As the last royal capital of Burma, former colonial stronghold, and subject of Kipling’s famous poem – Mandalay is a city that looms large in the romantic imagination, and as such it has a lot to live up to.
Visitors to Mandalay today may find themselves initially disappointed by the outlook. There is little left of the historical city thanks to extensive WWII bombing and recurrent fires, and modern Mandalay may at first seem far removed from its reputation. However, Mandalay is still a fascinating city, and there are many places where you can rediscover the enchanting atmosphere of old Burma – if you know where to look.
1) Combine Burma’s ancient capitals with U Bein Bridge
Now absorbed into the suburbs of Mandalay, Ava, Sagaing and Amarapura are three former royal capitals with illustrious histories of their own. A guided day trip taking in all three capitals is a fantastic way to discover some of the rich history of the Mandalay region, with highlights including stunning views over hundreds of white stupas from Sagaing Hill, a horse-and-cart ride through the ruins of Ava, a visit to the atmospheric Bagaya Monastery, and a walk across U Bein Bridge – the world’s longest and oldest teakwood bridge.
2) Climb Mandalay Hill for views over the Irrawaddy at sunset
Located northeast of the city centre, Mandalay Hill stands at 240 metres (790 ft), and affords spectacular panoramic views of Mandalay and the surrounding plain. At its summit, you’ll find the Sutaungpyei Pagoda, on whose terrace pilgrims congregate to enjoy the views. This is an excellent place to interact with the locals, as many people (mainly novice monks) come here specifically to practise their English on tourists!
Though the prospect is stunning at any time of day, we suggest timing your visit for sunset, so you can watch the dying light glinting off the Irrawaddy River.
3) Visit Mahamuni Pagoda at dawn
Burma has temples and pagodas aplenty, so you might feel less than enthused at the thought of getting out of bed before sunrise to visit yet another. Those who do manage to drag themselves out of slumber and to the temple, however, will be rewarded with a rather unusual spectacle.
Every morning before dawn, the monks of Mahamuni Pagoda participate in an hour-long ritual in which they wash the face and brush the teeth of the Mahamuni Buddha with holy water, using towels donated by devotees. The Buddha image, which is huge and coated entirely in gold, is one of the most sacred statues in Burma, and is said to be the only surviving image made during the Buddha’s lifetime.
Male visitors to the pagoda can buy sheets of gold leaf to stick on the statue (a popular act of devotion in Burma), which has given the Mahamuni Buddha a very lumpy texture over the years. Unfortunately, women may only watch.
4) Explore the city’s craft markets and workshops
A legacy of the days when Mandalay was the seat of the last royal court of Burma, the city is famous throughout the country for its tradition of arts and crafts. We suggest beginning at the city’s Jade Market, a very unusual market where the buyers sit down while the sellers bustle about plying their trade. After stopping to observe the craftsmen cutting and polishing jade outside the market, there are numerous other workshops to visit – where you can watch artisans weaving kalaga tapestries, wood-carvers creating intricate ornaments, or have a go at hammering out gold leaf in the traditional fashion.
5) Take a cruise on the Irrawaddy
Mandalay is the starting point for numerous wonderful cruise options on the Irrawaddy River. Ranging from short trips to nearby locations such as Mingun, home to the impressive unfinished pagoda of King Bodawpaya, to longer journeys taking as far as Yangon in the south or Bhamo in the north. These longer expeditions allow you to penetrate far into Burma’s rural regions, offering an insight into areas rarely visited by tourists.
An overnight cruise to the spectacular plains of Bagan is an excellent mid-length option that we highly recommend. There are various different companies offering cruises on the Irrawaddy River, but the RV Pandaw, RV Paukan, and Road to Mandalay cruises are some of our favourites.