Mandalay was our second stop in Myanmar, after Yangon. If you read my Yangon Travel Guide, then you’d know that it took a little while for me to warm up to Myanmar, after having a rough couple of days in Yangon. Mandalay was really the turning point. It was here that I began to see authentic Burmese culture and hospitality – the way of life that I had imagined and hoped to see in Myanmar.
While still considered a big city, we began to get a glimpse of rural life in Myanmar in and around Mandalay, especially en route to visiting some of the major pagodas and temples. Coming from a feeling of being on edge while in Yangon, I appreciated the slower pace and the ability to relax in Mandalay. It’s a must-visit on any itinerary for Myanmar.
Know Before You Go
- Mandalay is the second-largest city in Myanmar, after Yangon. It’s the former royal capital in northern Myanmar and is located on the banks of the Irrawaddy River.
- Centrally located and about an 8-hour drive north from Yangon, you can arrive via bus or train economically, by private car, or of course, you can fly there faster. The trains throughout Myanmar are notoriously unreliable and may take longer than advertised, so it’s best to spend a little extra on an airplane ticket! We flew on domestic airlines, Air KBZ and Golden Myanmar Airlines, with no issues at all.
- The riverside city was founded at the foot of Mandalay Hill (that’s where it got its name) in 1857 by King Mindon as his royal capital. The original Mandalay Palace was the royal home of the last Burmese monarchy and primary residence of King Mindon and King Thibaw, the last two kings of Myanmar. Mandalay Palace was actually rebuilt after it was decimated in WW11.
- Mandalay boasts a thriving teahouse culture and is also widely considered the spiritual centre of Myanmar. The only other location with more temples in Myanmar is the ancient city of Bagan.
- The locals here are on all accounts are exceptionally friendly, so you will feel right at home (and safe!) as soon as you get your bearings.
- Tip: as you’ll spend a lot of your time in Mandalay visiting temples, dressing appropriately is essential. Women should cover their shoulders and wear pants, long dresses or long skirts covering their knees, while men should wear long pants or longyi (traditional sheet cloth worn by both men and women). I recommend picking up an inexpensive longyi or sarong skirt, and a shawl, prior to visiting the temples.
Where to Stay
Hotel by the Red Canal
A quiet oasis by the landmark Red Canal in local folklore, Hotel by the Red Canal is within walking distance to Mandalay Palace and many other noteworthy sites. A well-maintained boutique hotel opened in 2006, Hotel by the Red Canal prides itself on their friendly staff and award-winning service. The service is so good in fact, that they won the coveted World Luxury Hotel Awards and the World Travel Awards in 2014. We felt this immediately upon arrival, when we were greeted with a large board with our names on it to welcome us!
We thought the hotel décor was so beautifully and tastefully done. It’s outfitted with teak accents, rattan fixtures, mother of pearl, and Myanmar marble accents. Amenities include a beautiful outdoor pool, a spot we spent much time at, especially after a day of touring around. The pool is surrounded by local flora and fauna, making it feel like a hidden oasis right in the heart of Mandalay! Another amenity we greatly appreciated was Prana Spa, where we received the most delightful foot massage (much needed after a full day spent walking barefoot through temples!).
Hotel by the Red Canal features 25 guest rooms spread over 3 floors and divided into 4 categories, each differentiated by a unique style and bearing the name of a major ethnic group of multicultural Myanmar (Chin, Shan, Kachin, and Rakhine). Our room was quite spacious and had everything we needed, including a large bed, couch, desk, mini bar, and private bath. A daily Continental breakfast buffet is also served with a smile.
We also enjoyed the hotel’s happy hour, which happens daily and where complimentary drinks are paired with live performances.
Where to Eat & Drink
With limited time (we had only 36 hours in Mandalay, to be exact!), we opted for dinners at Spice Garden, Hotel by the Red Canal’s restaurant. Despite being inside a hotel, Spice Garden consistently appears on lists of best restaurants to eat at in Mandalay. It’s also the only Indian-Myanmar fine dining experience in Mandalay.
As far as the food is concerned, it’s authentic and delicious. It was so good, in fact, that we ate there twice – first on the evening of our arrival, and then the following night for dinner. Menu standouts are the Vegetable Pakoras ($3 USD) and Hariyali Chicken Kebab ($10 USD).
What to Do
My number one recommendation on how to effectively spend your time in Mandalay is to hire a private driver to take you around. This way, you can ride comfortably and in an air-conditioned car or van, arrange your specific pick-up and drop-off time, and most importantly, tailor your entire sightseeing experience. Car hire companies can also recommend an itinerary for you.
