Mandalay, Myanmar

Mandalay Palace/Fort and Mandalay Hill, Myanmar

 Mandalay is Burma’s old capital, a large, leafy and pleasant city, with some great sights and a seething multitude of bikes and trikes. Mandalay Hill is on the distant right.

Things to See and Do in Mandalay

Mandalay was the last great capital of Burma, is Myanmar’s second city and at the core of their culture and religion. It’s a city of over one million people, but leafy, flat and a haven for winging flocks of bicycles which – just like birds – have no lights!

There’s no shortage of things to see and do in the city, and getting to them in the comfort of a trishaw is one of a tourist’s special pleasures, though a lot of the place is quite modern.

There are enjoyable day trips possible from Mandalay to the ancient royal cities of Amarapura, Inwa, Sagain and Mingun; these will need either one more wheel or a rudder.

Mandalay weather is much drier than the tropical south while winters are colder.

Shwenandaw monastery, Mandalay, Myanmar

Shwenandaw Kyaung Monastery.

The interior of the Shwenandaw monastery is quite disappointing, very dark, simple and austere compared to the beautiful decoration on the outside. The whole exterior of the building is carved, the balustrades, walls and the roof cornices. A very delicate work and free to enter, though some of the carvings are in terrible condition.

***Mandalay Hill, dominating the area and offering sensational sunset views. Combine a trip with visiting various shrines, including ‘the world’s largest book’ (see below), a pagoda partially walled with mirrors, a giant standing Buddha called Shweyattaw and King Mindon’s Shwenandaw Kyaung Monastery (see below).
Buses and other vehicles can go up the hill if you don’t feel like walking.

***Shwenandaw Kyaung Monastery (aka Golden Palace Monastery) is a gorgeous teak monastery with exquisitely carved decor, typical of this area but quite unlike any other monasteries in Myanmar.

*Kuthodaw Pagoda (Book Temple), known as the world’s biggest book, on the 729 stupas of which are inscribed the whole Tripikata (Buddhist Bible). It’s an impressive mass of white stupas but interest wanes quickly.

**Gold leaf factory and marble carving street. It’s interesting to see these manual industries, particularly to discover how hard gold beating is and how few security precautions there are. Buy some leaf and paper your home with it! Makes an attractive cocktail ingredient or drink straight with vodka on the rocks!

*Mahamuni Paya, the most important and biggest pagoda in the city, containing the respected ancient Rakhine Buddha, but not nearly as impressive as the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon.

*Puppet Show. Myanmar’s #1 puppet master performs at the Marionette Theatre near the Sedona Hotel.

*Mandalay Fort/Palace, including a recently reconstructed palace. It must have been magnificent at the time though now it’s mainly just a great, really great, set of walls with a sterile interior.

Local Transport

Mandalay Palace bridge and tricycle, Myanmar

A tricycle taxi at the east entrance to Mandalay Fort/Palace, with Mandalay Hill in the distance.

Take trishaws to explore the inner city. This can be exhilarating or terrifying depending on your disposition, since they cross busy main roads without stopping and hurtle along unlit streets disregarding pot holes and each other. If the driver speaks English he can act as a tour guide as well, thus effecting a positive double whammy. Trishaws hold a maximum of two adults though a kid can sit on a parent’s lap.
Locals love to see visitors enjoying trishaws and may wave and shout hellos; not to mention that your money will NOT be going towards supporting the military junta.

Cycling is another good option for touring the city centre, with rentals available for a couple of $ a day but Manadalay is a grid city so the the endless crossroads can be tiresome.

For adventurous riders a motorcycle is an excellent way to live free, well cheap. Well-used rental bikes can be found along 25th street and petrol is available locally though they are not frequent so ensure you have a full tank before departure. Petrol is generally sold in 1 litre bottles.

For longer journeys taxis can be hired but it can be difficult to negotiate a decent price. Those waiting near hotels are naturally more expensive than ones cruising, but more likely to speak English.

Pickup trucks cruise around picking up folk just like buses and at a good price.

Mandalay Hill

sunset from the top of Mandalay Hill, Myanmar

Sunset over Mandalay seen from Mandalay Hill. Photo by Damien HR.

The 240 metre (760ft) high Mandalay Hill is in the northeast of Mandalay. It’s an easy climb of half-hour with stops at small nats shrines, pagodas and a standing Buddha.

The main gate is guarded by two giant carved lion statues. After the climb to the top of the mountain stands the Sutaungpyei Pagoda. The viewpoint there offers a full panorama of the city and the Mandalay plain stretching to the horizon, with the old city walls and moat, various stupas, the Kuthodaw Pagoda (see below), Kyautawgyi and Sandamuni Pagodas and the Irrawaddy to the west.

Kuthodaw Pagoda (Book Temple)

Kuthodaw Pagoda, the Book Temple, Mandalay, Myanmar

Kuthodaw Pagoda, the Book Temple, with 729 satellite stupas each housing a page inscribed in stone. Yes, it’s the world’s biggest book, but unreadable to most.

Gold Leaf factory

Gold leaf factory, Mandalay, Myanmar

Beating gold to make gold leaf. Young men hammer small packages of thin gold sheets about 10cm long in a complicated process that is traditionally timed by a coconut shell sinking into water.

Gold leaf preparation is a major cottage industry in Myanmar since ancient times as it’s is used in conjunction with prayers to encourage the gods to pay attention. The leaf is bought for very little money (by foreign standards) and then pressed against the chosen object as the prayers are made, whether it’s Golden Rock or the neighbourhood buddha, with the effect of obliterating the object’s shape completely over time.

Mandalay also offers fine marble carvings and other terrific souvenirs.

Mandalay River Port

Mandalay, Irrawaddy River port, Myanmar

Mandalay Port on the Irrawaddy River (or Ayeyarwady River), starting point for a half-day trip to Mingun.

Getting to Mandalay

• Flights. Mandalay airport is reasonably efficient, accepting flights from a couple of international destinations (e. g. China) as well as from all over Myanmar. The airport is 45kms on a highway to the city.

• Trains. Many trains run from Yangon, taking about 15 hours during the day. There is also a pricey overnight sleeper train, the Dagon Mann Express but it’s difficult to sleep on due to noise and a rough ride.
Trains also run to Mandalay to/from Bagan, twice a day, taking 7 hours. Tickets are cheap but conditions more like cattle cars than passenger cars that westerners are used to, with little or no space for bottoms or baggage storage.

• Buses from Yangon take about 9 hours, cheap and quite comfortable so other than a pricey flight this is the best transport option. Buses to/from Lake Inle take also take 9 hours.
Minibuses are available on most routes, are a bit more comfortable, more expensive and marginally faster, shaving an hour or maybe two off the regular bus timing.

– Ferries. The last interesting public transport option is a ferry downstream from Mandalay to Bagan, taking 10 hours and expensive. Upstream travel is also available for less cost but a lot more time, maybe up to two days.

Mandalay Poem, by Rudyard Kipling

A Burmese woman smoking a cheroot, Myanmar

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay! ”
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,
An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat — jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
Bloomin’ idol made o’mud —
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd —
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay. . .

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,
She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo! ”
With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin’ my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.
Elephints a-pilin’ teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay. . .

But that’s all shove be’ind me — long ago an’ fur away,
An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;
An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else. ”
No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay. . .

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?
Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and —
Law! wot do they understand?
I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay. . .

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be —
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

n. b. apparently ‘the road to Mandalay’ in Kipling’s day actually meant the Irrawaddy River, which makes a lot more sense as there are few flying fishes or flotillas on dirt roads!