Places To Visit In Mandalay, Myanmar: Part 1
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Myanmar hasn’t been inundated with tourism the way Thailand has, or in recent years Vietnam and Cambodia. Even though the Myanmar government has supposedly been encouraging tourism since 1992, for reasons I don’t know, it hasn’t really caught traction yet. This worked out well for me, who always dreads crowds.
Travel guides describe Myanmar as “the most unspoiled destination in Southeast Asia”. In this day and age, the word “unspoiled” has travelers immediately tossing clothes into their backpacks and suitcases.
We were actually incredibly surprised by how few tourists we saw while we were in Myanmar. Turned out, the tourism number has dropped dramatically this season (high season is November through February) because of news about the political and civil unrest in the country (which I’ve totally missed). I did check to make sure there weren’t any advisories against going to Myanmar and I didn’t see any, aside from border areas and certain townships – all of which we avoided and aren’t the typically visited areas.
Our first destination in Myanmar was Mandalay. Since I was meeting my mom in Shanghai, we decided to fly from Shanghai, to Chiang Mai (Thailand), to Mandalay. This gave us the opportunity to stop in Chiang Mai for a bit on both ends of our trip, and flights were cheaper via Thailand than direct from China.
While Mandalay is the second largest city in Myanmar, we found our two days there to be the perfect amount of time to see everything we wanted.
Mahamuni Temple is a major pilgrimage site and considered the second holiest place in Myanmar after Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. The Mahamuni Buddha inside the temple is the most revered image of Buddha in Myanmar because it’s believed to be one of only five likeness of Buddha made in his lifetime – two are located in India, two in paradise, and the last one here in Mandalay. This Buddha image is said to have originated from the ancient kingdom of Arakan, where modern day Mrauk U was once a capital.
Mahamuni Temple was the reason, at 3:30 AM, we were standing outside our hotel waiting for our ride. The Buddha daily washing ritual happens at 4:40 AM (although we thought it was 4 AM) where a very senior monk of the temple, along with a number of helpers, washes the Buddha image’s face and brushes his teeth using sandalwood paste. This ritual is performed in great detail: first, offering the Buddha image food and flowers, brought daily by devotees; drape a large orange cloth around the image’s neck; followed by an in-depth cleansing of his face and brushing of his teeth; dried off with fresh towels; and finally sprinkled with scented water. We stayed partway through the teeth brushing, leaving an hour after the ritual started, in order to make it to see the sun rise at U Bein Bridge.
What I'm not showing you in any of these photos, and what really caused me to feel conflicted, were the men in front of us standing and taking cell phone videos. First, I recognize that I'm sort of the pot calling the kettle black, but I tried to be discreet and respectful of the people around me when I took photos. Most of the women around me were praying and chanting. After all, this is one of the holiest places in the country. While I'm not religious, I'm respectful of those who are when I'm in a monastery. Just like I remain seated and quiet at a play.
We sat at the very front of the area women are allowed to be and in front of us was a metal fence separating the section for men. There were several guys who stood with their arms outstretched, turning in circles to take videos of everything. And then a few people handed their phones off to have pictures taken of them praying.
None of it felt right. I wondered how the people who came to pay their respects felt being surrounded by others who were there for a quick video or selfie? Despite how I feel about religion, the experience made me cringe similarly to when people get to a scenic spot at a national park and start waving their selfie sticks around.
U Bein Bridge
The U Bein Bridge spans 0.75 mi. over Taungthaman Lake. It’s believed to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world, using reclaimed wood from the former royal palace in Inwa. Watch your step on the bridge - it’s wet and slippery in the mornings, and the boards are uneven.
The bridge is a popular spot for locals and tourists alike to watch sunrises and sunsets. The sunrise we saw was pretty, but I found the everyday life happening around the bridge to be more compelling scenery.
Sandamuni Pagoda is located at the foot of Mandalay Hill and a short walking distance from our hotel, Mandalay Hill Resort. On our second day in town we visited this pagoda, along with the next two, on foot.
Several covered walkways lead visitors from the entrance to the large golden chedi located in the center. There are 1,774 white shrines surrounding the main chedi. Each shrine, called Dhamma ceti (Dhamma being the teachings of Buddha and ceti the Burmese word for chedi or stupa-shaped structure), is topped with a hti (an ornamental spire shaped like an umbrella), and enshrines a 5.5 ft. by 3.5 ft. inscribed marble slab with the teachings of Buddha.
