Mainly due to the cheap flights from other parts of Southeast Asia, the city of Mandalay in central Myanmar, is where many travellers begin or end their travels in the country. Mandalay was one of the original ‘Big Four’, one of only four places (along with Yangon, Bagan and Inle Lake) that tourists were allowed to visit during the military regime that ruled the country from 1948 to 2015.
As the last royal capital of Burma, Mandalay is hailed as the ‘cultural heart’ of the country where traditions of dance, music and drama (in particular puppet shows), live on. Mandalay is also known for its fine gold and silver crafts, wood and marble carving, silk thread weaving and ancient tapestry.
As the second-largest city of Myanmar, with a population of 1.3 million, Mandalay is a city that’s difficult to get under the skin of, due to the fact that it seems to have no real ‘centre’. Well, if there is one, we couldn’t find it, despite our best efforts as we walked around for hours in the heat of the day (with multiple offers of ‘taxi, taxi’ may I add).
There’s the huge citadel, the moated and walled-off cultural centre which contains Mandalay Palace and its luxurious grounds (which include a huge army camp and a golf course!), but as there’s a guard and you have to pay 10,000 Kyat to enter, feels more like a museum than part of the city.
So, pacing the grid-block streets of Mandalay, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there isn’t ‘much to do’ here. Why Kipling chose it for the title of his famous 1892 poem is beyond me when there are far more beautiful and enticing destinations in the country. (In fact, historians say that Kipling never even visited Mandalay and actually only spent three days in the entire country, which were spent in the city of Mawlamyine in the South!).
However, Kipling’s words have forever immortalised Mandalay in traveller’s minds as an exotic far-off destination that’s a must-visit on any trip to Myanmar and so here’s our guide…
The Mandalay Archaeological Zone Ticket
The ticket, which costs 10,000 Kyat, gets you access to the following famous sites:
Built by King Mindon in 1861, the sprawling Mandalay Palace lies at the heart of the city and its imposing moat and walls are the first thing you’ll notice.
The palace was completely destroyed by bombing during World War II, was reconstructed in 1989. Like with many of the historical temples in Bagan, the restoration was controversial as the government used modern materials to renovate the building, corrugated metal and concrete, rather than teak wood – yikes!
Your ticket will be checked at the East Gate, which is the only gate through which tourists can enter the palace grounds. From the gate, it’s another 1km to reach the actual palace, so be prepared for some walking! There’s also a museum on site which contains artefacts from the palace.
Mahamuni Pagoda is home to one of the most revered Buddha images in the world. According to legend, only five statues with an actual physical likeness to Buddha were ever created, two of which are in India, two in paradise and one here, standing 3.8 metres tall, in Mandalay! This is a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists from all over Southeast Asia.
Home to the world’s largest book, this temple lies at the foot of Mandalay Hill. In the grounds of the pagoda, there are 729 stone inscription caves, which contain double-sided marble slabs on which is written the entire collection of scriptures about Theravada Buddhism in the Pali language.
The ticket also allows access to Paleik Paya, Shwenandaw Kyaung (Monastery), Atumashi Kyaung, the Mandalay Cultural Museum, as well as the nearby ancient cities of nearby Amarapura and Inwa.
Other Things to do in Mandalay
One of Mandalay’s most famous spots is Mandalay Hill (240 metres high), one of the best places to take in a view of the whole city or catch a spectacular sunset. If you don’t fancy walking, you can take the elevator all the way to the top!
The Moustache Brothers
This comedic trio will not only make you chuckle, they will also help raise your awareness about Myanmar’s current and past political situations.
Started by three brothers who certainly had a reason to speak up as they all served time in prison under Myanmar’s totalitarian government. Today, although the humour is slapstick and some of the jokes are dated, it’s still an interesting insight into Myanmar culture.
U Bein Bridge
The longest teak bridge in the world (1.2 km), built in 1851 is also believed to be the oldest in the world. The bridge is named after the mayor who built it and was used by local people to cross Taung Tha Man Lake. Today, it’s a big tourist attraction so expect to be sold souvenirs with every step!
The Snake Pagoda
Also known locally as Hmwe Paya, Snake Pagoda is named after the massive pythons who live around the Buddha statue inside the temple.
It is believed that when the pagoda was founded in 1974, a Buddhist monk found the pythons coiled around the statue. Try though he did to release them into the jungle near the temple, the cheeky reptiles just kept coming back, and more began to join them!
In the end, the monks started to take care of the pythons rather than kick them out, as they considered them to be holy, perhaps late monks reincarnated into new bodies.
Where to Stay in Mandalay
Other accommodation options include:
- Yoe Yoe Lay Guesthouse: This place deserves a mention for the friendly home-like atmosphere that hits you upon arrival. Get ready to meet “Mama” and indulge in a generous breakfast.
- Smart Hotel: Providing more luxury than typical backpacker digs this clean and comfortable hotel won’t offer much in the way of ambience, but the location and price make up for it.
Getting to Mandalay:
- Boat trips up the Ayarwaddy, departing from Bagan, are a memorable way to enter the city. The trip takes 12 hours when headed upstream.
- From Yangon, a bus direct to Mandalay will take around 9 hours. You can also get the Yangon-Mandalay express train.
Where To Go Next?
- The small town Monywa (three hours) lies right outside the city of Mandalay making a great day trip. The town is home to Thanboddhay Pagoda and Boditahtaung Pagoda, which houses the largest reclining Buddha in Myanmar (100 m long).
- One can also drive from Monywa to Powin Taung (1 hour) to see 947 sandstone caves dug out of the hills, inside the caves one will find the richest collection of mural paintings and Buddha statues in Southeast Asia.
- For your next stop – six hours south lies Bagan, the ancient capital of Myanmar, home to over 2,200 temples and the most amazing sunset views you’ve ever seen.
- Six hours east from Mandalay is Inle Lake – a must-visit while in Myanmar.