Often tourists overlook the city of Mandalay in favour of more ‘picturesque’ parts of Myanmar such as Bagan (read my article on Bagan here) and Inle Lake and so they make the mistake of only having a short stop in Mandalay before moving on. However it is absolutely worth it to spend a couple of days here as there are so many beautiful places in Mandalay! It is really one of the highlights of Myanmar but people often don’t realise how much there is to see here, and so leave wishing they had spent more time in Mandalay. However, if you are short on time and only have one day here you can still see a lot – read on to find out how to make the most of your 24 hours in Mandalay!
Mandalay is a former capital of Myanmar and is a lot less hectic than many south East Asian cities. I was actually so glad I got to see Mandalay – it is definitely one of my favourite Asian cities and many people actually prefer it to Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. The city has a LOT of temples (pagodas), each one unique, so you certainly won’t get bored here!
First things first. Tourists are no longer allowed to drive scooters in Myanmar as in the past some tourists had accidents and the traffic police don’t speak English so there were some problems, especially with claiming insurance so the Government said no to tourists hiring scooters. Instead, you can pay a local to take you round on the back of their scooter (a mototaxi) for a very reasonable price (I paid 23,000 kyat/$15USD for 7 hours). Of course if you don’t fancy hopping on the back of a scooter and that just sounds too crazy for you, you can hire a driver for the day to take you round in his car, but it will be more expensive.
If you’ve only got one day here, better make it an early start and get down to Mahamuni Pagoda for 5am (yikes!). Mahamuni is a major pilgrimage site in Myanmar and holds the most revered and important Buddha image in the whole of the country. The buddha statue is almost 4 metres high, weighs 6.5 tonnes and is covered in a layer of gold 15cm thick which is from an accumulation of tiny leaves of gold placed on the buddha as a sign of respect from male devotees. It is pretty spectacular to see! Only males are allowed near the buddha, but women can sit and observe from further back.
Mahamuni temple and buddha are so important to people here because according to Buddhism, there were only 5 likeliness of Buddha ever created and the Mahamuni buddha is one of them (2 of them are in India and it is believed the other 2 are in paradise). The reason why I say to get here so early is because at 4.30am starts the daily ritual of washing the buddha’s face and cleaning his teeth.
It takes about an hour for the senior monk to complete the ritual (of course you don’t need to stay and watch it all, I just stayed for about 10 minutes) but it is very interesting to watch and certainly something you’re unlikely to ever see again! You’ll be sitting on the floor to watch the ritual and it will be quite busy as a lot of Burmese people come here to pray when the cleansing is happening. Afterwards, take time to stroll around the grounds, it is a really beautiful monastery.
U Bein bridge
A short drive from Mahamuni Pagoda is U Bein bridge in nearby Amarapura, a suburb 15km from Mandalay. Come here to watch the sunrise at U Bein bridge: the bridge is an impressive 1.2 kilometres long, making it not only the longest teakwood bridge in the world but also the oldest (built in 1849)! It spans Lake Taungthaman and is one of Myanmar’s most recognised sites, along with Bagan and Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.
Most people go to U Bein bridge to watch the sunset, but it gets so crowded here at sunset (literally hundreds of people – a mix of locals and tourists) so go for sunrise as there will be wayyyy less people – literally just a dozen or so local fishermen and a handful of people – super magical! The sunrise here was honestly one of the most incredible I have seen in my life – the water was so still, making the reflection of the colours in the water so intense: unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was just so beautiful and peaceful, and hearing the chanting from the monks in the nearby temples whilst the sun was rising made it even more special.
You can watch the sunrise either on the bridge or on the lake front. I walked along the bridge for 5-10 minutes and then went down on to the lake front to get nice pictures of the bridge and the sunrise. A word of warning though: the edge of the lake was pretty muddy so I would definitely advise to wear trainers here! There are also a few local cafes a little bit back from the riverfront if you want to sit and relax and enjoy the sunrise whilst drinking some tea and eating some tofu for breakfast (a Myanmar favourite!).
Going to U Bein bridge at sunrise not only means that you’ll escape the crowds, but you’ll be able to watch the local fishermen at work. I found it so interesting watching them walking out into the lake with their great big fishing nets. They stay in the water for an hour or so to get their catch, and it is a great opportunity to get some authentic and candid photos, unlike at Inle Lake where I had heard these days the fishermen are just there to pose for staged photos.
To be honest I was pretty sad I didn’t have time to visit Inle Lake as I didn’t have enough days in Myanmar and Inle Lake was so out of the way (an 8 hour drive from both Mandalay and Bagan), but after seeing the sunrise here at U Bein bridge and the fishermen here I was ok with not seeing Inle Lake this time. Of course I would love to go one time as it looks absolutely stunning, even if it is fairly touristy.
After sunrise, take the 20 minute or so drive back into Mandalay. Central Mandalay is pretty compact and easy to explore on foot and many of the sites are all within close walking distance. Usually I like walking everywhere, but I chose to go stay on the back of my mototaxi to see the following places so I could see more things and I wouldn’t be as tired or hot walking around. All these sites listed below are all within walking distance though if you would like to walk!
