Heading North – 10 things to do in Mandalay

Posted by on December 5, 2013

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After having explored the amazing temples of Bagan, I was bound for Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city. Mandalay is the economical hub of upper Myanmar and considered the center of Burmese culture. There are several ways from Bagan to Mandalay nowadays, buses, boats and even domestic flights. I originally planned on taking the boat upriver but the irregular boat schedule collided with my own schedule. I decided to take the bus which would only take about 5 hours and was actually the cheapest option. With a lot of things to do in and out of the city, I was looking forward to a few exciting days in the city. 
My first impression of Mandalay was that it is dusty … very dusty. A bit dirty, busier than Yangon and incredibly hot and humid. Good thing however, that the hotel I had booked also offered a free pickup from the bus station. So far so good. My friendly motorbike driver then also offered to show me around for a day and go to all the attractions out of town. I heard a lot of good things about these tours and had actually planned to do it at some point – not on my first day though. The guy seemed nice and friendly and we agreed to meet up again a couple of days later to do the tour. So how did I spent my days in Mandalay? Here is my little itinerary:

1| Rent a bike and explore the inner city by yourself

Bikes are available everywhere and very cheap. Just make sure they give you a good one that won’t break down on you after the first turn. Let them put some more air in the tires as well. A lot of the attractions within the city are easily accessible by bicycle and the traffic is not too bad. You can spot a lot of interesting things along the way which makes it even more worthwhile.

2| Visit one of the gold pounders’ workshops

Most of the workshops and their galleries are located on 36th street but there were actually two I found which were open for visitors. King Galon and Golden Rose. The people at King Galon were very friendly and walked me through their whole shop explaining everything. It was amazing how the gold-beaters swung their 3 kg hammers in a monotonous rhythm over and over again. Almost like music. It takes them hours to produce those fine gold leaves, light as air, which are sent all across the country for the Buddhist worshipers. Gold is the offering of choice in the thousands of temples and stupas of Myanmar. Especially for worshiping Buddha statues, the gold leaves play an important role. More on that later. I got lucky here because I was all by myself, getting a lot of explanations. Before I left, a big tour group arrived which instantly made the whole thing less enjoyable. Oh yeah, and it is for free.

Helping out the gold beaters. Tough job.

Helping out the gold beaters. Tough job.

3| Visit the stone carvers’ district

Mandalay is full of craft businesses which are all still operated very traditionally. Another highlight are the stone carvers along Sagaing-Mandalay Road. The whole area seems to be covered by coat of fine dust of all all that marble that’s being manufactured there. Everywhere, inside the workshops but mostly right on the street, you can see skilled craftsmen chipping and polishing slabs of marble into the most delicate Buddha statues. Big ones, small ones and everything in between. The most astonishing thing was, that no one used templates or sketches of any kind. They seemed to just have the picture of the future Buddha in their heads and just revealed it out of that big slab of rock. I wandered around the area for about an hour just observing the workers’ incredible skills.

Young workers carving away. Tradition with the help of modern tools.

Young workers carving away. Tradition with the help of modern tools.

Finished and raw.

Finished and raw.

Carving out those details.

Carving out those details.

Painting. The final touch before the Buddhas get sent somewhere in Myanmar.

Painting. The final touch before the Buddhas get sent somewhere in Myanmar.

Back alley in the stone carvers' district.

Back alley in the stone carvers’ district.

4| Pay respect at Maha Muni Pagoda

Maha Muni is the holiest pagoda of Mandalay and considered the second holiest place in Myanmar just after Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. The pagoda is huge with several entrances and hallways leading to its center. Inside you will find a huge image of a sitting Buddha which is about 4 meters high. This is also one of the only places of worship which only men can enter. The women are allowed to catch a glimpse from the outside or via one of the TVs mounted outside. A policy that’s recently been subject to heated discussions.  However, once you enter this sacred place, you can feel how important it is to the worshipers around. The atmosphere is so devout with people kneeling in front of the statue, the faithful clasp hands before their chest and others waiting to go inside the area with the Buddha. There the golden leaves come into play. Worshipers go up the platform and then rub some of the leaves on the statue as their offering – and so did I. This has been done for centuries and the Buddha is hence covered with big bumps of gold. I can’t even imagine the value of all that gold.