Our driver’s name was Mr. Aung Aung, who we hired through Mr. Zin Private Taxi, one of the most reputable car hire services in Mandalay. Mr. Aung Aung’s English was good, and we enjoyed learning about local life in Myanmar from him on our tour. The following 3 sights were our top priorities in Mandalay.
Hsinbyume Pagoda: also referred to as Mya Thein Tan Pagoda, this large white pagoda located on the northern side of Mingun was constructed in 1816 by Prince Bagyidaw in memory of his former lover. The design of Hsinbyume Pagoda is unlike that of most pagodas in Myanmar. It’s painted all white and has 7 concentric terraces, which represent the 7 mountain ranges going up to a sacred Buddhist mountain. It’s open daily and has a cost of around 5000 MMK per person (roughly $5 CAD). Tip: arrive early (i.e. anytime from sunrise to around 8-9 a.m.) to avoid large tour groups.
Photography Tip: use a tripod and remote to be able to get an epic snap like the above with you and your partner. A wide-angle lens (I used a 20mm lens on a full-frame DSLR camera) will be able to capture the whole pagoda, from bottom to top.
Mingun Pahtodawgyi: commonly referred to as the Min Kun Pagoda, construction of this incomplete stupa began in the year 1790. It was left intentionally unfinished and is most notable for having large cracks on the face of the remaining structure due to an earthquake dating back to the 1839. Although unfinished, it still sees throngs of curious tourists daily. Also housed within is the world’s second-largest ringing bell.
Kuthodaw Pagoda: after Hsinbyume Pagoda, Kuthodaw Pagoda (also known as “the world’s largest book”) was our second favourite temple in Mandalay. This 188-ft. Buddhist stupa lies at the foot of Mandalay Hill and was constructed during King Mindon’s reign. Most notable about it are the hundreds of stone tablets that contain text – which provide the most gorgeous backdrop for a photo op!
One of the nicest parts about our day was an unexpected detour we took to visit Aung Myae OO Monastic Education School. Intrigued by all the young boy and girl monks that I saw on the road, Mr. Aung Aung asked us if we wanted to visit a monastic school. Thrilled at the opportunity, we obviously said yes!
Established by a Buddhist monk in 2003, this school first opened with a need to educate children from low-income families. The centre continues to operate based on donations, and houses children from villages far away, meaning some don’t get to see their families until there’s a special occasion such as a holiday. Students receive a modern and moral education and can learn everything from computer skills to the English language.
It was so nice to see the children interacting with one another in the schoolyard. Naturally shy, many would blush and turn around whenever we’d look at them or try to take a picture. But there were a few who were brave and came up to us – one even asking for a selfie! It was such a touching experience and I highly recommend that you try to visit one of these schools in Myanmar, if possible. Address: TaungYoe Rd, Sagaing.
Other attractions that came highly recommended, but we didn’t have time for, include:
- Su Taung Pyae Pagoda: an ancient hilltop pagoda offering amazing skyline views. Local legend suggests that this “wish-granting” structure was frequented by past monarchs.
- U Min Thonze (Cave) Temple: a complex of buildings reserved for Buddhist activities in Sagaing dating back to the 1400s.
- Mandalay Hill: a 760-ft. hill located northeast of the Mandalay city centre famed for its pagodas and rich history. The climb up will be around 30 minutes, but the views it provides are worth breaking a sweat for. Tip: Arrive before the sun sets to capture breathtaking views during golden hour.
- Sandamuni Pagoda: a Buddhist stupa with 1774 shrines, each containing a single marble slab inscribed with Buddhist teachings.
- U-Bein Bridge: a 1.2-km pedestrian bridge above the Taung Tha Man Lake, built from wood reclaimed from the former royal palace in the ancient city of Inwa. It’s believed to be one of the oldest and longest teakwood bridges in the world.
- Mandalay Palace: the main palace in Mandalay. It was constructed between 1857-1859, and now operates as a historical monument and tourist hot spot. If you plan to visit, arrive early to avoid long lines.
Our stay in Mandalay left us feeling culturally enriched and overwhelmed, in the best way possible! Do you have plans to visit Mandalay one day?
Next Stop: Bagan! Check out my Ultimate Myanmar Travel Guide (coming soon).
*We were graciously hosted for a complimentary stay at Hotel by the Red Canal on this trip. However, all thoughts and opinions are 100% my own.