With only a week to spend in Myanmar before I had to start my journey back to Canada for Christmas, I really only had time for two cities. Bagan was a must- there was no way I was missing those temples and sunrise moments that I had been dreaming about for years. My other option was either Yangon or Mandalay. Yangon was the cheaper option; the bigger, busier, better known. It was also the more westernized and for that reason I thought I should spend the extra money and fly in and out of Mandalay instead.
I heard mixed reviews about Mandalay, a lot of it negative; there’s not much to do and see, it’s not great, it’s dirty. A couple travellers told me it was ok but to get out quickly. However it had a lot of history and culture, seemingly more so than Yangon, which is what I wanted. So three days prior to departure I booked flights to Mandalay; the last royal capital and unofficial cultural capital of Myanmar. To be honest, I didn’t hope for much, except that this ancient Burmese city would at least be “ok”.
Arrival went smoothly; a small airport it took no time to have my visa checked and pick up my bag. However I wasn’t even close to ready to the onslaught of drivers all wanting my business as soon as I passed security.
“TAXI!” “TAXI!” TAXI!”
It was almost a war chant, being shouted by what seemed like hundreds of different voices. I stalled, shocked at the sudden noise, and panicked. Would they rip me off? Who do I go with? Were some more legitimate than others?
My stress level decreased a bit as I spotted a group of backpackers about my age come through security behind me. I had been told that it’s cheaper to share a ride to the city than go alone, and that the taxis don’t mind multiple stops. With this in mind I asked the group (from England) if they wanted to go in together. They were as frazzled as I was and quickly agreed. Which brought us to the next problem: who to pick?
There didn’t seem to be any companies, everyone was out for themselves but all quoting the same price. Finally I found my voice and said the first one to give us a deal gets the business. It started a new shouting battle but, as promised, we went with the first man who slashed his prices. Not that anyone else went any lower anyway. The five of us each forked out 4000 Kyat (about 4USD) and followed him to the van.
The drive into the city took about 40 minutes. We passed farmers in fields, families on motorbikes, and children piled on the top of a dump truck. They all smiled and waved and we returned the gestures happily. I was dropped safety off at my hostel (Yoe Yoe Lay Homestay- which is AMAZING) where I quickly realized my mistake: I got so caught up in figuring out taxis at the airport that I forgot to exchange my (perfect, mint-condition) American dollars for Kyat.
The hostel staff offered to get me a taxi to the exchange office but I decided to walk. Which is how I discovered that Mandalay is not exactly pedestrian friendly. While there is a downtown listed on the maps, it is spread out over what seemed to be dozens of blocks with the main attractions also being spread throughout the city. I can only describe my walking experience as feeling like a unicorn, and although part of it was no doubt that I was a white female travelling alone, I think a bigger part of it was because I was walking. But I never felt unsafe and ended up getting the currency exchanged. An amazing taxi driver also found me stumbling around in the heat, and after 2 hours walking I caved and let him take me to the sites.
To be honest, I did very little research before coming to Mandalay. Everything was so up in the air until just a couple days before that I didn’t know what to see or where. In some places, like Thailand, I probably would have been taken advantage of because of this. Taxi drivers probably would take me ‘shopping’ rather than to attractions. But here? Not at all. I paid $15USD for a driver to myself for 4 hours (probably more than I should have but lets be honest, that would get me 2 blocks here in Canada) of sight seeing as directed by him- and it did not disappoint. His kindness was one of many reasons I fell in love with the Burmese people.
The second day I joined a full day group tour provided by the hostel ($35USD for the car for the day). Again we had a fabulous driver but we followed a set course- a course that, to be honest, I wouldn’t recommend. While I enjoyed some parts, some were incredibly disappointing.
So what to hit and what to miss in Mandalay and the surrounding area? Here are my suggestions of how to create your own itinerary and spend a busy full day or more leisurely two days.
Mandalay Fort/ Palace Complex
Constructed in the mid 1800s, this is the last royal palace of the Burmese monarchy. The buildings are located in a perfect square surrounding by four 2km walls and a moat. There are plenty of buildings to visit and a watch tower to climb for a better view. The original palace was destroyed and looted and had to be re-built in 1989.