Outside with the Buddha in sight and the women kneeling in front.

Outside with the Buddha in sight and the women kneeling in front.

The Buddha being decorated some more.

The Buddha being decorated some more. Notice the golden bumps on its legs.

Before going on top and also paying my respect.

Before going on top and also paying my respect.

5| Unwinding at Shwenandaw Monastery

After a lot of walking around and cycling, it was time to relax and unwind for a bit. I had heard about a famous monastery completely built out of teak wood. I found it right in time before a big downpour started flooding the streets of Mandalay. It took shelter inside the main hall and just lay on the floor listening to the rain hitting the roof. All by myself, it was an almost meditative moment and I think I fell asleep for a short while. After a bit the rain stopped and the sun came out. Perfect for checking out the monastery from the outside with its intricate carvings.

6| Eat at one of Mandalay’s many street food joints

The beauty of exploring the city by bicycle is, that you are totally flexible and free to do what you like. In terms of food this means you can just cruise down the road, look for a place that seems inviting and then sample some of the local food. In my case it was the plain and simple fried rice. You just can’t go wrong with it. But the best thing about Myanmar cuisine is, that you always get a pot of complimentary tea. No matter where you are, you will get your tea. It’s just good, goes well with the food and it’s sociable. Burmese just love spending time sipping tea and chatting with friends and other guests. A must do when in Myanmar. At the end of my trip I was so used to it that honestly missed it when I was back in Bangkok.

Fried Rice...you try it once, you try it twice. And if it don't work out, you eat it again.

Fried Rice…you try it once, you try it twice. And if it don’t work out, you eat it again.

7| Discover Amarapura and U Bein Bridge

Amarapura is now a township of Mandalay but used to be the capital of Myanmar for a some time. The township is mainly known for its silk and cotton weaving, the big Maha Gandhayon Kyaung monastery complex and the world’s largest teak wood bridge, U Bein Bridge. I had only time to visit the monastery and see the bridge – the latter even twice.
The day before I took that guided motorbike trip, I had met up with Angel from Canada whom I spent a few great days in Bagan with. In the evening we went to see the famous U Bein Bridge with high hopes for a nice sunset. We didn’t get lucky this time and it was all grey, covered up, raining and windy. Oh well, we still decided to walk across and it was actually nice because there were way less tourists than usual. Sometimes even a weather like that can have its very own special atmosphere as it was the case on that day. At one point we rested underneath a little shelter on the bridge and got to talk to an old monk. He spoke some English and was very curious. After a little chatting he invited us to his monastery for the next day. Since I planned on doing that motorbike trip anyhow, I promised him to stop by. Not sure if he actually believed it …

U Bein Bridge on a dark and cloudy evening.

U Bein Bridge on a dark and cloudy evening.

U Bein Bridge in the evening of the next day. So much more crowded.

U Bein Bridge on the evening of the next day. So much more crowded.

The next day, I went back to Amarapura, first stopping at the famous Maha Gandhayon Kyaung monastery which also functions as educational center for young novices and monks. In the morning at around 10 o’ clock the monks receive their daily food donations. They line up and then walk into the big communal hall. As interesting as it was to observe this, it reminded a lot of Luang Prabang, Laos. Tourists pointing cameras into monks faces to the point that they are unable to collect their donations. Here it was by far not that bad (yet) but it still had a bitter taste to it. When I was standing there, I just hoped it won’t become another Luang Prabang.

Monks lining up to receive their food donations.

Monks lining up to receive their food donations.

I then wanted to see if I could find the old monk from the evening before. It took us a while to find his monastery since not even my driver knew exactly where it was. After some asking around we made it and as soon as I entered the premises I bumped into the monk. What a coincidence. He was very kind and happy to meet again. He showed me around and explained everything. The monastery was actually a famous meditation center, frequented by both Burmese and foreigners alike. After a while it was time to say good bye again but not before we got a picture taken together.

Thanks for showing me around.

Thanks for showing me around.

