Destination: Mandalay in Mandalay Region
Destination Climate: Mild – no rainy season as in a dry zone
Region Borders: Magway Region, Sagaing Region & Shan State
Region Size: 37,024 sq km / 14,295 sq miles
Region Capital: Mandalay
Region Population: 6.1 million (2014)
Destination Lineage: Myanmar, Kayin, Kayah, Chin, Pao, Mon & Shan
Destination Languages: Myanmar/Burmese, Shan, Chinese & limited English
Destination Religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam & Hinduism
How To Get There: Capital of Mandalay Region, the second most populated city in the country and the top commercial hub for Upper Myanmar, Mandalay is a busy metropolis. Named after Mandalay Hill, it was made famous more recently by Rudyard Kipling’s poem, Road to Mandalay, but has inspired visitors for centuries. It is home to the “world’s largest book” and at its heart is the restored Mandalay Palace from the Konbaung Dynasty, surrounded by a moat. With its international airport it can be reached by air, but also by road and rail.
Mandalay was the last royal city before Myanmar was colonised by Britain in 1885. While the scale of King Mindon’s ambition for the walled citadel is clear from first glance, the whole magnificent palace complex was devastated during World War II. That said, the moat, palace walls with city gates and wooden pavilions give an imposing and evocative impression of the royal era. Within the palace grounds there is a museum and replica model of Mandalay Palace. Still considered the centre of Burmese culture, Mandalay is the economic hub of Upper Myanmar and this thriving city is the second largest in the country.
ON THE WATER
Mandalay’s intimate proximity to the Ayeyarwady River means a visit the city isn’t complete without spending some time on the water. Made famous by Rudyard Kipling’s poem, the country’s largest river, flowing from north to south through its lands, is sometimes referred to as “The Road to Mandalay”. River cruises are a wonderful way to visit the former royal city or discover the surrounding areas, but if you fly into Mandalay (or arrive by road) there are still plenty of opportunities to enjoy the riverine existence. Moreover, bodies of water such as Thaungthaman Lake (over which the iconic U Bein Bridge stretches) are magical in their own right.
Lying as it does between the vast plain of Ayeyarwady River’s terrace, the plateau of Shan state in the east, and at the foot of historic Mandalay Hill, Mandalay is a great base from which to explore the ruins of nearby ancient capitals. Most highly recommended are those located near the river, such as Inwa (Ava) and Sagaing. The refreshing colonial hill station of PyinOoLwin is also worth a visit. It was a summer retreat during British rule as its altitude offered the settlers a relatively cool climate and respite from the hot season. Further afield, a 200km drive from the city of Mandalay is Mogok, which is world-renowned for its rubies.
There are many fascinating and diverse localities to visit in the area surrounding Mandalay. At an altitude of 1,070m, PyinOoLwin, the nearest hill station with its cool alpine climate has the perfect escape from the heat of the city. Also worth visiting are Dat Taw Gyaint Waterfall and National Kandawgyi Garden, (modelled on Kew Gardens in the UK) which has many collections of flora, both native and foreign species, as well as exotic, shady trees and a fabulous lake to enjoy.One of Myanmar’s most fascinating journeys is the train ride from PyinOoLwin to the scenic and laid-back town of Hsipaw (or even on to Lashio), taking in the northern Shan hills and the famous Gokteik Gorge and viaduct. Other attractions include Peik Chin Myaung Cave (about 20km from PyinOoLwin), featuring colourful Buddhist scenes, a large number of shrines and a picturesque waterfall at its entrance and Mogok “City of Gems”, 200km north of Mandalay whose rubies are world famous.
ON THE WATER
The banks of Ayeyarwady hold many places of historical interest. Innwa, (also known as Ava) the capital of several kingdoms between the 14th and 19th century, is located on the banks of both the Ayeyarwady and Myitnge rivers. It is about 21km from Mandalay and its main attractions are the 19th century MahaAungMyeBonzan Monastery and the 1830s BagayaKyaung Monastery supported by nearly 300 huge teak stilts and known for its intricate woodcarvings. An impressive 1,200m-long bridge crosses from Ava to Sagaing.
