Mandalay Appreciation

Mandalay-Day-2Credits: Jessica Sprague Dig in Deeper Course Materials

The day didn’t start out promising. Our first stop was the King Galon Gold Leaf Workshop, which (as the workshop’s name suggest) highlighted gold leaf making—an element strewn throughout Myanmar and quite significant to the country.


Not exactly my cup of tea but I get why it is an integral part of our guide’s itinerary. Step inside a temple, and you will find locals rubbing a piece of gold leaf on the Buddha as an offering. At the workshop, you will see gold leaf affixed on lacquered boxes, trays, and accessories. Gold leaf is even made into traditional medicines when added with other ingredients. Some also apply it on their faces as a form of cosmetic. So you can say that Myanmar is known as a country of gold leaf and it has become an indispensable part of Myanmar culture.

Mahamuni Buddha Temple (also known as Mahamuni Pagoda) is one of the best examples of a temple detailed with gold leaf.


At its center is the Mahamuni Buddha image covered in gold foil donated as tributes by worshippers and pilgrims.

Temple and Monasteries, if you haven’t noticed, are a significant part of Myanmar life. Half a million males, thereabouts, are either vocational or novice monks and around 50,000 women become nuns.


Essentially every Buddhist Burmese boy between the age of 7 and 13 go through monkhood once in their life.


They are expected to enter the monastery as a novice monk for a period of a few weeks to several months. They live in one of the many monasteries and nunneries that revolve around prayers and religious study, utterly dependent on daily alms for their needs.


At around10:30 every morning, monks line up at the Magandayon Monastery in Amapura, just outside Mandalay.


Monks with their empty bowls on their way to collect their daily alms.

It is a prominent Monastic College that accommodates thousands of monks in the country. For the Buddhists, it is their duty and honor to serve the monastery by giving alms.

From here, things got a lot more interesting as we crossed the Myittha River in a local ferry to Inwa. A trip here is like going back in time.


Though what used to be the Kingdom of Inwa during the Second Myanmar Empire is now destroyed and abandoned after a series of major earthquakes in 1839. The ruins, fort walls, and moat, however, still have traces of its past splendor and quite a few pagodas, and monasteries remain.


The more comfortable way to go around the island is by horse carts. The unpaved roads can be exhausting, and this allows for one to choose only the sites that catch your attention. Here’s what caught ours:

Bagaya Monastery


This magnificent teakwood monastery once served as a royal palace. The entire monastery is decorated with timbers inscribed in repeating peacock and lotus motif, an impressive example of works from the Inwa era.


Today, it houses and schools local children.


Yadana Hsemee Pagoda

In a runic ambiance of small stupas in ruins stands a forgotten Buddha in lush green surroundings.

Nan Myint Watch Tower

nan-myint-towerThe Nan Myint or the watchtower, a square bell tower of beautiful masonry

It is the remains of the palace building nicknamed “the leaning tower of An.”

Just before the day ended, we headed back to Amapura to catch the sunset. It was the perfect ending to an insipid start.


We had a few beers in a bar overlooking the U Bein bridge, a crossing that spans the Taungthaman Lake. The 1.2-kilometer bridge, built around 1850, is believed to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. It may not look very royal, but its history indeed is as the planks of teaks used were taken from the old royal palace of Inwa.



Add a dramatic sunset, and the U Bein bridge becomes magical.


One can hire a boat to go around the lake and admire the beauty of the bridge in all angles.

I can imagine Mandalay to be spectacular in the past for lurking around the ordinariness of today’s Mandalay are beautiful pagodas and monasteries.


First Impressions

It started in this guesthouse, my fondness for Mandalay, where we were greeted with grace and elegance.


The tastefully built B&B has three floors of spacious rooms and a dining area on the roof deck.


Once owned by the mama, Wyn and wife, Sue, now run the place. With her immaculate English and years of experience, mama still plays host and entertains with grace. We asked for a good referral on where to eat, and mama volunteered to prepare our first meal in Mandalay and truth be told, hers was one of the most memorable of our ten days in Myanmar.


Talk about first impressions.

With half a day to explore the city, we decided to explore the area on foot. Good idea as we were able to witness every day Mandalay life unfolding walking along 62nd street.



The 2nd largest city and the last royal capital of Myanmar, Mandalay is not exactly pretty at first sight, but its charm grows on you as it slowly reveals itself.

planter-on-the-side-of-the-roadInnovative plantbox sighted along the roadside.

It’s a relatively new city, built in 1857 when King Mindon was trying to re-establish Burmese prestige after the country’s defeat in the 2nd Anglo-Burmese War. If you take the time to explore, there is much to be enjoyed. You’ll need at least two days.