8| Enjoy the view from Sagaing Hill

Sagain is a little outside of Mandalay and to get there you have to cross the Ayeyarwady River. Sagaing and especially its famous hill going by the same name are one of the main centers of Buddhism in Myanmar. Sagaing Hill is home to more than 600 monasteries and stupas and more than 6.000 monks and nuns.
The steps up the hill are steep and it takes a while to get up there. On the way up you pass a few smaller stupas and temples and the views get better and better. Once up on the top you have sweeping views down to the river banks, Sagaing Bridge and the many temples crowding the numerous hills around it. It’s amazing and the Soon Oo Ponya Shin Pagoda just adds to the atmosphere of this place.

Lone monk.

Lone monk.

View from Sagaing Hill.

View from Sagaing Hill.

The Ayeyarwady River and Sagaing Bridge.

The Ayeyarwady River and Sagaing Bridge(s).

On the way down the hill I discovered a hidden monastery which then turned out to be pretty huge and very nicely built. I wandered around exploring the premises when I bumped in a group of novice monks. They were actually kids and invited me for some water and a banana snack. Once again one of these magic Myanmar moments which seem so normal when you are there. We tried to talk a little bit, mainly dropping the names of famous football players and laughing a lot. The novices break was over and to let everyone know, two young ones went outside to hit the huge bell in the courtyard. Seemed like it was time for me to go as well…

Courtyard at the monastery.

Courtyard at the monastery.

Hitting that bell and time for me to go...

Hitting that bell and time for me to go…

9| Take the ferry over to Inwa

My driver dropped me off at the shores of the Ayeyarwady where I was supposed to take a little boat over to Inwa, yet another one of the three ancient cities, Amarapura and Sagaing being the other two. After a bit of waiting, the boat came and took me and a few others tourists over to Inwa. Once there, people usually take a horse cart to get around but I just felt like walking a bit. Unfortunately the cart drivers were very pushy following me around most of the time. Guess that’s what the influx of mass tourism does to people. I still enjoyed the scenery and the old stupas along the way. Apparently there is a very interesting wooden monastery in Inwa but at that time, due to floods, it was only accessible by boat and I didn’t have the time to go. Maybe next time …

Never saw this technique before ....

Never saw this technique before ….

Old monastery at Inwa

10| Take a ferry over to Mingun

The ferry to Mingun leaves every morning from Mandalay at about 9 o’ clock. It only runs once a day so you better make sure to be on time. After about 10 km up river we made it to Mingun, a town that is home to a few very interesting attractions. First there is the huge Mingun Pahtodawgyi Pagoda. The unfinished pagoda would have been the largest in the world if the king of that time would have not decided to stop building. An astrologer told him that he would die once the stupa is finished. With its big cracks from an earthquake, the construction still is so massive and most impressive.

Mingun Pahtodawgyi stupa - the dimensions are insane.

In front of Mingun Pahtodawgyi stupa – the dimensions are insane.

Only about 200 meters away is beautiful Hsinbyume Pagoda. This pagoda is very distinctive in style – all white and decorated with very intricate designs on the outside. It is very different from any of the other temples and pagodas I had seen so far. Inside the pagoda a lot of little details caught my eye which made the place even more fascinating.
The last thing Mingun features is the world’s largest ringing bell. It was cast for the huge stupa and because of the unfinished work was never put to work. The bell weighs more than 90 tons only surpassed by a bell in Russia which isn’t functioning though.

The great white ... Hsinbyume Pagoda

The great white … Hsinbyume Pagoda

Last Thoughts …

It wasn’t love at first sight but eventually I got to really like Mandalay. It has a special atmosphere to it and I guess you either like or you don’t. The city has so much to offer – I could have easily added more highlights to this list. Things I haven’t done but are probably very worthwhile include the show by the Moustache Brothers, the Royal Palace or the water puppet theater. However, what made the place so likable for me was not only the many attractions but its authenticity. I agree, it’s dusty and maybe even dirty, but you get the chance to experience typical Burmese life around every corner. Just wander around and you will see so many cool things. A big outdoor market with the most exotic things, a pub with Myanmar beer on draft with only locals watching football, a hidden restaurant or street food joint with excellent and cheap food or even the run down, local gym where I worked out with the locals. It was an enjoyable time in Mandalay and just right before heading out into the countryside ….

