Where the old and the new collide
Many visitors have a romantic image of Mandalay, picturing a colonial-style town scattered with pagodas. But, at first sight, the city is a bustling metropolis with modern multi-story buildings lining the streets of downtown. With its thriving trade economy and strong business ties with China and India, the city has developed quickly. But after adjusting to this surprise, you will start to notice serene pagodas and traditional wooden houses tucked in between the high-rises. This is part of what makes Mandalay so enchanting and for curious travelers, there is something fascinating to discover at every turn. For a good introduction, head to Mandalay Hill at the northern end of town. Peer down upon the city, seeing the expansive Royal Palace and moat as well as the Irrawaddy River to the west and Shan Hills on the eastern edges of town.
The stunning Kuthodaw pagoda
Back on ground level, head to Mandalay’s famed Kuthodaw Pagoda. From afar, the site looks like a golden stupa set inside white-washed walls but once stepping inside you will see rows of brilliant white stupas and leafy, star flower trees. Each of the 729 stupas contains a marble slab engraved, by hand, with Buddhist scripture. It is for this reason that the site has earned the nickname “The World’s Biggest Book.” Spend time wandering through the maze of stupas, enjoying the tranquil setting and mingling with local worshippers. If you have time, continue your Mandalay tour with a short walk to Sandamuni Pagoda. Although similar to Kuthodaw, with its inscribed marble slabs, this pagoda receives far fewer visitors.
The mighty Irrawaddy River
The Irrawaddy River is the lifeblood of Myanmar, serving not only as a vital source of water but also as a food source and a transportation route. Taking a boat trip from Mandalay is a great way to appreciate the Irrawaddy’s importance as well as its beauty. One of the most popular Myanmar boat trips is the journey from Mandalay to Bagan. Depending on your budget and your time, this can be arranged as a one-day trip in a large public boat or an indulgent multi-day cruise aboard a luxury ship. For those on a shorter holiday, a half-day boat trip to Mingun is a fabulous option. Depart in the morning, taking a wooden motorboat out into the waters and cruise past fishermen and cargo boats to the middle of the river. Depending on the time of year, you may pass by sandbanks where temporary villages have been set up to farm peanuts and other items on the sand. Upon reaching Mingun, you can walk to several historic sites including the massive Mingun Pagoda, the stunningly white Hsinbyume Pagoda, and the world’s second-largest functioning bell. On the return to Mandalay, catch glimpses of Sagaing to the west and the Shan Hills to the far east, allowing you to witness a different point of view of Mandalay city!
Remarkable crafts, ancient traditions
When Mandalay was the royal capital, the country’s culture flourished. These days, many of the unique handicrafts and traditional performances can still be seen in Mandalay. In the center of the city, workers still pound gold leaves using massive hammers in hours of intensive labor. Nearby, skilled weavers create tapestries with intricate patterns. Further outside of town, craftsmen make wood carvings and marble statues using ancient designs and a mix of traditional and modern techniques. For those interested in the performing arts, Mandalay has many options for evening entertainment. The most popular is the Mandalay Marionette Theater, a nightly show of local legends and traditional stories carried out by skilled puppeteers. The Mintha Theater hosts an evening performance of mesmerizing dances accompanied by traditional music.
Mandalay’s former royal capitals
Surrounding Mandalay are three small towns: Ava, Amarapura, and Sagaing, that once served as Myanmar’s capital at different times. A visit to these three sites is a must-do when visiting Mandalay. Ava is located between the Irrawaddy and Myitnge Rivers and is perhaps the most picturesque of the three. Travel by horse-drawn carriage along the streets and lanes, passing through villages, and stopping to explore historical vestiges like the Maha Aung Mye Bonzan teak monastery. Sagaing is located on the western banks of the Irrawaddy River and is often referred to as the center of Buddhism in Myanmar. A drive to the top of Sagaing Hill reveals a landscape covered with pagodas, monasteries, meditation centers, and even some Buddhist nunneries. Stop in to visit some of these sites and gain a better understanding of how the religion is integrated into the daily lives of the local people. Last, but not least, head to Amarapura. This charming town has few remaining buildings from its time as a capital but is home to one of Myanmar’s most photographed sites: U Bein Bridge. Take a walk along the bridge, an incredible structure made of the pillars of Amarapura’s old royal palace, and enjoy the views of Taungthaman Lake. If you are interested, there are several workshops in the area making beautiful silk weavings in traditional patterns.
Ei Phyo Pai (Ms.)
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- Wandering through “The World’s Largest Book”
- Admiring the views from the top of Mandalay Hill
- Stepping back in time at Mandalay’s former royal capitals
- Snapping photos at the famous U Bein Bridge
- Discovering hidden pagodas amid Mandalay’s bustling downtown
- From October to April
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