A visit to the most underrated city in Myanmar.
After spending our second honeymoon stop in Chiang Mai, we set over to Mandalay by plane. Our 4-day river cruise on the Sanctuary Ananda was due to start on a Saturday and we arrived in Mandalay on Friday evening, so we had another 1.5 days to explore. We didn’t expect much because we’d been told Mandalay isn’t overly exciting compared to the famous spots like Bagan, but we were more than positively surprised. The lack of fame meant a smaller number of tourists and a better glimpse into real life in Myanmar.
We stayed at the Mandalay Hill Resort, which really isn’t anything special and will probably undergo some renovations in the near future, but it’s still the best option in Mandalay since all of the up and coming boutique hotels are just being constructed. Nonetheless, the spa is worth a try – my husband claims the couple massage we had there was the best.
When it comes to culinary enjoyment, don’t expect much, either – there aren’t many places yet and most of them are tourist traps. For the best chance to try something truly local, head to the street food stalls. One restaurant we can recommend was “Eastern Garden” where we were the only tourists. Just don’t use their bathrooms unless you have a strong stomach.
In terms of sightseeing and exploring, Mandalay was a dream. It’s still one of those rare places on earth where you feel like you’re in an entirely different world, far far away from home, and life just works differently. I stopped counting how many times we were photographed by locals – in some places, it was as if they’d never seen someone from Europe. We’re really tall (my husband is 1.93m / 6’4″), so we stood out in a country where the average height is at least two feet smaller than us.
Transportation is a bit difficult – we were lucky that, after the first scooter rental we googled turned out to be nonexistent, we found Tim from Myanmar bike rental who was willing to give us the last scooter available for the two days. It was a one-hour walk to get there – and so we learned that Mandalay is way bigger than you’d think. Having a scooter was the best idea, since there’s no way to just haul a taxi on the street everywhere you go. Just make sure you have some sort of dust protection for your face, plus sunglasses.
From then on, we were ready to explore…
Little monks everywhere…
My favorite spot in Mandalay by far is the famous Kuthodaw pagoda. It’s essentially a gold buddhist stupa, but what’s so special about it are the 729 little caves surrounding it; each containing one marble slab inscribed with a page of text from the Tripitaka (a buddhist script), making the whole area the world’s “largest book”. It is more than just a little awe-inducing, and it sure makes for some great pictures – the one above is my favorite couple photo from the entire honeymoon.
The picture above is a monastic school class visiting the royal palace in the city center – a huge square area where the government officials work and live (they even have livestock there), and which contains the royal palace in its middle. Tourists can only enter the Eastern gate and visit the palace buildings. For a good view over the area, climbing up the watch tower is a good option.
An unexpectedly fun activity was a visit to the Zay Cho market – a conglomeration of market halls where absolutely anything and everything is sold in crammed spaces. It’s basically the Burmese version of Walmart, just way more exciting.
No trip to Myanmar is complete without visiting Mandalay’s most famous spot (well, a little outside of Mandalay, in Amarapura), the U Bein Bridge – the world’s oldest and longest teakwood bridge, built in the late 19th century. While it’s also the only place in Mandalay where we met other tourists, it still had an incredible vibe to it, so we came on two separate evenings to enjoy our sundowner. We parked the scooter on the Western bank of Taung Tha Man lake where the food stalls and boat rentals are based. For about 15 USD, you’ll get your private little boat with your own gondolier pushing you into the perfect spot to see the sun set behind the bridge. Since they’re all coordinated, no one will block anyone’s view here – even though there’s going to be at least 30 other boats on the lake each sunset. Make sure you buy a fresh coconut before you hop on the boat, then just enjoy for an hour or so.
Our personal “must-do” in Mandalay is a visit to the jade market in the morning. Foreigners have to pay a small entry fee, but we were literally the only Western people there that morning. It’s one of the largest and most important jade markets in the world – the Chinese visit frequently to sell or buy jade. It’s quite educational – the process of how the raw stones are processed into a finished product can easily be comprehended by walking around the market clock-wise – all the steps are arranged in stations in the right order, from cutting to polishing, and the best part is observing merchants bid on raw stones early in the morning. Arrive at around 8-9am, have a Burmese breakfast pastry, and watch – but don’t buy unless you know a thing or two about jade, otherwise you’ll be ripped off in an instant.
The best views over Mandalay can be found on the top of Mandalay Hill, from the Su Taung Pyae Pagoda. It’s a fun jungle drive up by scooter – if you have a driver, ask him to wait for you.
Another general tipp for visiting Myanmar – always carry some wet wipes in your pockets. You won’t get to enter a buddhist site with your shoes on, and you’ll want to clean your feet after. In any case, it’s never a bad idea to keep your hands (and cellphone, and camera) bacteria-free when you’re traveling.
We kicked off our cruise on Saturday morning, but on the first day, we stayed around Mandalay and had a chance to go up Sagaing Hill to see just how pagoda-studded the whole area is. Also, we got to visit a monastic school that is funded by Sanctuary Cruises and a traditional silk-weaving workshop. In the afternoon, we made our way down to U Bein Bridge for our second visit there. I’ll be sharing more details of our river cruise in the next post – it was a truly great experience and the best way to see central Myanmar and all the sites along the Irrawaddy river, if you ask us…
To summarize this post – visit Mandalay if you visit Myanmar! Our recommended places to visit are:
- U Bein Bridge
- Kuthodaw pagoda / the world’s largest book
- The jade market
- Mandalay hill and Su Taung Pyae Pagoda
- The royal palace & its watch tower
- Zay Cho market
- Sagaing hill
You can see all of those in about two days, maybe three if you prefer to take it slow. From there on, continue south towards Bagan – and don’t forget to notice Burmese rural life happening along the way. Myanmar is still one of those enchanted countries that is just now waking up to the modern age. Go there before it’s too late.
Stay tuned for my next honeymoon post – about the river cruise on the Sanctuary Ananda. Thanks for stopping by! As always, I love to read your comments below or your DMs.