45 Responses to Heading North – 10 things to do in Mandalay

  1. adamrobertyoung

    Great images of an obviously amazing place. You’ve convinced me to visit in the near future. Thanks for sharing!

    • Phil D.

      Hi Adam, sorry for the late reply. The country is great, especially for photography. So photogenic that it’s almost unreal sometimes. My advice is to go there quickly since things are changing rapidly. Just the other day I read an article in a big German newspaper about Myanmar being the next big thing etc …

  2. samokan

    Beautiful. I think Philippines and Myanmar are working on a no-visa entry now, so I’m crossing my fingers it will push through. Makes traveling much more easier :).

    Great post as always.

    • Phil D.

      True, but don’t worry. Even with the visa issue it is easy. My visa application took exactly one day at the embassy in KL. I hope you can make it one day 😉

  3. Michiel

    Great review… Seams the water at U bein is at a very high level. Amazing photo’s again 😉

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Yeah, the water level was at its max I guess. I looked up pictures on google of the bridge during dry season. Such a big difference and a bit more impressive I have to say.

  4. Nerija

    That golden Buddha is absolutely stunning!

    • Phil D.

      Yeah, it wa serious there. Guards were really checking people to make sure they were dressed properly. I even had to go back to put on one of these longyis (wraparound skirts). Good thing they lend these things at the temple. But yeah, definately a great and very interesting place to visit. I really wonder how much gold they put on this Buddha over the course of time…

      • Junior Lin

        The Pagoda is covered up with the golden leaves that are applied by the many visitors and prayers. That gold layer is now 6 inches thick (I saw that from a website but I really don’t remember it.

  5. Susan Duncan

    Great post as usual. I spent maybe 10 minutes in Myanmar before heading back to Thailand, and you’ve now given me many reasons to make another longer and more interesting trip. Cheers – Susan

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Hey Susan, 10 minutes is not enough ;). No seriously, if you have the chance, go there. It was one if not the best country in SEA for me. A friend of mine just went farther up North and said it was crazy. No tourists but super friendly locals. Really authentic experience. I definitely wanna go back sometime …

      • Susan Duncan

        Hey Phil, I’m sure you’ll make it back someday if you enjoyed your time there that much. People often return to places that hold good memories. Myanmar is definitely on my list and I hope to ACTUALLY go someday, but at the time I had Songkran to catch in Chiang Mai, so my visit was short. Cheers – Susan

        • Philipp Dukatz

          You will make it someday. I have never witnessed Sonkran..that is definitely on my to do list. I attended Loi Krathong this year. Was in BKK though…Chiang Mai or Sukothai would have probably been better…. Cheers, Philipp

          • Susan Duncan

            I’m super jealous that you got to do Loi Krathong. I really want to witness that one for myself, and I bet Sukothai would be a cool place for it. You should make a point to do Songkran in Chaing Mai. It’s absolute madness but so much fun. You’ll even have these wonderful moments where you find yourself being blessed by strangers with holy water or suddenly in a procession leading to a temple you didn’t know about… Cheers, Susan

    • Phil D.

      I heard Loi Krathong is truly best in Sukothai. The pictures I saw look amazing. But yeah, after what you have told me about Songkran I definitely have to go back for it someday. Do you have any plans of going back to Thailand? I mean, it is touristy and all that but I can still enjoy it. It is nice to kick back and unwind ….

  6. Susan Duncan

    Thailand might be super touristy but I really enjoyed my time there. I missed a few things the first time around like Loi Krathong, but ultimately I’ll go back because it holds a special place in my heart as the first country I ever experienced by myself.

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Merry Christmas Susan, Thailand is a great country to start solo traveling. From there you can easily work your way up to more remote destinations. And coming back is always good for a break. I just wouldn’t spend a complete holiday there anymore. How is the job hunting going? Are you also considering working abroad?

