Mandalay and Bagan are two of Myanmar’s most popular destinations, but with a little know-how, you can still discover secret treasures that lie off the beaten path.
View sunrise or sunset on the world’s longest teak footbridge
A popular yet unmissable, activity is to take a walk along the U Bein Bridge in Amarapura, a suburb on the outskirts of Mandalay less than a 30-minute drive away. The teakwood bridge, which spans Taungthaman Lake, is over a kilometre long and dates from the mid-19th century. Incredibly, the bridge is still supported by many of its original pillars!
At sunset, light reflects off the water and creates a dreamlike atmosphere, which means the bridge can get crowded with tourists and trinket sellers! Here’s a tip - go just after sunrise. You’ll find yourself immersed in a very different scene, as hundreds of local villagers and monks set off across the bridge at the start of their day.
Read the ‘world’s largest book’
If you’re a bookworm or a trivia buff, don’t miss Kuthodaw Pagoda, home to what is reputedly the ‘world’s largest book’. The glittering central stupa, which was built in 1857 by King Mindon Min, is surrounded by more than 700 smaller stupas, all in white. In each of these stupas is a marble slab and each is inscribed with texts from Tipitaka, the holy book of Theravada Buddhism. The pagoda is situated at the foot of Mandalay Hill, so when you tire of reading, climb the hill for breathtaking views over the city.
Cycling the backroads
Mandalay is skirted by flat plains and rice paddies, which make it the ideal spot for a cycling adventure. Away from the city, you’ll discover a lifestyle that has changed little over centuries. See farmers tending to water buffaloes and goats as you cycle through rice fields. Experience the sights and sounds of villages: See the exotic produce on sale at local markets and observe traditional crafts such as bamboo weaving.
If you want local expertise, there are plenty of affordable guided half-day cycling tours available in the city. If you’re feeling energetic, you could even take a three-day cycling tour from Mandalay to Bagan!
Escape to Sagaing
Before you head to Bagan, a visit to Sagaing is a must. For many centuries, Bagan was a thriving spiritual centre of Theravada Buddhism. A visit to Sagaing, under an hour’s drive from Mandalay, will offer an insight into what Bagan once was. In Sagaing, more than 6000 monks and nuns live in close proximity. Climb Sagaing Hill’s steep stairs for glimpses of the monastic life and spectacular views over the Irrawaddy River.
Visit in November to catch the Kaunghmudaw Pagoda Festival, which draws crowds from surrounding villages to watch the yokhte (marionette) performances.
Getting off the grid in Bagan
If you’ve come to Bagan to experience one of Southeast Asia’s great archaeological sites, you won’t be disappointed. Allow two or three days to visit the pagodas and stupas of Bagan, perhaps renting a horse-drawn cart to travel between each one. Admire the golden-spired Ananda Temple (entering from the eastern side, where there are fewer hawkers), and climb the five terraces of the Shwesandaw Pagoda for sunset. Gaze in wonder at the worshippers and Buddhas at the Shwezigon Pagoda. Don’t miss Bulethi Pagoda - although it’s a little farther afield, it’s a great spot for either sunrise or sunset.
Up, up and away
Once you’ve explored Bagan’s temples on foot, why not experience it again from the sky? Balloon rides are popular in Bagan, and there is a reason why: it’s the only way to get a true sense of Bagan’s incredible scope. Take off just before sunrise, and let your imagination run wild as you soar. It’s early, so there’ll be coffee to start, and once your ride is over, a champagne breakfast. This is best between October and March when the skies are clearest.
To market, to market
Head to Bagan’s central market to get a taste – literally and figuratively – of the local culture.
Best visited in the early morning, a visit to Mani-Sithu market will plunge you headlong into the colourful sights and pungent smells of the local community. Fossick for local handicrafts and longyi (traditional lower garment worn by both men and women), haggle for some thanaka cream, which the locals apply to their faces to protect from sunburn, or treat yourself to some tasty street food.
Traditional breakfast is mohinga – rice noodle in fish soup with – and sweet tea. Lahpet, or tea leaf salad, is a popular snack. Diverse influences from India, China and Thailand mean diverse cuisine – from curries to noodle and rice dishes. A standard order of htamin (rice) is usually accompanied by a curry or fried dish, and a range of vegetable sides.
Want more? Watch the Road Less Travel Guide below!
The Road Less Travelled: Mandalay
If you’ve come to Bagan to experience one of Southeast Asia’s great archaeological sites, you won’t be disappointed.
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Best time to visit
The best time to visit is during the relatively cool, dry winter months between November and February. Travel can be problematic from May to September, as the rains wash out roads and delay trains.
A taxi from the airport to downtown costs K12,000, or K4000 for a seat in a shared taxi. AirAsia offers a free shuttle bus for customers flying in from Bangkok. Within the city, there is no shortage of taxis - either cars or motorbikes - and there are still some traditional cycle rickshaws.
Myanmar kyat (pronounced chat). Most hotels and travel agents charge in US dollars, and you'll also need them for air and rail tickets, and for admission to some major sights. Other expenses are paid in kyat. ATMs operated by CB Bank and KBZ Bank can be used by foreigners, but should not be relied upon. You can also exchange Singapore dollars, euros or (preferably) US dollars at banks or licensed moneychangers. There are ATMs and moneychangers at the airport. All dollar bills must be in mint condition, and ideally issued no earlier than 2008, or they will be rejected. Avoid changing money in the street.
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