Taking its name from Mandalay Hill, Myanmar’s northern city is a centre of Burmese commerce and culture.
Myanmar’s second largest city, chances are if you visit this wonderful country you will pass through Mandalay. Particularly as entry rules mean you likely be flying in or out of either here or Yangon.
Whilst the city might not as aesthetically pleasing as other parts of Myanmar, Mandalay has a certain romantic charm. It was the last royal capital of Myanmar, from its founding in 1857 until 1885. This is the date it was conquered by the British, who ruled until 1948. There are some great things to do in Mandalay and I hope this list helps you plan your trip!
7 things to do in Mandalay
1. Shwenandaw Monastery
This monastery entirely of Teak wood, and is the only major building from Mandalay’s original wooden royal palace to have survived World War II, the rest being destroyed in bombing raids as the British and their Commonwealth forces battled the Japanese. Built by King Mindon, it was then moved to its current location by his son between 1878 and 1880. It is full of intriguing carvings from Buddhist myth and legend which make it a unique building to see during your time in Mandalay. The featured image for this post is a carving from this monastery. It really is worth some time examining all the small carvings in detail as they are quite remarkable.
2. U Bein Bridge
Sticking with the Teak wood theme, U Bein Bridge was built in 1850 and at 1.2 Kilometers long it is the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. It is a great place to catch the sunset and you may find locals wanting to chat as you take a stroll. Some of the pillars are very decayed and you can see a lot of erosion has occurred so it’s not for the fainthearted!
Many people visit this as part of a ‘3 cities’ tour also exploring three former royal capitals – Sagain, Ava and Amarapura. This is best arranged though whatever accommodation you choose to stay with in the city – if they don’t do it themselves they will know some who will. If you just want to see the bridge then have a motorbike taxi drop you here and arrange to be picked up just after sunset.
3. Mandalay Hill
Another great spot for a sunset, the 700 meter high Mandalay hill gives good view over the city. You can either catch an escalator or walk your way to the top. Some of the walking route can be a bit confusing – various shops and prayer sites lien the way – so keep an eye out for the correct path! And remember as it’s a Buddhist holy site it’s barefoot all the way so take a bag to keep your shoes in!.
A highlight of visiting this are the friendly local citizens who go to the viewing area to chat with tourists as to practice their English. The people of Myanmar are some of the friendliest in the world
I have heard stories of people being approached by monks asking for money here. In Buddhism it is forbidden for a monk to do this so I advise you politely decline them and move to a different spot.
4. Mahamuni Paya Temple
A major Buddhist pilgrimage site, the golden Mahamuni Buddha image at the Mahamuni Paya temple is said to be one of only five likenesses of the Buddha that were made during his lifetime. Only men may approach it, where they pour golden leaves over it and if you can get up early enough for 4am then everyday the face is scrubbed clean.
Take a wander around the temple grounds and you can come across the statue pictured above. Its in a room where 800 year old ‘war loot’ from Angkor Wat is displayed. The story goes that armies from the Kingdom of Ayutthaya (now in modern day Thailand) captured these from the Khmer Empire and then in turn Burmese armies captured it from them. Keep looking around and you can also find some Buddhist artwork and other displays. Allow for a couple of hours to visit this temple.
5. Kuthodaw Pagoda – The Worlds Largest Book
Kuthodaw pagoda is famous for being home to what is regarded as the world’s largest book. 729 stone tablets set in rows of Stupas detailing Theravāda Buddhism’s Pāli Canon. And one more to explain how it all came about. The central pagoda that the stone tablets are set around was constructed upon the city’s founding. The ‘book’ was built after the British had invaded south Burma. King Mindon Min became concerned that Buddhism was under threat and ordered its construction. Unfortunately the invading British looted the gold writing from the tablets, which has since been replaced with black writing.
This pagoda is near the entrance to Mandalay hill so I’d recommend doing them both in the same visit. If you come here a couple of hours before sunset you can have a good look around then head over to the hill to climb it. The Sandamuni Pagoda is also nearby so add some time if you want to visit here too. It’s feature is 1774 shrines each containing a slab with the teachings of Buddha written upon them.
6. The Royal Palace
The original royal palace in Mandalay was constructed under order of King Mindon between 1857 and 1859. Today you will still find here a walled city inside of Mandalay, featuring 4 walls that are 2km long each. This whole site is surrounded by a visually impressive moat. As previously mentioned the Royal Palace was sadly destroyed by bombing in World War 2, so what you see inside the walls now are a reconstruction that began in 1989. Arguably the interest here lies more in the outside and the way it’s a ‘city within a city’ rather than the actual reconstruction itself.
You can only enter via the main eastern Gateway. It’s a long walk from the entrance to the main area – you can rent bicycles if you wish to make the journey. There is also a military site inside the walls which is strictly off-limits to tourists.
I’ve found other travellers opinions on whether or not visiting this palace is worth it. Personally i’m glad I did, I think most would agree that you should definitely check out the palace walls and moat. As for the reconstruction inside it was interesting to an extent but if your on a tight budget you might want to skip that part.
7. Local Life!
Asides from all the tourist sites, this city is a good place to observe and interact with locals! Burmese culture is fascinating and the people are very friendly and accommodating. Next to Mahamuni Paya Temple you can find many workshops that give an insight into how people make a living. Down by the river you can see many stalls and people going about their daily business. And traditional Burmese restaurants are great places to see how people interact with each other.
‘Mingalabar!’ is how the Burmese great foreigners! It’s an easy word to remember when you want to say hi!
It is a requirement that you obtain a visa in advance of entering Myanmar. The e-visa process is a quick and efficient way of doing this. There are 3 international airports that this e-visa allows you to fly into: Yangon, Mandalay and Nay Pyi Taw. The latter is the ‘new’ capital and isn’t really a tourist destination. Personally when you are travelling round Myanmar i’d recommend the long distance busses. I found them to be both remarkably comfortable and cheap. If you are feeling particular adventurous there are options to go by boat from Bagan too! You can reach Mandalay by train though the tracks are slow and bumpy. When heading here from Hsipaw I’d recommend the train as that is one of the world’s famed lines. Otherwise I’d say go with the long distance buses (ask at your hostel/guesthouse for info as to where to book transport).
It really is too far (and often too hot) to walk anywhere in Mandalay, so unless you want to rent a motorbike yourself you will need to hire motorbike taxi’s to get between places. They are cheap, fast and everywhere. The 2 things to remember are to agree a price beforehand and ensure they give you a helmet.
Dreamland Guesthouse is a friendly place in central Mandalay. It also acts as an art and music studio, so prepare yourself for spending some time admiring the walls as well as resting between exploration! They also have a motorbike taxi driver who serves the hostel, a good guy with good rates. There are a couple of local food places nearby. Make sure you get your hostel tokens for breakfast at the place opposite the entrance.