Mandalay is the second largest city in Myanmar and one that often gets overlooked by tourists. Visitors generally fly into Yangon and head straight for the popular tourist areas of Bagan, Inle Lake, and Ngapali Beach. But they really have no idea what they’re missing! The city of Mandalay and the area surrounding it is filled with gorgeous pagodas, spectacular waterfalls, friendly locals eager to practice their English speaking skills, and delicious food.
Make sure you spend at least 3 days exploring this bustling city during your upcoming trip to Myanmar!
Mandalay: The Basics
Getting Around Mandalay
There are plenty of taxis for hire around Mandalay both in the form of cars and motorbikes. You can get a car taxi to most sites within Mandalay for around 3,000-5,000 Kyat ($2.00 – $4.00 USD) and a mototaxi will rarely cost more than 2,000 Kyat ($1.50 USD).
If you don’t want to deal with hassle of negotiating fares then download either the Grab or Oway Ride app on your phone. Both are ride-sharing apps very similar to Uber. Grab’s network covers major cities all over SE Asia whereas Oway Ride is specific to Myanmar.
The advantage of using these apps is you’ll get a fixed price that you know is fair. The downside is you may wind up waiting a while for your driver to show up. Another way to use the app is to simply check the fare to your destination and then hail a taxi with a good idea of where to start your haggling.
Many of the major tourist sites are actually located 30 minutes to 2 hours outside of Mandalay. For these trips it is best to hire a driver for the day or if you’re feeling particularly adventurous you can rent a motorbike. Daily rates for a car and driver seems to range from 25,000 – 45,000 Kyat ($20.00 – $35.00 USD) depending on how long you want the car and how far you’ll be traveling.
Where to Stay in Mandalay
Bagan King Hotel is decorated with ornate woodwork and old world charm. The staff is incredibly welcoming and helpful. They offer each guest a free happy hour drink every day from 5:00 – 6:00pm. Also, the oldest tea shop in Mandalay (Min Thi Ha) and the best spa (Innwa) are right down the street from Bagan King.
Mandalay Archaeological Zone Ticket
Most attractions in the Mandalay area are covered by the Mandalay Archaeological Zone ‘Combo’ Ticket which costs 10,000 Kyat ($7.50 USD) and is good for one week. It provides entry to the following:
- The Royal Palace
- Shwenandaw Monastery
- Atu Mashi Monastery
- All the sites in Innwa (Bagaya Monastery, Yandana Sine Pagoda, Nan Myint Watch Tower, and Mai Nu Monastery)
- The Mandalay Cultural Museum
Several other places around Mandalay supposedly require the ticket but no one seems to be checking.
What is not included in the Archaeological Zone Ticket?
You’ll need to pay an additional fee for entrance to the following locations:
- Mingun/Saigan (5,000 Kyat for both)
- Mandalay Hill (1,000 Kyat)
15 Awesome Things To Do in Mandalay
1. Chat With the Locals at Mandalay Hill
Most tourists climb to the top of Mandalay Hill to watch the sunset, but what may catch you by surprise is the number of locals who have also made the trek in the hopes of chatting with English-speaking foreigners. Dozens of students and young monks arrive at the top of Mandalay Hill every afternoon planning to practice their English skills with you.
You’ll find this to be a symbiotic relationship as you’ll have the opportunity to ask questions about life in Myanmar and they’ll get to ask questions about your favorite movie or football team. But once you say yes to one, many more will follow. So either expect to have a lengthy conversation with several locals or create an escape plan.
Entrance Fee: There is a 1,000 Kyat ($.75 USD) fee that you’ll be asked to pay when you enter the Su Taung Pyae Pagoda at the top of Mandalay Hill.
2. Sample Mandalay’s Tea Shops
Anywhere you go in Myanmar you’ll find quaint little shops serving thick, sugary sweet Myanmar Tea. And around Mandalay you’ll find dozens of tea shops serving up quick eats in addition to tea and coffee. Our favorites are Unique Mandalay Tea Room, Shwe Pyi Moe, Pan Tha Khin, and Min Thi Ha.
Make sure you check out our post on the Best Tea Shops of Mandalay for more info on all of them!