      • Susan Duncan

        Merry Christmas Phil! I think Thailand was a great way to introduce myself to solo traveling, and would have to agree that I’m not sure I would do a trip JUST to Thailand. There are too many wonderful countries nearby to explore. My job hunt is going… how’s yours coming along? I have considered working abroad but I haven’t looked into my options too deeply.

        • Philipp Dukatz

          Same here, it’s going and I would definately consider working abroad. But yeah, I have no concrete offers at this time and I also haven’t looked into the options yet. Still gotta do my research. Best of luck for finding something you like.

  7. Neil Teitelbaum

    went to burma 11 years ago. Yangon, Bagan, Mandalay .. inle lake.. . Saw the same 4 groups of 4-5 tourists everywhere I went. Sounds different now.. to bad.. planning to go again in March of this year.

    • Phil D.

      Hi Neil, i think back then was the best time to go. I believe that it must have been totally different from what it is now. It will be interesting for you to see how the country has changed. Let me know how you liked it compared to your previous stay. Thanks for stopping by and enjoy your trip to Myanmar in March! Cheers!

  8. elenastravelgram

    Amazing pics! I’m dreading to explore Myanmar so much and planning a major trip next year. Which is the best season to visit? And any suggestions on lodging would be really appreciated :)

    • Phil D.

      Hi Elenea, how are you? Thanks for stopping by. I can definitely recommend Myanmar. It was probably my most favorite country of my entire trip. Very unique, very authentic and the locals are so friendly. So yeah, officially the best season is during November and February as far as I know. But this also the busiest time. I was there at the end of low or rainy season, in September. But it was well worth it. Weather was god and crowds not as big. I would not recommend going in the peak season since the country has become fairly busy already and everyone seems to go the same places. Lodging… I think it is best you let me know where you wanna go, figure out a tentative itinerary and then I can give you some hints about where to stay. What do you think? Where are you from anyways and how do you manage to travel lots? Cheers, Philipp

      • elenastravelgram

        Phil,

        Thanks for suggestions! I’ll drop a message once I’ll have a clearer vision of how much time I’ll have for Myanmar and tge places I’d be able to see.

        Ukraine, Kiev originally, though I’m now spending most of the time in Besancon, France. It’s a long story how I got there :)

        I’m working outstuff as an inbound marketing consultant for a UA company snd they are okay with me being here and there and taking long vacation when I’m done with a project.
        So I’m using the opportunity as much as I can :)

  9. Ben jones

    Hi,im of to burma in september for the whole 28day visa,just back packing round.can’t wait

  10. Tilli

    It was a pleasure to read this post, also enjoyed to photos. We plan to visit Mandalay early 2015, first I wasn’t sure whether 4 nights might be too much since a lot of stuff you read on the city has a bit of a negative touch, but I’m now convinced that we won’t be bored during that time! Hope we have better luck with the ferry schedule, though (we intend to go the opposite direction and head on to Bagan by boat). Thanks for sharing!

    • Phil D.

      Hi Tilli, you are lucky to go there and yeah, 4 days is easily doable. I liked it there. Not sure what type of negative things you read..but you need to see for yourself…. You don’t know if you don’t go hehe, Let me know how it went ….

      • Till

        Hi Phil,

        we finally made it to Mandalay .. and back! Great region indeed, we could’ve easily spent more than 4 nights there. This is how it went: https://timafe.wordpress.com/tag/mandalay/
        Thanks again for the post and the tips.

        // Till

        • Philipp Dukatz

          Hi Till, gald to hear you guys had a great time there…. It is a great place which sso much to explore in around the city. I could have also spent more time there. Glad my articles were of help for ya. Take care and thanks again for stopping by …

  11. Christine Shim

    Hello! Great blog and great pictures! A friend and I will be in Mandalay for a day and a half next week before heading off to Bagan. Do you think it would be worth it for me to get a guide and a driver to spend my time most efficiently? The only one that seems to have multiple good reviews online is charging $25 for the whole day, $15 for a half and about $40-50 for a driver. And we think it could be nice to have someone telling us things. Let me know, thanks!

    • Phil D.

