Introduction

Mandalay is the second largest city in Myanmar. Much of Mandalay’s history involves either the current city or its surrounding areas – Sagaing, Inwa, and Amarapura – being the capital of the region or the country. In fact, it wasn’t until the British occupation that Mandalay was displaced as the country’s central point for government and commerce.

Because of all of the history, culture, and the fact that this is the country’s religious epicenter, there’s a lot to see in Mandalay. I’ve divided the sites into the zones so that it’s easier to digest the information and get a sense of where the sites are clustered.

It’s best to stay inside Mandalay itself, instead of one of the surrounding areas (if they even have hotels). Hotels must be reserved well in advance because there’s not that many hotels and hotels fill up fast from tourists and business people. I stayed at the Yadanarpon Dynasty Hotel (read review here).
Mandalay’s airport (MDL) is the best way to get to Mandalay. This airport isn’t as big as Yangon, but it is a relatively big airport, especially when compare to Bagan or Heho. You can get to Mandalay from Yangon and other places in Myanmar, and also other regional areas, like China, Singapore, and Bangkok.

You can get to Mandalay by bus, but it takes considerably longer to use the road (bus or not).
Transport within Mandalay is tricky. It’s not a walkable city because it’s so vast. Most of the city, you need a vehicle to get around. However, where it gets complicated is when you try to go to the ancient cities/archaeological sites. To get to the ancient cities, it can take a drive, boat ride, and a horse-drawn rickshaw ride. Even if you don’t use a tour company for your entire Mandalay stay, use a tour company to arrange a guide and the logistics for seeing these archaeological sites.
Even though Mandalay is the second biggest city, only ATMs in the tourist areas work with foreign ATM cards. Also, credit card acceptance is rather poor unless you buy a large ticket item (more than $300 approximately).
You can get a mix of different cuisines in Mandalay – Burmese, Shan, Thai, fusion of Indochinese and Burmese, and more. One advice that I got though was to eat in the tourist area, since most places with authentic Burmese (and Shan) foods weren’t safe for most tourists. Our guide did, however, take us to Shwe Pyi Moe Café that was safe for tourists with authentic Burmese foods.

For dinner, I would recommend eating at the Green Elephant. You can read the reviews of both restaurants here.
Mandalay is usually hot and warm, though the day that I arrived, it was overcast and occasionally drizzled.
Due to stagnant waters around the city, there are a lot of mosquitos. This is especially true around the U-bein bridge, where the lake is nearly dried up and there are no fish in it. Use insect repellent on any exposed areas, and be sure to spray your clothes, as well.
Shopping from Street Vendors: As in Bagan, you’ll see many street vendors attempting to sell local items, from trinkets to pants or lungees. Some of them will take the hint if you don’t seem interested, but you will likely need to shake your head and say no clearly. This may still not be enough for some persistent vendors, especially if you show any interest in the product. Don’t be alarmed, and don’t feel pressured to buy anything. Just keep walking away.

If you do want to buy something, it is expected that you negotiate.

Locals asking for Money: A word about locals asking for money – do NOT hand out money, even if there are kids asking for it. This practice has set a bad precedent, where some expect tourists to give them money (without exchanging it for goods). If you feel you want to donate money to help locals, the tour company recommends donating it to the local schools and monasteries.

Buddhist monks and asking for alms: You may see many children in robes going from door to door asking for alms (boys in a brown or dark orange robe and girls in a pink robe). This is a Buddhist custom for monks (and monks in training). They go door to door asking for food donations, such as rice and other leftovers.

Sites

Mandalay’s sightseeing can be divided into four areas: Sagaing, Inwa and Amarapura, Mingun, and greater Mandalay (and Mandalay Hill). I’ve listed the sites by division.

Sagaing

Sagaing is the religious center of Mandalay, and the country. It includes Sagaing Hill, which has many colorful pagodas, especially gold, silver, and white. This once capital city is 20 km southwest of Mandalay and is an access point to Mingun.

The sites in Sagaing have a zone fee of their own – the Mandalay zone fee – which is $10 and is valid for a week.

Cost: Free, but donations recommended.