The downside is there’s a fence separating the covered walkways and all the Dhamma ceti.
Kuthodaw Pagoda is located next to Sandamuni Pagoda and they resemble one another. But Kuthodaw Pagoda is known for containing the world’s largest book. My mom and I walked through the entrance looking for, literally, the world’s biggest book standing in the center. Turns out, the largest book is referring to the 5.5 ft by 3.5 ft. marble slab that’s in every one of the 729 kyauksa, a small cave-like stupa. Each marble slab has 80 to 100 lines of text, originally in gold ink, inscribing a page of text from the Tipitaka, the entire Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, on each side. These 729 “pages” combined together create the “largest book in the world”.
Unlike Sandamuni, we were able to weave in and out of the individual kyauksa.
Shwenandaw Kyuang Temple
Tucked further behind the other two pagodas is Shwenandaw Kyuang Temple. Shwenandaw was originally part of the former royal palace complex in Amarapura before being moved to Mandalay (when the capital moved from Amarapura to Mandalay). Built by King Mindon in in the mid-19th century, the king died inside the structure in 1878.
King Mindon’s son Thibaw, who succeeded him, used the building for meditation but became convinced it was haunted by his father’s spirit. So, Thibaw had it dismantled and removed from the Royal City. It was reconstructed as a monastery and dedicated to King Mindon over the course of the next 5 years.
Shwenandaw Kyuang is a classic example of 19th century Burmese teak architecture and known for its extensive teak carvings of Buddhist myths.
It’s hard to miss Mandalay Palace since it is surrounded by four walls, each running 2 km long, with gold tipped spires at each of its 48 bastion, and of course its own moat.
The palace was once home to King Mindon and King Thibaw, Myanmar’s last two kings. The complex is sprawling and ornate, but we didn’t find it interesting enough to spend much time there.
Mandalay, the city, actually took its name from the 790 ft. hill. For over two centuries, Mandalay Hill has been a major pilgrimage site for Burmese Buddhists. There are four covered stairways leading to the summit, leading in and out of various pagodas and monasteries along the way. The most popular approach is from the south, right near Mandalay Hill Resort, where there are two giant white chinthe (half lion-half dragon) guarding the entrance.
I chose to walk the 1,700 plus steps opposed to grabbing a taxi that would drive up the one-way road, dropping visitors off at an escalator and elevator to get to the summit. My original plan was to walk up and take a taxi back down (to make it easier for my mom), but we learned there wouldn’t be empty taxis waiting at the top because it doesn’t logistically and financially make sense for them to make the long drive. My mom ended up not being very interested, taxi or no taxi. Another option to get to the summit would be on one of the many motorbike taxis milling around the streets. It would probably be cheaper than a taxi, but it can only sit one passenger.
Since shoes are not allowed in any religious temples in Myanmar, I made the journey up and down the stairs barefoot. I expected the bottom of my feet to be really dirty after walking barefoot in and around temples, and up Mandalay Hill, but I was really surprised by how clean they remained (germs aside). There was a woman at the south entrance by the shoe cubbies making sure everyone took off and left their shoes there, and then of course charged a small fee (couple hundred kyat) when you came back for them. This seemed legit enough so I didn't make a fuss about it.
I was pleasantly shocked to see these mountain bikers riding down the stairs! Duan, a local college kid I met, said mountain biking is a popular sport in Mandalay, showing me Facebook videos of races during our taxi ride from the airport. There's even a mountain bike race on Mandalay Hill, the route snakes down through the forest. Above the last guy in this photo was a group of riders waiting for their turn, and behind them the walkway crosses the one-way driving road, which is probably why they were riding down this section of stairs.
At a moderate pace and stopping to take some photos, it took me 30 minutes to get to the summit. There are many halls, paintings and pagodas that can be admired along the way, making the journey longer if desired. I breezed past most of them with a quick glance.
The entire city of Mandalay can be seen from the summit and terrace of Su Taung Pyai Pagoda. Despite it being a popular place to watch the sun set and a lot of tourists and visitors milling around waiting for the sun to go down, it wasn’t nearly as crowded as I expected.
