Musings from Mandalay, and how to plan an independent trip to Burma

Burma 101: How to travel independently, get around, eat well, sleep well, meet people and see all the sights.

We put off a trip to Myanmar a couple of years ago because I didn't feel I had time research all that I thought the trip would involve. When I finally did get around to learning enough to start planning,  I was surprised at how much information was available for the independent traveler, and how easy it was to pull together an itinerary, and book everything from accommodations to ferry tickets online.

Our nine-hour ride on the "Joyous Journeys" bus from Yangon to Mandalay ended with a nice reward for all that planning. The Ma Ma Guesthouse, recommended on Trip Advisor, turned out to be the budget equivalent of a five-star hotel. It's hard to spend much money in Myanmar. Still for $50 a night, we didn't expect the comforts that awaited us. In a residential neighborhood not far from the walls of the former royal palace, Ma Ma was a sanctuary in a busy, dusty city that's nothing like the romanticized verson of Burma conjured up by poet Rudyard Kippling.

Ma Ma's owner, Su, and her husband, welcomed us with fruit juice, and checked us into a spacious double room with a  little balcony, good lighting, two beds, a modern bathroom with walk-in shower and CNN. Dinner that evening on the terrace was a medley of Burmese specialities (Su teaches cooking classes)  for $15.50 for the two of us including beer. After a breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit and tea the next morning, Su set us up with taxi drivers for two full days of sightseeing,  one day in the city ($23 for the whole day) and one day outside Mandalay for a trip to three ancient towns ($30). With each, we had the flexibility to spend as long as we wanted at each stop while the driver waited. 

Like it is in parts of China or India, Myanmar hotels and guesthouses double as de facto travel agencies, booking bus and boat tickets; finding taxi drivers or private guides; and making sure you get onto your next destination safely and on time. All of this was especially helpful in  Mandalay where there's no public transportation, and sights are spread out and far from each other. 
Su outlined the stops our taxi drivers would make. They spoke some English, but not enough to act as guides, so we used guidebook to fill in the information gaps. We've become addicted to Burmese tea, black tea laced with sweetened condensed milk. Our taxi driver was more than happy to oblige when we asked if we could stop for some after lunch. He took us to his favorite tea house where a quick cup cost about 35 cents.

Burmese prize gold leaf for temple offerings, and Mandalay is one of the few places in Myanmar where it's made by hand in the traditional way. Our driver stopped at workshop where we watched workers pounding and repounding bits of gold with wooden mallets to create paper-thin sheets. Cut and packaged into tiny envelopes, it's sold in temples where Buddhists believe they earn merit or  have a wish granted by pressing the gold onto a Buddha image. In most pagodas, only men are allowed to do this. The Buddha pictured below, in Mandalay's Mahamuni pagoda, is weighted down with an estimated two tons of gold. While in the temple, we met one of the trustees who happens to be an English teacher in Mandalay. He was anxious to practice his English, and explained a few things we were wondering about such as if the pagoda's glistening pillars were made of real jade. "Yes" And why women can't put gold leaf on the Buddhas. "It's cultural, nothing to do with religion."

The seat of the last rulers independent Burma before the British took over, Mandalay was built in the mid-19th century. Its royal palace was destroyed during World War II, and rebuilt in the 1990s, mainly for military use.

Mandalay's commerce includes a busy Buddha-carving center and an open-air jade market where Chinese buyers come to haggle over slabs of raw jade mined in northern Myanmar. Using little flashlights to check for color and quality, they bargain with the sellers, usually women who also sell jade necklaces, earrings and bracelets. Myanmar hasn't yet caught on to selling fake goods made in China, so the assumption can be made that what you see for sale is real, whether it be jade, lacquerware or fabric, although the quality can vary with the price. 

Covered stairways lead to many of the major pagodas. The most well-known is Mandalay HIll, where 1,729 steps lead to the 800-foot summit. The guidebooks say it takes about 45 minutes to walk to the top; It took us about an hour. The hardest part was having to walk barefoot - a rule for entering any pagoda or monastery in Myanmar.
Along the way we passed many shrines with big Buddha images, and lots of souvenir and food stalls. Mandalay has some beautiful sunsets, and many people try to arrive at the top in time to take in the early evening views. We didn't realize until we made it to the top that there was an elevator. Our feet hurt going up, and our calves hurt for two days after coming down. 
We spent our second day exploring towns surrounding Mandalay, taking a ferry to the farming village of Inwa; visiting a pagoda said to house the world's largest book carved on stone tablets; and ending up at the U Bein Bridge at sunset. The U Bein is a teak footbridge built in the mid-1800s, stretching about 0.7 miles across Lake Taungthaman in the town of Amarapura. 

Hundreds of tourists show up at sunset to walk across and take photos. Holding the bridge up are more than 1,000 wooden pillars and a few concrete poles.

Onto Bagan on a ferry along the Irrawaddy River. Click here to see more pictures in our photo gallery.

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