A First-Timer’s Guide to Mandalay

Published 15 February 2017

Daisy Cropper

Daisy Cropper

Mandalay = sheer madness. Myanmar’s second-largest city, found in the country’s north, is chaotic, frantic and full of energy. Don’t let this frenzied atmosphere put you off, though. After the tranquility of Bagan or Inlé Lake, Mandalay can provide a welcome change of pace. Here’s how to cope on your first visit to the city.

What to do:

On Mandalay Hill, Myanmar

Exploring the buildings on the way up Mandalay Hill image: Daisy Cropper

Climb Mandalay Hill

Rising almost 250m above the city, ascending Mandalay Hill is the best way to get your bearings and find impressive views over the city sprawl. The stupa-scattered peak has been an important pilgrimage site for Burmese Buddhists for centuries, and continues to be so today. The walk up takes around 30 minutes, although you’ll find plenty of distractions along the way, from fortune-tellers to trinket sellers.

As a scared site, remember to dress appropriately and remove your shoes at the start of the hill. Bring baby wipes, or something similar to clean them with once you end your walk. Trust me, with multiple animals roaming the walkways and general waste, you’ll be thankful for the tip!

Sunset from the Ayarwaddy River View Hotel

Sunset from the Ayarwaddy River View Hotel image: Daisy Cropper

Watch the sunset over the Irrawaddy River

The country’s largest waterway, the Irrawaddy, is known the world over thanks to many tributes made in poetry and literature (most notably Kipling’s ‘The Road to Mandalay’). Running from the mountains in the north to the Andaman Sea in the south, the river has proved an important commercial channel and was essential for Mandalay’s growth. Watching the sun set over the glassy waters and dip behind jungles on the horizon is the ideal way to end a day of sight-seeing.

The Ayarwaddy River View Hotel lives up to its name with a generous roof terrace overlooking the stretch of water. Head up here for dusk where you can enjoy cocktails during happy hour, glorious sunsets and stick around for a traditional dance performance. 

Vegetarian food, Myanmar

A selection of typical Myanmar snacks: tasty and spicy seeds, nuts and pickled tea leaves.

Feast on vegetarian food

As with Myanmar’s other tourist hubs, Mandalay is packed with delicious, authentic food to sample. Make a stop at the Rainforest Restaurant (small lane off 27th St, 74/75) for creamy, spicy food. You’ll first need to navigate through a family-run antiques shop up to the second floor where you’ll find a roof terrace, fragrant foods, and a peaceful atmosphere away from the chaotic streets.

Alternatively, overlooking the same lane is Marie-Min, an all-vegetarian restaurant cooking up a range of southeast Asian cuisines and Burmese dishes. Leave room for the refreshing avocado smoothies.

Sunset along the U Bein Bridge, Mandalay, Myanmar

Finding a spot to watch the sunset along the U Bein Bridge image: Daisy Cropper

Cross the world’s longest teak bridge

The U Bein Bridge is an iconic image of Myanmar. Stretching an impressive 1.2km across Lake Taungthaman, it is the longest teak bridge in the world. This place is packed with tourists who walk the wooden bridge at sunset, so get up early to catch the sunrise instead. Tea sellers dot the walkway providing pit stops, while paddleboats and motorboats can be hired if you want to watch the sunrise with the whole bridge visible too.

Make time to cross the lake (10-15 minutes’ walk max) to explore the pagodas and Buddha statues on the other side.

Mahamuni Pagoda, Mandalay, Myanmar

Mahamuni Pagoda

Marvel at Mahamuni Pagoda

Stop by Mahamuni Pagoda for Mandalay’s glitteriest and most revered site. The Buddha statue housed here is over 3.8m tall. Over the years, so many offerings have been made and additional gold pounded onto its surface it is over 6 inches thick in places, leaving it with a bobbly but ever-gleaming surface. Believed to be at least 2,000 years old, the statue is an impressive sight. Time your visit to coincide with the daily, ceremonial polishing of the Buddha’s face at 4pm.

Woman on U Bein Bridge, Mandalay, Myanmar

Woman on the U Bein Bridge

How to do it:

Travelling in and around Myanmar is relatively cheap and easy. The coach network is huge and you’ll be able to hop on an overnight bus from most other large tourist destinations, eg. Kalaw, Yangon, Bagan etc. Opt for a slightly more expensive bus for added comfort. For a difference of $20 you can go from a small seat to a reclining chair with blankets, air con and a decent breakfast.

If heading south from Mandalay, you’ll most likely travel via the city’s Highway Bus Station (Chan Mya Shwe Pyi). If so, head there an hour or so early. The restaurants spread along the roads offer very cheap, traditional, fragrant foods.

Alternatively, you can go via train on the old, rickety Yangon-Mandalay line. Only opt for this is you have plenty of time and no ongoing travel plans you need to make. This ride is slow and often delayed.

Internal flights from Yangon, Nyuang U (Bagan) or Heho (Inle Lake) are also an option. Flight time from Yangon is around 90 minutes. This makes for a good choice for travellers with less time.

Take a look at Round the World Experts' Myanmar holidays page for further advice.

Silhouettes on U Bein Bridge, Mandalay, Myanmar

Silhouettes on the U Bein Bridge

When to go:

Mandalay can get stiflingly hot, with temperatures regularly hitting 40°C+. Typically, the coolest time to visit coincides with high season and runs from December to February, although accommodation needs to be booked in advance. While the low season (May to September) can make for a good time to visit Mandalay, due to its location in the country’s dry zone, the rest of the country can be pretty wet.

Need to Know:

Don’t let Mandalay’s madness put you off exploring. Take time to settle in and relax on arrival before heading out. When you do, note that you can’t really explore the city on foot. The roads are pavement free and you’ll be left skulking along eight-lane highways with roaring traffic on either side of you. Instead, opt for a motorbike taxi, car, rented bicycle (if you are a practiced cyclist) or even tuk-tuk. You can hire drivers for the day, if you’re looking to tick-off multiple stops.

Spend three nights in Mandalay with Round the World Experts' Classic Myanmar holiday.

You might also like:

The Top 6 Must-Sees in Myanmar

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