Peel away the chaos of modern development and be captivated by the historic pagodas and walled palaces of Myanmar’s royal capital.
Since its creation in 1857 as a royal capital, Mandalay has been a byword for everything that’s most exotic about Myanmar – from gilded pagodas to secretive walled palaces. The modern reality is somewhat more down-to-earth, with traffic, dust, fumes and concrete architecture dominating first impressions. But give Myanmar’s second city some time and its leafier fringes, in particular, can yield up fascinating vestiges of the courtly culture that all but disappeared following the British invasion of 1885.
Mandalay’s proximity to China has shaped its current form. Between 30 and 40 percent of the city’s million-strong population are now of Chinese origin, and Chinese entrepreneurs are responsible for many of the high-rise buildings and shopping malls punctuating the downtown skyline. Despite this, Mandalay is still considered the cultural heartland of the Bamar (the dominant ethnic group in Myanmar) and is a bastion of classical music, dance, arts and crafts.
The best way to get your bearings is with a barefoot ascent of Mandalay Hill, the stupa-encrusted hillock overlooking the northeast corner of the royal palace. This is also the part of the city where the most illustrious pagodas and monasteries are clustered. The rest of the main sights, including the markets and craftsmen’s quarters, lie further south and west towards the river. Many of the most interesting places to visit, however, are outside of Mandalay. These include three ancient capitals of Amarapura, Inwa and Sagaing, as well as Mingun with its huge unfinished temple. Further east is Pyin U-Lwin, a former British hill station with a mild climate, pleasant gardens, quaint atmosphere and colonial trappings.
The best time to visit is during the relatively cool, dry winter months between November and February. Travel can be problematic from May to September, as the rains wash out roads and delay trains.
All visitors require a visa, which for tourists must be obtained in advance of travel. The tourist visa allows 28 days in Myanmar. Visa applications in Singapore are strictly by online appointment www.mesingapore.org.sg/visa.html only.
Myanmar kyat (pronounced chat). Most hotels and travel agents charge in US dollars, and you'll also need them for air and rail tickets, and for admission to some major sights. Other expenses are paid in kyat. ATMs operated by CB Bank and KBZ Bank can be used by foreigners, but should not be relied upon. You can also exchange Singapore dollars, euros or (preferably) US dollars at banks or licensed moneychangers. There are ATMs and moneychangers at the airport. All dollar bills must be in mint condition, and ideally issued no earlier than 2008, or they will be rejected. Avoid changing money in the street.
A taxi from the airport to downtown costs K12,000, or K4000 for a seat in a shared taxi. AirAsia offers a free shuttle bus for customers flying in from Bangkok. Within the city, there is no shortage of taxis - either cars or motorbikes - and there are still some traditional cycle rickshaws.
While there is little risk of contracting malaria in Mandalay, dengue fever is present and you should take precautions to avoid mosquito bites. Don't drink water unless it is bottled or has been boiled. Fruit should be peeled before being eaten, and it's best to avoid the raw vegetables which are commonly served with Burmese meals. The poor state of the country's health-care facilities means that your insurance should cover air evacuation in case of an emergency.
Muggings and petty thefts are much less frequent than in more developed Asian countries, but still take the same precautions as you would at home. In addition, it's advisable to avoid demonstrations and large gatherings, and not to take photographs of soldiers, police or military installations.
