Just hearing the name Mandalay conjures up images of old British colonial Burma, and nowhere is this more vivid than in Rudyard Kipling’s poem of the same name:
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”
Kipling’s poem was written for a bygone era that has been romanticized in literature. Nowadays it’s best not to bring up past British colonialism unless you want to cause a diplomatic faux pas.
As a former royal capital and the second largest city in Myanmar, Mandalay is the economic center of Upper Myanmar. It’s proximity to Yunnan in China has also resulted in an influx of Chinese immigrants to the city in recent history amid closer commercial ties with China.
One of the first things you’d notice is that Mandalay’s streets are laid out in a grid system with numbered street and lettered road names. Compared to Yangon’s haphazard streets, Mandalay is organized and well planned. That’s because Mandalay is a rather new city founded in 1857 by King Mindon. The grid system of roads are a British product and almost all of the palace and pagodas are reconstructions after most of the city was burned down by Japanese and Allied bombing during World War II.
A new expressway connects Mandalay to Yangon and you can basically make the 700km journey by car or overnight buses (8~9 hrs drive roughly). Otherwise there are domestic flights from Yangon to Mandalay Airport which also serves some international flights from Thailand and Kunming, China. There is a train service from Yangon but this take 15 hours on antiquated tracks and carriages and is not advisable unless you really want to endure a noisy and bumpy 15 hrs ride. If you are coming from Bagan like us, cars and buses make the 4~5 hr journey, otherwise there are slow ferries that run between Bagan and Mandalay. However, they are really slow (10 hrs ride) and more of a pleasure cruise variety than a transport service. Tickets are also expensive (USD40+USD5 commission) for a 1 way ticket.
Taxis are the best way to get around Mandalay, but they are hard to find and I hardly saw any taxis while I was there. Most tourists book a car with a driver, or if you are adventurous, rent a motorbike.
Mandalay is a city that shutdowns at night. Most shops and restaurants are closed by 9pm and there are no pubs or bars around. There are a couple of night markets but we didn’t get to visit them. So if you are looking for a night out here, you are better off looking in Yangon.
As Mandalay is also much further north than Yangon, the temperatures here are a bit cooler. In the cold season, the nights can be quite cold with temperatures dropping to 15°C, so bring a jacket along if you travelling during that time.
Most of the sights are found around Mandalay Hill, so it’s easy to just take transport to Mandalay Hill area and start your exploration from there. King Mindon founded Mandalay at the foot of this hill and the city was named after it.
Mandalay Hill itself is home to many temples and monasteries. However, most visitors come here to go to the top of the 240m tall hill. It used to be that you could only climb up the hill by stairs, but now there is a vehicular road that saves much time. At the top of the hill is the Sutaungpyei Pagoda where you can see panoramic views of Mandalay and sunsets. There is an entry fee of 1,000 Kyats (SGD1) once you enter the pagoda grounds.
This temple and pagoda houses the ‘World’s Largest Book’. But if you go around looking for a library or bookshelf you will be disappointed. Built by King Mindon, this temple has 729 white stupas, each with a stone tablet containing one page of the Tripitaka, Theravada Buddhism’s most sacred text. These stone tablets are the ‘book’.
This must be one of the most incredible and detailed teak wood structures we’d ever seen. This monastery was originally part of the royal palace and was King Mindon’s personal quarters. However, after his death, his son relocated the building to this present location where it became a monastery. This was a good thing as the royal palace was destroyed during World War II and Shwenandaw is the only original building left from that period.
To enter Shwenandaw, we had to buy a Mandalay archeological zone ticket for 10,000 Kyats (SGD10). However, this ticket is valid for 5 days and you can use it to enter several other sites including the Atumashi Pagoda beside it, and the Mandalay Palace.
If you wander around Mandalay you will see a large moat and fortified walls forming Mandalay Palace. It’s opened to the public although you will notice that it’s heavily guarded by the military.
This is the last royal palace of the last Burmese monarchy. The palace that we see today is actually a modern reconstruction (1990) as most of the palace was burned to the ground in World War II. You need the Mandalay archeological zone ticket (10,000 Kyats) to enter the palace and foreigners must all enter through the East gate.
U Bein Bridge
Strangely enough, this wooden bridge has got to be one of the most famous sights in Mandalay. Technically, it’s located in Amarapura, an ancient capital which has become part of Mandalay as it expanded. This 1.2km long teakwood bridge was built in 1850 and crosses Taungthaman Lake in the south of Mandalay. It was named after the mayor who built it and holds the world record as the oldest and longest wooden foot bridge. Some of the timber posts are really old as Mayor U Bein built the bridge using discarded wood from the Amarapura palace.
We spent 2 days in Mandalay which included a half day trip to the nearby Mingun ruins which I will publish in an upcoming blog post. The Mandalay archeological zone ticket can also be used to visit the ruins in Innwa and Amarapura, although we didn’t have the time to do this in 2 days. Again, like in Bagan, you can stay 5 days in Mandalay to make full use of the ticket.