The Road to Mandalay

Mandalay Travel Blog

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Pigs crammed in a truck on the way to Mandalay. They were NOT happy and squealing like crazy


After breakfast we snaked our way down the fairly terrible mountain road for a while before getting stopped at another huge line of backed up trucks. Seems there was a landslide due to the nonstop rain and men wearing only longyis and sandals were busily swinging sledge hammers breaking up the giant boulders lying in the road into small pieces. It ended up only being a short delay before we were rattling down the serpentine road again. Four hours later we finished the descent.

To celebrate making it down the mountain in one piece, we stopped for tea and snacks at a little roadside place. They are very funny little joints with small, sometimes tiny wooden or plastic stools around a small, low table.

Cindy and Min Ko our driver in the POS Hyundai
Many look like something you would buy for a small child at Toys-R-Us. Chinese black tea is free and you pay for coffee and tasty little snacks like cookies and little pastries with sweet bean paste. There are always men sitting around drinking, eating and smoking (most of them don't have 9 to 5 jobs).

We wouldn't be doing justice to this blog if we neglected to provide a description of our vehicle. It is a vintage 1980's four door Hyundai Stellar TX 2.0 of unknown but very high mileage, dull gold in color without air conditioning (in reality it seems to have it but either it doesn't work, is to expensive to use, or most likely both). The back windshield is held in place with duct tape which leaks on our heads when it rains (which is often). Cindy's driver side rear door wont open after driving on bumpy (or as Min Min says "Bampy") roads for to long (most all roads here are quite "bampy"). My passenger side rear door window often cannot be rolled up and rattles terribly (they try to fix it in each town).

Floods on the road to Mandalay
The floor leaks when driving through floods and provides a not so relaxing, ankle deep foot bath of sorts. Something is seriously wrong with the alternator, the battery or most likely both and the car regularly dies (Min Ko just coasts for a bit before cautiously turning the key). The seatbelts have been removed, perhaps to save on weight. The radiator fan is missing one third of its blades causing the car to overheat. Sometimes the hood latch breaks and the hood won’t stay closed. The horn works great though!

Now that we were back on the plains, we drove past endless bean and chili fields before stopping for lunch at a good local Myanmar food place with bowl after bowl of curries, pickles and soup (and of course mounds of rice). Min Ko, who doesn't speak a whole lot (we are not sure if it is because of his limited English or his perpetual mouth full of betel nut) has decided that his role at lunch is to make sure that everything is in order for us.

Little Burmese kids in Mandalay
He carefully wipes the rim of our water glasses, most of which are chipped and dirty but curiously often still have the original store label on them. He meticulously folds toilet paper (which is what the Burmese use for napkins) for us to use. He is very nice and polite - its funny that the Burmese men will very carefully cover their mouth if using a toothpick but think nothing of spitting red betel nut juice anywhere and everywhere.

Well the fun began an hour or two after lunch when we hit flooded roads with houses inundated some of them almost completely underwater. Another lineup of trucks waited on the side of the road as we ground to a halt. Water was gushing over the road sometimes hip deep. Once again, traffic was only one way at a time and we were stopped next to a truck packed with giant, hog-tied, squealing pigs, all of whom were very unhappy.

Stilted houses on the Ayeyarwady River

After a while it was our turn and we inched our way into the water with Min Min navigating as Min Ko slowly drove, trying to avoid the depths and a stalled engine, as the water level rose. I looked out the window at people pushing stalled scooters and dangerously low electrical wires hovering above the flooded fields. Water started flowing in through my door flooding the foot well but we made it through the first flood ok.

New!  Video of the flood - hit Back if this doesn't pop up in a new window. Driving through floods on the way to Mandalay 

We had to ford a total of five or six flooded areas, some of them so deep that we had to turn off the engine and pay locals to push us through so we didn't stall the engine.

Woman rowing on the Ayeyarwady
We were fairly sure we wouldn't be making it to Mandalay tonight and were not relishing the thought of sleeping in the Hyundai.  Meanwhile, all of the locals who had been flooded out of their homes were industriously building temporary bamboo shelters on any dry and high parts of the road and moving their belongings including pigs, cows, goats and chickens. It all seemed like a big party atmosphere and no one appeared particularly worried or put out. The nice thing was that everyone was helping each other out. 

After eleven hours of driving for a total of 135 miles (so much for 25 mph!) we arrived in Mandalay at the seedy looking Zegyo Hotel to tired to look elsewhere. We ended up having a good dinner at the Hotel with draught Myanmar Beer (even though the guy tried to show me how to use chopsticks).

Little girl on the banks of the Ayeyarwady
There was a small issue with the bill - it didn't match the menu. We think they accidentally gave us the "locals" menu. Score one for the foreigners (or as Min Min calls us "Four-Eh-nerz").


This morning we had an early wakeup so that we could catch a ferry to Mingun and see the sights. We hopped in the car and were treated to the madness of Mandalay traffic, somewhat akin to that of Phnom Penh. Mandalay is a city of contrasts like many in Asia with streets of fancy shops mixed with ramshackle buildings, street vendors, bikes and scooters, incredibly overcrowded buses, etc.