As a centre of Buddhist learning and meditation, the hills of Sagaing are studded with pagodas and monasteries, including Kaungmudaw Pagoda. Yandabo is a village popular for pottery making and also famous for an Anglo-Myanmar peace treaty that was signed in 1826. KyaukMyaung is another pottery village, but it is much bigger than Yandabo. It is specialised in the production of huge glazed Martaban jars, which are sold throughout the country and are used to hold water, rice and cooking oil.
A compact riverside town in Sagaing Region, Mingun lies on the Ayeyarwady River on the west bank about 10km from Mandalay. It is a popular excursion and worth spending at least half a day exploring its impressive sights. Arriving by boat from Mandalay is the most enjoyable although you can also arrive by road from Sagaing.
Mingun is best known for its enormous, unfinished stupa, MingunPahtodawgyi, (intended to be the largest in the world at a projected height of 150m), which now lies ravaged by earthquakes but there are also monasteries, meditation centres and other monuments of historical and cultural importance.
King Bodawpaya had an enormous bell cast from 1808 to 1810 that was meant to be installed in MingunPahtodawgyi. As the stupa was never finished it is now housed nearby. Measuring almost 4m high it is considered the largest ringing bell in the world. The bell is rung by striking its exterior with a wood log. The number 55555 is inscribed in Burmese script on the outside of the bell, 55555 being its weight in viss, which is about 90 tons.
One sight you cannot miss is the impressively massive MingunPahtodawgyi, a pagoda built at the end of the 18th century intended to be the largest in the country. The curious history of a prophecy is responsible for it not being completed. In front, guarding the pagoda, are the remains of two 29m-tall lions. Facing the river, at the centre of the 50m-high pagoda, is a huge richly decorated entrance. The huge cracks in the edifice result from the earthquake of 1838.
Three years before King Bagyidaw succeeded to the throne, he built Hsinbyume Pagoda in 1816, in memory of his late wife the Hsinbyume Princess. As a representation of the Sulamani Pagoda, and in accordance to Buddhist cosmology, the pagoda stands atop Mount Meru. The seven wavy terraces around the pagoda represent the seven mountain ranges around Mount Meru. Badly damaged in 1838 by a quake, it was restored by King Mindon in 1874.
Immerse yourself in a multitude of indigenous festivities and specialties
As the cultural heart of Myanmar, Mandalay is the place where the most refined arts and traditions of dance, music and drama live on. Traditional entertainment in Myanmar comes in the form of Pwe, which often involve dancing and vividly colourful costumes. The most famous Pwe is Anyeint, which combines dance with music, slapstick comedy and playful goading of the audience.
Mandalay preserves the folk art of puppetry called Yoke The Pwe, and showcases this art form to locals and visitors through marionette shows and theatre performances. As with many other Pwe, it was originally performed to popularise Buddhist stories.
Many performances, whether they are comedy or puppetry, are accompanied by music. Myanmar traditional music is generally rhythmic and played without musical notes. There are various folk and classical traditions, using drums, as well as string and wind instruments. Mandalay Marionettes or the Mintha are two popular places to enjoy some colourful doses of traditional Myanmar entertainment. Myanmar traditional music is said to have “freedom to improvise, freedom from being note-bound, and freedom of variations”.
Mandalay has great culinary heritage. For example, kyarzanhin, a glass noodle soup with chicken, mushrooms, onions and boiled egg, garnished with coriander, crushed dried chilli and a dash of lime. Pickled tealeaf salad served with various crunchy condiments is also popular. For something sweet try htoemont, a typical Mandalay sweet, glutinous rice cake with raisins, cashews and coconut shavings. The Mandalay versions of dishes from other parts of the country are also much loved for example a Shan dish called meeshay.