The 62nd Street led us to the Shwenandaw Monastery.


Made entirely from teakwood with intricately carved façade, the monastery also known as Shwenandaw Kyaung provides one of the most exceptional examples of traditional 19th-century Burmese architecture.


This is the only surviving structure from Mandalay’s Royal Palace. King Mindon initially used the building as his personal apartment and died here in 1878.


His son worried that his ghost still resided there dismantled the structure and transported beside the Atumashi Monastery.


While most of Mandalay is flat, Mandalay Hill (where the city took its name after) offers a stunning bird’s eye view of the city. We planned to walk up the hill, but we were tired of walking, so we hailed a taxi instead to take us to the lift (one could scale up the 240-meter hill by taking the long stairway up to the summit).


At the peak is the Su Taung Pyei Pagoda. On its terrace, people stay to wait for the sunset and take in the panoramic view of the Mandalay plains, how expansive the city is.



The pagoda itself I find gaudy with over the top mirrors that sparkle and shine at every turn and the LED lights that adorned the Buddha shrine.


On our way back, we passed Mandalay Royal Palace, as time prohibited us from entering the palace, we admired it from the road.


When the taxi driver dropped us off at the restaurant recommended by the guesthouse, he made us take a photo of his contact details. I found it amusing and very enterprising.


Traditional dinner and a puppet show after capped our first day in Mandalay.

tea-leaf-saladThe very traditional and iconic Tea Leaf Salad (must try!)


Traditional Burmese puppetry, called Marionettes, is an art form using wooden puppets to entertain Burma’s royalty.


It also served to communicate news, stories and moral lessons to its people. Today, as with many cultures, it is a dying art.

Tomorrow, we explore more of the beautiful outskirts and downtown of Mandalay.






I approached the guy holding a sign with my name on it. “Mingalaba (hello),” he greeted and then led us to a Toyota Corolla. The first thing I noticed (aside from it being an old car) was the right-hand steering driving on the right-hand side of the road. Before we even reached the guesthouse, I was already helping him navigate the road (making sure the blind spot is clear of any passing cars – haha!). And that, my friends, was my introduction to the world of Burmese driving.

Burma, also known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, where the landscape scatter with golden pagodas, and where more than 100 ethnic groups live. Under the rule of the oppressive military junta for almost five decades, exploring this nation can feel like you’ve stumbled into a bygone era as it has remained a rural country of traditional ways.

Expect to be dazzled by Myanmar as it steps out of its checkered past. With tradition deeply rooted in the philosophy of Buddhism, Myanmar shimmer with gilded temples and stupas, flourishes with emerald-green landscapes, beautiful lakes, and lush tropical forest but most memorable are the encounters with its gracious people ready with warm smiles and eagerness to introduce their country and culture.

Follow me as I cast my mind back to the beautiful ten days wandering around the different cities of Myanmar.

Of Snows and Hot Baths

In the middle of Daisetsuzan National Park, nestled in narrow scenic gorge flanked by cliffs,

abundant hot springs, powerful waterfalls,

and fantastic rock formation is a full-scale mountain resort town called Sounkyo.

It has become quite touristy because it is an excellent base for trekking and skiing around the National Park.

From late January to the end of March, the town hosts (you guessed it) the Sounkyo Ice Waterfall Festival (Sounkyo Onsen Hyoubaku Matsuri).

The highlight of this festival is the frozen waterfalls along with the man-made, multi-story high structures that have a maze like tunnels running through them, all built around the Ishikari River.

Snow domes and ice sculptures likewise scatter around the compound.

Heated quarters with warm drinks and food here.

And even if logic tells you to stay indoors due to the severe cold weather, make sure to be there at night

The Ishikari River runs through the festival.

or miss out on the spectacular lights that illuminate the whole place come sundown. On weekends, you’ll be lucky to witness fireworks too.

Us in an ice bar display

The best way to end the evening is to thaw off at one of the many hot springs found in town. At the Sounkyo Kanko Hotel, we went for the spacious outdoor bath at the back of the hotel. Crazy it may seem, but because this open-air bath is unisex, it was wonderful to be sharing this experience with the hubby. Getting ourselves to walk the short distance from the dressing room to the pool in skimpy clothes provided by the hotel was unimaginable, but once in the hot bath, it was nirvana. This being the last stretch of our Hokkaido winter holiday, it seemingly melted away all the frozen kinks in our body, accumulated over the past days.

Ahh… Always a good experience, this bathing in the snow.