      Christine, that is way too expensive. Generally a driver is a good idea..they can even take you guys on a motorbike… Like two drivers, each with a bike. That is the cheapest but also the most fun way. And those you will find around every corner….they will find you. And if you need a car driver, than also they will find you. They are around every hotel..absolutely no problem and make sure to haggle with them…always room for bargaining. Don’t book it in advance…. price is way too high … Hope that helps

  12. Gami Padillo

    Hi Phil. We will be spending about a day in Mandalay – do you think we can explore the town by one day? What are your suggestions to visit.

    • Phil D.

      Hey Bro, here the tip for you. Hire a motorbike driver or a driver with a car and do a full day tour. Worth it if you only have one day. They will take you to heaps of places and you will make full use of the day u have. Do it…. Cheers and have a great time

  13. dines

    Burma sounds more And more interesting the more I read about it in your blogs. There are surely lots to do in Mandalay. How long were you there?
    As usual, wonderful pics with good details. I think gold beating is not for you he 😉
    Just couldn’t appreciate the culture of dome religion of separating men and women. But ja, I just have to respect that!
    I could imagine the surprise on the monk’s face when he saw you again on the monastery. He thought maybe, here’s a white tourist who keeps his words! 😉

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Hi Dine, it sure is very interesting and very fascinating. It was one of my highlights and the 3.5 weeks I was allowed to spend there didn’t do the country justice. I really need to get back there. In Mandalay I was a few days overall since I was there twice. It is a starting point for lots of excursion in the area. If you think about it, every religion is one way or another separating men from women…I didn’t take as big of a problem in their society as generally women are well respected and have full equal rights.
      Anyways, thanks for taking the time to read the story…really appreciate it. Phil

  14. Kal Edd

    Hello.
    I’ll be going to Myanmar in March. I’m still figuring out on whether to go Mandalay for a day and then to Bagan. Mandalay for the U bien bridge sunset. But Mingun kinda awesome too. I love history. About the ferry, only once at 9. What about for returning from mingun? the plan is Mingun in the morning, U Bien bridge in the evening. I’m taking the night train to Bagan. BTW, loves your photos.

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Hey Kal, your plan would work out perfectly as the ferry returns at around 2:30. What I would suggest as an alternative however is maybe not going to Mingun but to hire a motorbike driver for the day. They are everywhere and they will find you… They offer day tours and they take you to all of Mandalays highlights. They finish off with sunsetat UBein bridge… And it is not so expensive … Might wana check that out when you are there

  15. Jason

    Thankyou for this it was a great read! I worked in Mandalay 20years ago & this year for the 1st time since then I will hopefully go back. I love the fact that around every corner we can still see everyday Burmese life…this is the exact reason why I want to return after all this time. We will visit the places which you did. Thankyou for the insight to all these wonderful places

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Hi Jason, thanks for stopping by my friend. Glad you liked reading this blog of mine about Mandalay. I just loved it there. You are lucky to have witnessed this place already 20 years ago…. It must have been magical back then. I wish I could have been tere at that time. Expect to see a lot of changes. I am sure you will still enjoy it. I would love to hear about after your trip, how it has changed and what you think … Cheers Jason, all the best. Philipp

  16. yassine jamal eddine

    Hey Philipp,

    your post is amaaazing, I loved the pictures and the informations.

    I have two questions to ask you, if you don’t mind : I am planning an 11 day trip in Myanmar ( Yangon 2 Days — Mandalay 2D— Bagan 3D — Mrauk U 2D) Do you thing it’s good ?
    And how much time did you spend in Mandalay ? because i wanna see many of the places you went to!!

    Thank You Philipp

    • Philipp Dukatz

      Hi Yassine,

      glad you like my post and the pictures. I think your itinerary might be a bit tight to be honest because you have to factor in transportation. If you not always travel overnight, it might be a bit of a rush. Anyways, Mandalay has a lot to offer, but if you don’t go trekking, you can do with two full days. There are motorbike guides everywhere – they will find you no matter where you are. Within one day, they will take you to all major attraction in and around the city. I would opt for that to maximize your time. The second you can use to go and explore by yourself …. I think that should work. If you end up going to Mrauk U, please let me know. I’d love to hear about it….

      Cheers,

      Philipp

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