3. Stroll Across the U Bein Bridge
The U Bein Bridge spans the three-quarter mile stretch across the Taung-tha-man Inn Lake in Amarapura and is the longest teak bridge in the world. It was finished in 1851 and has been in constant use in the years since. It’s a a bit rickety, the water in the lake is rather polluted (and smelly), and you’ll want to watch your step to make sure you don’t step through a hole. But it makes for some beautiful photos and excellent people watching.
Most people arrive at U Bein Bridge in the late afternoon to watch the sun set over the reflective waters of the lake. If you want a calmer experience, plan on arriving just before sunrise to watch locals exercising on the bridge or walking to work.
The massive Mahagandayon Monastery is nearby and is home to over 1,000 monks so you’ll likely encounter plenty of them wandering along the bridge as well. Tour buses generally show up at the monastery at 11:00am so that tourists can watch the monks eat their lunch which seems a bit like visiting a human zoo. If you want to visit the monastery we recommend going in the afternoon after the tour buses are long gone and the eating has commenced.
4. Wander Through the Teak Monasteries
Shwenandaw Monastery, also known as the Golden Palace Monastery, is decorated inside and out with intricate wood carvings. It was built in the 19th century and has actually been dissembled, moved, and reassembled, twice. Originally a part of the royal palace in Amarapur, it was moved to Mandalay in 1857 where King Mindon used it as his personal living quarters, and then in 1880 it was once again relocated to it’s present location and converted into a monastery.
Entrance Fee: The entrance to Shwenandaw Monastery is included in the Mandalay Archaeological Zone Ticket (along with Innwa and The Royal Palace).
If you enjoy your visit to the Shwenandaw Monastery then make sure you also visit the Shwe In Bin Monastery. It’s much less popular with tourists which means that, aside from a few monks going about their daily chores, you’ll pretty much have it all to yourself.
5. Read the World’s Largest Book
Kuthodaw Pagoda sits in the northeast corner of Mandalay at the base of Mandalay Hill. The centerpiece is the familiar gold pagoda that you’ll find in most temples around Myanmar. However, what makes Kuthodaw noteworthy is the 730 white stupas that surround the central pagoda.
Each stupa contains a marble tablet covered on both sides with Burmese script. The first 729 tablets comprise the teachings of Buddha and the final (730th) tablet tells of the creation of Kuthodaw Pagoda. Not only is this the largest book in the world, it is also a surreal place for a photo shoot.
The nearby Sanda Muni Pagoda offers a similar setting – a golden stupa surrounded by 1,774 white stupas that are housing marble slabs inscribed with the teachings of Buddha. At Sanda Muni the stupas are set closer together and you’re not permitted to roam freely among them as you are at Kuthodaw.
Entrance Fee: Supposedly Kuthodaw and Sanda Muni Pagodas are a part of the Mandalay Archaeological Zone Ticket but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be asked to show your ticket.
6. Explore the Strange Pagodas of Mingun
The small town of Mingun sits just across the Irrawady river from Mandalay and boasts several impressive archaeological sites. The best known monument in Mingun is the massive Mingun Pahtodawgyi, aka “The Unfinished Pagoda”. The construction of this massive pagoda began in 1790 by King Bodawpaya, but the undertaking was so huge and costly that the king’s advisers concocted a prophecy that once the pagoda was finished, the king would die.
This false prophecy had the intended effect and construction slowed and then stopped altogether. The 50-meter tall structure that remains today is only one third of the pagoda’s intended height. An earthquake in 1839 left the pagoda with numerous cracks and today it is simply an impressive-looking tourist attraction.
While The Unfinished Pagoda is the most famous site in Mingun, the most photogenic site is the wavy white Hsinbyume Pagoda. You’ll find it just a short walk down the road from the Unfinished Pagoda.
Most people choose to travel from Mandalay to Mingun by boat. The ferry leaves from Myan Gyan Jetty in Mandalay at 9:00am and takes an hour to travel the 6.8 miles upriver to Mingun. The return boat leaves Mingun at 1:00pm and the return trip takes about 45 minutes.
If you’d rather avoid the crowds, hire your own motorbike or car with a driver and plan to arrive early in the morning. You’re unlikely to see another tourist until 10:00am when the ferry arrives.
Entrance Fee: Foreign visitors must purchase an entry ticket for the entire Mingun/Sagain area for 5,000 Kyat (~$3.70 USD). This will either be collected at the boat dock or at a roadside booth if arriving by car or motorbike.
