Mandalay is the perfect entry point and introduction to Myanmar. It’s much quieter and more laid back than Yangon, despite it being the second biggest city in the country, and the people are extremely welcoming and friendly.
The city suffered devastating air raids during the Second World War and thus, much of the original colonial architecture completely disappeared. The royal palace has been rebuilt in the centre of town, however, it’s not quite the same.
There’s still some incredibly interesting sights around Mandalay, and it offers the perfect introduction to the country’s culture and religion. This guide breaks down all the must see places and things to do in Mandalay.
Best things to do in Mandalay
If you’ve got a few days to spend in Mandalay, there’s plenty to do in and around the city. It’s worth taking at least some time to explore outside the city, even if that means hiring a driver or joining a tour for a day.
1. Mandalay Hill
Watching sunset from Mandalay Hill is one of the best things to do in Mandalay. Located in the northeast of the city, the hill sits 240 metres high overlooking all the pagodas and monasteries in the surrounding area.
The climb requires around 1700 steps, but the view is incredible and is definitely worth the effort. It’s also the best way to meet and chat with some locals. It’s known to be a meeting place of the city’s youth where they can practice their English on the foreign tourists. Rather than being annoying however, it’s a beautiful experience where you can learn much about the local people and culture.
It was one of the my most memorable evenings and is definitely a highlight of the city. The entrance is 1000 kyats for foreigners.
2. Shwenandaw Monastery
While you’ll see many monasteries around Mandalay, Shwenandaw is most unique for its wooden architecture and intricately carved panels all dating back to the 19th century. It gives you an insight into what much of the royal palace used to look like.
This monastery was in fact originally part of the royal palace but has been pulled apart and rebuilt in two different locations since. It’s now been converted into a monastery and is a beautiful place to visit (just watch out for the rickety wooden corridors!).
3. Kuthodaw Pagoda
Home to the world’s largest book, Kuthodaw Pagoda is another unique place to visit in Mandalay. Although not a ‘book’ as you might think of, it’s actually 729 inscribed stone tablets housed in small shrines across the complex.
It’s at the base of Mandalay Hill and the white washed stupas make for an incredible place for photos. It’s usually quieter than some other spots around Mandalay too.
3. Mahamuni Buddha Temple
As one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Buddhists in the country, the Mahamuni Buddha is said to date back over 2000 years.
The statue sits in the middle of a temple where men can go and place a golden leaf onto it as a sign of respect. This means that the Buddha is continually growing due to the added leaves onto its face. Unfortunately, women can only sit and watch from the outside.
While I was there I was lucky enough to catch a family’s celebration and ceremony that they do when they send one of their children off to become a monk. The family members were beautifully dressed and posed for photos for a professional photographer in the temple complex.
It’s a very nice place to wander and take in the various people and events going on. It’s one of the best cultural experiences in the city.
Sagaing was formerly a small kingdom of its own on the banks of the Irrawady River. It’s usually combined on a day tour to Innwa or Mingun.
There are hundreds of stupas and pagodas scattering the hills on the river bank in Sagaing. However, it’s the view from the top of Sagaing Hill which is the real highlight. The area is an extremely important place for Buddhist study and meditation. Not far away, you can also visit one of the most renowned Buddhist universities.
Innwa is the former capital of Burma from over centuries before. While there are only some ruins left now of the old palace and a monastery, it’s an interesting place to visit outside of the city.
Usually, tourists take the horse and carts waiting at the entrance around the complex for a two-hour tour. However, two of my group members were on a tight budget like me and we decided to walk, despite the locals saying, “Very far, very far, verrrrrry farrr.”
We covered nearly 10km by foot in the two hours we had and were just able to take in all the main sights before power walking back to meet our driver. We still thought walking had been good idea though, as we were able to take in much of the local life around the complex too.
Innwa is about 30 minutes south of Mandalay and requires a short ferry ride across the water to reach. It’s best combined with a visit to some other sights inclined U Bein Bridge and Sagaing.
6. Sunset at U Bein Bridge in Amarapura
One of the most popular places to visit in Mandalay is Amarapura to see the famous U Bein bridge. This bridge is the longest teak bridge in the world at 1.2km long and made from the remnants of the old royal palace.
It has become a postcard photo for tourists and there are many buses and people who flock there around sunset to see it. You can walk across the rickety bridge and head down to the muddy water edge underneath it as well.
I managed to find a good spot, despite being in ankle deep mud and rubbish on the banks of the water. The sunset frequently puts on a nice show and produces some very picturesque photos.