Many festivities take place in and around Mandalay throughout the year. Perhaps the most notable of these is the 2-week long MahaMyat Muni Pagoda Festival in February. The temple is always the centre of activities but during this festival it explodes with energy. Equally, one of Mandalay’s loudest and most colourful celebrations, the week-long TaungPyone Nat Festival, attracts spirit worshippers from throughout Myanmar and curious tourists. The festival takes place in TaungPyone village, about 20km north of Mandalay.
When King Mindon Min founded Mandalay in 1857 he ordered the construction of a new Royal Palace. This was the last palace built by Burmese royals. The king located it in a square citadel surrounded by four 2km-long walls with a total of 48 turrets and 12 gates, one for each sign of the zodiac. Much of the palace was destroyed in WWII and has since been reconstructed. Encircling the citadel is a picturesque 60m-wide moat with a number of bridges protects the large complex which includes audience halls, throne halls, a monastery, a watchtower, a court building, a tooth relic building and a library where the Buddhist scriptures were kept.
Boasting many pagodas and monasteries, Mandalay is home to the stunning 4m-high, seated MahaMyat Muni Buddha image, located at the pagoda bearing the same name. Cast in bronze, with a crown decorated with diamonds, rubies and sapphires, it weighs an impressive 6.5 tons. Kuthodaw Pagoda was built by King Mindon Min at the same time that the nearby Royal Palace was built. Known in Burmese as MahaLawkaMarazeinPaya, is also dubbed the world’s largest book as it houses 729 marble slabs inscribed with Buddhist teachings. It comprises a gilded pagoda, several pavilions and hundreds of shrines.
Mandalay Hill lies north of downtown Mandalay and is 230m high. It is dotted with pagodas and Buddhist temples. The fabulous panoramic view of the city, especially at sunrise or sunset, is worth the effort of the barefooted climb on the covered stairway on the hill’s southern slope. You can also drive but then you would miss the colourful processions of prayer, the hawkers selling their wares along the way and the opportunity to take in the views at your own pace. Lying at the foot of the hill is Shwe Mann Taung Golf Course, an 18-hole course with some spectacular scenery and Mandalay Hill as a stunning backdrop.
ON THE WATER
Amarapura is an old capital of the KoneBaung dynasty. Founded by King Bodawpaya in 1783 as his new capital, Amarapura is famous for silk weaving. When King Mindon moved the capital from Amarapura to Mandalay, the old Royal Palace was dismantled, taken to Mandalay and rebuilt there. U Bein Bridge, built in the mid 19th century using reclaimed teak from dismantled buildings, is a glorious sight especially in early evening as it becomes silhouetted against the vivid sunsets.
Given its age (and the fact that only a few of the 1086 poles on which it rests have been replaced by concrete supports) U Bein is iconic but not for the faint-hearted. At about 1,200m, spanning Thaungthaman Lake, it is believed to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. Worth a visit nearby is MaharWai Yan Bon TharBargaya Monastery, decorated with over 28,000 carved wooden figures, it boasts over 500 Buddha images, and the largest catalogue of palm leaf manuscripts.
Mandalay, considered the centre of the nation’s culture and arts, is home to many examples of ancient crafts. Witness marble carving near MahaMyat Muni Pagoda where many religious items, mainly Buddha images and stone slabs for inscriptions, are produced. For wooden handicrafts visit workshops near MahaMyat Muni Pagoda and Tampawaddy. The Shwe-gyi-do quarter of Mandalay is the best place to see embroidery and appliqué work, while one of the main professions of the Amarapura people is silk weaving for which the area is famous.
Metalworking is also very prevalent in the region. For example, bronze casting can be studied in Tampawaddy between Mandalay and Amarapura. Meanwhile silverware workshops can be found in a village called Ywa-Htaung which is along the Sagaing-Monywa highway road. However, Mandalay is probably most renowned as the only place in Myanmar for the ancient gold leaf industry. In a painstaking, 7-hr process of pounding, a total of 2,000 very thin gold leaves can be obtained from a tickle of 24 karat pure gold. These leaves are then applied by Buddhist devotees to stupas.