MANDALAY: MYANMAR'S NORTHERN GEM.
Mandalay: Myanmar’s second-largest city, its last royal capital and our Destination of the Month in July. Myanmar’s northern gem was revered by Rudyard Kipling on its famous poem ‘The Road to Mandalay’ and visited by the writer George Orwell, who mentions the city and the surrounding region on his first and famous book ‘The Burmese Days’. This is why Mandalay is perhaps the most suggestive of all destinations in Myanmar and evokes images of a quintessential Asian city. With its deep Buddhist heritage, strong Burmese culture, and a quiet grandeur, Mandalay and its surrounding region need to be delved into, explored and discovered.
The city’s layout is very simple and based on a grid system, making it easy to navigate, particularly downtown where many of the markets and temples are located. Many of its major sights are centered on or around Mandalay Hill, which makes foot-walking feasible in that particular area.
Mandalay’s Buddhist heritage is inescapable, and nowhere is it more obvious than Mandalay Hill. This is the place from which the city gets its name, a 230m high peak in the north east of the city, and is home to a string of temples and shrines, not to mention hawkers selling water to those clambering the 1,790 stairs to the top. The panoramic views from the summit are stunning, including the whole city and the Irrawaddy River, and the hill offers a pleasant relief from the thrum of the city below, it is well worth the long walk! The bronze Buddha at Maharani Paya, coated in gold leaf, is also not to be missed, as this is one of Myanmar’s holiest sites. For a further dose of Buddhist culture, the beautiful Shweindaw Kyaung is another essential stop–off. This wooden monastery survived the bombs which landed on Mandalay during World War II and remains one of Myanmar’s best preserved religious sites.
And the Mandalay Palace and fort, right in the heart of the city, and the last royal residence of the last Burmese monarchy, is as imposing and hard to miss as it is a must-visit. Sitting at the centre of a vast moat, it was restored after being destroyed during World War II and is still used by the Myanmar military. While its main compound is worth a visit, the banks of the moat are perfect for joining local couples watching the sun go down.
But perhaps the top photographed and most iconic landmark in (greater) Mandalay is the U-Bein Bridge. Located in Amurapura, Myanmar’s penultimate royal capital, and a 20 minute drive from central Mandalay, the world’s longest teak bridge is as stunning as it is popular. Stretching for 1.2kms, the bridge is best visited just after sunrise or before sunset. And one of its most appealing features is that it is not only a touristic site, but also used by villagers and monks on their daily commute.
If you are looking for hidden gems, then don’t miss the 1,774 shrines which surround the golden chedi at Sandamuni Pagoda. These tend to be bypassed by those making for Mandalay Hill, but it’s worth taking time to explore this quiet holy spot, where bells ring on the breeze and monks stroll the covered walkways. Those looking for an insight into everyday life in Mandalay should head to Zagyo market. As well as colourful groceries, fabrics and books, you can pick up food and tea. As a people watching spot, it’s unrivalled. And the dusty back roads east of Mandalay Palace offer a great chance to see a quiet side of the city, especially by bike.
Burmese cuisine has been greatly influenced by Chinese, Indian and Thai. And while the city’s culinary bedrock has been its excellent selection of street food and teahouses, the rise of tourism in the last few years has made finding a range of super fresh and diverse food in Mandalay easier than ever.
Green Elephant, a Burmese chain with a growing reputation, does amazing tea leaf salads and local curries. All produce comes from the restaurant’s own garden. Super 81, serving steamed duck and other Chinese treats for the city’s local expat population is a great bet, while Lashio Lay focuses on Shan State specialities such as tofu fritters and papaya salad. The delightful Peacock Lodge hotel does a stunning feast for guests and non–residents, with mangoes served fresh from their front garden. The river fish in particular is excellent .
In Amarapura, apart from the afore-mentioned beautiful U-Bein Bridge, the Buddhist sites of Maha Ganayon Kyaung and Pahtodawgyi are worth a visit, as is the relatively unknown Kyo Aung Sanda pagoda. Make sure to rent a bike to explore the area.
Ava, which was the imperial capital of successive Burmese kingdoms between the 14th to 19th centuries, is situated around 20km south of Mandalay and feels a world away from the bustling regional capital. With its old watchtowers, stupas, monasteries, and temples, Ava’s is a charming small town. Its main sights include the Bagaya Kyaun wooden monastery and the Nanmyin watchtower.
But if you are looking to be mesmerised, then Bagan is your destination and will most certainly deliver. One of the world's greatest archeological sites - a 26-sq-mile area, which at the height of the 11th and 13th centuries, saw over 10,000 Buddhist temples, pagodas and monasteries constructed. Today around 2,200 temples and pagodas still survive, many with a distinctive story and most can be freely explored. Make sure to rent an e-bike and don’t rush - discover the breathtaking scenery at your own leisure. No visit to Mandalay or in fact Myanmar is complete until you discover and uncover this unique and spellbinding place.
Flights to Mandalay are operated in partnership with our premium light regional and domestic subsidiary airline – THAI Smile. Fly from London at lunchtime on our state-of-the-art flagship A380, the world’s largest passenger aircraft featuring the latest in design and technology, and experience our legendary Royal Orchid Service. From Bangkok to Mandalay, the multiple award-winning THAI Smile offers four weekly flights from October 2017 onwards, which makes it perfect to add a stopover in Bangkok, a city famous for its shopping, food and nightlife.