Mandalay, Myanmar: A Destination as Romantic as the Name

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The second largest city in Myanmar, after Yangon, is the economic and religious hub of Northern Myanmar. Around half of the country’s monks reside in Mandalay and the surrounding area.

Mandalay International Airport serves the area with flights to most destinations in Myanmar, as well as some international flights elsewhere in Asia. The other transportation options are a 15 hour train ride from Yangon along bumpy rails or a bus ride from a few different cities (9 hours from Yangon).

Most people are surprised to learn that Mandalay, the last capital of the Myanmar kingdom, is not an ancient city. Established in 1857 by King Mingdon Min of Burma as the new capital of the kingdom of Ava, the city was at its peak between 1858 and 1885 before the British conquest. Much of the splendor was destroyed by fires and bombing during the Second World War. Hence, the Royal Palace and Atumashi Pagoda are modern reconstructions.

Today, the city’s center sprawls for miles with quieter monastic districts lying west towards the Irrawaddy River. Mandalay is often considered the cultural heart of Myanmar where art, dance, music, and drama thrive. The city is also known for its gold and silver crafts, wood and marble carving, as well as silk and other fine textiles.

Within the city are a number of, mostly historical, attractions. However, there are a number of stunning resorts and market places. Take a horse-drawn cart, bicycle, or taxi to explore the sights.

  • Mandalay Hill is only 230 meters above sea level but it provides a stunning view of the city and surrounding countryside. The path leads past several monasteries and temples to the top which also has a number of famous pagodas and temples.
  • Kuthodaw Pagoda, built in 1857 by King Mindon, hosts the world’s largest book – the complete text of Tripitaka, Theravada Buddhism’s most sacred text.
  • Mandalay Palace was King Mindon’s golden prize. Although it was destroyed during World War II, a nearly exact replica was built and renovated recently.
  • Shwe Nandaw Kyaung is a wooden monastery known for its intricate details. Made entirely out of teak, it is the only major building from the original wooden royal palace to have survived World War II bombing.
  • Maha Myat Muni Paya is one of Myanmar’s holiest pilgrimage sites. A 4 meter tall Buddha statute made out of gold and jewels is commanding.

Day trips from Mandalay:

  • Amarapura was founded by King Bodawpaya of the Konbaung Dyansty in 1783. Due to the urban sprawl from Mandalay, Amarapura is now a suburb of Mandalay. Day trippers come to see a number of attractions include Pahtodawgyi, a stupa built in 1816; Bagaya Kyaung, a wooden monastery; U Bien Bridge, the longest teak bridge in the world built from unwanted teak columns from the old palace; and the Amarapura Palace ruins, containing tombs of King Bagyidaw and King Bodawpaya.
  • Sagaing is located 20 km southwest of Mandalay along the Irrawaddy River. An important religious and monastic center, Sagaing was a minor kingdom (circa 1315-1364).
  • Mingun, a small town along the Irrawaddy River, is just an hour’s boat ride away from Mandalay. Boats leave the Mayanchan jetty each morning headed for the massive ruins of Mantara Gyi Pagoda (also known as Mingun Pahto), which was built by King Bodawpaya. While the construction came to halt, much to the relief of the prisoners of war and slave labor, before the structure reached its intended height of 152 meters to make it the largest pagoda in the world. Despite being badly damaged in an earthquake, the remaining pagoda is still breathtaking. Before leaving Mingun, the Mingun Bell and Hsinbyume Pagoda are also well-worth a visit.
  • Pyin U Lwin was once the summer capital of the Raj in Burma, and the military center for the Indian Army. Today the town has large Indian, Anglo-Indian, Anglo-Burmese, and Chinese communities. The verdant city, pleasant climate, and abundance of flowers makes Pyin U Lwin a lovely destination from Mandalay. A number of colonial Tudor style houses still stand, mostly around the National Kandawgyi Gardens, as well as the Candacraig (now the Thiri Myaing hotel) a colonial mansion built in 1904 and made famous by Paul Theroux in The Great Railway Bazaar. The town is accessible by train or taxi from Mandalay.

Read before you go:

  • From the Land of Green Ghosts: A Burmese Odyssey by Pascal Khoo Thwe
  • Mandalay by Alexandra Jones
  • Burma 1942: The Road from Rangoon to Mandalay by Alan Warren

Photo credit: Javier Martin Espartosa

Melissa Reichwage is an avid traveler and international development and health professional currently living in Colombia. She holds a Master’s in Public Health from Emory University in Atlanta (USA). With familial ties in Myanmar, she has a special affinity for the beautiful landscapes and people of Myanmar.

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