Hours: Exact hours unknown, but must be accompanied by tour guide

Time to spend: 30 – 45 min (outside)

Description:

These are schools for children getting a primary school education. You can think of this as a school similar to Catholic schools. You have to be accompanied by a local guide to visit the school since they make the arrangements for the visits.

Verdict: Good to see.
Cost: Free.

Hours: Exact hours unknown

Time to spend: 30 – 45 min (outside)

Description:

This is a Buddhist university and where Buddhist scholars meet.

I didn’t get to go inside (a meeting was being held inside), but outside, there are hundreds of Buddha statues displayed in niches around the Academy. These statues are all the different depictions of Buddha across the Buddhist world throughout history.

Verdict: Worth it to see all the different Buddha statue depictions.
Cost: Free, but donations are welcome and must be accompanied by guide.

Hours: Around 10AM every day.

Time to spend: 45 min – 1 hr.

Description:

This is a monastery school with children training to become monks and nuns. The monks in training – known as novices – perform a procession each morning where they go to the dining hall to eat their only meal of the day (a Buddhist monk custom). This monastery has 400 novices and monks. You will find these novices holding two types of towels – a checkered-pattern towel for wiping their hands and a solid towel to sit on.

Verdict: Worth it – Don’t miss.
Cost: Included in the Mandalay Zone fee.

Hours: Open from early morning. Unsure of closing time, but open daily.

Time to spend: 45 min – 1 hr.

Description:

This pagoda, built by monks, has 30 “caves” which are really just entrances into the pagoda. Inside, there are 45 sitting Buddha statues. The 30 entrances represent the 10 professions in ancient times and the three choices for each of those professions. (I'm not sure what the choices were for each profession though).

Verdict: Worth it – Don’t miss.
Cost: Included in the Mandalay Zone fee.

Hours: Open from early morning. Unsure of closing time, but open daily.

Time to spend: 45 min – 1 hr.

Description:

This opulent and colorful pagoda sits on frog hill. Part of what makes it very shiny and colorful are the glass tiles, and the gold plating that’s been added from the large inflow of donations.

Verdict: Worth it – Don’t miss.

Inwa (Ava)

Inwa, also known as Ava, is an archaeological area approximately 20 km southwest of Mandalay. As mentioned previously, Inwa was the capital of various kingdoms in Burma through Burmese history, and as such, this archaeological zone has royal edifices.

The best way to get to the Inwa sites is to use road transportation, then by boat (for 15 minutes) to cross the Ayeyarwaddy river, and finally by horse carriage (or motorcycle). The horse carriages are not comfortable because the roads are bumpy and also because it’s easy to slip off of the carriage seats, but at least you won’t fall out of the carriage. It’s not feasible to walk from the dock area on the Inwa side to the sites, or to walk between the sites.

The cost of the horse carriage ride is 2,500 Kyats per person, or 5,000 Kyats for the cart (up to two adults per cart). There’s an archaeological zone fee of 10,000 Kyats that covers sites.

Cost: Covered by the archaeological zone fee.

Hours: Daylight.

Time to spend: Negligible; you see it as you go towards the sites.

Description:

Even though Inwa is an archaeological site, there is still an active town that surrounds the sites. You can see the locals fishing, farming, and working in the tourism industry (the horse carts and more).

Verdict: No opinion – you see it as you go to the sites.
Cost: Covered by the archaeological zone fee.

Hours: Daylight.

Time to spend: 30 min – 45 min

Description:

This stilted monastery was built entirely from teak wood. Because this is a royally built monastery, it is built with 7-tiered spires. The carving decorations are also something to pay attention to because of their detail. There is a statue of the Buddha inside one of the halls. Note that women are forbidden from approaching this Buddha statue.

Please take note that since this is a monastery, you must take off your shoes and socks. Be mindful where you step because there is splintering wood in some places and the teak gets hot.

Verdict: Worth it – Don’t miss.
Cost: Covered by the archaeological zone fee.

Hours: Daylight.

Time to spend: 5 min

Description:

This is the watch tower of the palace. Because it’s crumbling and leaning, people are prohibited from climbing onto the tower.

Verdict: Skippable – you can see it as you go along, or you can stop to see it.
Cost: Covered by the archaeological zone fee.

Hours: Daylight.

