Mandalay is the country’s second city and a major commercial center. It is also an international gateway and it is the cultural heartland of Myanmar. King Mindon established it as his capital but he also wanted a new focal point for the teaching of Buddhism. The city has never lost its position among the locals as a religious center and it is said that two-thirds of the country’s monks still live in the Mandalay area.
Mandalay has benefited from an influx of investment and development in recent years, much of it from China. The so-called Burma Road from the China border city of Muse ends in Mandalay. In the markets of Mandalay, many goods from China are sold and it is openly stated that there is an enormous illegal border trade that appears to be only very loosely regulated.
Some statistics indicate that 30 to 40 percent of the population of Mandalay is of Chinese origin. There are new hotels and commercial buildings, and it has an upgraded airport with a few international connections.
The three ancient capitals of Amarapura, Inwa (Ava) and Sagaing, as well as the village of Mingun, all lie within 25 km of Mandalay. This was the heartland of the nation for hundreds of years between the fall of Bagan and the British occupation.
I probably knew the name Mandalay more than any other in Myanmar before my first visit because of a song heard in my childhood but this didn’t really provide any guide to what the city would be like. When we arrived we found a brown and dusty unremarkable city sprawling on a flat river plane. It was something of a disappointment.
Closer inspection, however, revealed an intriguing city with many interesting things for the visitor to see and do. It is well worth several days of your time.
Getting to Mandalay
The majority of visitors arrive by air from either Yangon or Bagan but there are many other alternatives. Mandalay has international flights from Kunming in China and Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand and there are expectations of further connections as tourism develops further. There is plenty of scope for expansion as the airport is the largest in the country, and it has a 4250 m runway which is the longest in ssoutheastAsia.
Five airlines have connections to other places in the country such as Yangon, the tourist centres of Bagan and Heho, Tachilek and Kengtong in the east, and the northern centres of Myitkyina, Homemailin, Putao, Bhamaw, Lashio, Khamti, and Kalemyo, so Mandalay is an effective hub for all of northern Myanmar.
There are boats from Mandalay to many places. Those to and from Bagan are the most popular with visitors. These vary from the regular boat which takes all day, through a six-hour fast boat, to luxury cruises with on-board accommodation that take up to four days for the trip.
Several luxury ferries travel the upper and lower reaches of the Ayeyarwaddy River and these services are increasing as tourism develops and government controls are relaxed.
Myanmar’s British-built railways are extensive but less well maintained than others in southeast Asia, but trains can be a slow but wonderful way to get around and experience the country at ground level.
The Yangon to Mandalay express trains are a reasonably comfortable but somewhat bumpy option for travel between these cities. Currently, there are daylight and two overnight trains a day. Myanmar trains have three classes: Upper class, First class and Ordinary class.
In addition, Upper Class sleeping-cars operate on two Yangon to Mandalay trains, on the Yangon to Bagan overnight train, and on some Mandalay- Myitkyina trains. The best Yangon-Mandalay trains have restaurant cars, serving meals, drinks and snacks. Prices vary from $33 for a standard sleeper to $11 for an ordinary seat.
Myanmar buses come in different categories. Options include luxury air-conditioned express buses, less luxurious non-airconditioned buses, local buses, and mini buses. From Yangon there are air-conditioned night buses which take about nine hours. This is the most comfortable and cheapest option for getting between the two main cities in Myanmar and you can pay in local currency rather than US dollars.
Getting Around Mandalay
City buses and pick-ups don’t serve the airport because it is 45 km from the city, so your best option to reach the city is a shared taxi. You may need to book this before you arrive.
In town there are buses and pick-up trucks but it can be extremely difficult to find where they are going. Motorcycle taxis are reasonably easy to find in the downtown area and they will usually give you a cheap helmet to wear. Ordinary taxis range in quality from good to appalling, and fares, which must be negotiated, reflect the size and state of the vehicle.
Motor cycles and bicycles can be rented at 2000 kyats ($2) per day for bikes and 10,000 kyats ($9) for the motor version. This can be a good solution for random exploration.
Walking the downtown area can be hot in the daytime but seems safe and is interesting at night.
