Yangon gold and the road to Mandalay

A good deal of our time in Yangon went towards logistics – talking with Kalya, pouring through Lonely Planet, calling up hotels around the country as we sketched our route. We did get out a bit however.


One of our first excursions was a sunset visit to Shwedagon Pagoda. This is the largest, most iconic and holy pagoda in all of Myanmar. It towers over the city and is the stuff of local lore and historic legend. You can read more about it here if you’re interested.

As with many of the things we’ve seen on this trip so far, photos can not come close to capturing the grandeur of Swedagon – but as always I will post some of my pictures anyhow. 😉 Our first visit was a bit spontaneous and I didn’t actually have my camera with me – the photos are from a subsequent visit at the end of our time in Myanmar. We got a cab from the hotel to drop us at one of the four entrances. We hadn’t seen the pagoda before this (it’s visible from many, but not all, vantage points in the city), and it managed to deliver the drama.

One enters the large compound through a long, broad covered stairway. The entrance of each of the four stairways is guarded by massive chinthe on either side – for their sheer size already an impressive sight to behold! Vendors, devotees and orange-robed monks accompanied our slow ascent through the passage, and then suddenly the courtyard was before us.

We were lucky; on our first visit the pagoda wasn’t too busy. The atmosphere was peaceful in the soft twilight and it felt like we were the only Westerners in this gentle, sacred, awesome space.

We wandered in barefoot across the still-warm marble of the compound,  watching the night descend as the endless lesser spires and buddhas were lit up, until we turned a corner and caught our first view of the main stupa itself. The thing is just huge and just incredible. Covered in plate gold and topped with an unbelievable number of diamonds, I would have thought the excess of riches could come across as tacky but it is simply awesome.

We were also lucky to meet a lovely, friendly monk named San Ta (sure I am spelling that wrong) who took time to chat with us and show us some of the lesser known sights within the complex.

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Shwedagon towers over the city of Yangon. This photo was taken from some swank restaurant in a high-rise that a friendly Burmese guy we met on the street took us to. (We went together for a tea afterwards at a normal shop where he taught me some basic Burmese words) 🙂

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Entering the complex

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Up close at the big pagoda

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Night falls at Shwedagon

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Neon Buddha

The (new) road to Mandalay

I may write more about our time in Yangon later, for now though, let’s get the trip started. After all the planning and preparation, we were finally ready to leave the creature comforts of the Classique and sink our teeth into the rest of Myanmar. We decided to start our trip with a boat trip up the famous Irrawaddy (or Ayeyarwaddy) River.

To do this though, we first had to get to Mandalay, the second largest city in Myanmar. Mandalay is another place I knew nothing about, but there is a Robbie Williams song called “The Road to Mandalay“ which I do know (which, reading the lyrics, has very little to do with the Burmese city I think) and this inevitably became the auto-repeated soundtrack in my head for much the trip!

We seemed to have great timing – we arrived shortly after the opening of a brand new highway the government had built between Yangon, Mandalay, and the new capitol, Nay Pyi Taw (if you are interested to learn more about the wackyness of the Burmese government, look into this place). That meant that the trip to Mandalay would only take around 6 hours by bus – something that would not have been possible a month earlier.

More affordable than planes and more reliable than the trains, buses are a really popular mode of transportation in Myanmar. We were amazed at the size of the bus center in Yangon. The place is a dusty maze of parking areas crammed with hundreds of buses old and new, food shops and ticket offices. It took our cab driver well over five minutes of driving around and stopping for directions until he found the right corner of the center where our bus was waiting.

We got a luxury bus for this leg of the journey. Decent seats, air con, a complimentary wet nap to wipe the grime of travel from our faces (unnecessary since we came straight from the hotel but boy could we have used it at later points in our trip!), and TV and stereo blaring primitively edited Burmese movies the whole trip long. (one about a man who cross dresses and poses as a nanny to get closer to the woman he loves seemed somehow familiar… 🙂 )

Travel on the highway was smooth but surreal. We saw hardly any traffic on the brand new highway traversing mostly empty plains. Some sections were still under construction – occaisionally we’d pass teams of construction workers protected from the strong sun by long sleeves and pants and broad hats. The whole length of highway between Yangon and Mandalay had only one rest stop, fashioned somewhat after the Western style, with huge (nearly empty) parking lots and a strip of redundant restaurants and shops (although the excessive number was western, the shops themselves were decidedly Asian, with things like dried fish hanging from the ceilings and free green tea with every beverage or meal ordered). The whole thing was bizarre but fun.

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Sign posts at the rest stop

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Workers at the side of the empty road

Travel buddies

We arrived into Mandalay on time (in fact, I still owe Roman for losing that bet…), pulling into a smaller but equally dusty bus station outside the city. There were a couple of other Westerners on the bus with us; we ended up sharing a cab (i.e. squishing into the back of a mini-truck) into town with a Dutch man and his Burmese wife.