Time to spend: 45 min (approximation, I didn’t go inside)

Description:

This monastery is unusual in that most monasteries were built out of teak wood. As such, it is sometimes referred to as the Brick Monastery.

Something else that is unique about this monastery is that it was built by the queen. She didn’t just commission this monastery. According to stories, she worked with the architects to build a few special doors (seven, I think), that would indicate which door was open based on the sound it made when it was opened. The purpose of this was to let the monks know when someone entered the premises, and also to indicate who came, since each door was also designated for certain groups of VIPs (like the king had his own door). I’m not sure whether that story is real because the doors don’t open now, but it was an interesting tale.

I didn’t bother going inside, but you can walk along the passages and there are several Buddha statues on display that you can see.

Verdict: Worth it – don’t miss.
Cost: Covered by the archaeological zone fee.

Hours: Daylight.

Time to spend: Negligible

Description: These are clusters of pagoda stupas in ruin.

Verdict: Skippable – you can see it as you go along, or you can stop to see it.
Cost: Free; you can see this from the Brick Monastary.

Hours: Daylight.

Time to spend: Negligible.

Description: This is a bridge between Ava and Sagaing, built by the British in the 1930s.

Verdict: Skippable.

Amarapura

Amarapura was also a former capital of various Burmese kingdoms. It’s located south of Mandalay, though it seems like it’s part of the modern city. There’s not much left in Amarapura of the ancient city now except the watch tower and the treasury building. This is because when the king moved the capital from Amarapura to Madalay, the palace was dismantled and taken to Mandalay to be rebuilt.

In addition to the remnants of the old Palace, Amarapura also has the U Bein bridge, over Taungthaman Lake. This pedestrian bridge was built from repurposed teak wood from dismantled buildings. What resulted was the world’s longest teak bridge at 1.2 km long.

There are also some ancient monasteries here, some of which are still in use. (I didn’t go visit these monasteries.)

Cost: Free.

Hours: N/A

Time: 1 hr max, longer if you want to go on a ferry around Taungthaman Lake.

Description:

As mentioned above, this is the world’s longest teak bridge, spanning 1.2 km. It is also the oldest teak bridge, and it shows. There’s efforts underway to secure the bridge better. That being said, it’s safe enough to walk across the bridge.

Also, if you look at the bridge from the side of the lake, you’ll see that the bridge curves in the center. This is to provide protection against water and wind.

Many people come to the bridge for the sunset, though on the day I went, the skies were overcast, and so I can’t judge if the sunset is worth dealing with the mosquitoes.

Verdict: Worth it - Don't miss. However, watch out for the mosquitoes from Taungthaman Lake.

Mingun

Mingun is an ancient city across the Irrawaddy River from Mandalay. You can get here using a ferry, which takes one hour. Note that there is an archaeological zone fee costing $4, covering the sites in Mingun.

Cost: Part of the Sagaing–Mingun Archaeological Zone Fee

Hours: During Daylight

Time to spend: 20 min

Description:

When King Bodawpaya started construction on this pagoda in the 18th century, it was meant to be the biggest pagoda ever built, so that it would house sacred Buddha relics. However, the story is that the king never completed construction of this pagoda because he had received a fortune that the day he stopped building the pagoda was the kingdom would fall. So, he intentionally kept construction going. The reality is more likely that there were technical problems with completing the project, along with labor issues, and running out of money.

There are stairs on the outside of the pagoda to go to the top of the pagoda, but due to earthquakes and general dilapidation, going up past a few of those stairs is off limits. Our guide said there wasn’t anything of great interest inside the pagoda, so we didn’t bother to.

Verdict: Good to see from the outside.
Cost: Part of the Sagaing–Mingun Archaeological Zone Fee

Hours: During Daylight

Time to spend: 15 min

Description:

This bell was constructed under the same king who ordered construction of the Mingun Pagoda, King Bodawpaya. This bell weighs over 90 tons, and is still in operation (it’s still suspended and rings), making it the world’s largest ringing bell.

Verdict: Good to see.
Cost: Part of the Sagaing–Mingun Archaeological Zone Fee

Hours: During Daylight

Time to spend: 15 – 45 min

Description:

This all-white pagoda was built not too far from the Mingun Pagoda, by the son of the king who built the Mingun Pagoda. This pagoda is named after his wife, and translates to White Elephant Princess.