|How are you?||Ne-kaun-la?|
|Excuse-me! (to get attention)||Tas'eiq-lauq!|
|What's your name?||K΄amya- [m]/shin [f] nan-meh-beh-lo-k΄aw-dhaleh?|
|My name is…||Canaw [m]/cama [f] yeh-nan-meh-ga…ba|
|Nice to meet you||K΄amya [m]/shin [f] go-twe-ya-da-wun-tha-ba-deh|
|Are you on Facebook/Twitter?||K΄amya [m]/shin [f] p΄e-buq/twiq-ta-baw-hma-shi-dhala?|
|Where’s an internet café?||In-ta-neq-kaw-p΄i-zain-tasain-beh-ne-ya-hma-shi-leh?|
|Where can I get a taxi?||Canaw [m]/cama [f] a-hnga-ka beh-ne-ya-hma ya-nain-ma-leh?|
|Where is the bus/train station?||Baq-saka-geiq/ya-t’a bu-da-youn ga beh-ne-ya-hma-leh?|
|A one-way/return ticket to…||…go thwa-deh a-thwa da-jaun/a-thwa-a-pyan leq-hmaq|
|Do you have a room for one/two?||K΄amya [m]/shin [f] hma lu-tayauq/hnayauq-atweq ak΄an-tak΄an-shi-dhala?|
|When's check out?||Ho-teh-ga-ceq-auq-t΄weq-pe-ya-deh-acein-ga-beh-acein-leh?|
|Can you recommend a good restaurant/bar?||K’amya [m]/shin [f] sa-thauq-s’ain/ ba- kaun- gaun- ta-k’ú hnyu`n-pe- nain-mala?|
|A table for two, please||Ce-zu pyu-byi- lu hnaqauq-sa yaq-sa zabweh- ta-loun- pe-ba|
|A menu, please||Ce-zu pyu-byi-asa-athauq-amyi-sayin- be-ba|
|The bill, please||Ce-zu pyu- byi-koun-ca-ngwe-sayin (ngwe-tau`n-k’an-hlwa) pe ba|
|Where's the toilet?||Ein-dha-beh-hma- shi-leh?|
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Founded by Bodawpaya in 1782, Amarapura is the youngest of the royal capitals near Mandalay. Today it almost merges with the southern fringes of Mandalay, but it has a markedly different feel to the big city. The most popular attraction is the 1.2km (0.7-mile) -long teak bridge, known as U Bein’s Bridge, at the far southern end of town. It’s at its best early in the morning – start on the eastern side to bypass the tourist crowds. Don’t miss Kyauktawgyi Pagoda, also on the east side of the bridge, along with several smaller pagodas in various stages of aging.
The city of Inwa was founded in 1364 by King Thadominbya. You can explore the ruins by bicycle or motorbike, but most visitors arrive by ferry and transfer to a horse-cart for a leisurely tour of the site. The most complete section of city wall is at the north gate, near the jetty. Nearby are the ruins of the Nanmyin Watchtower, the so-called 'leaning tower of Inwa', and all that remains of Bagyidaw’s palace. Not far from here are the stucco-decorated brick Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery and the magnificent teak monastery Bagaya Kyaung, famous for its woodcarving.
Maha Muni Pagoda
The Maha Muni Pagoda, 3km (2 miles) south of the city centre, is one of the most revered Buddhist sites in the country. Its magnificent golden Buddha image is believed to be one of only five likenesses of the Enlightened One made during his lifetime. Historical evidence suggests the statue was probably cast in AD 146, five or more centuries after the Buddha’s death, but it’s still a striking figure thanks to its 15cm (6in) covering of gold leaf. The Buddha’s face remains gleaming, as it is lovingly polished at around 4am each day by the monks.
Rising 240 metres (790ft) above the city, Mandalay Hill has been an important pilgrimage site since King Mindon sited his palace around its foot in the mid-19th century. Buddhists ascend the steps to richly decorated hilltop shrines in order to gain merit, while tourists make the climb for the spellbinding views from the summit. You can take a motorbike taxi most of the way up, but the experience of mixing with pilgrims, monks, nuns, astrologers and souvenir peddlers is itself a highlight.
King Mindon’s Royal Palace was the last in a long line of fortified royal citadels erected on the banks of the Ayeyarwady. Sadly, however, most of its treasures were looted by the British army in 1885. Then, during the battle to retake the city from the Japanese in 1945, Allied bombers razed all but a few fragments of the buildings. Most of what you see today is a 1990's reconstruction and not especially accurate. The visitors’ entrance is via the East Gate. There are 40 or so reconstructed buildings, a small Culture Museum and a spiral-shaped Watchtower.
One of the most serene spectacles Southeast Asia has to offer is the countless stupas, spires and temples of Sagaing Hill. Around 5,000 monks live here, in 600 monasteries scattered over a tangle of valleys and ridgetops. You can get to Sagaing by ferry from Inwa, or via the road bridge, and from the town centre you can walk up to the 14th-century Sun U Ponya Shin Pagoda. Sagaing’s other highlights – Kaunghmudaw Pagoda and U Min Thonze Pagoda – are further afield and, if you’re not on a pre-arranged tour, you’ll need a horse-cart or taxi to visit them.