Mandalay does not have a long history. While the surrounding areas flourished for hundreds of years, it was not until 1857, that King Mindon founded his new royal capital at the foot of Mandalay Hill, ostensibly to fulfill a prophecy. The city has a massive grid pattern with a royal palace compound at the centre.
The former royal palace of Amarapura and many of the other buildings in that location were dismantled and moved to the new location in 1858 and 1859.
Unfortunately for the kings, Mandalay was the royal capital for only 26 years before its annexation by the British and King Thibaw and his queen were shipped off to India. While Mandalay continued to be important during British colonial rule, it lost much of its commercial and political importance to Yangon.
Between the two World Wars, the city saw protests against British rule. During World War II the city was under Japanese occupation for nearly three years and it suffered heavy damage while being liberated. Unfortunately, the palace was burnt to the ground by Allied bombing.
After independence, the city’s infrastructure deteriorated. By the early 1980s, Mandalay was described as a town with low-rise buildings and dusty streets filled mostly with bicycles. To make matters worse the city was hit by two major fires. In 1981, a fire razed more than 6,000 houses and public buildings, and in 1984, another fire destroyed 2,700 buildings.
During the 1990s, many Chinese immigrants from Yunnan and Sichuan moved into Upper Burma and many settled in Mandalay. Today, the Chinese are estimated to make up about 35% of the city’s population and this has been a major factor in the city’s recent rapid growth. Ironically, the urban sprawl now encompasses Amarapura, the very city King Mindon left some 155 years ago.
Top places to visit in and around Mandalay
The city sprawls for kilometers so interesting sites can be a long way apart. It is not possible to walk between most of them.
This 240m-high hill is an important pilgrimage site for Burmese Buddhists and a popular place for visitors. It is a long climb to the pagoda at the top of the hill on a winding covered stairway. Unfortunately, there are many cats and dogs along the way which often soil the stairs and make walking in bare feet somewhat uncomfortable.
The most popular southern route has 1,729 steps. There are many smaller pagodas along the way, housing large and stupendous gold images of the Buddha. One of the most striking is the gold plated Standing Buddha with arm outstretched apparently prophesying the creation of Mandalay.
Fortunately for some, it is possible to catch a taxi, a motor bike, and sometimes a pick-up from the bottom of the hill to an escalator and elevator which takes you to the very top. The view from the summit is extensive. To the west lies the Ayeyarwaddy River and beyond that the Sagaing and Mingun hills. To the south, you see the city of Mandalay and the palace complex and to the east is the purple Shan Plateau. You have to pay both an entrance and camera fee here.
This is located at the base of Mandalay Hill and is promoted as the world’s largest book. It was built by King Mindon at the same time he was constructing the Royal Palace. It is believed its central stupa is modeled on the Shwezigon at Nyaung U, Bagan.
The central stupa is set in the middle of a collection of 729 pagodas or shrines. Each shrine contains a large marble slab, inscribed with a portion of the Tipitaka, Theravada Buddhism’s sacred texts. Taken together, they contain the entire text of the Tipitaka and thus form “the world’s largest book.” It is quite a sight.
This bears a resemblance to the nearby Kuthodaw Pagoda because of the large number of slender whitewashed ancillary stupas on the grounds. The pagoda complex was erected on the location of King Mindon’s provisional palace which he used until his permanent Royal Palace was completed in the center of the Royal City. It was built as a memorial to King Mindon’s younger half- brother, the Crown Prince Kanaung.
It is also famous for the Iron Buddha Sandamani cast by King Bodawpav of the Konbaung dynasty in 1802, and which King Mindon brought from Amarapura to his new pagoda and shrine in 1874. The temple also has 1774 marble slabs inscribed with commentaries on theTipitaka so some call it the ‘worlds largest book volume 2.
The pagoda of the “Great Marble Image,” is also at the base of Mandalay Hill. Although its construction was started in 1853 by King Mindon, it was not completed until 1878. The chief feature of the Kyauktawgyi Paya is a huge seated Buddha figure sculpted from a single block of pale green marble.
