I visited Myanmar in 2015 but only had a week which meant 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 the last royal capital and unofficial cultural capital of Myanmar where I found more than enough things to do in Mandalay to keep me busy for a couple of days of exploring.
How to Get to Mandalay
I arrived in Mandalay by plane (the main airport is about 40 minutes from the city). You can also arrive by bus, train, or even slow boat if you are arriving from Bagan. Coming by plane was very easy although I will admit I was very overwhelmed when I arrived into the arrivals section on the airport and met with dozens of taxi drivers all trying to get my business.
While I wouldn’t describe them as aggressive, they were very persistent. I ended up joining a group of three other backpackers and finally yelling “WHO CAN OFFER ME THE BEST DEAL” to find out driver. It seemed like the easiest option when everyone was yelling the same price. The first guy who went lower, we went with. So, based on my experience, I would say don’t be afraid to haggle for your taxi fare. Just make sure you come to an agreement ahead of time.
Where to Stay in Mandalay
When I visited there was no real ‘good’ area to stay in Mandalay. I found the city to be quite spread out and, as I will discuss below, easiest to explore by hiring a guide or driver. With that being said, you still need somewhere to sleep so here are a few places to consider depending on your budget.
Hostel: Ostello Bello (I stayed in their Bagan hostel and it was fantastic)
Midrange: Hotel Capital
Luxury: The Hotel by the Red Canal
How to Get Around Mandalay
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. I started out walking but that turned out to be a dumb plan because things are very spread out and Mandalay, at least at the time, was not very pedestrian friendly. I got A LOT of strange looks as the blond haired white girl just walking on the side of the dirt road.
In the end, a man pulled up and offered to be my guide. At first, I was skeptical but he pulled out a map and make a plan for me so I took a chance. It was a smart choice. I paid $15USD for 4 hours with the driver. He waited for me at stops, told me stories, and even carried my shoes for me at one point and gave me wet wipes to clean my feet after (no shoes in temples!)
The second day I joined a full day group tour provided by the hostel. We paid $35USD for the car for the day. Split between 4 of us- that’s a pretty cheap day trip. Again, he was a great driver.
If you are worried about finding a trustworthy driver on your own, here are a couple of options that you can prebook.
Between the two guides and day trips, I had plenty of things to do in Mandalay. But,I don’t recommend all of it. So based on my experience, here’s what to do in Mandalay as well as what to avoid.
The Best Things to do in Mandalay
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.
What to Avoid in Mandalay
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.