Mandalay is Myanmar’s second largest city that is home to several ancient kingdoms complete with awe-inspiring Buddhist pagodas. It just so happens that this week is Mandalay’s birthday. The city turns 160 on May 15, 2018, at precisely 4:31:36 am. The kingdom began in 1858 by King Mindon in a specific spot as dictated by an ancient prophecy that called for a town in the location for Buddha’s birthday. The official title at the time was Lay Kyun Aung Myay or The Conqueror Land of the World. The city was also known at the time as Ratanapūra meaning gem city. Mandalay still lives up to the moniker and is rich with cultural heritage. Today the imperial city is known as Mandalay due to Mandalay Hill. Mandalay comes from the Pali word mandare which means an auspicious land. During my visit, I didn’t see many other tourists and enjoyed the abundance of beautiful places to discover. Here’s how to explore Mandalay in 3 days.
Traveling to Myanmar? Don’t go without insurance from World Nomads! Book your flight to Myanmar on Skyscanner. It’s easy to reach Mandalay via AC bus from Yangon or Bagan. I took a local bus from Mindat which was quite uncomfortable. My preferred bus company in Myanmar is JJ Express due to the quality and comfort of the buses and reasonable prices. No matter which way you go the trip is bound to take a few hours where you can listen to Frank Sinatra’s On The Road To Mandalay a few hundred times on your iPod. Sinatra sings of the sounds of Burma from the wind in the palm trees, the temple bells that call you back to Mandalay. For one-of-a-kind experience take the 4-day and 3-night Anawrahta River Cruise from Bagan to Mandalay! In Mandalay, I stayed at a local guest house, Hotel 82. Backpackers usually opt to stay at the boutique Ostello Bello. Browse all Mandalay hotels and hostels.
I didn’t purchase the Mandalay Archaeological Sites ticket for 10,000 Kyat (about US$10) which is meant to include all sites in Mandalay including the royal capitals of Sagaing, Inwa, Amarapura and more because I didn’t plan to go to a few of the sites run by the military junta. If you also want to avoid directly funneling your tourism dollars to the Burmese military, which is responsible for the atrocities against the Rohingya then skip the Mandalay Palace. The palace was apparently rebuilt after WWII and isn’t very impressive anyway. I missed out on a few places that require the ticket such as the Shwenandaw Monastery but everywhere that’s mentioned here I was either able to pay an individual entrance fee or no fee at all. If you plan to see everything it may be best to purchase the Archaeological Sites ticket which is valid for 5 days and can be picked up at a few of the main attractions.
Mandalay, Amarapura, and Inwa are located on the east side of the Irrawaddy River while Sagaing and Mingun are on the west side. To get to the west side from the east takes over an hour on a motorbike and you’ll pass through all the ancient capitals on the way. I suggest spending one day in Mandalay and Amarapura, another in Sagaing and Inwa, and the last in Mingun. If you don’t know how to ride a motorbike consider booking an affordable and customizable full-day tour of Mandalay and surrounding kingdoms.
The Skinny Buddha is a unique site to see in Mandalay. The massive emaciated seated Buddha image is made to commemorate the time when the Enlightened One spent 49 days in the forest fasting and meditating underneath a Bodhi tree. Buddha was human, not godly, and was starved after seven weeks and scarily thin. The 75-foot-tall statue shows in detail Buddha’s thin body with an exposed rib cage, bony shoulders, and knobby legs. At the site, there are many other Buddha images arranged around the Skinny Buddha and in an adjacent temple including another grand statue with larger-than-life-eyelashes.
SU TAUNG PYAE PAGODA
This psychedelic temple is located at the top of Mandalay Hill. Tiny glass mosaics in shades of pink, blue, green, and gold, cover the structure and reflect sunlight towards the heavens. The architecture of Su Taung Pyae Pagoda is spectacular, as are the views of Mandalay city and surrounding golden pagodas that dot the plains below.
At the base of Mandalay Hill is the famous Kuthodaw Pagoda which is home to the largest book in the world. Just like the kingdom, it was built under the rule of King Mindon. Here there are 729 small white stupas that each have a slab of Buddhist scripture. It’s a remarkable place to see and shouldn’t be missed during an exploration of Mandalay.
SANDA MUNI PAGODA
Nearby is the Sanda Muni Pagoda which was also commissioned by King Mindon. This structure also appears to have white stupas with scripture inside. I wasn’t sure if these are part of the same book from Kuthodaw but there was a sign stating that there are 1774 marble slabs here with the teachings of The Buddha. Here the slabs are more condescend making them more picturesque, in my opinion. Sanda Muni Pagoda was erected by King Mindon in honor of his younger brother who was assassinated, Kanaung Mintha during battle.
