Kevin Revolinski gives the lowdown on things to do in Mandalay, Myanmar’s famous northern city which is the gateway to the surrounding countryside
Mandalay is Myanmar’s second largest city and in terms of commerce, it’s most important. The population surpasses one million, and though it is a center of Burmese culture, immigrants from Yunnan Province are quickly bringing a Chinese counterculture as well. Just wait until that highway from China opens up. There’s enough to see here to spend a few days on your way north or as you are waiting to board a local boat for a full day’s journey south to Bagan.
You’ll see the big ramparts and surrounding moat and think this must be a big deal. Well, it was. When the monarchy came to an end, this was its last home when the British took it in 1885 and ousted King Thibaw. During World War II most of it was destroyed by fire and what you see today within the walls is a reconstruction from the 1990s. The space is shared by military grounds now, but you can still see what the Glass Palace quarters, the Great Audience Hall, and Lion Throne Room looked like. There is also a climbable watchtower. The Royal Mint and a clocktower survived the WWII fire. If you have time to kill, it’s worth seeing. Oh, and do NOT take photos of the soldiers or military installations.
For those who love views, head up Mandalay Hill for a view of the city. You can get to the top with a vehicle, but you can also make merit by climbing this 240-meter hill on foot as you pass Buddha images, flower vendors, and ogre statues. Get there for sunset.
Sandamani or Sanda Muni Paya
Just off to the southeast of Mandalay Hill for a convenient stop, is Sanda Mani pagoda. Inside you’ll find the largest iron Buddha, topping 18.5 metric tons and, like most important Buddha images, arriving here via various previous homes due to war and changing capital cities. This location was where King Mindon’s provisional palace once stood, and the pagoda was his memorial to a younger half-brother. Recognize it by the large collection of white pagodas standing tall and narrow.
Also close to Mandalay Hill, this pagoda takes its name from its central Buddha image, a large statue carved from light green marble. Surrounding it are 80 shrines to the 80 Great Disciples of the Buddha. The statue is carved from one piece of marble and comes from 20 km north of Mandalay. It is said that more than 10,000 workers were required to move it to its home here.
Shwenandaw Kyaung (Teak Temple)
Once part of the king’s residence, this beautifully carved teak pagoda is a must see. It is one of the few original buildings surviving in Mandalay but it is not in its original location. It was carried piece by piece from the palace grounds and set up here as a Buddhist monastery in 1880.
This may seem like a pagoda, but actually it is a book. Only partly kidding: each of the 729 small stupas spread throughout the grounds contains a tablet with part of the text of the Buddhist scriptures.
Situated on a road leaving Mandalay to the southwest, this is one of the most important pagodas to the Burmese. Within is a Buddha image that is believed to be one of only five that were made during the earthly lifetime of Siddhartha Gautama. (Two are in paradise, so you might count them as three on earth.) The 6.5-ton bronze Buddha sits at the center of the complex and the faithful parade past applying squares of gold leaf as they go. For something special for early birds, get there at 4 am when monks wash the Buddha’s face and brush his teeth.
Located just outside Mandalay, this road is lined with workshops where carvers use power tools and abrasives to carve and polish stone Buddha images. It’s a sight to behold but one wonders if visitors – let alone the regular workers – ought to be wearing eye and breathing protection. There are wood carvers among them as well. Most are amenable to having their pictures taken.
The Gold Rose Factory
If you ever wondered where the abundance of gold leaf squares comes from, the ones stuck on sacred Buddha images and the like, then this is your answer. Gold nuggets from northern Myanmar are pounded for hours between bamboo sheets and cut into squares. It’s hot here as air-con would make the metal even harder to worth with. The work is hard and you’ll never look at those thin little squares the same way again.
U Bein Bridge
Located in Amarpura, a town south of Mandalay, this bridge, named for the mayor who built it, is the world’s longest teak bridge at 1.2 km. The footbridge spans the waters of Taungthaman Lake and makes some very nice photos at sunset or sunrise. Many locals cross on foot or bike. See also Bob James’ take on travelling to U Bein Bridge and also Jodi at Legal Nomads’ U Bein Bridge photo essay.
