Yadanabon: The City of Gems
Our third and last destination while in Myanmar, continuing farther to the north on this rather large country even if you did not realize; and after a very short 30 minutes flight we arrived in Mandalay. The second largest city in the country and one of the most historical and important, packed with temples everywhere and with three former Imperial Capitals on the outskirts. And yet even that we knew our time was meant to be very limited altogether, we managed to definitely be able to say we’ve really been there and visited almost everything!. Rushing at times, but well worth invested time. This was also our last place while in Myanmar before departing back to Bangkok; and for sure it is out of question we can clearly say how much we loved this country!
On a similar way Beijing in China with its Forbidden City, here in Mandalay there is also a huge Royal Palace in the middle of the city, completely surrounded by kilometres of walls and a water canal through its entire perimeter. This is the sight number one, but not the only one. We did not expect so many historical places in the city to be honest. Temple after temple, from large to an even larger! Thankfully most of them located towards the northeastern quarter of the city. Our trip could have not ended any better, but on this occasion, I must confess I was truly unhappy for having to return back to London after such a great time. Gladly I would have stayed for weeks discovering this fascinating country.
Now we also know there is an extra reason why to return to Southeast Asia. Not only that we are already so much in Love with Thailand, Laos and Cambodia ever since the first step we did in those; now, we have also to add Myanmar onto this list. I only hope this beautiful country, its people, culture and everything does not change too much since their long awaited opening to the world. It will be “too sad” to see in the near future McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and the likes of the Western World which you can find on every corner on at the neighboring countries, especially Thailand.
Mandalay, as opposed to Yangon, is a much more undeveloped city, even though it is the second largest in the country, and with an actually pretty well designed urban plan. However, the continuous growth in population and an ever increasing number of cars have made the traffic situation one of the worst in the country. Moving anywhere by car (actually, your only way of moving around anyway), means losing a lot of time, so bear this in mind especially when having to go to the airport. But it is not only about the traffic. Anything relating tourism is extremely under developed and very under valued! With a city of that enormous potential, I am shock to the point of having to struggle to find even food. Forget restaurants as the ones you can find in Yangon. Here not even at the small shopping malls, there are simply none. Only small places for local people. You need to get far in order to find some places, like towards Amarapura in the south of the city.
An while in Yangon or Bagan you could find taxis everywhere, and you could negotiate good rates, here in Mandalay is the opposite. There are very few taxis, with larger number of private drivers for rent. The downside of all this is their fares. Very unnecessarily high, but you have no choice. To go anywhere in the city, does not matter if near or far, but within Mandalay, we’ve been quoted at least 10 USD$ (or the equivalent 12000 kyat). While a driver for the day (8 hours) is somewhat fixed to 50 USD$. Maybe you can lower this down to 40, but those drivers prefer to lose the business and do no money than lowering you even 5 dollars! They are extremely money orientated, and everyone wants your money. This is the sad reality on a city where you actually have no other choice than accept this or otherwise you will go nowhere.
But as I said, this is extremely likely to chance and very soon. As you will see, the potential is that huge that it is hard to believe they have not though on this before. As such, the best way to avoid touts, or being in the middle of nowhere or having to depend all the time on a “taxi”, is to get your hotel in the north of the city. The northeast quadrant would be your very best option, and actually the Mandalay Hill Resort as later I explain below will make your life very easy; at walking distance to almost all the sights!.
For more information about Mandalay check the Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Myanmar’s currency is the Kyat, and it’s abbreviated as MMK. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Mandalay
In the same way you have to pay a tourist fee upon arrival in Bagan which is valid for the entire duration of your stay, here in Mandalay you need to pay a ticket too, costing 1000 Kyat that entitles you entrance to most of the sights, but not all. You will still need to pay separate tickets to Mandalay Hill and Mingun.
- North of the city Where the most important sights are as the Royal Palace, temples and pagodas.
-Royal Palace Built in 1861 for King Mindon, the last of the Burmese Monarchies, with lots destroyed during WWII but rebuilt afterwards in 1990. This is a very large complex, similar in a way to Beijing’s Forbidden City. Entirely surrounded by a canal on its four sides with the city inside, and towards the centre, the many buildings of the Palace complex itself. The entrance for tourists is only by the East Gate. If this is your first place you intend sightseeing, then you will pay here the tourist ticket for 10000 Kyat which is valid for all the other sights in the city. Among the most important constructions to consider in your visit are:
-Walls The enormous site is entirely surrounded by a wall at its four sides of 2km each forming a perfect square with a canal in between. The wall survived untouched the bombings of WWII. There are 48 bastions topping it.
-Gates 12 in total, representing one of the zodiac sign each.
-Hluttaw Hall The Supreme Court was the most important building where the official businesses were carried out.
