Before leaving for Myanmar, I was warned that Mandalay was a bit boring. It was described to me as merely a convenient place to enter or leave the country because of its international airport, but not a place to actually visit. None of that turned out to be true! Mandalay turned out to be a magical city, where you can easily get to know the local culture, visit beautiful temples and viewpoints and rent a motorbike to explore the area. With these tips you can also make the most out of your visit to Mandalay!
How do you get here?
I already mentioned Mandalay as an ideal place to fly at of from when travelling in or out of Myanmar. Mandalay has one of the two international airports in the country. So I chose to fly to Mandalay from Thailand to start my trip to Myanmar. The nearest border crossing is at the towns of Tachileik (Myanmar) and Mae-Sai (Thailand). Here you can indeed cross the border, but from Tachileik you can not (easily) travel overland to the rest of Myanmar. You will have to take a flight to Mandalay from there.
When I say ‘not easy’, I mean that you can get from Tachileik to the rest of the country by exception. I read read that it is possible to get a permit to travel on the road from Tachileik to the west. But it is hard to get such a permit and the road is so bad it will take even more time than just travelling to the southern border crossing at Myawaddy-Mae Sot and then take the night bus to Mandalay. In short: do not take the border crossing in the north, but take a flight or cross the border in the south.
Please note: if you travel to Myanmar, make sure you already have your visa before you arrive! In many countries you can get your visa at the border crossing, but that does not apply to Myanmar.
Bus, boat and train
Are you already in Myanmar? Then you can easily travel by bus, boat or train to Mandalay. A (night) bus takes you to Mandalay from almost all major cities and tourist destinations in the country. As the bus station is a bit out of the city center and you thus need to arrange transport to the bus station as well, the boat and the train are also very popular options.
The train station is fairly central and there are train connections with – among others – Hsipaw, Bagan (Nyaung U) and Yangon. Beware that a train drive usually takes much longer than the same trip with the bus, so make sure you have enough time.
Perhaps the most idyllic option is a boat trip on the Ayeyarwady River. Of course, the number of boat destinations is limited. Bagan is the only tourist destination of all boat options from Mandalay that you might consider. The boat trip is much longer than taking the bus or train – about 10-14 hours – and also slightly more expensive.
The city highlights
Mandalay is often described as boring, but I don’t understand that at all. The city is bursting with beautiful temples and has a lively street life to join. As far as I’m concerned, the options below are the most beautiful highlights of the city, but I marked many other temples and sights on the map at the end of this blog.
#1 Get a bicycle!
As the city is quite large and the highlights are often far apart, I recommend to explore Mandalay by bike. We were able to rent a bicycle at our hotel, but bicycles can be rented from many places around town. Options in the city center are Honey Home and Mr. Jerry. Cycling through the city itself is already one of the major highlights! You’ll see a lot of the Mandalay street life, experience the busy trafic from special bike tracks right next to four lane roads and be able to visit all the beautiful temples in just one day. Does the busy traffic scare you and would you like some help? There are cycling tours as well.
#2 Mahamuni Pagada
This temple in the south of Mandalay has a buddha that’s still growing every day. Seriously? Yess! Every day hundreds of pilgrims stick pure gold leafs onto the ancient Buddha statue. Male pilgrims to be exact, as women can only watch. The statue is in the center of the temple. There are long galleries filled with stalls with religious souvenirs leading to this center. Take the gallery to the west, which starts at the 84th street right next to the dusty marble workshops where white Buddha statues are made.
#3 She In Bin Monastery
In the west of Mandalay is the She In Bin monastery. It is so peaceful! The wooden monastery construction is one of the oldest in the country. The teak, the pile construction underneath the main building and the wood carvings make the monastery worth a visit on your bike ride.
#4 The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace cannot to be missed! The former royal palace in the middle of the city is huge and lies within high walls surrounded by a moat. It takes some time to get from one corner to another, it’s that big. Even on a bike it takes a few minutes! The palace and the walls are not original, they were rebuilt in the old style a few decades ago.
#5 Kuthodaw Pagoda
This temple is often described as the largest book in the world. The main attraction should of course be the main temple with its buddha, but as far as I am concerned, the white marble ‘books’ are the real highlight. 729 texts are housed in these small stupas and together they form the tripitaka, the early writings from Buddhism.
#6 The Peshawar relics
These relics are not particularly beautiful and the monastery where they are located is not a tourist attraction. But there is this unique atmosphere! The relics are said to be bones of the Buddha. They were discovered more than a hundred years ago in the ruins of an ancient stupa in Peshawar, hence their name. They were on display for years on Mandalay Hill, but they are now housed in the insignificant U-Khanti monastery at the foot of the hill to protect them from the public. It is amazing to visit the mini museum of the monastery where the relics are only displayed upon request. A monk will then open a huge vault to collect a small shrine. The shrine is placed in the middle of the museum under the most optimal spotlight. You’ll also get a magnifying glass to view the bone pieces up close. How amazing!
#7 Mandalay Hill
Last but not least: climb the Mandalay Hill for a beautiful sunset. The 230 meter high hill with – how could it be otherwise – a temple at the top is right in the heart of the city. According to legends, the Buddha himself climbed this hill once and prophesied that 2400 years later a city would be built here.
