Mandalay is the second largest city (after Yangon) in Myanmar. Similarly to Yangon, it also used to be the country's capital and has retained the royal splendor until this day. Surprisingly, although Mandalay feels way older than Yangon, it was established as late as the 19th century. Nevertheless, even though the most popular pagoda in Myanmar (the Shwedagon Pagoda) is located in Yangon, I preferred the authentic feeling and the overall Burmese atmosphere of Mandalay. Less modern high-rise blocks, more spectacular temples, palaces and piece-of-art wooden buildings. Less organized, more messy, chaotic and hectic - but in the positive sense of the word.
Taxi from the airport, chewing betel nut and first impressions of Mandalay
Those who visit Mandalay, go there usually in order to get to the amazing Bagan temples (a must-see in Myanmar!), take a look at this post to find out how we reached Bagan and how we got around the impressive pagodas. Nevertheless, Mandalay is also worth a visit in itself!
Myanmar, thanks God, is not as touristic as the neighboring Thailand and Cambodia so you are less likely to fall for scams. People are nicer, more authentic and don't look at you like "how can I trick the stupid white westerner" the way they do in Thailand. What we had been through in Thailand, especially Bangkok, was not pleasant (take a look at my post about why Bangkok is an overrated tourist trap) and I was more than well prepared to experience something similar in Myanmar. Luckily, I was mistaken.
The taxi from the airport was straightforward, we paid the price at the official desk (no hustlers, no con artists). It won't hurt to ask other backpackers to share the taxi with you to cut the cost. It was efficient and quick and we paid only around 10 USD (8,50 EUR) for the entire private taxi!
It was on the way from the the airport when we first experienced the habit of chewing the betel nut. Our driver kept on spitting red, thick liquid out of the car's window. It left deep crimson marks on the pavement. At first, we were seriously concerned about his health - he must have been sick or something. If you're not used to the constant sounds of spitting and clearing the throat, that habit may be shocking and simply disgusting to you. Find out more on chewing the betel nut in the article about the crazy adventure while visiting the Golden Pagoda.
What to See in Mandalay
I really love cities that have a unique, charming atmosphere all over the place - the cities that feel like one big attraction, no matter where you are. It's way better than those places where you see only a few tourist spots just to tick them off the list.
Mandaly is one of those cities where you can just feel the amazing touch of royal splendor and the beautiful charm in the air, everywhere. Very few western tourists, no con artist, no hustlers. Well, there's also a dark side to it - the ubiquitous pollution, but let's focus on the positive side.
We spent only one and a half days in Mandalay but it felt like we had seen enough and explored the city well - not only the temples but also ordinary places where local people go about with their lives. It's an easy city to walk around - but if you're too tired, hailing a taxi won't break the bank. Just be careful of stray dogs - they seem to walk in packs in some places and can get aggressive. Take a look at what you can see and expect in Mandaly, besides the main Pagodas described below, you'll see many other, smaller, virtually at every corner.
Mandalay Royal Palace
We had booked our accommodation near the Royal Palace (1 on the map) so it was easy to walk there. Note that accommodation in Myanmar tends to be a bit more expensive than in Thailand/Cambodia/Vietnam.
The entry fee to the palace is around 5 USD, so it's very competitive comparing to other sites in South East Asia. There were few tourists on the site and the complex, dating back to the 19th century, consists of many beautiful wooden structures painted in various colors. It's surrounded by the fortified walls in the shape of a perfect square. Do climb the steps of the wooden watchtower - the view over the palace grounds is amazing.
We really liked the site - it was authentic, not too crowded and it really felt quite old - I must say - way older than it really is. But it's very well maintained and the wooden, decorated buildings are impressive. It's a must-see site in Mandalay.
Atumashi and Shwenandaw Monasteries
To the East of the Royal Palace walls, you can find some of the most interesting temples and other sites like the Atumashi and Shwenandaw Monasteries (2 on the map). They are all so close to each other that it's a very pleasant stroll to visit all of them.
Those two monasteries (19th century) are right by each other but couldn't be more different. Atumashi is a typical Burmese Buddhist Monastery - a nice building with five consecutive terraces.
Shwenandaw Monastery (also called Golden Palace), on the other hand, is made of teak wood (just like the palace and many other structures in Mandalay) and boasts absolutely beautiful details and finishes (carvings of Buddhist myths) - it's a small, seemingly inconspicuous building but definitely worth visiting, especially that it's so close to the palace and other important temples. Moreover, it used to be a part of the original royal palace and is one of the last still standing buildings dating back to the times of where the kings ruled in Mandalay.
Right behind the Shwenandaw Monastery is the Pariyahti Sasana University. Note that this place is not a tourist attraction. There would be nothing special about this place if it weren't for the monks who live there - you can experience the way the local youth goes about their day to day activities,
Kuthodaw and Sandamuni Pagodas
Kuthodaw Pagoda (3 on the map) is one of the two main and most spectacular pagodas in Mandalay. You can enter the main area only barefoot and be careful as stray dogs also roam around everywhere and the floor can get dirty.
Nevertheless, the experience is unbelievable, Kuthodaw Pagoda as well as the nearby Sandamuni Pagoda (4 on the map) were my absolute favorites in Myanmar. The main golden
Mandalay Hill and
Su Taung Pyae Pagoda
The double-lion gate to
The hike itself isn't difficult, probably doable in around 40 minutes or so. But you must allow more time as you will want to stop many times to admire the view, the temples on the way and watch the local life - the vendors live in simple huts just beside "the roofed corridor" and we had a chance to witness them cooking on fire. You can grab some souvenirs or tasty snacks on the way up.
The most impressive temple is the Su Taung Pyae Pagoda - with familiar golden
U-Bein Bridge is the longest teak-wood bridge in the world - over 1 km (nearly 1 mile) long and spans across the Taun Tha Man Lake, south of Mandalay.
It's quite far from the center - but you can easily arrange a taxi - it takes around 30 minutes to get to U-Bein Bridge from Mandalay. A taxi shouldn't be more expensive than 11 USD (10 EUR). We also stopped halfway at the amazing Mahamuni Buddha Temple, more or less halfway between Mandalay and the bridge (see below).
U-Bein Bridge is quite a famous landmark of Myanmar - I'm sure you spotted many photos with it against the setting sun in the background. To be honest, its impressiveness lies more in the description and edited photos rather than in real life. If you can, visit it at the sunset.
In reality, it just looks like an ordinary wooden bridge over a dirty lake. The water in the lake is almost thick due to pollution and some scenes around are not cheerful either - the locals wash their laundry in it, try to sell some things and also have some fun - it it hadn't been so polluted, it would have been more joyful.
Mahamuni Buddha Temple
Mahamuni Buddha Temple is interesting not because of the shape of the temple (which is nothing out of the ordinary) but thanks to the enormous Buddha statue inside.
The golden statue is nearly 4m/13 ft. high together with the pedestal and is decorated with multiple precious gems. You can see the worshipers attaching golden leaves to the statue - hundreds and thousands of them. It's an out-of-this-world sight.
Near the Mahamuni Temple we came across a factory that produces casts and statues of Buddha. It was an interesting thing to see - dozend of unfinished sculptures displayed directly in the streets.
Author: Tom @ Adventurous Travels
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