-Tooth-Relic Tower Built in traditional Burmese architecture, it never housed a tooth-relic but was built merely because it was a tradition to have one. Located outside the palace complex at the south exit.
-Clock Tower From where the passing of time was marked at the sound of a drum, and the time itself by a water-clock. Located outside the palace complex at the south exit.
-Watch Tower One of the very few constructions to survive the bombings of WWII unaltered. Its purpose was for watching the city and panorama nearby, and it is from where you will get bird eye’s view of the entire palace.
-Royal Mint Another of the building to survive the war undamaged, was here where the first Burmese coin was minted from 1865.
-Great Audience Hall Composed of 3 parts together, the North Hall, South Hall, and in between, a transect connecting them both.
-The Lion Throne Was the most elaborated out of 8 in total that were in the complex. The current you see is an exact replica.
-Glass Palace Those were the main living quarters of the King and as such, the most beautifully decorated.
-Atumashi Kyaung On the northeastern corner outside of the Royal Palace complex and canal. The name literally means “inimitable vihara”, it is one of the must do sights in the city. Pretty much destroyed on a fire in 1890 but fully restored in 1996.
-Shwenandaw Kyaung One of the most beautiful and traditional buildings in the city that survived the war untouched. Entirely built out of teak wood it was originally part of the Royal Palace but moved to the current location in the 19th century by the son of King Mindon, King Thibaw. It is side by side from the Atumashi Kyaung. If the Royal Palace was not your first sight, then it is also here where you can buy the tourist ticket for accessing all the sights.
-Kuthodaw Pagoda Located few meters north of the Shwenandaw Kyaung, it is by all means a must visit. Described to be as the “world’s largest book” because of the 729 stupas containing the complete text of the Tripitaka; Theravada Buddhism’s most sacred text. It was built by King Mingdon in the 1800.
-Sandamuni Pagoda Northeast of the Royal Palace, adjacent to the Kuthodaw Pagoda. It houses the world’s largest iron Buddha image.
-Kyauk Taw Gyi Phaya Across the Royal Palace northern canal, built by King Mindon between 1853 and 1878. The site is famous for the large image of Buddha carved out of a single block or marble. 20 statues of arahants at each side, making 80 in total, completes the place.
-Mandalay Hill From where the name of the city comes. Just north of the Royal Palace and Kyauk Taw Gyi Phaya. The best way to reach its top is on foot as you will be passing few temples along the way. This is not included in your tourist ticket and you will have to pay 1000 Kyat. Just for your information, you will need to climb up and down thousands of steps barefoot. Take a plastic bag to carry your shoes/sandals, unless you are planning to return the same way you came in (almost impossible to be honest, just take them with you just in case).
-Bo Bo Gyi Nat Shrine By the beginning of the path leading to the top.
-Shweyattaw Buddha Pavilion Is the next stop-over along the way up.
-Su Taung Pyi Pagoda Right at the top of the Mandalay Hill offering unobstructed 360 degrees view of the city below and farther beyond.
-Shwe Kyin Min Kin At the other side of the Hill in the north.
- South of the city The remaining of the major sights in the city are located farther south from the Royal Palace complex. You will need some transportation in between both areas as distances are really big, and although I list them here below, we did not manage to visit any due to time limitation.
-University Buildings Many of them clearly British colonial constructions. The entire University complex is huge occupying a large quadrant of the city.
-Bawdi Pin Paya Just north of the University complex, small old pagoda.
-Bawdi Yeik Thar Pagoda Few streets northeast from the Bawdi Pin Paya.
-Mahamuni Pagoda (Maha Myat Muni Paya) Built in 1785 and rebuilt in 1884 after a fire destroyed it, is one of the key tourist destinations and holiest Buddhist pilgrimage site in Mandalay. The image of Buddha is almost 4 meters high and entirely gold covered.
-Aranda Pagoda Few meters to the southeast of the Mahamuni and interconnected between them both.
-U-Par Pagoda Following in straight direction southwards from the Aranda Pagoda, it completes the perfect route of pagodas in this quadrant of the city.
- Outside of the city While there are many places you could visit in the nearby cities and villages, it all depends on how much time you have spared for that. The following sites I mention below are part of a whole day tour, where you can get a driver to take you everywhere. The price for a day driver seems to be fixed all across at US$50. While you could try to negotiate for a lower fare, it will be hard to find someone taking you for less. This is the logical order of the places you should be following, from farthest to nearer, reaching the last place for sunset. Make sure you tell the driver how you intend to spend your day visiting these places, although they know this is the order to follow.
-Mingun Pahtodawgyi Located 11 kilometres upstream of the river from Mandalay on the west bank, but in truth 40 kilometres from the city since there is no bridge across and the road makes a big loop. This enormous stupa began construction in 1790 by King Bodawpaya, but was left incomplete due to the legend that if finished, then the King would have died. If complete, it would have been the largest in the world at 150 meters. The King also ordered a gigantic bell to be cast for his stupa, and it is currently the second largest bell in the world. The ticket to enter the archaeological park is 5000 Kyat.
