Amarapura, Ava (Inwa) and Sagaing or as most people here call it the 3 cities tour, are the touristy program of every visitor to Mandalay. Some people even add a side trip to Mingun to the day. The tour guides also add visits to the gold pounders district, marble shops, wood carving shops and silk weaving shops to the tour. All of which I initially did not want to see. A visit to the Mahamuni temple is usually also included, however I had visited that one on the day before myself.
The taxis quoted me 45 U.S. Dollars for the 3 cities. Surprisingly my hotel only wanted 35 U.S. Dollars. I had also asked motorcycle taxi drivers who quoted me between 20.000 to 28.000 Kyat. My personal preference would have been to either drive to those places myself, or have a safe and reliable motorcycle taxi driver, but seeing the traffic, the heat and the dust in and around Mandalay I opted for the most convenient way of transportation - my hotel's limo and driver! This way I had A/C and water and did not have to worry about finding my way around. The downside however was that I had to visit some of the places I did not want to go to and most importantly do it in the order the driver had it planned.
On the way down south we stopped at the gold pounders district, which was interesting to see these guys hammer their life away. The little tip box they had put up for the tourists was for sure not money which was given to the sweaty workers, but most definitely to the owners of the shop. An older lady who looked like she was the boss skillfully placed each thin gold leaf onto a paper. Upon mumbling a word or two, a younger lady stood up and put a small piece of gold leaf onto my forehead! It actually stuck on all day long!
After the gold pounders we went through the streets and shops of the marble Buddhas and crafts shops which make wood carvings, paintings and other decorative art. All shops I had visited and bought at back in Thailand and Bali before. Myanmar seemed to be much cheaper though!
Finally we went on towards Amarapura, the City of Immortality and visited Pahtodawgy Pagoda, the tallest structure in the area. A beautiful white pagoda, with almost no tourists around. However, it was still early, so my guess would be that every tourist car stops here! Further along the way we had an awesome view of the lake and U-Bein bridge, the longest teak wood bridge of the word. This is where I did regret to having booked the 3 cities tour, since my driver did not want to stop here. He told me that we would be coming back here in the evening for sunset, but the view in the morning was awesome and after telling him 3 times, he finally stopped and let me take some photos. I really would have loved to spend more time here, rather than visiting the next touristy point on the schedule which was Maha Ganayon Kyaung Monastery. The parking lot was already full of buses and limos and now I understood why my driver wanted to make sure we are not too late.
At 10:30ish 1.500 monks and nuns gather here and line up for their lunch which they will take in silence. What sounds like a wonderful photo opportunity however, turned into the biggest tourist spectacle of my whole trip. Loud and under-dressed tourists line the monks on both sides with their cameras pointed at the monks who shamefully looked downwards. After the monks moved through the line of tourists they sat down in the hall and the tourists moved to the windows to shoot photos of the monks chanting and eating. It was the most disgusting spectacle I had ever seen and I left immediately back to my car. For someone like me who spends most of his travels with monks or inside monasteries it was the most shameful experience to go through and I can truly NOT recommend it to anyone.
Next on the schedule was the bridge over the Irrawaddy where we crossed over to Sagaging Hill which is dotted with monasteries and pagodas. Great views from the bridge where all the cars also stop for photos. We visited two temples here, Umin Thounzeh with it's caves and buildings on the main hilltop and Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda, which is the most important temple of Sagaing. The views were great. Again, ideally I would want to see the hill in the morning from the other side of the river and have a view down from the hill in the afternoon for better sunlight. However, seeing how full the parking lots were and how difficult it was for my driver to navigate in and out, I can only imagine that it will get worse during the day.
Lunch followed in a really good place in Sagaing, where all the tourist buses stop. I was surrounded by hundreds of french-speaking tourists. Lunch was good but expensive.
After lunch we headed back over the river to Inwa, where the driver parked and brought me to the Myitnge ferry point from where I went on alone, across the river for 1.200 Kyat. On the other side waited hundreds of horse carts. All fishing for tourists at the going rate of 10.000 Kyat per horse cart, which would hold up to 4 people though. Also here in Inwa, I had a whole list of temples and places I initially wanted to visit, but with the horse cart and the limited time, we went to 4 temples only. Again, stopping outside of the given route for a photo was not on the wish-list of my driver. I just got a "cannot stop here now" when I asked him to stop, since this particular pagoda was due for a stop on the way back! Bagaya Monastery, Yedanasini Pagoda, the Leaning Tower of Inwa and finally Maha Aungmye Bonzan monastery were all we could visit. I am still not sure if taxi drivers would come here for a higher price. Most definitely the views would be nicer with a motorcycle or bicycle, however I saw that some of the ferry boats did let the bicycle tourists wait for a few passages across the river. There is also just space for one or two at a time on the small boats. My take is that the horse cart drivers have a strong say of what happens on the island of Inwa.
Back across the river I had to find my limo among hundreds of similar looking cars. Luckily mine had the hotel's name written on the side! Off we went back to Amarapura for U-Bein bridge and the sunset spectacle. In my mind it is a bit overrated and I would have enjoyed the bridge much more in the morning mist with locals and monks on it, rather then hundreds of tourists. The water level was very low, so the lake formed an island about the middle of the bridge where the locals rented out chairs and tables with drinks. Seeing the sunset from this location with a cold local beer and the bridge right in front was a nice way to end the day tour. I was also lucky to pick my seat early, since it got rather full as the sun started to set and the photographers set up their tripods on both sides of me.
In general, I think all three royal cities deserve more time to visit them. If I went back to Mandalay, I would probably either rent my own bike or organize a taxi, but in any case I would split the tour into two, if not three separate parts, and definitely against the flow of tourists!