7. Climb Sagain Hill
The town of Sagain sits on the western side of the Irrawady river and can easily be combined with a visit to Mingun or Innwa. It’s most notable feature is the towering Sagain Hill overlooking the river and covered in monuments and religious buildings.
Most people choose to climb up to the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda for stunning views of Mandalay. Walk 10 minutes north and you’ll find the U Min Thonze Caves which contain a row of 45 Buddha statues and is a popular photography spot for visitors.
A short drive west of Saigan Hill is the unique egg-shaped Kaunghmudaw Pagoda which was once painted white to signify purity but, in a controversial move by the Burmese government, was changed to the same ubiquitous gold as other pagodas in Myanmar.
Entrance Fee: The same entrance fee of 5,000 Kyat ($3.70 USD) covers both Sagain and Mingun.
8. Kiss a Python at the Snake Temple
Yadana Labamuni Hsu-taungpye Paya or as it is more commonly called around Mandalay, “Hmwe Paya” (which translates to “Snake Pagoda”), is a modest temple situated in the town of Peleik about 40 minutes south of downtown Mandalay.
One day, many years ago, a large Burmese Python crawled into this temple and settled itself around a statue of Buddha. The monks carried it back out into the jungle only to find that the next day it returned to the same spot. They decided that it was a sacred protector of Buddha (perhaps a reincarnated monk) so they decided to let it stay.
The original snake died years ago but it has been replaced by 3 new pythons that spend their days lazily sleeping around the Buddha statue. You’ll find many old, fading photos of various Burmese people posing with the original python on the walls of the temple. You can also see the original python which has been poorly taxidermied and displayed in a plexiglass case.
Make sure you arrive at 11:00am as that is when the snakes are carried from their perch around the Buddha statue to the snake bathtub for their daily washing. After they’ve had their bath you’ll likely be given the opportunity to take a photo with the largest of the pythons for a small donation to the temple (1,000 – 2,000 Kyat is acceptable).
Even if handling snakes isn’t your thing, it is endlessly entertaining to watch the locals taking photos of the snake draped around their babies. Occasionally you might even see a baby bathing with the snakes!
Entrance Fee: None but making a small donation to temples you visit is always a welcome gesture.
9. Take a Horse Carriage Through Innwa
Innwa, sometimes also referred to as “Ava”, served as the capital of Burma from the 14th to 19th century. It was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times during that period, but was finally abandoned after an earthquake in 1839. It sits about 30 minutes south of Mandalay and is best combined with a trip to Sagain, U Bein Bridge, or the Snake Pagoda in Peleik. Or with all 3 if you’re short on time.
Arriving at Innwa involves making your way to the river jetty just south of the Inwa Bridge. From there you’ll take a short ferry ride (1,300 Kyat round-trip) across the Mytinge River. Most of the local economy relies on driving tourists around in horse carriages so you’ll most certainly be approached by a carriage driver the second you get off the boat.
The price has been fixed at 10,000 Kyats ($7.40) for a 2-hour horse carriage tour around the area that includes the 4 main sites – Bagaya Monastery, Yandana Sine Pagoda, Nan Myint Watch Tower, and Mai Nu Monastery.
Each horse carriage fits two people in addition to the driver so if your group is larger than two you’ll need to hire multiple carriages. Make sure you insist on paying your carriage driver at the end of your tour as some unethical drivers have been known to demand more money after you visit the first few sites.
Entrance Fee: The entrance fee to the sites in Innwa are part of the Mandalay Archaeological Zone Ticket.
10. See a Puppet Show
Mandalay has a long history of puppetry and you’ll likely see puppets for sale all over the country. But sadly, as Myanmar modernizes, the art of puppetry is quickly dying. There is only one location where you can still see a puppet show in Mandalay – at the Mandalay Marrionettes Theater.
The show is an hour long and is accompanied by live music on traditional instruments. The puppet dances are immensely entertaining and the show is narrated in English so you can understand the context and history of each performance.
Make sure you arrive early or have your hotel book you seats in advance so you can sit near the front for the best views. And stick around after the show so you can meet the oldest puppet master in Myanmar. He’s over 80 years old and still practicing his craft!