Happy Feet At Asahiyama Zoo

Credits: Solid Brown paper and Guess What Tag by Splendid Finn You are awesome kit; Bow, Ribbon Cluster, Staples, Saving Memories word art by Sus Design

Mumble, the penguin character in that animated film, Happy Feet, that cannot sing but tap danced his way to Gloria’s heart. Yes, that same Mumble charmed its way into my heart too.

So the whole reason I was in Asahikawa was to be up close to the likes of Mumble. All these chubby birds had to do was waddle past us, and it made my day.

An icon of winter at the Asahiyama Zoo, the 30-minute Penguin Walk is designed to keep them fit and healthy during the cold months as they hardly get enough exercise by staying indoors especially during winter. They are known to walk as far as 1 kilometer a day towards the sea in a group to catch fish.

A close relative and very similar in looks to Emperor Penguins – what Mumble is – the King Penguins are 2nd only to the Emperor in size. To distinguish, the latter’s orange feathers on the side of their head are colorful and brighter than that of their cousins. Their beaks are also the longest of the whole family of penguins. Though they are known to be the best divers and swim incredibly fast, they, however, saunter on land and are known to slide on their bellies to help them maneuver through the ice and snow.

To survive the severely frigid climate, they are equipped with several unique layers of scale-like feathers to protect them from icy winds and offer a waterproof coat. They also store large amounts of fat that insulate their bodies while also serving as a long-lasting energy source.

What’s interesting is that wild penguins follow the paths between the mountains and during the walk, they were not trained to walk the path, but because they see people like mountains, they automatically follow the path that the people make.

If you happen to be in Hokkaido during the winter, make sure to make your way to Asahiyama Zoo to get a glimpse of these cute chubby birds. It will be worth your while.


Hokkaido’s second largest city is a good base for those exploring the nearby Daisetsu mountain range and the picturesque Biei-Furano. But because we were there in the dead of winter and we don’t ski, we had other things in mind. We were there for the 58th Asahikawa Winter Festival, its zoo, and ramen.

The Asahikawa Fuyu Matsui

Also known as the Asahikawa Winter Festival, it is an enjoyable fusion of lights, music,

A popular stall to warm the body and soul.

ice and snow sculptures, fireworks, kids activities, and food found in 2 venues.

While it may not have the scale of Sapporo’s festival, it can boast of having the largest snow sculpture in the world in the way of its stage, where all performances are held. The massive sculpture can be found overlooking the Ishikari at the Tokiwa Park near the Asahibashi bridge, where the opening and closing ceremonies are held. To build its main snow sculpture for the festival, the town enlisted the help of their country’s Self Defense Force.

Aside from the Asahibashi site, the Heiwa Dori showcases the ice sculpture competition, where teams from all over the world compete for the best ice sculpture.

Asahiyama Zoo

If truth be told, the videos of the penguin parade were enough to get me to Asahikawa. More of them on my next post because not only does the zoo boast of the Penguins, it is a zoological garden that allows visitors to see the animals from various angles.

Highlights include a glass tunnel through the penguin pool that allows the birds to be seen underwater, many arctic animals such as polar bears, seals and a lot more.

Asahikawa Eats

And of course, a visit to this part of Hokkaido will never be complete without enjoying a bowl of its famous ramen. You’ll find this all over Asahikawa, but we had ours at the Ramen Village on our way back to town from the zoo.

It was a perfect cap to the freezing day at the zoo.

And the freezing weather shouldn’t stop you from enjoying this melon flavored soft served ice cream.

Asahikawa is beautiful during the winter providing an excellent base to bask in all things winter. You will not be disappointed.

Otaru: Yuki Akari no Michi

Credits: Natural Beauty created by and (c) Maria LaFrance

Held at the same time as Sapporo’s Snow Festival is nearby city Otaru’s Snow Light Path Festival (Yuki Akari no Michi).

Just a 30-minute train ride away, this beautifully preserved harbor town is well worth the day trip especially at this time of the year.

After dark, the snowy city of Otaru becomes alive when the lanterns and small snow sculptures are lighted,

illuminating the town and the canal area in an intimate way.

The town, though touristy, evokes an interesting piece of Hokkaido history that starts with its canal that runs through Otaru. Once a central part of the city’s busy port, Otaru’s canal was built to allow small ships to transport goods to the warehouses.

The canal was no longer of use when modern docking facilities have been constructed. The storehouses that line the canal has since been restored and turned into museums, shops, and restaurants. The canal is likewise adorned with Victorian-style street lamps that make for a beautiful stroll day or night.

A little more of Otaru from my lens:

The city as you arrive at the station.
They can’t come any fresher.
Fresh seafood only means great sushi at Waraku Sushi Bar.

The Sakaimachi Shopping Street

Otaru is 30 minutes by train via the Japan Rail from Sapporo Station.