Forget what Kipling said, Mandalay is certainly no oil painting. But scratch the surface and you’ll find bags of history and culture amid the monasteries, temples, markets, gold leaf workshops and teahouses of Myanmar’s second largest city.
First, a public service announcement. If your vision of Mandalay is of Eastern exoticism inspired by Rudyard Kipling's poem of the same name, you'll be disappointed. Why? Well, Kipling only spent three days in Myanmar, and if truth be told, Mandalay is a dusty sprawl of a city thanks to a few fires and a hefty bombing in World War Two.
The beauty of Mandalay is that it’s a real, working city, alive with markets and street food stalls. Some of the country’s best teahouses are here, with plastic tables spilling onto the streets where steaming black tea is served from battered tin teapots. There are thriving cottage industries too. Watch the masters make gold leaf by hand, while craftsmen carve jade and cast bronze Buddhas.
The ancient Royal Palace forms the centrepiece of the town, with beautiful moats surrounding the fortress-like structure. The Royal Palace was one of many casualties when Mandalay was bombed during WWII, having been used by the Japanese as a supply depot before being burnt to the ground by Allied bombing. The only buildings to have survived were the royal mint and the watch tower; the rest of the palace you see today is a faithful reconstruction built in the 1990s.
Fortunately, better preserved Konbaung Dynasty capitals are an easy day trip, including Amarapura, home to the longest (and oldest) teakwood bridge in the world. On an island in the Irrawaddy is another ancient capital, Ava, 20km from Mandalay. Grab a bike to explore its ancient watchtowers, city walls, monasteries, and temples.