Elmer and Ohmar ended up becoming our travel companions for much of the trip. Luck had it that much of our itinerary was the same, and even when we thought we would miss each other due to timing, we often ended up randomly crossing paths. They were good fun and generous with their local knowledge (Ohmar especially), and added so much to our experience of Myanmar.

We discovered that we were both taking the same boat ride to Bhamo for the next day, so they joined us at our hotel in Mandalay (cheaper yes, but a definite downgrade from the Classique (grungy, dark, big, inexplicable hole in the bathroom ceiling), but they were showing football in the lobby so Roman was pretty happy. 🙂 TV in Myanmar is pretty restricted by the government, but one thing that gets aired consistently and is a definite improvement over the often dull, contrived government-controlled local programming is European football. Folks in Myanmar are crazy for it and we met a lot of Manchester United fans during our time there).

The boat was scheduled to leave at 6am and we had to get there before hand because Elmer and Ohmar still had to buy tickets, so it was a short night in Mandalay before our early start the next day…

9 thoughts on “Yangon gold and the road to Mandalay

  1. Wow. Yangon looks (and sounds) unreal. If a picture is worth a thousand words, I can tell you’re still about a million words short of really capturing it. Nevertheless, these are really wonderful photos–the night shots especially are stunning.

  2. Very good blog, excellent informations, thanks for sharing! Great fotos too.
    Since we also want to travel to Mandalay, may I ask how much you paid for the bus trip from Yangon to Mandalay?
    (And -very important to me- did the bus have a toilet?)

    • Thanks so much Brigitte! When do you plan to go to Myanmar? We have been so many places on our trip but that country stands out as one of the most amazing, with the most gracious people we have met on the trip.

      Our bus from Yangon to Mandalay cost Kyat 10,000, which I believe was around USD 12 or 13. I’m not sure what the current exchange rate will be on the black market. The bus was a nice one but did NOT have a bathroom. The trip was about 8 hours and we made one long break about halfway through at a rest stop that had simple bathrooms and restaurants.

      If you want more details and prices, my boyfriend has been keeping detailed notes: http://www.everlater.com/romana/romans-trip-around-the-world/mandalay-myanmar

  3. Thanks for your quick answer.
    So one can go to the bathroom only once every 4 hours? Would be a great problem for me…
    We will go to Myanmar in Feb. or March, I am looking forward to it. Your blog gave a real good impression 🙂

    • I’m glad to hear it! Really I loved the country so much, it is really something special. I hope that it can keep it’s charm and special culture as it seems political change is finally (hopefully) coming to the country and perhaps it will start to open up more now. We were there in February as well. Take note – if you are in the northern half of the country at that time of the year the mornings and evenings can get chilly!

  4. Another question: I tried to find your bus somewhere in the net, but couldn’t. All the buses mentioned were overnight buses. Yours evidently ran during daytime which, I think, is great. Maybe you could send me some kind of information concerning this special bus, or a link. Do you remember the company? You said it was a luxury bus – that means it was very different from the normal type of bus used in Myanmar?
    I would be grateful if you could come up with some information on this bus, because it seems a real good possibility to travel from Yangon to Mandalay 🙂

    • Hi Brigitte. I don’t expect there would be any accurate information on line for the bus that we took, but it should be fairly easy for you to book once you arrive in Yangon. We got the information from the hotel we stayed at and they managed the purchase and drop off of tickets for us, plus sort out the taxi to the bus station (which is helpful since there are dozens and dozens of different buses when you arrive at the station. It’s good if the driver knows where to take you). If you are staying at a decent hotel in Yangon then I am sure they would be able to do the same for you without any problem. If you want a recommendation, the hotel we stayed at was not the cheapest but was EXCELLENT. The lovely owner happily helped us coordinate other parts of our journey as well. https://alongthewaytj.wordpress.com/2011/03/29/myanmar-first-notes-from-yangon/
      The quality of buses varies greatly in Myanmar but make sure you’re not expecting Western standards and then you won’t be disappointed. 🙂 Luxury meant that the seats were reasonably comfortable and they didn’t squeeze extra passengers into the aisles, that the bus was air conditioned, and that it had a TV that showed (Burmese) movies during most of the ride. See more about non-luxury bus rides here: https://alongthewaytj.wordpress.com/2011/04/06/travel-notes-bhamo-myitkyina-mandalay/
      All that being said, if the bus doesn’t appeal, it should also be easily possible to fly to Mandalay from Yangon.
      I hope this helps! 🙂

  5. Thanks so much for your kind answer. Actually The Classique Inn pleases me a lot. Do you remember how much you had to pay for the cab from The Classique Inn to the Shwedagon? And how much time would it take to walk? 40 minutes?

    • You’re welcome; I’m so happy to help. 🙂 I’m afraid I don’t remember exactly what we paid for the cab ride but it really wasn’t that much. If you get in contact with the Classique Inn, I imagine they would be able to tell you around what the price should be. They could probably tell you as well how long it would take to walk, but 40 minutes sounds about right to me.

      Do you plan to travel anywhere besides Yangon and Mandalay?

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