Also consider taking a day trip up the river on a local boat 11 km to Mingun. This is another former capital of the kingdom though today it is just a dusty little town off the beaten track. Greeting you at your beach landing is Pondaw Pagoda, a small construction with white statues looking out over the Ayeyarwady River. Not reason enough to come here, but added value. The main attraction, other than being in a quiet Myanmar town, is seeing a monstrosity of a pagoda that was never completed. It was commissioned by King Bodawpaya in 1790. Had it been finished, it would be the largest in the world. What you see today is a massive brick construction with large jagged cracks from the earthquakes of yesteryear. It is climbable for sweeping views of the river and countryside, but you need to leave your shoes at the bottom.
Also in town find the world’s largest ringable bell, weighing in at 90 tons. Near the unfinished pagoda is Hsinphyumae Pagoda, a gleaming white round stepped pagoda built in 1816 in memory of a deceased princess.From the incredible ancient city of Bagan to Myanmar’s quiet and beautiful beach resort towns, spending two weeks in Myanmar lets you see all of the country’s top destinations at a pace that means you won’t need to rush from one destination to the next.
Misty Sunrise © fieldsofview
Below, we’ve prepared a two week travel itinerary for Myanmar that visits the interesting cities of Yangon and Mandalay, the ancient Buddhist temples of Bagan, the relaxing coastline of Ngapali Beach and the incredible natural beauty of Inle Lake.
Note: Although Myanmar is a developing country, travelling can be surprisingly expensive. Our How Much Money Do I Need For Myanmar? guide explains how much you should budget while visiting Myanmar, from hotels and transportation to restaurants and bars.
Day One: Arriving in Yangon
Shwedagon Pagoda during the Blue Hour © 21160499@N04
- Your two weeks in Myanmar starts by flying into Yangon, Myanmar’s most important economic city. The former capital of Myanmar, Yangon blends Burmese culture with many British colonial buildings and a culture that’s a mix of Burmese, British, Chinese and Indian.
- You’ll need a visa to enter Myanmar if you have a passport from outside Southeast Asia. As of 2014, e-visas are available for citizens of over 100 countries. You can learn more about the visa process for Myanmar in our Myanmar Tourist Visa on Arrival guide.
- Yangon has a great selection of hotels, ranging from opulent five star grand hotels to cheap and simple guesthouses. Our Yangon Quick Guide lists the city’s best luxury, mid range and budget hotels, with recommendations for things to see and places to eat.
Day Two to Three: Exploring Yangon
Floating pagoda © 30659973@N07
- Best known for its historical pagodas, Yangon has a great variety of things to do for travellers, ranging from Buddhist pagodas to Catholic cathedrals, impressive manmade lakes and WWII cemeteries. Below, we’ve listed Yangon’s highlights for you to visit on day two and three:
- At 99 metres in height and 2,600 years in purported age (historians believe 1,000 to 1,400 years, but its exact age is unknown), the Shwedagon Pagoda is Myanmar’s most significant Buddhist pagoda and one of the most significant Buddhist sites in the world.
- The Sule Pagoda is a small Buddhist stupa in central Yangon. At 44 metres in height, it’s less of an incredible sight than the giant Shwedagon Pagoda, but has served as a major rallying point during demonstrations against the country’s military government.
- Yangon’s two manmade lakes — Kandawgyi Lake near the Shwedagon Pagoda and Inya Lake in the north of the city — are great places to relax and enjoy a side of life in Yangon that many tourists don’t see.
- Located 25 kilometres north of Yangon, the Taukkyan War Cemetery is a cemetery for Allied soldiers that died in Burma during World War II. More than 6,300 soldiers are buried in the cemetery, with the names of a further 27,000 soldiers engraved on the Rangoon Memorial.
- Yangon also has a great selection of museums, colonial buildings and religious sites of interest for visitors. Our Things To Do In Yangon guide lists several other pagodas, museums and other things to do around the city.
Day Four to Six: Visiting Ngapali Beach
Ngapali Beach, Myanmar © sjdunphy
- After three days in Yangon, it’s time to head to the beach. Myanmar’s beach resorts are far less developed than their alternatives in Thailand or even Vietnam, making destinations like Ngapali Beach ideal for experiencing Southeast Asian beach life without the usual crowds.
