Flying to Mandalay from Inle Lake
Mandalay is a painless twenty five minute flight from Heho. Having taken four hours and an overnight stop to drive from Heho to Inle Lake, we learnt that the alternative route back to the airport is only forty minutes. Still, it was worth it to see Kalaw and the slightly deranged Pindaya Caves.
Having learnt from last time we flew in Myanmar, we asked from which gate our plane was departing and were met with confused stares. This time there was only one gate…
Arriving in Mandalay from the airport is not ideal. The route into the city is lined with rubbish tips – piles of plastic bottles and bags are strewn along the entire route.
Mandalay is also known as ‘Motorbike City’ for the sheer number of bikes here. Road junctions are reminiscent of Hanoi, in that as soon as the traffic stops dozens of bikes push their way to the front of the queue. As the lights change pandemonium ensues as they all set off at once.
Mandalay City Hotel
We stayed at the Mandalay City Hotel. From the clientèle it seems a popular choice with tour groups, so every morning we got to watch and listen to the group dynamics.
As per usual there was one person that was slightly outcast – this time for the volume of her voice. Our first introduction was whilst checking in – she was sat in the lobby loudly Skyping details of an intimate encounter she’d had with a fellow member of the tour group. Later she was heard crying to her mother that her boyfriend back home was cheating on her. I’m assuming that the member of the tour group she was entertaining wasn’t her boyfriend then, but somehow that’s not cheating.
Mandalay is a heavily Muslim town, and she was heard to loudly complain that whoever came up with the call to prayer should be shot. This got some pained looks from the hotel staff.
By the end of our four days there the rest of the tour group arrived at breakfast late and sat away from her. Sadly she still talked loudly about nothing in particular to nobody in particular.
Anyway…people-watching aside, the hotel was fine – the air conditioning was powerful and the breakfast plentiful if unexciting.
The Karawek Cafe
The Mandalay City Hotel is central, yet not really within walking distance of any sights. Despite this I’d still recommend staying nearby for the unrelated street-side café that’s set up in the open air every evening.
Just a few metres down from the hotel was an outdoor pop up Muslim restaurant. The food had been slow cooked for hours and served just before it fell apart. Large, lean hunks of mutton were edible with just a fork, breaking into succulent chunks at the gentlest touch. The rich dark red sauce that coated the meat had a fruity warmth without having any spiciness of its own. That was complemented by the simple side dishes of roasted chilli and a tamarind soup.
The Karawek Café is everything you need in a cheap restaurant: delicious food, cheap prices, friendly staff and a helpful local fixer who can arrange anything from cheap taxis to overnight laundry.
To avoid paying the extortionate rates at the hotel, Mose from the Karawek Café was kind enough to take me for a trip to see his friend. This seemed like a good idea until I was scooting through the Mandalay traffic in the dark, clutching a bag of dirty clothing in one hand and the back of a motorcycle with the other.
Using headlights appears to be a sign of weakness here.
We met the laundry man at a pool hall, which created a lot of interest from the players. Upwards of thirty people gathered round to watch carefully as the laundry man rooted through the double plastic bag. People flinched as he pulled out underwear that had been worn whilst climbing temple stairs in 40 degree heat in Mingun, and a t-shirt worn whilst climbing up to the Golden Rock. It was all very ‘aromatic’.
Unsurprisingly, no-one was tempted to touch anything. I felt bad when he only asked for $2 for the lot, so we all mounted up and scootered off back to the café where I bought us all dinner for another $2 each. Still a cheap laundry wash.
Taxis in Mandalay
Getting around Mandalay is a little tricky. As the city is very spread out a car is ideal. Unfortunately it’s increasingly difficult to wave down a taxi on the street and cars booked via the hotel are massively overpriced. Possibly because of the high ride price, there’s no fee for waiting. They’ll willingly hang around whilst the passengers visit a restaurant or tourist destination, which makes getting back painless.
Day Trips around Mandalay
Looking round Mandalay only really requires a day. Another can be spent at the huge stupas in Mingun. A must see is the U Bein bridge at Amarapura, although the monastery is less vital if you’re pushed for time. The ruined palaces and Teak Monastery at Inwa are a peaceful way to spend a few hours. The temple filled vistas at Sagaing are impressive, but only if you’re not visiting Bagan.
Pwin Oo Lwin
It seems a common day trip from Mandalay is Pyin U Lwin. Having done it I’ll spare you the effort.
There’s nothing on the way apart from military universities. There’s one pagoda, a small waterfall and some botanical gardens.
Strangely there are lots of tourist shops, cafes and backpacker hotels so it must be a popular stop for some along the bus route from Yangon to Mandalay. We visited the Golden Triangle Café near the Purcell Clock Tower which is a pleasant oasis of Western style food and drinks.
Then we realised there was nothing else to do and went back to Mandalay early and went shopping.
Somehow our driver construed shopping as ‘we want to buy massively expensive lumps of gold’, so we looked round the factory before shuffling out through the gift shop and into the umbrella store next door. We were still looking for a counterpart to the umbrella we picked up at the Pindaya Caves, but there was nothing remotely as good.