Much has been written and said about Mandalay, the last royal capital of modern day Burma. The stories coming from tourists who’ve visited and the city’s popular history will leave any traveller craving to go there.
When I was planning for my Myanmar trip in July, I just knew that I had to put Mandalay in my itinerary. I had to experience everything I’ve heard about the city.
If there is one word to describe Mandalay, it would be “majestic.” The city’s rich past runs in every street, temple, and shrine. The general atmosphere, although much sleepier compared to Yangon, is magnificent, especially because of the beautiful moat and the iconic hill that can be seen from most parts of the city.
Mandalay is blessed with its share of breathtaking views. Its temples remain some of the most iconic and most important in Burma. The people have a very provincial vibe and the streets, though hard to navigate without a map, are generally safe for cyclists. The food, as in much of Myanmar, is an acquired taste.
Mandalay is a big city,but transportation is not hard for tourists. Arriving in Mandalay International Airport, the easiest and cheapest way to get to the city center is by taking a taxi. After getting your baggage, you’ll see some counters offering taxi rides to the center. You can get a solo cab for MMK 12,000 (USD 1 = MMK 1,000) or, if you get 2 others to share with you, only MMK 5,000.
This is much cheaper than a hotel pickup which would normally cost MMK 20,000.
Inside the city, there are more options to go around. You can either rent a bike or e-bike to go to all the tourist spots in Mandalay. This would also be the cheapest option. If you have more money to spare, you can rent a taxi for around USD 30 a day. As with all cities in Burma, make sure you haggle and agree on a price with the driver before you go.
I spent 2 and a half days in Mandalay and yet, it was not enough to visit all the important places in the city. Still, here are my recommendations of where to go and what to do when in Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city. You simply cannot miss out on these places when there!
1) U-Bein Bridge
U-Bein is one of the most prominent tourist spots in Mandalay. It’s a 1.2-kilometer bridge in Thaungthaman Lake which boasts of being the oldest one made of teakwood in the world.
U-Bein is a bit far from the city center. It’s too far for a bicycle so the best option would be to take a cab or rent an e-bike. The best time to visit the bridge would be around dusk – so you can capture that iconic sunset photo. It’s also a favorite hangout spot for young locals, too, so you’ll see many lovers dating in the area.
The bridge is not in the best condition. You should be mindful of your steps since there are some portions that don’t have wood. Crossing the bridge, you’ll see a lot of locals catching fish the traditional way – a glimpse of the locals’ very simple way of life.
There’s a village across the bridge and, although there’s nothing to see there, it’s a nice place to buy some drinks. The best part about U-Bein is that there’s no ticket fee required. You can hangout there as much as you like without paying a kyat!
2) Mahamuni Paya Buddha
Mahamuni Paya Buddha is, perhaps, the most important Buddhist temple in Mandalay, and a major pilgrimage site in all Burma.
According to legend, there are only 5 likenesses of Buddha made during his lifetime – the Mahamuni is one of them. This is why the central image in the temple is so venerated. The Buddha image shines brightly because of all the gold leaves and gold coating in it. Observing the pilgrims there gives you a glimpse of the central role religion plays in Burmese life.
The good thing about the temple is that you can go around inside freely – you can sit in the praying area and take photos of the Buddha without any restrictions, as long as you follow the right decorum of course. I don’t know if tourists are required to pay a fee to enter since no one asked me for a ticket when I walked inside – but maybe that’s because I look Burmese.
Mahamuni Buddha Temple is on the southwest part of the city. It’s on the way to U-Bein so on my first day in Mandalay, I rented a cab to go to the temple, the bridge and back to the hotel for 20 USD. Some locals said I was scammed while some say it was the right amount. I don’t really mind.
3) Mandalay Royal Palace
Considered the center of Mandalay, the royal palace was once the seat of power in all Burma. Being the home of the last 2 Burmese kings, the palace is surrounded by a wall and a moat for protection.