- Ngapali Beach is a short one hour flight from Yangon, with several flights leaving for Thandwe Airport daily. From Thandwe, it’s a short 10 minute drive to the beach and its growing selection of resorts and guesthouses.
- Laid back and quiet, Ngapali Beach is all about relaxation. Pearl Island, a small island located a short distance from Ngapali Beach and accessible by boat, is a popular day trip destination, with clear water that’s ideal for snorkelling.
- Our Ngapali Beach Quick Guide lists the best luxury, mid range and budget hotels in Ngapali Beach, as well as the beach’s best activities, tourist attractions and restaurants.
Day Seven to Nine: Visiting Bagan
Misty Sunrise © fieldsofview
- After three days on the beach, it’s time to visit the beautiful ancient city of Bagan. Unfortunately, there are no direct flights between Thandwe and Bagan, making it necessary to first fly back to Yangon, then catch a connecting flight to Nyaung U Airport near Bagan.
- One-stop flights are available from Golden Myanmar Airlines and Air KBZ, connecting Thandwe with Nyaung U in just over four hours. After you arrive in Bagan, you’ll be asked to pay a $20 US dollar (or 27,000 kyat) fee for entry into the Bagan Archaeological Zone.
- With over 1,000 temples and ruins, most of which were built during the 11th and 12th centuries, Bagan is one of the world’s largest archaeological sites. Our guide to Bagan’s essential temples covers the area’s must see temples, all of which can be visited over the course of two days.
Day 10: Travelling to Mandalay
Kuthodaw Pagoda in Mandalay © slapers
- Myanmar’s second largest city, Mandalay was the last royal capital of Burma and remains one of Myanmar’s most economically important cities. Mandalay Palace, Mahamuni Buddha Temple and other cultural and religious sites make Mandalay an interesting city for a short stopover.
- Travelling to Mandalay from Bagan is simple. Flights depart frequently from Nyaung U Airport throughout the day and reach Mandalay in about 30 minutes. It’s worth spending at least two days in Mandalay before continuing on to Inle Lake.
Day 11: Things to Do in Mandalay
Mahamuni Buddha temple in Mandalay © slapers
- As Myanmar’s last royal capital, Mandalay is home to a large variety of royal and religious sites, including the Mahamuni Buddha Temple and Mandalay Palace. Our Things To Do In Mandalay guide covers Mandalay’s main attractions, from Buddhist temples to the remarkable U Bein Bridge.
Day 12 to 13: Exploring Inle Lake
Myanmar – Inle Lake © marcveraart
- One of Myanmar’s biggest tourist attractions, Inle Lake is a vast lake in central Myanmar that’s one of Southeast Asia’s most important ecosystems. The lake is home to a variety of different tribes, many of whom live on the water, as well as thousands of migratory birds.
- There are two ways to get to Inle Lake from Mandalay. The cheapest way is to catch a night bus from Mandalay to Inle Lake, which takes around seven hours. An easier, more expensive option is to fly directly from Mandalay to Heho Airport, which is a short drive from Inle Lake.
- Our Inle Lake – How To Get There And Where To Stay guide lists the best guesthouses, hotels and resorts around Inle Lake. Like Bagan, there is a fee for travellers entering Inle Lake — you’ll be asked to pay a $10 USD fee upon arrival.
- Inle Lake is best experienced by boat, with group and private tours of the lake available. It costs about $15 to $20 to tour the lake by boat for the day. It’s also possible to hike in the hills around Inle Lake, which is a great way to see the beautiful surrounding scenery.
- Our Inle Lake – Things To See And Do guide includes an itinerary for touring the lake without bumping into too many other tourists, as well as a list of places to visit in the area around the lake.
Day 13: Back to Yangon and Home
- If you’re flying out of Yangon early on day 14, heading back from Inle Lake on day 13 gives you a chance to see more of Myanmar’s biggest city and get a good night’s sleep before your flight.
- There are frequent flights between Heho and Yangon, with the trip over in slightly more than one hour. Revisit our Yangon Quick Guide for things to do in the city if you’re spending a night there before flying home the next morning.
- If your flight out of Yangon leaves later on day 14, it’s also possible to spend an extra night near Inle Lake and fly back on the morning of the 14th day. From Yangon, flights are available to all major hub cities in Southeast Asia, such as Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.