If you’ve been dreaming of white temples and friendly locals, a bustling city, that for most, is a portal to Bagan, then you must be envisioning Mandalay.
I liked Mandalay. My expectations were low after reading online reviews where people called the city chaotic and busy, but I came out loving it. And while I can see where they’re coming from, there’s something about that chaos that reminds me of adventures in my 20s and ignites my soul.
With a short 24 hours in the city, this is how I made the most of it and did the best there is to do in and around Mandalay:
U Bein Bridge for Sunrise
I learned about this famous bridge after seeing its photo on momondo while looking up flights. Hey, a girl’s got to get her inspiration wherever she can. It was a sight to behold.
The bridge is a whopping 1.2km long and is believed to be the longest and oldest teak bridge in the world, constructed in 1850.
While this bridge is famous for its sunset, I am honestly not sure why, because the sunrise is more optimal, IMHO. You get the beautiful sun rising right in front of you while you admire the monks, and tourists, walking across the bridge into the bright, orbital sun. Plus, it’s much less crowded if you go at sunrise. Leave downtown Mandalay by 5:30am to get there in time.
Mandalay is pagoda central (that goes for all of Myanmar, really), and during your day of exploration that’s most of what you’ll see. Prepare by wearing something that covers your shoulders and knees and pick shoes you don’t care much about, because you’ll be putting dirty feet back into them – no shoes are allowed in the pagodas.
Kuthodaw is characterized by a large central, golden stupa and rows upon rows of white pagodas that house the world’s largest book. In each pagoda you’ll see inscriptions on large stone slabs in seemingly endless rows. It’s a photographer’s dream, as was everything on my whirlwind tour.
*This is not the only pagoda worth seeing in town, and there’s also the palace, but keep in mind that traffic is BAD in Mandalay and can eat up a lot of your time, plus much of the amazing pagodas are outside of it.
Inwa, the Ancient Capital
This ancient imperial capital from the 14th to 19th centuries is quite different from anything else I saw in Myanmar, and I loved that it’s open to walk through and on, unlike Bagan these days.
I was surprised to find that it wasn’t crazy crowded, and loved the locals wanting to take pictures together. The Burmese are such a welcoming, friendly people, and their ancient rulers had some wicked style.
There are several stupas in the area that are closer in style to what you’ll see in Bagan, as well as an old wooden monastery that’s more or less falling apart, which made it all the more intriguing and ancient-feeling to me.
There’s a 10,000 kyat entrance fee, plus 1000 for the boat that takes you across to the ruins and back. Once you’re there, getting around is limited to just horse-drawn carriages for 15,000 kyat. I hated doing anything involving a horse, but given it’s 10km around the area to see all of the things, it’s not something you can do on foot unless you spend all day there. Unfortunately there are no tuk-tuks or other options at the time of this writing. Alternatively, only go to the old palace and skip the rest.
It’s also worth noting that the touts there are some of the most aggressive I’ve experienced. If you show interest they will get on a bike and follow you around until you buy something. I’m not hating on the hustle, and I did buy things because I liked what they were selling, but stay strong and don’t feign interest if you’re not into it!
Umin Thonse – 30 Caves Pagoda
Next I made my way up and around to the 30 Caves Pagoda, aka Goldmember’s dream. Each gold-framed doorway leads to a Buddha statue inside, and the whole area has a beautiful view.
We also stopped at another viewpoint nearby with a sweeping view of the stupa-lined horizon and leading all the way to central Mandalay. All of it was free, save for a 300 kyat camera fee.
The Cherry on Top: Hsinbyume Pagoda
Is this real life? The Hsinbyume Pagoda is unlike any other religious site in the world, and it’s open to explore, walk on, and enjoy. It was built in the early 1800s based on descriptions of the mythical Sulamani Pagoda on Mount Meru. Concentric terraces, totaling seven, represent an equal number of mountains leading up to and surrounding Meru, according to Buddhist mythology, and even if you’re not the spiritual type, you may find yourself starting to believe while exploring Hsinbyume.
Most people get here by taking a boat from Mandalay’s city center, or stop here in the early morning, because frankly it makes a lot more logistical sense to head there after U Bien. However I knew I wanted to be there for golden hour and sunset, mostly to have nobody else there and to get it in the perfect light. The photo above was taken just after the sun dipped below the horizon. I was very happy with my choice of timing.
So how did I do all of this in a short amount of time and according to my time specifications?
Hire a Driver
Many of the famous things to do and see around Mandalay are an hour’s drive away from the city center. I also wanted to see specific things at optimal photo-taking and crowd-avoiding times, because I’m neurotic like that, and having a driver helps you to do it all in a short window of time. Plus, it’s very affordable.
My driver, Mr. Take it Easy, was one of the best guides I’ve ever had. He was thoughtful, gave me flowers in the morning, brought water, cared about my enjoyment of the experience, and was willing to come get me at 5:30am and drive me all around until sunset – all for the equivalent of $60. I could link an affiliate driver with a tour operator here to try to make a buck off of this, but I’d much rather you give this man your business. He really deserves it. Contact him here, and if this itinerary looks good to you, send him this link!
*Please note that prices are changing quickly in Myanmar, and gas ain’t cheap, so if you book this in 6 months or a year after this writing, the price may have gone up.
Mandalay was only the second stop in my Myanmar adventure, and it made me fall in love with the country and its people more. I’d never been anywhere with so many beautiful feats of architecture, and it was only the beginning.