Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city and biggest up in the north was the country’s last royal capital. Due to its proximity to China, the city is currently an entry point of Chinese nationals who are reshaping the city’s physiognomy on a large scale. Many old colonial houses are gone, replaced by new tall, dense and soulless buildings. On the other side thanks to this construction boom, Mandalay has gained some economic activity, perhaps more than Yangon, which seems stuck back in time. No matter what, Mandalay’s beautiful temples and four old royal capitals nearby make it an incredible destination.
Mandalay is a relatively new city, built in the 19th century at the foot of the Mandalay Hill, west of the mighty Irrawaddy River. Except for the hill, the city is completely flat. The huge squared Walled City surrounded by a canal dominates the city. All the streets go parallel or perpendicular to it, so getting around is fairly easy. There are no main squares or streets, though 78th and 26th streets are important and make for a good orientation point. The city centre lies south of the Walled City, with most of the sights to the northeast.
The Royal Palace, inside the Walled City, and Buddhist temples are all the highlights. The palace, inexpertly reconstructed, with its numerous empty pavilions is still worth visiting due to its natural setting and views from a tall watchtower. Four interesting temples lie on the north-western corner of the Walled City. Atumashi Monastery has a peculiar shape, with five rectangular terraces gradually rising one from the other. Attached to it Shwenandaw Monastery is much smaller, but more richly decorated with beautiful Buddha carvings. It is the only section that dates to the original palace complex. Two minutes walking to the north, Kuthodaw Pagoda is a typical Burmese golden stupa, surrounded by 729 white stupas. This unique religious complex is called ‘the world’s largest book’ for a reason! Next to it, Sandamani Pagoda is also worth visiting. Mahamuni Pagoda to the south of the city is an important pilgrimage site. The tall Mahamuni Buddha image seated on a throne represents the Buddha’s life. Male devotees regularly apply golden leaves to it to show the image respect.
Just kilometers away from the city lye four outstanding old royal capitals. Amarapura, Inwa and Sagaing can be reached by a private car or taxi, while Mingun across the Irrawaddy River north of Mandalay by a morning boat.
Unlike Yangon where most hotels and guesthouses are government owned, Mandalay has a wider offer with plenty of budget and midrange options. Since there is no real historical core, nor cultural or shopping centre area, deciding where to stay can be difficult. Guesthouses, hostels and midrange hotels can be found all over the place. The area to the southwest of the Walled City has cheap accommodation. Another good area for cheap hotels is to the south of the Mandalay Hospital, on the important 78th street. High end hotels, mostly used by packaged tourists, concentrate across the walled city, near 26th street.
Mandalay doesn’t have much of a public transportation network, so you are basically on your own. Walking inside the city is fairly easy, the terrain is flat, streets are wide and only a couple are over congested. Distances are long, so renting a bicycle is a splendid idea. There are not many bike rental places in town, but as usual in this country, people are friendly so will help you get one. Taxis are not bad either; reliable and cheap they are the best way of reaching the fantastic three old capitals south of Mandalay.
The least visited country in the South East Asia has several gems. Mandalay may trick you, the moment you arrive you will feel like you are in a lifeless ‘not so pretty’ place. As soon as you start exploring its religious heritage, marvellous hill with gorgeous views, charming lakes and mystical old capitals you will fall in love with the place. And just like anywhere else in Myanmar people are authentic and friendly, making it hard to leave!
Mandalay Travel Guide
- Stay south of the Walled city, not far from 78th street. Happy Frog recommends Yadanarbon Hotel
- The Royal Palace;
- Four temples on the northeastern corner of the walled city;
- The clock Tower, Central Mosque and the Cathedral;
- The three old capitals south of the city: Amarapura, Sagaing and Inwa.
- Try typical Asian food in unpretentious Singapura.
- On foot, by bike or taxi.
- Go on an excursion to the old capital of Mingun.
DO NOT MISS:
- Climb the Mandalay Hill for some spectacular views;
- Watch local men place golden leafs on the Buddha image in Mahamuni Pagoda;
- Discover the monasteries near the Thinga Yazar Canal;
- Wonder around the old market place Zeigyo;
- Watch a show in Moustache Brothers.