After Yangon, Mandalay is Myanmar's second city and its cultural heartland. Originally established by King Mindon as the focal city for the teachings of Buddhism, Mandalay did not survive the name of the ‘Golden City’. But, it remains an important cultural hub of Myanmar with sights such as the Mandalay palace, Mandalay Hill, the U-Bein bridge (the oldest teakwood bridge in the world), and stunning pagodas. Manadalay is also home to 300,000 monks. With investment from neighbouring China, Mandalay has undergone significant developments in recent years, drawing in visitors from all over the world. The three ancient capitals of Amarapura, Inwa (Ava) and Sagaing, as well as the town of Mingun, are all within reaching distance of Mandalay's centre.
It can be complicated entering Myanmar via land routes due to border closures. You can enter from Thailand but only via three of the border points and you must have your approval letter printed and a photocopy of your passport. For more information, I found this article from World Nomads really helpful.
The easiest way to enter Myanmar and reach Mandalay is to fly directly from one of Myanmar’s neighbouring countries. The most popular and inexpensive route seems to be Bangkok to Mandalay with Bangkok Airways. Mandalay's international airport is located 40km outside of the city and is one of the most modern and largest airport in Myanmar. To get to the centre of Mandalay you can take a shared taxi for 4,000k (€2 / $3) or a private taxi for 12,000k (€7 / $8). There are several taxi counters in the airport and most speak English. Let them know where you are going and they will sort the rest for you. There is also an ATM in the airport.
If you are staying in the centre of Mandalay, you can easily see the sights on foot and walk to most places. However, there are very few traffic signs or controls, so just be careful when you are exploring!
Taxi / Motocycle:
You will find plenty of taxis in Mandalay close to hotels or parked on the side of the street. In every touristy place you will encounter guides touting for business. Most are self employed and do not work with agencies and they have great local knowledge. Perhaps ask one to take you to see the sights for the day and explore the lesser known places in Mandalay. Expect to pay around 10,000k for a day hire (€6 / $7).
Once the main mode of transport in the city of Mandalay, pedal trishaws are not as popular as they once were (they look similar to the rick-shaws that you would find in India). If you do use one, make sure you tip, these people work really hard for their money.
Bicycle / Scooter:
Why not hike a bicycle to explore the city of Mandalay yourself? But please be careful, the traffic can be very chaotic and it is much safer to go with a guide for the day. Or if you feel a little braver, why not a scooter? You will find rental agents in the main backpacker / tourist areas. Prices start around 2,000k (€1 / $1.30) per day for bicycles and 10,000k (€6 / $7) per day for scooters.
Public transport in Mandalay consists of pick up trucks. They stop frequently and often don't move off until they are jam packed. The destination will be displayed in the front window but in local script. It is an experience in itself! Cost: 500k (€0.30 / $0.30)
Located in the heart of the Mandalay, The Royal Palace was the first palace to be built in Mandalay after the capital was moved from Amarapura. When British troops invaded in 1885, the took hold of the palace and sent King Thibaw-Min and his queen into exile in India. The British used it as a military base until it was bombed to the ground by allies of Myanmar. Only the Shwenandaw Monastery and watch tower survived, the rest of the Royal Palace was rebuilt from scratch. So most of what you see, has been recreated in the 1990s.
The Royal Palace grounds are huge but there are some areas you cannot go, as it is home to the royal family and used as a military base. The best way to explore it, is to get a guide at the entrance - you will need one if you really want to understand the story and history of it all.
Opening time: Daily from 7.30am-5pm (Entrance is at the East gate)
Cost: 7,600k (€4 / $5)
Located at the foot of Mandalay Hill, just East of the Mandalay Royal Palace, the Kuthodaw pagoda draws visitors in from all over the world. Built in 1857 as a part of the Royal palace by the King Mindon, the Kuthodaw pagoda was designed to represent a book made of 1458 pages. The pages are in fact the 729 little pagodas and marble slabs based around the main temple, inscribed with Buddhist teachings. It is said to be the Buddhist bible carved in rock. In the middle of the giant book maze, stands a huge Gold stupa, in deep contrast to all the other white ones around it. The main entrance is via the gold and red South gate.
Fun Fact: If you wanted to read everything written on the rocks, you would need 450 days with 8 hours of reading a day. Because of this, it is also called the biggest book in the world.
Opening time: Daily from 8am-8pm (Entrance is at the South gate)
Cost: 7,600k (€4 / $5)
Sitting at 240m above the city and the Royal Palace, Mandalay Hill has been an important pilgrimage site for Burmese Buddhists for centuries. There are four different stairways that converge two thirds of the way up the hill on the gold-plated Shweyattaw Buddha. Once you ascent the sacred stairway and reach the top of Mandalay Hill, you will be awarded with the most spellbinding views of the city below and beyond. To the west you will find Ayeyarwady and Sagaing and the Mingun Hills. To the north you will see the Ayeyarwady rice country, to the east the purple Shan Plateau and to the south lies the Royal Palace complete of Mandalay.
Go Travel an Talk Top Tip: Head to Mandalay Hill in the evening to watch the sunset. You can walk to the top of the hill (1700 steps) or take a bike!
