Mandalay was the royal capital of the last Burmese Kingdom before the monarchy was abolished as a result of a disastrous war with the British. Despite being known today as the cultural capital of Myanmar, it is actually not very old, having been established only in 1857.
Compared to Yangon, Mandalay has wider avenues, drier weather and is overall, for me, a more pleasant city to explore. For one thing, there is the conspicuous absence of the old, decaying, moss-coated buildings that one would see everywhere in Yangon. Mandalay also seems to be a cleaner and more orderly city.
A note on the name
When one says “Mandalay” in Myanmar, one usually refers to Mandalay City. However, there is also an entity named Mandalay Region, a much larger area in central Myanmar of which the city is the administrative capital. It’s a little known fact that Bagan itself is part of Mandalay Region.
There are now two ways of entering Mandalay City. As mentioned in one of my previous blogs, AirAsia recently opened their Bangkok-Mandalay route. As a result, it is now possible to make Mandalay the entry point and first stop in a budget-conscious tourist’s Myanmar itinerary, instead of Yangon.
The other way is by road. Tourists already in Myanmar typically enter Mandalay coming from either Bagan (5 hours away) or Yangon.(8-9 hours away by VIP express bus.) Be warned that it can be very chaotic once your bus arrives at Mandalay as “taxi” drivers will crowd right at the exit of the bus to compete for passengers. This is much worse than what you’d experience upon arriving in Bagan. In our case, we arrived at 3am and it was virtually impossible to exit without forcing yourself and coming in contact with at least 20 noisy men. It was so bad that – no joke – the bus driver even repeatedly hit the men with a stick just to make way for us passengers.
You will, however, need transportation going to your lodging house if you haven’t made any prior arrangements to be picked up. So same as my tip in Bagan, don’t be intimidated by those who are trying to get you to ride in their “taxis” right away. If you’re in a group, it’s important to first make sure that (1) you have all your bags with you, and (2) you are all located in one place so that there would be only one person negotiating. Make it easy on yourself and select the best English speaker among the drivers to negotiate with. Agree on a price beforehand and make sure that they know where your lodging house is.
Mandalay’s “taxis” are really just pick-up trucks for rent, custom-fitted with parallel seats at the back (like a jeepney) to carry passengers. They rarely have real sedan-type taxis the way Yangon has. For our transport to our lodging house, we paid a total of MMK 14,000 (MMK 2,000 per person).
Where to stay
The Peacock Lodge is located in a quiet corner of the city. The surroundings look run-down and the road conditions in front of the gate leave much to be desired, but the guesthouse itself is surprisingly nice enough and classy. I was in a rush to make reservations for a lodging house in Mandalay and this was recommended by a fellow travel blogger. I did not research on any other lodging house and I guess we got lucky with this choice as it turned out to be not bad at all.
Peacock Lodge offers free breakfast and also serves lunch and dinner if you give them advance notice. It also has contacts with private tour operators. I don’t have anything bad at all to say about the service as I had the impression that everyone, from the owners to the assistants, went out of their way to address our needs and concerns. It only has a limited number of rooms so better email them months in advance of your intended date of stay to make reservations.
When we arrived at the ungodly hour of 3:30 am, it took a while before the guesthouse staff heard our knocks at the gate. It’s a good thing our taxi driver stayed with us until the gate finally opened. Since our rooms won’t be available until much later, they allowed us to stay and rest on the sofas at the lobby.
What to see
The city has many tourist spots which, like the rest of Myanmar, are mainly Buddhist temples and monasteries. As a modern city, Mandalay and its surrounding areas have a surprisingly high concentration of temples and religious structures. Some of these are the following:
Maha Myat Muni Paya – Also known as the Mahamuni Pagoda, it is a culturally and religiously significant Buddhist temple as it houses 1 of only 5 known images of the Buddha reputedly cast during his lifetime. The image is traditionally venerated by applying gold leaf, which over the years has accumulated and distorted its dimensions.
Shwenandaw Monastery – Made entirely of teak wood, this monastery is the only remaining original structure of the Royal Palace that survives. It was disassembled and rebuilt outside the Palace compound by orders of one of Burma’s last kings, and consequently was saved from destruction when the Royal Palace was bombed during World War II years later.
Kuthodaw Paya – This temple is not too impressive nor historically significant, but it has a vast compound that houses what the Burmese refer to as the “world’s biggest book”. This “book” is actually Buddhist scriptures engraved on hundreds of stone slabs, with each slab being housed under small stupas.
Mandalay Hill – The city was actually named after this hill. The summit offers a panoramic view of the city, where one can see the vast area that was once the Royal Palace compound, as well as the stupas of hundreds of temples that dot the landscape. The hill itself houses a number of pagodas and is a pilgrimage site. There is a MMK 1,000 camera and video fee at the top of the hill which you need to pay if you wish to take pictures and video clips of the surroundings.