7. Mahagandayon Monastery
In Amarapura and not far from the U Bein Bridge is Mahagandayon Monastery. It is one of the largest teaching Buddhist monasteries in the country, and was built in 1910.
Weirdly, it’s become a sort of tourist attraction to visit the monastery around 11am when the monks are due to have lunch. I couldn’t believe the amount of tourists and buses there waiting to watch the monks procession and to take photos of these young students.
It felt a little like a zoo and an uncomfortable experience, so I decided to wait in the car. If you visit the complex outside of the lunchtime rush however, you can explore the grounds in a bit more peace.
Often visited on a half day tour from Mandalay, Mingun has a couple of stunning sites. Mingun Paya is a pagoda carved into the rock from the end of the 18th century. It was purposely left half finished by King Bodawpaya who believed if ever finished, the country would simply disappear.
A 10-minute walk away from there, you’ll find the beautiful, white Hsinbyume Pagoda which is one of the most picturesque pagodas near Mandalay. It’s usually very quiet, although it’s become a bit of a famous Instagram photo now, so it’s likely not going to be quiet for very long.
You can reach Mingun by either road or boat. Most people like to take the public ferry that departs once a day in the morning and then returns around midday. The return trip costs around 5000 kyats, which is quite cheap compared to the cost of taking a private taxi tour from Mandalay.
9. The Royal Palace
The Royal Palace in the middle of Mandalay is slowly being reconstructed. Most of the original structure was bombed and destroyed during World War II and it’s a constant project that is likely going to take years.
Many of the locals advise not bothering to explore the new palace, mostly because the new structures don’t resemble the old teak buildings that existed prior. Still, it was the last home of the royal family before the surrender to the British in 1885, so it’s an important part of Mandalay’s history.
10. Jade Market
There are a couple of great markets in Mandalay, however, one of the most interesting is the Jade Market. The extremely rare jadeite comes from Northern Myanmar and is a highly sought after and valuable gemstone.
Much of the buying and selling of the rare stone is done in Mandalay’s Jade Market, with much of it being sold to other Asian countries for jewellery. There is 1000 kyat for foreigners to enter the market, but it’s an interesting place to go and wander around to observe the process.
If you’re not a gemstone expert however, I wouldn’t try to purchase at the market, as the sellers and brokers are pure business people. It’s best to go to a local jeweller or shop.
How to get around Mandalay and day tours
Grab is Southeast Asia’s version of Uber and works very well in Mandalay. You can order a motorbike, rickshaw or car from the app and there’s usually a driver not too far away. It is also handy for checking prices before hailing an ordinary taxi.
Day tours are helpful for exploring places like Innwa, Sagaing and Amarapura from Mandalay in one day. There are often a variety of day trip combinations, including different attractions. Hostels and hotels are the best place to book many of these, meaning you can join other travellers. I did a day tour including Amarapura, Innwa and Sagaing and thought it was extremely worth it.
Mandalay Archaeological Zone Ticket
Most attractions in and around Mandalay are covered by the Mandalay Archaeological Zone Ticket. This ticket costs around 10, 000 kyats and lasts a week. It provides entry into the palace, a couple of the monasteries and Innwa.
How to get to Mandalay
The Mandalay International Airport is 35km outside of the city centre. There is a great service called Shwe Nan San that has a counter right as you leave customs. They have a shared minivan that will drop you at any hotel or hostel door for around 4000kyats or $4.
Mandalay has three bus terminals and I managed to use all three somehow during my time there. Depending on your destination, the buses depart from different terminals. You should ask your hotel staff so that you know which bus station you need to go to.
The east bus terminal is called Pyi Gyi Myat Shin and services destinations like Hsipaw. The main bus terminal is in the south of the city which has services to Yangon and other major destinations. The west bus terminal called Thiri Mandalar is where I took the bus towards the Indian border and Kalay.
To reach each of the stations, it costs around 2000-3000kyats or $2-3 from the city centre in a rickshaw or motorbike.
Read next: How to Cross the Myanmar-India Border
Where to stay in Mandalay
Ostello Bello Mandalay || The popular Myanmar hostel chain, this property has both dorms and private rooms. While you pay a bit more than other hostels, the staff are extremely helpful and the facilities are always top notch. They also have a great rooftop terrace with views across Mandalay. Check it out.
Ace Star Backpackers || The staff are extremely friendly and helpful and the rooms are clean and spacious. It also has good Wi-Fi, free breakfast and a rooftop terrace. Their day tours are also worth joining with other travellers. Check it out.