Kuthodaw Pagoda is another absolute must-see in Mandalay as it holds the world’s largest book! But it is not a normal book like we imagine. Each ‘page’ of the book is marble and stands alone, surrounded by its own stupa. So there are 729 beautiful white stupas in long rows each with a marble slab inside containing Buddhist scriptures inscribed on them in gold. The pages are inscribed in Burmese and were created to preserve Buddha’s teachings when the British took over Burma, as the King feared the Buddhist teachings would be lost under British rule so asked for the pagoda to be built. Each marble slab represents a page of the book and is over 1.5 metres high and 1 metre wide and they say it would take over one year to finish reading all 729 pages if you read for 8 hours a day!!
Adjacent to Kuthodaw Pagoda and at the foot of Mandalay Hill lies Sandamuni Pagoda. It is similar to Kuthodaw Pagoda in the sense it has a huge golden pagoda with lots of white stupas surrounding it – twice as many as Kuthodaw Pagoda infact, but because you can’t walk between the white stupas as they are all really close together it receives a lot less attention than neighbouring Kuthodaw. It was really peaceful walking around and I met a few Burmese people here, all very friendly – one monk even asked me for a photo and as I was leaving one lady started painting my face with the Burmese homemade suncream made from the bark of the trees (you’ll see a lot of Burmese walking around with this yellowy cream on their face).
Mandalay Palace is the last palace built by the Burmese royal family in the 1850’s. The grounds of the palace are very large, surrounded by a big wall and a moat 64 metres wide. Whilst from the outside it looks very impressive and majestic – even imposing, it was heavily bombed during World War II and a lot of the palace was destroyed. Therefore it is fairly empty inside and almost everything you see is a replica of what the palace would have looked like when the last Burmese King lived there. It is worth a look to see it: it looks pretty convincing, but I have heard people are sometimes disappointed when they go in.
Just a couple of blocks from Mandalay Palace lies Shwenandaw Monastery (also known as the Golden Palace monastery as it used to be completely gilded). This beautiful teakwood building was originally part of the Royal Palace (the King actually used it as his living quarters) and it was moved to it’s current location after the King’s death and then subsequently turned into a monastery. It is infact the only remaining building of the palace to survive World War II and is decorated with beautifully intricate wooden carvings both inside and outside.
You will need to show a Mandalay archeological zone ticket to enter or you can buy one there for $10USD. It is valid for a week and also grants entry to a number of sites in and around Mandalay. However if you only have one day here, this will be a lot of money to fork out and you won’t be able to really get your money’s worth of the ticket, in which case I would recommend just seeing it from the outside and saving yourself $10.
Get a beautiful 360 degree panoramic view of the city from Mandalay Hill. It is an epic view at sunset from here but it is very crowded so I chose to visit during the day. You can walk all the way to the top (around a 45 minute walk) or just get your mototaxi to drive you to the top like I did because I was short on time and didn’t fancy breaking out into a sweat. I heard the walk is tiring but pretty enjoyable, with many unique pagodas along the way that you can stop in. You’ll find the entrance to the start of the walk just around the corner from Sandamuni Pagoda – you cannot miss it with the two giant lion statues outside.
Mingun is a small town very close to Mandalay on the other side of the river Ayeyarrwaddy that is an absolute must visit when in Mandalay for it’s unique temples – Hsinbyume and Mingun Paya! It makes for a nice morning or afternoon day trip from Mandalay. You can drive here or take the tourist boat, both journeys taking around an hour. The boat costs 5,000kyat (£2.50) return and leaves Mandalay Myan Gyan jetty at 9am and returning at 12.30. There is only this one boat so if the timings are not convenient for you, you’ll need to take a taxi or mototaxi there (if you choose this option, make sure your driver waits for you there as you won’t be able to find any taxis there to bring you back to Mandalay once you are finished!). I chose this option to avoid all the tourists who would be there in the morning, and to be honest, there weren’t many tourists there when I arrived in the afternoon so I think it was a good shout! Also when you get there you will need to pay 5,000kyat (£2.50) for the ticket to visit the sites at Mingun.
The brilliant white Hsinbyume Pagoda, also known as Mya thein dan Pagoda is a very unique temple, different from all other temples in Mandalay with 7 wavy terraces surrounding the pagoda. It is fascinating to see. You’ll see many people hopping across the wavy structures, like myself in the picture below, and it is definitely harder than it looks!!
Mingun Pahtodawgyi (also known as Mingun Paya or Mingun Pagoda) is a huge unfinished temple constructed over 200 years ago. King Bodawpaya asked for it to be built and it was intended to be the largest stupa in the world at 150 metres high but only the bottom third was completed before the King died and then construction was halted. The temple is also famous for the massive cracks running through it, caused by an earthquake. The temple is huge and very impressive to see!
Afterwards walk to the huge Mingun bell, the bell that was supposed to be on top of the stupa. You can even ring it if you want! Weighing 90 tonnes, it is the second largest bell in the world (surpassed only a few years ago by one in China).
I headed straight to the airport after this – it takes almost an hour to drive to the airport from Mandalay (costing around $10USD in a taxi). When I was there in January, right near the airport were fields upon fields of sunflowers, so of course I stopped to get a photo! It wasn’t easy though, and we had to jump across the river to get to the sunflower fields and ended up covered in mud by the end!
And that was my 24 hours in Mandalay! I hope you found the information useful – it just shows that as long as you plan your trip right, even with limited time you can still get to see everything you want to!