Outside of the city, there are 3 other places of interest that can easily be visited if one is touring by means of a rented private vehicle. Each one of these have also been royal capitals at various points in the past, and can all be visited in one day. These are:
Sagaing – Like Mandalay City, Sagaing has a hill overlooking a vast landscape full of gold-tipped temples. It is much quieter here, and the barefoot ascent to the top is remarkably clean – unlike in Taung Kalat, Mt. Popa.)
Innwa – Also known in ancient times as Ava, this area is now mostly just charming ruins of old temples and palaces. Its main attraction is the massive Maha Aungmye Bonzan monastery, which is uncharacteristically made of stone rather than the usual teak wood.
Amarapura – Famous for its teak wooden bridge, this is a favorite destination for day trippers to view the sunset after touring Sagaing and Innwa. Boats can be rented to be able to view the bridge itself from a distance.
NOTE: Like Bagan, Mandalay City charges an archaeological zone fee. Tourists used to have the option of paying in dollars, but at the time of our visit, they exclusively accepted only kyats. The zone pass costs MMK 10,000 per person. It’s valid for 1 week, and covers sights in Mandalay City, Innwa, Amarapura and Mingun. Certain tourist attractions have checkpoints where you need to present your zone pass and they will stamp it and record your visit via the serial number of the pass.
Where to eat
For convenience’s sake, we no longer explored the different restaurants in Mandalay, and instead relied on the word of our van driver. We also took our dinners in Peacock Lodge.
We did get to dine in one genuine Burmese restaurant named Panwar, which is quite literally a “hole in the wall” eatery in Sagaing. The ambiance leaves much to be desired, but the food quality and service was excellent. In particular, Panwar’s appeal is almost entirely due to its charismatic owner whom our group has nicknamed “Sid Lucero” (you’ll understand when you meet him). He was very attentive and has a funny way of asking every now and then if we liked his food.
On our second and last day, we were brought by our driver to a mall in the city where we got to eat lunch in the deceptively-named “Mandalay Donut”, which in fact has an astonishing array of full meal menu selections. Unfortunately, I do not remember the name of the mall, but it’s quite popular and has a modern grocery at the basement named “Ocean.”
Mandalay certainly has many more restaurants and given more time, the enormous city is worth exploring as far as a food trip goes. Wikitravel has a list of some restaurants in Mandalay you can check out.
Like what was mentioned earlier, taxis are hard to come by in Mandalay, and if you manage to flag one down, it might not be what you would expect. Occasionally, enterprising locals would transport passengers on motorcycles or a type of tricycle.
However, the most convenient way to explore the city and its outskirts is via a guided tour on a rented private vehicle. Peacock Lodge got us in touch with a van driver and we got to rent the air-con van, plus the driver, the whole day for only MMK 55,000. Since there were 7 of us, this was a great deal at only MMK 7,900 per person. You can of course opt for a smaller vehicle if you have a smaller group. It’s best to make arrangements through your lodging house.
For Innwa: Getting to Innwa involves a river crossing by boat from Sagaing. If you’re hiring a van for an entire day, you have no choice but to leave the van and the driver on the opposite bank while you take a few hours to tour the ancient capital. Upon crossing the river, hire a horse cart to get around. It’s extremely inadvisable to attempt to do a walking tour of Innwa as it would be too time-consuming and exhausting. There are no other modes of transportation available to tourists. The boat crossing costs around MMK 800 (includes return trip), while the horse cart rental costs MMK 2,000 per head, with a minimum of 2 and a maximum of 3 adult passengers per cart.
Mandalay is the last step of most tourists’ Myanmar itinerary. They could either exit the country through the Mandalay Airport, or return to Yangon and fly out through the airport there. For those who have morning AirAsia flights, there is a real concern of making it to Yangon on time if one leaves Mandalay the night before via bus. Most night buses from Mandalay are scheduled to arrive at Yangon at just the right time for one to have enough time to clear the checkout counter and immigration queues at the airport.
It’s a huge gamble but in our experience, we found the bus schedule to be pretty reliable. We made sure to book with a VIP bus line that has an in-built toilet (the theory is will have fewer and shorter stopovers.) The bus line was Shwe Nan Taw and a ticket costs MMK 16,500. There is also another VIP bus line called JJ Express which has a good reputation for sticking to its schedule. Tickets, however, cost MMK 18,000.
You can of course opt for a non-VIP air-con bus going back to Yangon. Tickets only cost around MMK 15,000. They leave earlier than the VIP buses but have more (and longer) stopovers. It’s a riskier option if you’re trying to catch a flight in Yangon the next morning.