Most travellers rush through Mandalay, and rightfully so for those with a tight schedule. But spending two to three days in the Burmese cultural capital provides not only an important Myanmar (Burma) history lesson, it also offers some of the most iconic photography spots in the country.
U Bein Bridge
Some of the most popular images that cover guide and photography books come from U Bein Bridge. The world’s longest teak bridge connects two monasteries located on either side and Mandalay with one of its outlying, ancient cities; local commuters and monks photogenically cross over it in a stream each day. Two hours before sunset is the best time to get there, as the golden hour brings spectacular light and shadows that might be dismissed if you’re arriving for only sunset. Old boats and their drivers are for hire, starting at around 6,000 kyat for a sunset ride, depending on the season and number of people on the boat. Drivers will take you to photographic hotspots on each side of the bridge but will also be flexible if you tell them where you specifically want to go.
It is important to note that different times of year bring different levels of water. January to June sees a lower level, and normally flooded lands become seasonal crop fields to meander through. The pillars and shadows of the bridge are elongated, but there is still enough water to hire a boat.
Stay behind after sunset to capture the deeper colours and silhouettes of people, bikes and monks by using a tripod from the dried land, below. From July to December the river can surge as high as the wooden walkway itself. Lines and reflections are shortened, but the vast water just below your feet plus the hillside pagodas lend themselves to great landscape shots with a higher number of boats floating on the still waters.
Overlooking Mandalay with a 360-degree view is Mandalay Hill. Rivers zigzag, pagodas protrude and the city displays itself at this great sunset spot, and one of the more popular places for photographers. Unlike U Bein Bridge, here you cannot avoid elbow to elbow proximity to fellow photographers, but at least you won’t have them in your shot. Midday is less crowded, but the view can be hazy and harsh. An early arrival is important to get a preferred view; if you can make the hike from the base of the stairs, we suggest beginning your 30-45 minute climb to reach the top in time for sunset. This will take you through the cool halls when the light streams through the trees and pillars at just the right angle to cast a glow on the aged and charismatic walls of weathered paint and mosaic glass. For those who don’t wish to make the climb or who are running late, there is a lift to the top — but either way, there is a camera fee of 2,000 kyat.
Ze Cho market
The large vegetable market on the west side of Mandalay’s city centre is well worth the effort to get there. People, fruits, vegetables, fish and spices spill into the streets; small side streets reveal surprises and alleys beckon under colourful tarp covers. Morning is the best time to go as the midday sun brings heat and harsh contrasts; by evening many are packing up whatever’s left the the day’s produce.
If a rural setting is what you’re after, the outlying ancient cities that surround Mandalay also provide some great photographic scenes…
Inwa is traversed by horse carts, long used by locals as their main source of transportation. A cart can fit two people and costs 5,000 kyat for up to two hours. A standard tour is offered to travellers and it includes some great spots to capture on camera, but different sights can be requested. We highly recommend the teak monastery, where a narrow dirt road leads up to the structure flanked by fields of rice, flowers and seasonal crops, with pagodas dotting the distance. For this vacant city, morning is best for the light (and for you to escape the heat and traffic of other times of day). No time of day, alas, will allow you to escape the vendors on bicycle. There’s a 500 kyat ferry fee to cross the small river.
The “mini-Bagan” of the ancient cities sits off the shores of the Ayarwaddy River that runs past Mandalay. The hills that this city is nestled into are coated with temples and crowned with an open pagoda that offers views worthy of pay-per use telescopes and the 1,000 kyat camera fee. If you are on a standard car-hire tour, your guide will probably drop you at the base of this hill to walk up the steps; only on request, you can stop at the cave monastery that hides between the base of the stairs and the top of the mountain. Here rows of Buddha statues sit in a long line, but the sun still catches them, and no fee is required. If you are taking a boat to Bagan or a private boat during the day, make sure to have your lenses primed and ready as you pass. Just after sunrise is the perfect time to photograph the shores and where the new bridge leads into the land.
By Christopher Smith
Last updated on 14th September, 2014.