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What to See
There's a public bus to Mandalay Hill that leaves from the city center near the clock tower. For the life of me I can't remember which number it is, sorry. But it takes about 30 minutes to get to the base of the hill and only costs a few hundred kyat. Be sure you let the driver's helper know you want to go to Mandalay Hill so they drop you at the right place. Once you get to the base of the hill, there's a good hour walk uphill to get to the top. Luckily there are motorcycles who will blaze up it for you for 2,000 kyat per person. Getting back down after sunset can be a bit tricky though. The public bus you took to get there will not run after sunset so you'll have to rely on a privately operated taxi/pickup truck or negotiate with your motorcycle driver to get you back to town.
Mandalay Hill is a must just like all the guidebooks say. The view of the city is as good as it gets in town. Other than the hill, Mandalay is pretty flat, so don't expect dramatic landscapes, but do expect a dozen or so novice monks there hoping to practice their English with you. This was one of the highlights of my entire trip. The monks are young students of the local monastery who are trying to better their lives through education. Most we met came from faraway stretches of Burma and were more than happy to shed light on these places I will likely never see.
What to Do
While in Myanmar, you might be offered tickets to many different puppet shows, but none will compare to that found at the Mandalay Puppeteers Theater on 66th St., between 26th and 27th St. This theater has been around for over 25 years, weathering the turbulent political and social storms Burma faced during that time. The theater is operated by Than and his brother who can be found making puppets by hand outside the theater. If you swing by during the day, a Burmese greeting, a wink, and a smile might get you a backstage tour of the theater or an introduction to the puppet master, arguably the best puppeteer in the world. The theater has shows nightly featuring traditional Burmese tales of kings, alchemists, and forest demons set to a live, 5-piece traditional percussion band. Showtimes vary, and good seats are better than bad, so swing by during the day to get your tickets for approximately 10,000 kyat per person
Where to Shop
When I think bazaar, I picture chaotic shouting, tons of people, and vendors selling anything and everything. Mandalay's night bazaar met my expectations. It is setup on some of the busiest streets in the city center, so motorcycles whiz by you as you stand over street vendors selling blankets, used clothes, tribal jewelry, fruits, books, or whatever. The sidewalks roll up around 9pm, so get there early if you really want to shop for something. It's a 'night bazaar' so the chaos begins after sunset every single night. Most vendor displays are lit with a single light bulb and an extension chord.
The public buses of Mandalay are super cheap, a lot of fu,n and a whole lot easier to use than they appear. First, the buses are not buses at all, but converted pickup trucks with benches and in the back, so keep a watchful eye out for those. Second, the number for each bus in written in Burmese, so you'll need to get your guesthouse to write down 1 to 10 for you so that you can figure out which bus to take. Third, the isn't any documented bus route map (from what I could tell), so you'll have to rely on the good people of Mandalay to tell you which bus you need to take to get to where you need to go. Ask someone other than a taxi driver and you should be fine. Finally, the public bus system basically shuts down at 4pm, with bus frequency dropping to once per hour at best or simply not running at all. We got stranded a couple of time before we figured this one out. Fares are so reasonable you won't believe it with 800 kyat getting you just about anywhere in the city and beyond.
Mandalay is flat and bicycle rickshaws are everywhere. They are setup 'side-saddle' where you sit next to the driver and can literally have a conversation with him instead of talking to his backside. We found that most of the time they simply weren't practical from a time perspective, but wow these guys will go down low on the price! I recommend riding one of these as a must do in the city as it is awesome to move slow-motion through the crazy streets above all the chaos. Be kind and tip your driver. It's hard work!
Expect to pay 4,000 kyat (5 USD) for a shared taxi. The ride takes about 45 mins to an hour. There is generally not a lot of traffic between Mandalay proper and the airport, so don't expect to be able to walk outside and flag down a taxi. Start negotiating as soon as you go through customs.
1 To 3 Days
If you would have chance to explore Mandalay, don't limit yourself in the city only. Here are some you should go.
1)Amarapura (1/2 day)
Calm and religious city with several monasteries. U Pane Bridge with wooden poses is a must-see there.
2)Innwa (1/2 day)
Adjacent to Amarapura and a nice tourist spot but not jam-packed like in Bagan. Don't miss the Mal Nu Temple, Bargayar Monastery and Innwa Museum. You can take a cow-cart there, too!
3)Sagaing (1 day)
It will take at most 3 hours to arrive at Sagaing from Mandaly. In Sagaing, your best friend will be Ayeyarwady River. Plus, you will find out several pagodas and temples mostly in white colour which will give you a different look.
We met some students of Phaung Daw Oo on Mandalay Hill who invited us to visit the school. Phaung Daw Oo is located on 19th Street east of the city wall in Nanshe Township. The school provides free education to over 6,000 underprivileged kids, including novice monks and orphans from all over Burma. We met several foreign travelers who had volunteered to teach English in exchange for room and board. Nice set up and a great way to give back. Had I known about this opportunity, I would have made arrangements to stay in Mandalay longer. Do take up this opportunity. Great school providing education to so many students who need it. More info at http://phaungdawoo.org.