. The Rich Queen was probably the best room of our Burma trip, through I'd take that with a grain of salt. Still for $25/night, we got a clean room with working bathroom, an okay breakfast, and a downtown location. Wifi (in the lobby) and AC (in the room) worked when there was power. Cross your fingers. There were half as many power outages in Mandalay as there were in Bagan, but that's not saying much.
In Pyin Oo Lwin, we stayed at Golden Dream Hotel, which was a dump. $14/night was too much to pay, but it was the cheapest room in town and we were running low on kyat. Note that there's no breakfast. The nicest hotel that accepts foreigners is Bravo. They quoted us $30/night and wouldn't budge.
Eat and Drink
For the most part, we again followed Lonely Planet recommendations. Nothing blew our minds, though Mann restaurant was incredibly disappointing. The Chapati Stand recommended in Lonely Planet was pretty amazing for street food. We each had two chapatis and a curry at 1000K each. The chapatis were fresh off the grill and it was truly a local's hangout. Quite a cool dining experience, though after a while some other travelers came to eat there as well, making the sight of us a bit less foreign.
In Pyin Oo Lwin, we highly recommend Krishna, a South Indian place off the main drag. We felt like we were part of the family and the food was amazing. Since we were the only people eating there, we stayed and chatted with the young hostess for quite a while. She's been to India a few times, but calls Burma home. The entire family immigrated after WWII and has no plans to move back. Despite being Hindu in a heavily Buddhist area, we saw no attempts by the family to hide their religion. In fact, blown up photos of all the daughters in traditional Indian dress and makeup decorated the walls and Bollywood played in the background as we enjoyed our dinner (with our hands, of course!).
We took some shared cabs in Mandalay (4000K/pp for a roundtrip to U Bein Bridge; 2000K/pp for the trip to the hotel from the bus station). Mostly we walked, which was exhausting. Take afternoons off and hope the AC works. A bike would have been useful since the city is pretty flat.
Getting to Pyin Oo Lwin cost us 1500K/pp in a pickup, which is a pickup truck converted into a semibus with benches. They leave from the corner of 27th and 82nd. The driver will find you and, if you're tall, the ride will be uncomfortable. Don't worry, if the engine starts clanging going up a big hill, it's normal. They'll stop to douse the engine with water.
In Pyin Oo Lwin, our half day bike rental for the gardens cost 1000K each. The half day motorbike was 6000K, which was a great deal. When bargaining, make the half day a clear part of a deal.
Share taxi to Mandalay airport was 4000K. Our hotel tried to charge 5000K, so head to a travel agency for a better deal if that's what you're quoted. We used one on 82nd between 26th and 27th. That's also where we exchanged money when the banks were closed.
Enjoying the pictures? See more in our photo tour of Pyin Oo Lwin and Mandalay.
Share your tips for backpacking Mandalay in the comments!