SHWE IN BIN MONASTERY
This serene teakwood monastery is just far enough off-the-beaten-path that it isn’t visited often by travelers, which is a shame. The Shwe In Bin Monastery boasts a tiered roof, intricate facades, and wood carvings in intricate lace-like teakwood that has stood the test of time. The traditional Burmese wood structure has been weathered over the years since it was originally constructed in 1895 by Chinese merchants. Today around 35 devout Buddhist monks live and study at the spectacular complex
While in Mandalay you must visit the world-renowned Buddha image at the Mahamuni Pagoda. The gilded sitting Mahamuni Buddha is the holiest shrine in all of Myanmar. At 13-foot-tall the entire sculpture is covered in gold. It’s believed to be over 2,000 years old. Male pilgrims are allowed to pass by the sacred statue and place gold leaf on the Buddha image, while women aren’t allowed to go inside the viewing area but may watch from outside. Even female Buddhist nuns aren’t allowed in the room. This is why I don’t have an image to share with you, unfortunately.
ABANDONED BARGE RESTAURANT
On the way from Mandalay to Amarapura, you’ll pass by the Kantawgyi Lake. About halfway down the lake is an abandoned barge restaurant adorned in traditional decoration. The structure is a bit sketchy but it’s a beautiful place to snap a few pictures and take a rest from a long motorbike ride.
U BEIN BRIDGE
The main attraction in the old kingdom of Amarapura is the U Bein Bridge, which is the longest teakwood bridge in the world at almost 4,000 feet. The “City of Immortality was royal capital until an 1810 fire which resulted in the court relocating to Inwa. If the name sounds familiar that’s because the Amarapura Nikaya in Sri Lanka was named after the kingdom. The U Bein Bridge connects the shores of the Taung Tha Man Lake and was raised in 1850 using reclaimed teakwood from Inwa’s royal palaces. The time to visit is sunset for obvious reasons but I prefer watching the natural feat from the east side of the bridge where there are significantly fewer tourists. The bridge is far from sturdy and when I entered from the westside with thousands of other tourists I was quite sure it would collapse.
Surrounding the Taung Tha Man Lake in Amarapura are many beautiful remote temples and monastery, most don’t show up on Google Maps. Due to this I, unfortunately, can’t tell you the name of this beautiful mint green monastery but implore you to cruise around until you find it yourself. I had never seen a temple this color before and was astonished by its beauty.
I got sick with food poisoning and missed out on exploring the Inn Wa area which is just south of Amarapura and could be visited before crossing the Irrawaddy River to Sagaing. The name Inn Wa is derived from the process to create the area in which nine lakes were filled with reclaimed land, in Pali Innawa means nine lakes. Some popular places to explore here include the Maha Aungmye Bonzan Monastery, Thisa Taik Pagoda, Bagaya Monastery, and the riverfront Lawkatharaphu Pagoda.
SIN MYAR SHIN PAGODA
Some of the most beautiful temples in Mandalay are located across the Irrawaddy River in the area that was once the kingdom of Sagaing. My favorite was one of the first I stopped at along the way north, the Sin Myar Shin Pagoda. What drew me towards the temple was the mixture of red and white paint combined with the typical golden stupas which made the structure appear to be rose gold. There is also an abundance of adorable elephant motifs around the premises. Sin Myar Shin Pagoda dates back to 792.
SOON U PONYA SHIN PAGODA
Sagaing is the oldest of the Mandalay royal capitals dating back to the 14th century. At the summit of Sagaing Hill is the beautiful Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda which is equipped with a massive Gautama Buddha image and an abundance of stunning viewpoints. From here on a clear day you can from Sagaing across the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay Hill. Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda is connected to several other pagodas via covered stairways known as saungdan that go all the way down to the Irrawaddy River.
SITAGU INTERNATIONAL BUDDHIST ACADEMY
Established in 1994 the Sitagu International Buddhist Academy is a lovely pink structure with an unusual roof of a massive golden dome that looks a bit like an amphitheater. Around the circular building are many Buddha statues that have been donated by various Asian nations and boast unique features native to the country they hail from. The building was closed during my visit but apparently, foreigners are allowed to join Vipassana courses here.
MYA THEIN TAN PAGODA
North of Sagaing in Mingun is the Mya Thein Tan Pagoda (also known as Hsinbyume Pagoda) which is likely the most recognizable temple in Mandalay due to its impressive white structure which has graced the pages of many travel publications. The enormous Buddhist pagoda is meant to replicate the mystical Mount Meru. The Mya Thein Tan Pagoda was built in memory of a woman known as Hsinbyume (Lady of the White Elephant) who died in childbirth.
I rented a motorbike to visit Mya Thein Tan Pagoda but it’s possible to take a boat for an hour and a half across the Irrawaddy River from the Mayan Chan Jetty which departs at 9 am. A roundtrip ticket costs 5,000 Kyat (about US$5). Some have reported there’s also a 5,000 Kyat entry ticket for Mingun but I was never asked to pay. When you arrive either by motorbike, taxi, or boat, you’ll notice two massive rock structures. These were once ferocious rock lions that stood at about 65 feet. Time, weather, and natural disasters have ruined their form and all that’s left are their behinds. In the area you can also visit the Mingun Pagoda and strike the huge bell from King Bodawpaya three times for good fortune–it weighs 180,000 pounds!
Have you been to Mandalay? Tell us what else you saw in the imperial city.
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