Please remember to cover up (long skirt for women, pants for men, cover shoulders) and leave your shoes at the entrance. If you don't have the appropriate clothing, you can rent items at the entrance.
Construction of the U-bein bridge finished in 1851 after three years of building, making the U-bein bridge the oldest teakwood bridge in the world. The bridge was built to connect the two shores of the lake Taungthaman. Reaching three quarters of a mile in length, it is a sight to behold. If you head to the U-Bein bridge in the morning for sunrise, you will see 1,000 monks making their way across here. In the evenings, tourists and locals gather to watch the sunset in the distance; it is a surreal experience. Sadly due to a tourism boom, the U-bein bridge is often over crowded, somewhat spoiling the experience, but it is still worth visiting.
The Zegyo market which means “cheap” is one of the most important markets in Mandalay. Founded during the reign of King Mindon, Zeygo market was the primary distribution centre for citrus fruits, beans, cotton, nuts, tobacco and various embroidery items and jewellery. After a fire sadly burnt the market to the ground, it was rebuilt. Today, you will see a lot of unique and interesting food, alongside various flowers, fabrics, jewellery and much much more! It is crazy and chaotic and a sensory overload but amazing.Try as much food as you when you visit the Zegyo Market and especially the things you have no idea what they are! Talk to the people, they are happy to explain things or show you how to eat or cook something. Opening hours: 8am-2pm.
Another great market is the Mingalar Market. Located next to Mandalay's train station, this market is incredibly diverse. Open 8am-5pm.
King Galon Gold Leaf Workshop:
Myanmar is the country of gold. Gold is simply everywhere in Myanmar, from the mines to the Buddha statues, it is part of the local culture. Even today, gold leaf fabrication is one of the biggest handmaid goods in the country. Therefore, you should go and visit a gold fabric workshop, such as the one called King Galon Gold Leaf Workshop.
In this factory you will be able to observe men beating gold with enormous hammers and women cutting and packing the finished products. It is a really hard and demanding job and it can take from 5 to 7 days to create one single gold leaf. And yes… they are really thin - 0,000005cm. You will find gold leaves everywhere. You can buy them directly in the temple and the tradition is to place the gold leaves directly on the Buddha as a sign of devotion. It is a common belief among the locals that gold has some healing properties and is an effective agent against the aging process. As a result, women collect rain water and mix it with several ingredients plus gold and put the mixture on their faces.
The Mahamuni Buddha Temple:
The Mahamuni Buddha temple is another pilgrimage site of utmost importance. The temple consists of a complex of structures, located along a road southwest of Mandalay. The Mahamuni temple has a central shrine, framed by an extensive grass lawn. Within the complex, you will find a 3.5 meter Buddha covered in gold. Gold leaves are frequently applied to the face of the Mahamuni Buddha but male devotees. As a result of this, the Buddha's face now looks disfigured with all the excess gold leaves!
Every morning at 4.30am, the monks and inhabitants of Mandalay come to wash the Buddha’s face and brush his teeth with a soft brush. This important ritual has been performed since 1988 and takes over an hour, lead by a senior monk and assisted by several helpers. It is possible to witness such ritual and it is a great insight int the customs and traditions of the Mandalay monks. Make sure you rise early to see it though!
After this early start, head to see the monk procession in the little town of Amarapura. Especially the Mahagandhayon cloister is worth having a look at. The ceremony takes place every day at 11am. Monks will walk around in their red robes and collect food from the people of the village in their bowls.This is a really important ritual in the life of the Burmese, as it symbolises that they all depend on each other and are interconnected.
A really convenient thing about Myanamar is that in almost every main town or city, you will find a great hostel called Ostello Bello Hostel. They are always very well located and offer a social experience where you will meet a lot of people. You will always have a great rooftop with a bar and plenty of activities to get involved in.
Ostello Bello offer a free breakfast and comfortable and clean beds and they offer tours to discover the city and onward transportation to your next adventure.
Expect to pay around €9 ($10) per night in an 8 person mixed dormitory. You can also book a double room for €30 ($34) if you wish. It is definitely your best option in town!
If you are looking for a lesser known place, you can go to ACE Star Bnb Backpacker. It is clean, friendly, sociable and they offer free breakfast and a lovely rooftop. This hostel is a cheaper option with beds starting from €5 ($6) in a 10 bed mixed dormitory. They offer tours as well.
Mandalay is a big city so you will find plenty of food options! From delicious local and street food to the international fast food, Mandalay has something for everyone.
- Take a walk around Ostello Bello and you will find plenty of small restaurants.
- Mandalay is famous for its “Shayitsmee” – a noodle dish with pork or chicken, soya beans, a bread made of chickpea, soy sauce and herbs. It’s definitely worth a try.
- Another dish is “nan Gyithoke” or “mont di” which is a rice noodle dish with chicken.
- Bistro on 82nd: Number 1 Tripadvisor restaurant in Mandalay. They serve up a European menu with pasta, salads, steaks and chicken. Based 82nd street between 30 and 31th street.