You can drive up the hill from the north with a car (or taxi or motorbike), but of course a temple should be visited by pilgrimage. Two stairs are leading up from the southern side of the hill; they’ll come together not much later. The main entrance is guarded by two chintes, half lion and half dragon. The walk up takes about 30 minutes, but you’ll probably take longer to pet the cute puppies, admire the Buddha statues and photograph the temples along the way.
The vaulted hall and the image of a female oger are particularly special. The oger statue shows the oger while she offers her breasts. According to a legend, the Buddha was so impressed by this that he promised her that she would reincarnate thousands of years later as a king of Mandalay. Quite particular, didn’t I already say? Climb quietly to the top and admire the impressive view over the city from there!
Daytrips from Mandalay
Perhaps even more impressive than Mandalay itself, is the area around it. Hire a motorbike, arrange a car or book a tour to visit the impressive temples and sights! If you have not visited Bagan yet, then the old royal cities near Mandalay with their many temples will give you a sneak preview of what you will see there.
#1 The U-Bein Bridge
The U-Bein Bridge is one of the most visited places in and around Mandalay. It lies to the south of Mandalay in Amarapura – one of the old capitals of Burma. Amarapura also has some temples and ruins, but it is mainly the bridge that attracts visitors. Especially around sunset, when the contours of the bridge against the setting sun create a beautiful sight. The U-Bein Bridge is the longest teak bridge in the world. The bridge leads over the Taungthaman Lake, which is dry in the dry season.
Ava, also called Inwa, is one of the many cities that has been the capital of Burma. Four times actually! This history is reflected in many temples and other ruins. It is amazing to see how today’s life has found its own way between the ruins; you will find the remnants of the royal city between small villages and endless fields. The temple area is about 20 kilometers from Mandalay. You visit it by crossing the Myitnge River. Turn right immediately after. The route then leads past the Sandamuni Pagoda, where we had our first photo stop. There was no one there, just we and the temple. It was unique to explore this temple just by ourselves. Other places in Inwa weren’t crowded either, but there were other tourist all the time.
Recommended are the Nanmyin tower, the ruins of Natataphu Paya and the Me Nu monastery. We heard that you should buy a ticket to visit Ava, but we couldn’t find a ticket booth anywhere around and there was no one checking tickets either. We visited Inwa by driving on our motor bike between the many temples and ruins. Another popular option is a horsedrawn carriage ride.
#3 Sagaing Hill
On the other side of the Irrawady River, not far from Inwa, lies Sagaing. A visit to Sagaing is not about any specific temples, but about the sight of all these white and golden stupa’s on the green Sagaing hill. This place was also once a capital of Burma in the past, but nowadays it is a home to many nuns and monks in its numerous monasteries. Visit one of the monasteries or temples on a hilltop for a spectacular view of Sagaing and the river!
This river town can be visited on the same day as Ava and Sagaing, as I did on a motorcycle trip myself. You’ll then drive from Sagaing to the north towards Mingun. But the river town can also be visited on a separate day trip by boat. Mingun is located at about the same level on the western bank of the Irrawady as Mandalay!
A visit to Mingun will be about two temples: the Hsinbyume Pagoda and the Mingun Pahtodawgyi. The first is a dazzling white temple and a grateful subject of many impressive instagram photos. It is more than two hundred years old, but very well preserved.
The Mingun Pahtodawgyi may not be dazzlingly white and #instapretty, but no less impressive. This ancient structure was never finished because of the prophecy that the king would die at that exact moment. It would have been the largest stupa in the world however. Stupas are usually built in three stages and only the lower part is completed. And it is huge! This temple must have been a bizarre structure, if it had been completed! Unfortunately, a climb to the top is forbidden. There is a path up along a wall where incense is offered, but it is closed halfway with a fence. The stupa has been badly damaged during an earthquake – the cracks are clearly visible – making it not (anymore) safe to walk on top.
#5 Pyin Oo Lwin
Another popular day trip is by train to the town Pyin Oo Lwin. This city was once founded by the British occupiers to get away from the Mandalay heath. That is exactly the reason I’d love to make a daytrip to this cool place. In Pyin Oo Lwin this British history is reflected in the colonial architecture, but the National Kandawgyi Gardens are also worth a visit. Unfortunately, I only saw pictures of this town, but during a second trip to Myanmar this destination would definitely be on my wishlist.
Tip: do you want to go even further north than Pyon Oo Lwin to Hsipaw? The train ride to Hsipaw is number one on my wishlist for a second Myanmar trip. The train ride takes you over the Goteik Bridge, one of the highest railway bridges in the world. It is supposed to an impressive sight!
Where to sleap?
You’ll probably get know that you need several days to visit both magical Mandalay and the beautiful places around. Time to find a nice hotel or hostel!
I stayed in the hotel/hostel Four Rivers, where I could rent both my bike and motor bike. Ideal. The dorms were clean, spacious and comfortable, but there are also private rooms. Breakfast is served on the roof, so with a greaat view from the top over the city! Other recommendations are
Hotel A1, The Link Boutique Hotel 78 and 78, Night Sweet Hotel and – the hotel on the river bank – Ayarwaddi River View Hotel.