Shwe Nandaw Kyaung (Golden Palace Monastery)
This is the only building from Mindon’s “Golden City” to remain. This occurred because it was dismantled and moved to its present site by King Thibaw after his father died while inside it. The king used the building for awhile, but he later converted it to a monastery. It shows us a little of how sumptuous Asia’s last great teak palace complex must have been with intricate woodcarvings on most of its surfaces.
Unfortunately, the gold-plating and glass mosaics are gone, but there are traces of gold on the imposing ceiling. There are a few relics displayed inside.
Moat and Fort Walls
The original palace site is ringed by an impressive moat and 8 m-high walls. It covers a vast area and was a city within a city when first built with much more than the palace inside. Each side is nearly 2 km long and there are five bridges across the moat but visitors are only allowed to use the one on the eastern side.
There are a series of towers along each wall with carved woodwork at their top and if you are careful with your timing and angle, some excellent photographs can be obtained here.
The original palace was destroyed in 1945 but a new one was built in the 1990s. After paying the entry fee, visitors are allowed to enter this part of the palace grounds and the road leading to it, but nowhere else, as the area is used today as an army camp. The design is similar to the original and some traditional construction techniques were used, but modern materials like concrete and corrugated iron have been incorporated into the reconstructions.
The best building to start with is the spiral watchtower, which is one of the very few original buildings that weren’t destroyed during WWII. Other places not to miss are the throne room and the Glass Palace where the king lived. There is a museum at the far end of the area which has some interesting items and old photographs.
Central City Pagodas
There are several pagodas in the west and south of the central city but none are of particular value for the visitor. The Shwekyimyint Pava has some interest since it was founded in the 12th century by Prince Minshinzaw, and it contains an original Buddha image consecrated by the prince.
The beautifully proportioned Eindawya Pava stands west of Zegyo Market and was built at the same time as the royal palace. Setkvathiha Pagoda on 85th Street, rises from an elevated masonry platform and includes a ‘golden rock miniature and an impressive seated bronze Buddha.
Maha Muni Pagoda
This pagoda 3 km south of the city center on the road to Amarapura, is the most revered Buddhist shrine in Mandalay because of a magnificent gold Buddha image. It is said to be one of only five likenesses of the Enlightened One made during his lifetime. This claim is doubtful, however, and it was probably made around AD 150, five or more centuries after the Buddha’s death.
It matters little because the image is totally unrecognizable today as it’s covered in gold. So many gold leaves have been pressed on to it as offerings that they now form a 15 cm thick, lumpy layer. Only men are permitted to add more gold to the statue and there is a constant stream of them doing so. While the face is kept clean and is washed each morning, the legs and feet of the statue are just lumps of gold.
The present temple complex is largely from the late 19th century due to a fire. In the courtyard areas, there are a number of bronze warrior Khmer statues, which were originally from the Angkor region in Cambodia and are said to have healing properties.
Pilgrims can be seen rubbing them in anticipation of a cure. This is a good temple to see owls, green parrots, and other birds, in cages. You pay to release the birds and it is thought to bring good luck and merit to the person who releases the bird.
For about a hundred years, beginning about the mid 1700’s, several kings, moved the capital of their country around from Amarapura to Inwa, back to Amarapura, and then to Mandalay. Amarapura was founded by King Bodawpaya in 1782, after royal astrologers, were concerned about the king’s past actions. In 1783, the entire population of Ava packed up and shifted to land around the newly built palace.
The move was only temporary because Bodawpaya’s grandson, King Bagyidaw moved the capital back to Inwa in 1821 but his successor King Tharrawaddy again moved the royal capital back to Amarapura in 1842. In 1857, King Mindon again moved the capital, this time to a completely new location, 11 km further north to the foot of Mandalay Hill.
Today Amarapura is a popular tourist half day- trip destination from Mandalay though the town has actually merged with the southern fringes of Mandalay. Little remains of the old Amarapura palace but you can still find two masonry buildings — the treasury building and the old watchtower.
King Bagyidaw and King Bodawpaya were both buried here and their tombs also remain. The corner pagodas still stand at the four corners of the once square city. There are several other places worthy of a trip.