-Hsinbyume Pagoda Located just meters north from the Mingun Pahtodawgyi, was constructed in 1816 and dedicated to Princess Hsinbyume who died in childhood nearby.
-Sagaing Former imperial capital with hundreds of pagodas and stupas along its many hills. From some of the temples you will get impressive views of the horizon.
-Inwa Ancient imperial capital of successive Burmese kingdoms from the 14th to 19th centuries. In order to reach it, your driver (or however you come here) will stop at the small ferry landing where you will need to get to cross this river, once in the other side, it is few minutes walk. It costs 1200 Kyat the boat for both ways.
-Amarapura Former twice capital of Myanmar 1783–1821 and 1842–1859, with Mandalay taking over in 1859, is famous for its 200 years old teakwood bridge. Located 11 kilometres to the south of central Mandalay.
-U-Bain Bridge Across the length of the Taungthaman Lake is a remarkable sight specially at sunset. At 1.2 kilometres, built in 1850 this wooden structure still stands the pass of the years being the oldest and longest of its kind anywhere in the world.
The International Airport is quite far from the city at 45 kilometres from downtown, but thanks to the new-ish motorway travel time has been reduced hence very convenient in the sense you will not need to calculate extra time and spend hours on a bus. From the airport you can take the blue shuttle buses for just 3000 kyat per person. Unfortunately opposite direction is not possible and you will have to get a taxi which is US$15 or the equivalent in Kyat, 18000. If you are travelling with Air Asia or Golden Myanmar Airlines, both offer free shuttle buses to and from city/airport, but remember you can only use them if you have a valid travel ticket with any of those airlines.
Overland, both trains and buses cover the main and large cities. Mandalay is the northern rail terminus for trains heading south to Yangon, but bear in mind this is a 15 hours + journey that unless you are on a budget constrain or backpacking, does not make any sense at all to consider if you need to move between both cities. Flying does not cost much and shorten the time to barely 1.5 hours/.
Buses criss-cross the country and travel father to the neighboring countries. Once again those are very long journeys and the only I could tell you to consider is that to Bagan (5 hours). Any farther than that consider flying. Just as a note, a flight between Mandalay and Bagan is just 30 minutes!
If travelling on a different way is what you are looking after, then get a chance of getting a boat between Mandalay and Bagan or opposite direction on the Irrawaddy River. This trip is around 10 hours and costs 40 USD$, but check beforehand since during summer months the service is likely to be cancelled due to low water.
Within the city, and like everywhere else in the country, do not expect a good network of public transportation. To say, do not even think that you will be able to take any bus or the likes. Nor even taxis unfortunately. The city really lacks on public transportation and everyone moves by car creating horrible traffic jams everywhere. The only way of moving between both areas of the city, the northern temples with Mandalay Hill with the southern area, is by taxi (if you find any) and private drivers which are widely available but their fares are standard to around US$10, even if this is a short distance. There is no other option, so either you take it or you walk. Hiring a driver for the day is another option that can be cheaper if you intend to see all the sights in the city. The quotation however will be around US$30, while a driver for the day to take you to Mingun, Sagaing, Inn Wa and Amarapura is US$50.
Since the opening of the country to the world and much relaxed measures from other countries with lifted sanctions (April 2016), the country is fast growing and especially in what relates to the tourism industry. It is only recent that more and more hotel properties are coming to the city and overall, the country, and will be just matter of time for the first big western chains to start opening hotels here.
The accommodation you will find right now is well enough and still a good choice, but rates per night are much higher than anywhere else across Southeast Asia. And bearing in mind how important to any tourist Mandalay is, expect properties to book out quickly, especially during high season months. It took us some days to figure out where would be best for us to stay. Prices did not drop at all but kept increasing closer to date so try to get your hands in sorting the accommodation the earliest the better.
We stayed at the Mandalay Hill Resort, in 9 Kwin 416B, 10th Street. One of the top hotels in Mandalay, north of the city, meters away from the northeast corner of the Royal Palace compounds and surrounded by many of the principal temples and pagodas in the city; at the foot of the Mandalay Hill. Being our last of the 3 hotels we’ve been while in Myanmar, we can definitely confirm every place have been really great! They are extremely polite, and tourist friendly. They made us feel especial guests and not just numbers. The room, once more, was by far larger than average, and the pool again, a great treat to end the busy sightseeing days or starting the morning with energy. The breakfast was also very good with a great selection both local and international. I would strongly suggest to be at the same place if you can; believe me in what I say that it will save you loads of hassle than if you chose to be in the middle of the city and having to depend on a taxi or driver to move anywhere. Here you can walk to almost all the sights in Mandalay!