Ticket Cost: 10,000 Kyat per person ($7.40 USD)
If a puppet show isn’t your thing, consider checking out the comedy routine of the Moustache Brothers. However, since only one of the three brothers is still performing, the act has lost a bit of it’s former intrigue.
11. Watch Buddha Get a Facial
Maha Myat Muni Pagoda houses the most important Buddha image in all of Mandalay as the statue was believed to have been cast while Buddha was still alive. The statue is already quite massive but is growing every year due to the amount of gold leaf that is applied by the thousands of religious pilgrims that visit. Some estimate that there are around 6 inches of additional gold that’s been applied via the thin gold sheets.
Buy a sheet of gold leaf yourself and get in line if you want to get up-close to the Buddha. But only if you’re a male. Sadly, as with many other religious sites in Myanmar, females are not allowed to touch this image of Buddha.
Every morning at 4:30am Buddha is draped in a gold cloth and his face is ceremoniously washed by the resident monks. He even gets his teeth brushed with sandalwood paste. The water that is left over from Buddha’s bath is then passed among the crowd so they can sprinkle it on their tongues and over their heads.
It’s an interesting, albeit lengthy ceremony that is worth checking out if you don’t mind the early morning wake-up call.
Entrance Fee: There is no entrance fee but if you have a camera you’ll be asked to pay 1,000 Kyat for a photography pass.
12. Visit the Royal Palace
The Royal Palace of Mandalay sits just south of Mandalay Hill and is surrounded by a high wall and an expansive 64-meter wide moat. It was home to the last royal family in Burma before their surrender to the British in 1885. It was then converted to a fort and used to house troops.
The palace grounds later became a supply depot by the Japanese during World War II and subsequently most of the original palace buildings were destroyed by allied bombing. The only original buildings left are the Royal Mint and the Watch Tower. The teak Shwenandaw Monastery was also once a part of the palace but was disassembled and reconstructed outside of the palace grounds in 1880.
Reconstruction of the palace began in 1989 and much of the grounds remain under construction today. However, the new buildings are made of concrete with corrugated metal roofs and don’t bear much resemblance to the original teak wood structures .
Entrance Fee: The Royal Palace is included in the Mandalay Archaeological Zone Ticket so if you’re headed to Innwa or Shwenandaw Monastery it won’t cost you anything extra to stop by here as well.
13. Swim Under Dat Taw Gyaint Waterfall
Getting to Dat Taw Gyaint Waterfall is no easy feat but it’s well worth the trouble! The start of the hike is located about an hour and a half drive northeast of Mandalay, just before you reach the colonial mountain town of Pyin Oo Lwin. From the parking lot it takes about an hour to walk down the dirt road that snakes it’s way to the bottom of the valley.
There are a few other waterfalls nearby that numerous local guides will offer to take you to in return for a tip (they’ll request a tip per guide and you’re likely to have 4 of them following you around). But the real star of the show is Dat Taw Gyaint.
There are several shops selling snacks and drinks at the parking lot, along the walk down, and at the falls itself. Make sure you leave time for the trip back to the car – it’s a lot harder going up than it is going down!
Entrance Fee: None
14. Relax with a Massage
While Thailand reigns supreme for massages in South East Asia, Myanmar is quickly catching up. Especially in the larger cities that have been building their tourism infrastructure. You will find several new spas springing up in Mandalay that offer inexpensive massages in comfortable, air conditioned settings.
Our favorite is the luxurious Innwa Spa on 72nd Street. You can get a 1-hour foot massage for just 7,000 Kyat (~$5.00 USD) or a 90 minute full-body oil massage for 25,000 Kyat ($19.00 USD).
15. Watch the Sun Set Over the Irrawady
Most visitors to Mandalay will watch at least one sunset from Mandalay Hill. We think that sunsets are best enjoyed with a frosty cold adult beverage. But it’s not allowed at the Buddhist pagodas at the top of Mandalay Hill so we’d recommend heading to Sky Bar on the rooftop of the Arrawaddy River View Hotel. The hotel is a bit overpriced and the food is nothing special, but the views of the sun setting over the Irrawaddy river can’t be beat. They even offer a free happy hour drink between 4:30 and 6:00pm!
What’s your favorite place to visit in Mandalay? Drop us a comment and let us know!
Want more info? Check out our favorite travel guides and books about Myanmar!
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