Sailboats at Mingun
Roads seem pretty good in the city but it is a mystery how there aren't constant traffic accidents. Somehow amazingly everyone understands who has priority as cars (half left hand drive and half right hand drive), bikes, buses, rickshaws, trucks and just about any other vehicle known to man inches their way through intersections with tolerances of inches between themselves and surrounding vehicles. We are glad it is Min Ko driving and not us! You might wonder about traffic lights - yes they have them, however the electricity goes out so often here that no one relies on them (or pays attention). The electric situation is so bad that anything expensive like a TV or air conditioner is always plugged into special surge protectors. More on that later.

We went to take the ferry to Mingun but it was delayed so we walked to the riverside where a bunch of little kids were playing on a mound of sand while their parents carried large logs on their heads from the river.

Nun at temple on Mingun

The Hyundai wouldn't start so we walked back to the ferry landing and climbed aboard a fairly grotty wooden boat with a stinky and loud diesel engine for the ninety minute trip down the Ayeyarwady River. Other than the noise of the engine it was nice and scenic watching life on the river drift by while sitting in a big rattan chair.

We were checking out a riverside temple with a funny, older nun when Kyawnin Khaigzoo, an 18 year old "guide" in Mingun attached himself at the hip to us. He was actually nice and knowledgeable and spoke fluent English and Min Min (who was off working on the car with Min Ko) had told us it was worth hiring a guide for "pocket money", a term he will not put a number to (but in the neighborhood of 100-200 Kyat).

Woman bathing on the Ayeyarwady

Kyawnin walked us up the road to Mingun Paya which is a fifty meter high brick foundation for what was to be a 150 meter high Pagoda that was never finished because of a large earthquake In the late 1800's. It was a hot, barefoot walk up the one hundred and seventy some steps (we took Kyawnin's word on the count) but the views from up top were nice. When we climbed back down, a little kid came running with our somewhat cleaned sandals and started hooting and hollering like he won the lottery when I gave him 200 Kyat (fifteen cents). Nice to see genuine, non jaded kids since many of them immediately ask for money, candy (Bon Bons) or pens (Stylo). We can thank the French for that.

After cooling down, we walked to see the Mingun Bell which is the worlds largest uncracked bell (big enough to stand inside) and then up to the very pretty, stark white Hsinbyume Paya.

The huge Mingun Paya unfinished pagoda

We had lunch at a little place and bought Kyawnin a Coke which he said he was going to "share with my family" which probably translates to "sell it back to the restaurant that my sister owns". When it was time to catch the ferry back, Kyawnin told us that dollars would be better for a "present" than Kyat and "bigger is better." He didn’t seem too happy with our tip which was a lot more than "pocket money" in our estimation - hope he gets over it. 

That afternoon we visited Shwenandaw Kyaung, a very beautiful and intricately carved wooden building. It was designed to be movable and was originally built at Amarapura, the old capital then moved to Mandalay Palace.

Hsinbyume Paya from on top of Mingun Paya
After the King died, his son moved it out of the palace to its current location, quite a task. We also stopped at Kuthodaw Paya which houses 729 ancient stone tablets inscribed with Buddhist stones inscribed in the ancient Pali Language (we didn't read them all...)

For sunset we climbed the steps up Mandalay Hill for a nice view of Mandalay and then walked around a bustling night market where I managed to step in an ankle deep mud (I hope) puddle. We had an excellent Shan food dinner at Lashio Lay, recommended by Min Min as well as Lonely Planet. 


This morning started with an electrical outage meaning no toast and no fans or AC at breakfast. 8:00a.m. and I already need to change clothes, uggh!

Today was more touring of Mandalay starting with a visit to a gold leaf making factory which was very cool.

Monk at Shwenanndaw Kyaung in Mandalay
All over Myanmar, really all over the Buddhist parts of Asia, people buy two inch squares of gold leaf to pat onto their favorite Buddha statues. The fabrication process is very manual, starting with creating two ounce long strips of gold about twenty feet long and three quarters of an inch wide. These are then cut into squares and 200 of them are placed between special bamboo papers and placed into a packet tied to a marble anvil. One man beats them for 30 minutes with a large six pound sledge hammer which heats up the gold and squishes each piece. It looks like back breaking work, and is timed with a special clock made from a half coconut shell in a bowl of water (the water seeps in and fills the shell - eighteen times equals one hour).

Each piece is then cut into six pieces and repackaged where a second man pounds on them for another thirty minutes.

Details of intricate wooden carvings at Shwenanndaw Kyaung in Mandalay
Then, they repack them creating three sheets from every five with another five hours of pounding. Finally they are trimmed and packaged for sale. The funny thing is that these are not big guys but they must be strong as hell.

Next we visited Mahamuni Paya, one of the most famous pagodas in all Myanmar.  It houses a very large and venerated seated Buddha who is so adored by the pious and devout (men that is - women are not allowed to touch him) that his body is covered in thick, bumpy gold leaf making him look somewhat like a gold version of "The Hulk".

