As the city that lends its name to one of Kipling’s most famous poems, Mandalay has an awful lot to live up to. Its name is inextricably linked with rose-tinted colonial romance, but how does the modern town compare to the hype?
Those in search of remnants of the Raj might be a little disappointed by Mandalay’s first appearances. But don’t judge a book by its cover! Although it may have lost some of its former grandeur, the last royal capital of Burma still has plenty to entice the modern traveller. Here are our top 5 ways to make the most of your time in Burma’s most famous city.
1. Combine ancient capitals with U Bein Bridge
The Mandalay area is home to not one but four former capitals of Burma: Mandalay, Ava, Sagaing and Amarapura. Whereas Mandalay is a large and important city, the other three are now small, rural settlements – in fact, it’s hard to believe any of them once played host to Burmese royalty.
A day trip to take in the relics of their former glory – including the longest and oldest teakwood bridge in the world, U Bein Bridge – is a fantastic way to get acquainted with Burmese history and explore the region surrounding Mandalay.
2. Climb Mandalay Hill
Looming 240 metres above the city and crowned with Sutaungpyei Pagoda, a trip up Mandalay Hill is pretty much obligatory if you’re staying in the city. Not only does it boast fantastic views across the area (especially at sunset) but it’s also a great place to mingle with the locals – many of whom come here with the express purpose of practising their English on tourists.
3. Visit Mahamuni Pagoda at dawn
Burma is practically awash with temples, so the prospect of dragging yourself out of bed at the crack of dawn to visit yet another may not exactly fill you with enthusiasm. If you can bring yourself to make the trip, however, you’re in for a very unusual experience at Mahamuni Pagoda.
The Mahamuni Buddha is said to be the only surviving image of the man himself to have been made during the Buddha’s lifetime, so he is pretty important to the people of Mandalay. Every morning before dawn, the monks of the temple engage in an hour-long ritual in which they wash the statue’s golden face and brush its teeth with holy water. Male devotees are also permitted to add gold leaf to the statue, which has given the Buddha a rather lumpy texture over the years!
4. Explore the city’s craft workshops
As the final royal capital of Burma, Mandalay is well-known for the high quality of its arts and crafts, which once adorned the halls and corridors of the royal palace. Many of these crafts are still practised in Mandalay today, and watching the artisans at work is a fascinating way to pass the time. We recommend starting at the Jade Market, then moving on to watch the production of kalaga tapestries, intricate wood carvings, and the laborious hammering-out of gold leaf.
5. Cruise on the Irrawaddy
Mandalay is the starting point for a huge variety of cruises that ply routes along the Irrawaddy River, dubbed “the road to Mandalay” by Rudyard Kipling. Some of these are short trips to destinations like Mingun (home of the unfinished yet not unimpressive pagoda of King Bodawpaya), while others are multi-night cruises to Yangon in the south or Bhamo in the north. An overnight cruise to the plains of Bagan is a fantastic mid-range option for those who’d like to take to the waters but don’t want to spend their entire trip on a boat.
There are numerous companies offering cruises from Mandalay, but our favourite boats are the elegant colonial-style RV Paukan, RV Pandaw, and the Road to Mandalay Cruises.
Alastair Donnelly is Director at InsideAsia Tours.