Going up Mandalay Hill solely to see the sunset isn't worth it and neither was the view of Mandalay. But Su Taung Pyai Pagoda (literally meaning wish-fulfilling) is worth the walk up. The entire pagoda is covered in intricate tile work. It shimmered in the dimming light and was spotlessly clean.
We took a shared taxi from Mandalay International Airport to our hotel in town. At a set rate of 5,000 kyats/person (the exchange rate was between 1,300 – 1,335 kyats to US $1), this was the cheapest option. I did come across a website talking about a cheaper bus option, but supposedly it stops in downtown and then you’d have to get a taxi to take you to your hotel. I didn’t look further into it.
The downside about riding a shared taxi is that it doesn’t leave until it has 6 passengers. This works out great if you’re the last two passengers, but really crappy if you’re the other 4 people. The first two passengers had to wait 1.5 hours for our van to fill up. While a private taxi takes about 45 minutes to get from the airport into town, a shared taxi will take at least an hour because of the multiple stops it has to make. Whatever you do, don’t have your hotel coordinate an airport pick-up (unless its complimentary) because their prices will be exorbitant.
We decided to hire a private car for a day to visit the sights in and around Mandalay. I struck up a conversation with the kid next to me during our ride from the airport into town. Duan was a local college student who spoke both English and Chinese. By the time we arrived at our hotel, he was helping us coordinate with our taxi driver to take us around the next day. So, at an agreed price of 80,000 kyats (~US $60) my mom and I planned to meet the driver at 3:30 AM. This ended up being a really good price for the number of places he brought us and how long we were gone for.
I actually recommend hiring a private car to visit the sights around Mandalay, although I don’t recommend our driver specifically. He was nice and did a wonderful job choosing places to bring us to when we didn’t have particular requests, but the downside was the little amount English he spoke.
The travel blog Getting Stamped recommends the driver they used by the name of Ko Fatty. I mention this in case you want to coordinate things before arriving Mandalay. But know that I don’t have any personal experience with Ko Fatty or the Getting Stamped couple.
When we did grab a taxi in town, it was cheaper to stay with the same driver and have him bring us to a restaurant, wait, visit Mandalay Palace, wait, and then bring us back to our hotel.
Be sure to go and eat at Min Ga La Bar restaurant! It has a wide selection of tasty local Burmese food. Despite being rated #1 on TripAdvisor, it’s not a tourist trap - we saw locals eating there, which is always an excellent sign, and the prices are very reasonable (we got a main dish, two appetizers, and two fresh fruit juices for 13,000 kyats, around $9.77).
The restaurant gave us complimentary side dishes that came with a large plate of fresh vegetables, in addition to complimentary soups and dessert. Not knowing this would happen, we ended up ordering too much food.
Do not leave the restaurant without ordering their fresh tamarind juice! It was delicious, and sadly I never came across this juice again anywhere else in Myanmar.
There are many hotels to choose from in Mandalay. We stayed at Mandalay Hill Resort, a short walking distance to the “entrance” of Mandalay Hill and the temples mentioned above. There are also numerous small local restaurants nearby at the base of Mandalay Hill. The buffet breakfast was also very delicious with a wide selection of food. I kind of wanted to just stay and eat all day!
One of the reasons I chose this hotel was because I found it for an incredible deal of 60% off through Agoda. Or you can book your hotel through Booking.com and make $25 when you use this link. (We get $25 referral fee in return.)
Mandalay ArChaeological Zone Ticket
The Mandalay Archaeological Zone ticket is required to enter a lot of the historical and religious sites, such as: Mandalay Palace, Shwenandaw Kyuang Temple, Kuthadow Pagoda, Mandalay Cultural Museum, and certain places in Inwa and Sagaing Hill. We actually purchased ours at a temple in Inwa.
The ticket costs 10,000 kyats and is valid for five days from the date of issue. It's only good one time at each place. Obviously some places check, while others that require it don't have anyone checking at all.
There was a money exchange counter and ATM at the airport. The rate at the airport was the lowest we came across in town, and Zone Express Office had the highest. Large denomination, crisp, and uncreased bills get the best rate; but Myanmar is particularly anal about the bills also being the newest design.
More Myanmar posts to come!
We visited Mandalay from January 4 - 7, 2018.