The architecture of the pagoda is different from all the other pagodas that I saw in Myanmar. The pagoda is circular shaped with 7 tiered layers. At the top is a gold spire. The significance of this is that it’s a representation of the sacred mountain, Mount Meru. Mount Meru is considered to be the center of the spiritual universe in Buddhism as well as Jainism and Hinduism.

Supposedly you can climb the stairs to go to the top, but I think this was restricted when we went.

Verdict: Good to see, but can skip going inside.
Cost: Unknown, arranged by the guide

Hours: Sunset

Time: at least 30 minutes before sunset, time for sunset, and another 20 minutes to get to jetty.

Details:

The sunset cruise was a boat ride on the Irrawaddy River, on our way back from Mingun to Mandalay.

Verdict: Okay to see, but skippable.

Mandalay and Mandalay Hill

I’ve mentioned Mandalay’s importance, so I’ll talk about Mandalay Hill here. Mandalay hill is renown for the pagodas and temples dotted along the hill. You can see many of them when you go to some of the pagodas/temples, like the Wish Granting Pagoda.

Cost: $1, but not reinforced

Hours: Early morning to see trading, everything else can be seen (not sure until what time)

Time to spend: 30 – 45 min

Details:

This is an outdoor jade market in Mandalay. Here, “raw”, cut, and polished jade pieces are sold. That market mostly caters to dealers, but there are finished pieces, like ready-made jewelry, that non-dealers can purchase.

Warning: I would like to highlight that the market is extremely crowded, so much so that the lines move from being pushed rather than people walking. If you don’t like crowds, you should refrain from going. Also, be mindful of your belongings.

Verdict: Good to see, but skippable.
Cost: Free.

Hours: Early morning until noon.

Time to spend: 30 min – 45 min

Details:

This is Mandalay’s local vegetable market. It’s situated on and around the train station, which is convenient, since vegetables are transported by train.

Verdict: Good to see, but not necessary.
Cost: Included in Mandalay zone fee ($5 otherwise)

Hours: Unknown, but likely 8AM – 6PM

Time to spend: 30 min – 1hr

Details:

This monastery is built with the teak wood and has beautiful carvings all over. This is the only remaining structure of the wooden royal palace. It is in a fragile condition and is being restored.

Verdict: Good to go to.
Cost: Covered by Mandalay Zone fee, $5 otherwise

Hours: 8AM – 8PM

Time to spend: 30 – 60 min

Details:

This pagoda has the world’s largest book in the form of stone tablets. It has 730 leaves (the stone tablets). 729 of these tablets have inscriptions (known as Tripitaka), while one tablet describes the history. Each leaf tablet is m wide by 1.5m tall marble slab containing one page of the text of the Tripitaka Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism. Each slab is 13cm thick. The first part contains teachings of Buddha, the second part philosophy of Buddha, and the third part principles of Buddha.

Verdict: Worth it – Don’t miss.
Cost: Not open to public.

Hours: N/A

Time to spend: N/A

Details:

The Mandalay Palace Walls are in the middle of Mandalay, spanning a length of 2km on either side. Unfortunately, it’s not open to the public, but you can see a pagoda inside the grounds from the Su Taung Pyae Pagoda.

Verdict: Good to stop by and see, but you’re probably going to see it when passing by.
Cost: $5

Hours: During the daytime (exact hours unknown)

Time to spend: 45 min – 1 hr

Details:

This is a beautiful, colorful pagoda on the hill top. This pagoda has an interesting story behind it. It was from this hill, where the pagoda now stands, that the Buddha had predicted that a great religious city would emerge at the foothill of the mountain.

Because of Su Taung Pyae’s location and proximity to Mandalay’s city center, you can see beautiful views of the city, including the royal palace.

Verdict: Worth it – Don’t miss.
Cost: Free.

Hours: Until 4:30PM.

Time to spend: 30 min – 45 min

Details:

This is a factory/workshop where gold leaf is created into small square sizes and sold to customers. You get to see the process and final product.

Verdict: Good to see if you have time.

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