Unless you’re staying in one of the top-end boutique hotels, there isn’t much that’s romantic about Mandalay itself – with the possible exception of the sunset view from Mandalay Hill. A better bet is a trip to Pyin U-Lwin, up in the hills east of Mandalay at an elevation of 1,070 metres (3,510ft) and two hours away by taxi.
Anyone with a soft spot for the British colonial times will instantly take to Pyin U-Lwin, while others might just enjoy the temperate climate and green landscape. Founded as 'Maymyo' or 'May Town', named after an officer in the Bengal Infantry who was posted to the hill station in 1887, the town served as the summer capital for the British administration until 1948.
Start at the Purcell clock tower in the downtown area, which has a distinct South Asian feel thanks to settlers from India and Nepal. Head clockwise around Mandalay-Lashio Road and Circular Road, dropping off when you spot something interesting. The leafy streets are ideal for cycling, or you could hire one of the town’s distinctive horse-drawn carriages.
Have lunch overlooking a lake at Feel off Nandar Road, then head south to the 175-hectare (430-acre) National Kandawgi Gardens. Among other things there’s a lake, an aviary and a quirky butterfly collection. It’s possible to head back to Mandalay the same day, although there are some good hotels if you wish to stay the night – the Royal Green Hotel, 17 Ziwaka Road, is great value.
Mandalay’s main Zegyo Market is at 84th Street between 26th and 28th streets, and opens early in the morning. It’s a chaotic place packed with shoppers, as is the Man Myanmar Shopping Plaza opposite, but if you can cope with the crowds then you’ll get a good sense of how the locals shop – and you might pick up a bargain, particularly if you’re looking for textiles. Take a wander afterwards through the lively produce market on and around 86th Street.
For lunch head to 27th Street between 74th and 75th streets, and try either Marie Min vegetarian restaurant or the Rainforest Thai restaurant opposite. They’re both owned by the same Tamil Catholic family, and double up as handicraft shops.
After lunch head you can head further east on 27th Street to Rocky, between 62nd and 63rd streets, which has a good selection of handicrafts. Then loop back and go south to 36th Street, which is most often visited for its gold leaf workshops such as Gold Rose (between 78th and 79th streets). Gold leaf makes for an unusual gift, but there are also some other interesting shops on the same stretch – look out for traditional parasols, and for a couple of small art galleries.
In the evening you can swing right back to where you started for the night street market on 84th Street, which has plenty of stalls selling Burmese curries.
Zegyo Market, 27th Street restaurants, gold leaf workshops on 36th Street.
If you don’t mind getting up in time, then start your tour at 4am with one of Mandalay’s most unusual sights – the washing of the Buddha statue’s face at Maha Muni Pagoda, the most revered Buddhist shrine in Mandalay. The magnificent gold Buddha image was taken as booty from the Rakhaing kingdom in 1784, and over the years it has been covered with gold leaf – to a thickness of 15cm (6in) – by devotees.
On the west side of the pagoda are numerous stone-carving workshops making images of the Buddha, while further north on 36th Street you’ll find blocks of gold being laboriously pounded into gold leaf for use by worshippers. The Gold Rose workshop is open to visiting tourists and can explain the process.
After lunch, head to the northeast side of the Royal Palace, where you’ll find a collection of pagodas and monasteries all within walking distance of each other. Highlights include Shwenandaw Kyaung, a monastery built from teak, and Kuthodaw Paya which has 729 marble slabs bearing Buddhist scripture. It has been described as the world’s largest book, and nearby Sandamuni Paya has slabs with commentaries upon the scripture.
In the evening (8.30pm), choose between performances of marionette theatre (Mandalay Marionettes, 66th Street between 26th and 27th streets), traditional dance (Mintha Theatre, 27th Street between 65th and 66th streets) and slapstick comedy with a political edge (Moustache Brothers, 39th Street between 80th and 81st streets).
Maha Muni Pagoda, gold leaf workshops on 36th Street, Shwenandaw Kyaung, Kuthodaw Paya, Sandamuni Paya, performing arts.