In the alleyways behind the pagoda there are entire streets dedicated to different types of artisans. We saw marble carvers working on every thing from small Buddhist figurines to twenty foot reclining Buddha’s, wood carvers chiseling intricate designs into panels, and embroiders stitching tapestries and bronze sculptors making wax models to be cast.

Kuthoda Paya in Mandalay

We had Myanmar curry for lunch and the proprietor was a hilarious, animated man who spoke English and insisted on telling us what and how to eat. "More rice! More rice! Like this, eat that with curry."

A quick visit to Kaunghmudaw Paya, a interestingly half "Dolly Parton" shaped pagoda was followed up with a visit to a very nice silver making place where they make very ornate and detailed silver boxes and bowls. We got a great demo of the process, watching one man skillfully etch out a design and then begin the first of many steps in pounding the rough shapes into the bowls surface while another used a hammer and nail set to start adding details to the bowl. The stuff was beautiful but expensive (small boxes were hundreds of dollars and big bowls were thousands). We really can’t figure out how they sell much considering they don't take travelers checks or credit cards.

Monk at Kuthoda Paya in Mandalay

Next on our busy tourist schedule was YAFP (see entry on Vat Phou in Champakak if you can’t figure out what this means or try clicking here What is "YAFP?") and a visit to Sagaing Hill with a view of the Ayeyarwady. We were besieged with little children chasing us all the way up the many steps selling trinkets. "I want to sell! It’s my Lucky Money! Cheap price! Business no good today!" I am considering opening a Value Based Selling seminar here - I could be a millionaire (well at least in Kyat).

  • Lesson One - Don't lead with price. Just because it is "only one dollar" doesn't mean I need or want it.
    Buddhas in perspective at Sagaing Hill
  • Lesson Two - Differentiate. If you are selling the exact same stuff as everyone else it will be tougher to close.
  • Lesson Three - "No" might mean maybe but three "No's" means move on to the next prospect.

After admiring the views from the hilltop and Pagoda we went to Amarapura, the capital prior to Mandalay. You access Amarapura by walking across the 3/4 mile U Bein's teak bridge with over 1000 posts. The other side houses a sleepy little village and a large pagoda. On the walk back across the bridge at sunset, lots of people were fishing, mostly unsuccessfully but we watched one guy excitedly pull in three large fish.

Monks on U Bein's bridge
I told Min Min to tell the guy that we brought him good luck. Cindy was sitting on a bench on the bridge when two young girls came over and shook her hand while giggling "Hello", probably a dare.

We got back just in time for an electrical outage which caught Cindy in the shower in the dark but I came to the rescue with a flashlight. We ate at the Hotel again to enjoy the Myanmar Draught. When we tried to order food, the waiter told us the prices weren't correct on the new menu (which seemed to match the original higher prices from the other night). We ordered some food and ended up being charged even more than the rates on the new tourist menu. They must have been trying to recoup their losses from charging us local rates last time. Tomorrow we head to Bagan, the ancient capital and home to thousands of temples rivaling those of Angkor.

Making Gold Leaf in Mandalay

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Pigs crammed in a truck on the way…
Pigs crammed in a truck on the wa…
Cindy and Min Ko our driver in the…
Cindy and Min Ko our driver in th…
Floods on the road to Mandalay
Floods on the road to Mandalay
Little Burmese kids in Mandalay
Little Burmese kids in Mandalay
Stilted houses on the Ayeyarwady R…
Stilted houses on the Ayeyarwady …
Woman rowing on the Ayeyarwady
Woman rowing on the Ayeyarwady
Little girl on the banks of the Ay…
Little girl on the banks of the A…
Sailboats at Mingun
Sailboats at Mingun
Nun at temple on Mingun
Nun at temple on Mingun
Woman bathing on the Ayeyarwady
Woman bathing on the Ayeyarwady
The huge Mingun Paya unfinished pa…
The huge Mingun Paya unfinished p…
Hsinbyume Paya from on top of Ming…
Hsinbyume Paya from on top of Min…
Monk at Shwenanndaw Kyaung in Mand…
Monk at Shwenanndaw Kyaung in Man…
Details of intricate wooden carvin…
Details of intricate wooden carvi…
Kuthoda Paya in Mandalay
Kuthoda Paya in Mandalay
Monk at Kuthoda Paya in Mandalay
Monk at Kuthoda Paya in Mandalay
Buddhas in perspective at Sagaing …
Buddhas in perspective at Sagaing…
Monks on U Beins bridge
Monks on U Bein's bridge
Making Gold Leaf in Mandalay
Making Gold Leaf in Mandalay
Silversmith in Mandalay
Silversmith in Mandalay
Young Monk on U Beins Bridge in A…
Young Monk on U Bein's Bridge in …
Mandalay Hotels & Accommodations review
Well after a grueling day driving from Kalaw to Mandalay, the entrance to the Zegyo hotel was less than enthralling.  It is on a busy street and … read entire review
photo by: Mezmerized