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.

Mandalay was our third stop and you can click on our previous stops of Yangon and Bagan to read more about those places.

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.

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The road trip from Bagan to Mandalay takes around 4 hours going through rural countryside if your driver decides not to take the highway.

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.

Getting There

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.

Getting Around

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.

The ubiquitous tuk tuk is also found here but I don’t think you’d be able to squeeze in there.

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.

Mandalay Hill

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.

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Mandalay Hill as seen from the rooftop of our hotel in downtown Mandalay.

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.

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For lazy people, there are escalators that bring you up the hill from the carpark, and a lift to take you down back to the carpark. My tired feet were not complaining as you have to take off your shoes at the carpark before setting foot on the hill.
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You can see the whole of Mandalay from the top of the hill.

Kuthodaw Paya

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’.

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The pagoda at Kuthodaw. It looks similar to many of the other pagodas that we’ve seen in Myanmar.
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Surrounding it are these hundreds of white stupas, each with a stone tablet containing Buddhists text in the Burmese language. Only the first row of stupas are open to visitors.
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One of the stupas was unlocked for visitors to read the tablet. It’s said that the letters were once written in gold ink, but were looted by British troops during the annexation of Mandalay.
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An 124 year old Starflower tree in the compound of Kuthodaw. It provided shade from the hot afternoon Sun.

Shwenandaw Monastery

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.

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So far all the temples and pagodas we’d seen are made from bricks and stone. This is the only monastery that is completely made of teak wood, from it’s foundations to it’s roof.
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The interior is all teak wood covered with gold leaves.
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The late afternoon Sun made for some interesting shadows.
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A close up of one of the hand carved teakwood doors.

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.

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The Atumashi Pagoda is a monastery. We went in to take a look but it was basically a big empty hall where monk initiates gather.

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.

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The main entrance of Mandalay Palace after passing through the military checkpoint.
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The palace itself is kind of disappointing as most of the buildings are empty except for some which contain the throne room with wax figures of the last King and Queen.
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Quite a lot of locals also visit the palace.
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Intricately carved roofs with gold leaves can be seen throughout the palace.
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This unique looking watch tower is one of the few original structures that survived World War II.

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.

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U Bein Bridge is supported by more than 1,000 wooden pillars. Although some of them are beginning to rot and need to be replaced. The bridge stretches in a curve to withstand wind and water forces.
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As it was the dry season, the lake had shrunk to half it’s original size. Only a small section of the bridge was still above water. Some of the pillars have been replaced with concrete due to water damage to the wooden pillars.
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A rare bottom view of the bridge as this area is normally underwater. It’s a wonder that this old wooden bridge is still able to take the trampling of thousands of locals and tourists that come here everyday.
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A lot of water birds were busy catching their dinner in the very shallow water.
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For great sunset photos, you have to rent a boat that will take you out to the lake to get the best views. We rented a boat for 15,000 Kyats (SGD15) which can take 2-3 persons. I understand this is the price for the high season. In the low season, it can be half of this price.
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It’s sunset and everyone is waiting for this moment.
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People walking across the bridge while the Sun sets make for a great silhouette shot.
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Besides the bridge, the shore line also holds some good photo opportunities, once the Sun sets below the bridge level.

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.

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