Shwenandaw/Golden Palace Monastery
Built in 1880 by the king at the time, this Shwenandaw Monastery was once part of the original royal palace, and the only part that survived. It is a beautiful monastery best known for it’s teak carvings that tell the Buddhist myths and legends.
Kuthodaw Pagoda (and the World’s Largest Book)
A beautiful golden pagoda modelled after Shwezigon Pagoda in Bagan. While the Pagoda itself is beautiful, the big highlight here are the 700+ stupas. Each stupa holds a stone tablet, a page. Together, they make the world’s largest book.
Standing at 240 meters high, Mandalay hill is full of pagodas and monasteries. It’s also an important pilgrimage site for Burmese. The most popular temple is Sutaungpyei at the top; it’s beautiful and offers breathtaking panoramic views of the city and countryside below. The best time to go up is in time for sunset, however depending on where you stand to watch you may be charged a fee for using your camera. Visitors can either walk up the hill (there are four major staircases) or if you are in a taxi, drive. For those thinking of walking- there are plenty of warnings of snakes on the paths after dark, so keep an eye out.
Mandalay Marionettes Theatre
Marionettes have a significant role in Burmese culture; the shows were not just entertainment but a form of art and education enjoyed by all classes. Today, this once prominent cultural activity is a dying art. However should you wish to see a bit of this old tradition you can visit the Mandalay Marionettes Theatre for a show displaying parts of famous Burmese folklore and legends. It’s best to book tickets in advance (it’s a small venue) but it’s definitely a unique experience. The last Burmese puppet master (in his 80s) can be found here.
Located outside of the city centre, Maharani Pagoda is a major pilgrimage site as it contains one of five likenesses of Buddha said to be created in his lifetime. Visitors to the temple will notice many male devotees placing gold leafs on the Buddha as an offering. If you are lucky, as I was, you’ll grab the attention of a monk who will show you around. Insider tip: monks in general are much less likely to approach women than men. Many of them say that western women are their enemies because they make them think like a man not a monk. Be sure to dress respectfully and behave respectifully, and you are more likely to be approached.
The largest teak bridge in the world, the U-Bein Bridge spans 1.2km over the Taungthaman Lake. It is one of the most popular attractions and usually quite busy with tourists, locals trying to sell souvenirs, and monks. The best time to visit is early in the morning for sunrise, or for sunset. Insider tip: Get off the bridge at the halfway point onto the grassy area to include the bridge in your sunset photos.
Located in Amarapura, not far from Mandalay, this Monastery is a favourite stop for tour groups to visiting around 10am to see the monks and nuns line up for lunch. While it sounds like it could be an interesting cultural experience, it’s more like a zoo attraction. I was horrified when I visited to see dozens of tourists, mainly Chinese, literally throw candy at the young monks as they passed by. It was miserable to watch and I can’t imagine how miserable the monks and nuns were having to go through it every single day. It was here that I began to question if we, as tourists, were ruining the traditions and culture of Myanmar.
Insider tip: If you want to experience something similar but significantly more authentic- get up at dawn and watch as the monks and nuns travel through town for almsgiving.
A former imperial capital of Myanmar, Innwa was abandoned after being destroyed by a massive earthquake in the 1800s. Today it is a popular day trip from Mandalay, but I found it to be a tourist trap. The only way to get around is by horse cart, and while the horses look healthy enough, the roads are rough and bumpy. The major sites require payment to enter (on top of paying for the horsecar and the boat to get there in the first place), and it’s full of children trying to sell postcards, bracelets, or anything they think tourists may buy.
Although I only had 1.5 days in the city, I really did enjoy my time in Mandalay. Was it my favourite city? No. But do I suggest taking a day or two to visit should you have the chance? Absolutely. It may be a bit hectic and dirty but it’s all part of the authenticity of visiting a (not-yet) westernized part of the world.
Final note: When entering temples, pagodas, and other religious place be sure to take off your shoes and socks- it is rude and disrespectful to keep them on.