The moat itself is very scenic. I enjoyed biking around it taking photos and selfies despite the heat. In order to enter, you will have to pass through a security check, since the area inside the moat is now used as a military base and a golf course.
Foreigners in Mandalay are required to pay an MMK-10,000 tourist fee that will give them a 7-day one-time access to all important tourist sites. I paid mine when I entered the gates of the royal palace.
The buildings in the current palace were only built in the 1990s, since most of the original buildings were destroyed during WWII. This is why the buildings still look as majestic and well-decorated despite being made of teakwood.
I actually found the atmosphere in the royal palace melancholic. It’s not as popular as the Grand Palace of Bangkok or as celebrated as the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Maybe it was just the cloudy weather or the fact that it was low season for tourists when I visited. But maybe it was because the area had witnessed the sad history of Burma – from being the glorious kingdom it once was to the developing country it is today.
When inside the palace, make sure you check out the throne room. You’ll get a good feel of how the kings lived then.
4) Mandalay Hill and its surrounding temples
The city gets its name from Mandalay Hill, which has been a Buddhist pilgrimage site for hundreds of years. It is also known for being home to many important pagodas. From almost every area of the city, even from across the Irrawaddy River, it is impossible to miss the hill.
I went to Mandalay Hill on a bicycle I borrowed from my hotel. It was actually quite convenient since the important temples to visit were just beside each other.
The notable temples you need to see in Mandalay Hill are Kyauktawgyi, Sandamuni, and Kuthodaw pagodas. Each of these temples have unique characteristics and purposes, although it’s hard to distinguish the infrastructures from each other. The world’s largest book is in Kuthodaw Pagoda – it has 730 leaves, set in stone, housed in cave-like structures around the temple grounds.
The highlight of every trip to Mandalay would be to climb up the steps of the 240-meter Mandalay Hill. The climb is easy since there are concrete stairs and shaded resting spots along the way. There are also many minor temples on the way up.
The view from the top of the hill is breathtaking. You can see the entire city up until the river Irrawaddy. This is another spot where you can take a magnificent sunset photo.
You don’t have to pay to enter any of the temples in and around the hill if you have the Mandalay Archaeological zone card already. If you’re renting a bike, you’ll be asked to pay for a parking fee of MMK 300 or so. If you feel like you can’t climb the hill, there are many motorbike drivers who’ll offer to take you up – for a decent fee, of course.
5) Shwenandaw Kyaung Monastery
This monastery is also located near Mandalay Hill. Founded in 1880, it is the only major original structure of the old royal palace still in existence.
What’s amazing about this monastery is that it’s made entirely of teakwood. The carvings inside and outside the monastery are very intricate and precise. The entire monastery also stands on stilts and you can go underneath it.
You can go around the entire monastery in less than 10 minutes but some tourists hang out there because of the cool temperature brought by the teakwood.
Bonus: Sagaing Hill and Amarapura
If you have more time to spare, like I did, rent a bike or a taxi and go to Sagaing Hill and Amarapura, two cities beside Mandalay. Sagaing Hill has more temples and a much cooler temperature Mandalay hill. The view there is also magnificent.
Amarapura, on the other hand, has many temples and souvenir shops. If you’re looking for silk longyi and wood carvings, this is where you can buy them.
I stayed in Royal Naung Yoe Hotel in 34th street, Mandalay. Although some taxi drivers still don’t know the hotel’s location – because it was newly-built – I really enjoyed my stay there. The staff were very friendly and helpful and they’ll make sure you have everything you need for your stay. Unlike other hotels, Royal Naung Yoe also lends motorbikes and bicycles for free. I highly recommend this place for anyone visiting Mandalay.
From Mandalay, I took a bus to Bagan and then to Yangon. The first leg of my Burma trip left me overwhelmed of the historical places I visited. I left the city admiring the amicable nature of locals in Mandalay. They live very simple, and relaxed lives – something city people like myself long for.
I’m sure to visit Mandalay again in the future. It is, by far, my favorite city in Myanmar. Why not Bagan and Yangon? Look out for my next articles!