The large, and famous, Mahagandayon Monastery is certainly worth visiting. It is enormous and is home to around 1400 monks. It is a renowned center for Buddhist studies and strict religious discipline. If you arrive at 10 am, you will see the monks queuing for their food and making their way to the lunch hall. They are, so patient, so quiet, so stoic it should make you think about your own life.
All Myanmar boys enter the monastery at some point in their life, some while very young. They may only stay for a few days, or a week or two and then return to normal life, but there are those that stay there or return later and stay. You see examples of all this amongst those here at this monastery.
The silk industry is big here and you can see the weaving of exquisite longyis that are worn by Burmese women. In a few areas, the clickety-clack of looms provides a distinctive sound which makes it easy to find one of these small ‘factories’ and it is both interesting and educational to visit.
The tomb of the Thai King Uthumphon of Ayutthaya is in the well-known Linzin Hill graveyard. Recent excavations at the tomb have discovered the remains of a monastery building buried beneath the historic tomb of the former Siamese king and it could have been the place where Thai abbots were living.
A museum is planned around Linzin Hill that reflects the culture and daily life of the Thai people who lived in Amarapura during the 18th century after being captured in Ayutthaya.
U Bein Bridge is undoubtedly the highlight of Amarapura. It was built around 1850 from teak columns which are thought to have come from Inwa after the capital was moved from there. It is named after Mayor U Bein who wanted to unite the two villages on either side of Taungthaman Lake.
The bridge has over 1000 wooden posts and is 1.2 km long, and it is claimed to be the oldest and longest teak wood bridge in the world. At nine points along the bridge, drawbridges were built to allow the royal barges and war boats to go under the bridge and out to the AyeyarwaddvRiver.
Of course, we walked from one end to the other and back again. Despite its increasing status as a tourist location, the bridge is an important and practical part of the daily movements for people who live in this area.
Apart from the actual structure, it was fascinating to see local life happening around us. There was a large group of people fishing from the shore under the bridge. They had several huge baskets filled with crushed ice and were bringing in hundreds of fish in the nets and sorting them as they sat on the ground. Baskets of fish were then loaded onto the back of motorbikes and taken away.
There were hundreds of ducks that were farmed but were free to swim around as they pleased. There were people crossing the lake by boat and others using the bridge, women selling caged birds, and people living in temporary thatch dwellings growing crops on land that would be underwater during the rainy season.
This offers blissful respite from the bustle of the city and is a great place to watch the sun make its slow descent at the end of the day. There are several tiny bars that help the mood with a local beer.
The Kvauktawgyi Pagoda was built by King Bagan in 1847 using the Ananda Temple at Bagan as a model. It closely resembles the Ananda in exterior form but it falls short in construction and interior decoration. Inside there is one main image carved from marble. The walls in the east and south porches are adorned with paintings depicting many religious buildings and scenes from contemporary Burmese life.
In the southern part of Amarapura, the Pahtodawgyi Pagoda is modeled on the Mahazedi in Sri Lanka. The foundation of this pagoda was laid by King Bagyidaw and his Queen in 1820. The lower terraces have marble slabs illustrating scenes from the Jataka and there is a fine view over the surrounding countryside from the upper terrace.
The Kyauksein (Jade) Pagoda which is nearing completion includes more than 10,000 tonnes of the precious gemstone and is being built at an estimated cost of $10.3 million. A jewelry trader stockpiled jade for 25 years to build the pagoda. Work began in 2012 and is about 90 percent finished (November 2015).
The pagoda is made only of jade, the first in the world to be made in this material. The pagoda features jade pieces carved to depict the jataka, or stories of the Buddha’s previous lives, as well as the chronicles of Myanmar’s kings. It is hoped that when completed it will become a tourist attraction.
Other Things to do in Mandalay
Visit a gold leaf factory
You can’t miss gold leaf when you visit Myanmar. Buddha images all around the country are covered with it but Mandalay gave us the chance to see how it was made. At a gold leaf factory on 36th Street, we saw several young men put thick sheets of gold between sheets of goat-skin and hammer the tightly pressed bundle for half an hour with three kg hammers in a monotonous rhythm over and over again.
They then cut the hammered gold into smaller sections and repeated the hammering and so it went on. It is a slow and almost back breaking job as they stand on their platforms with heavy hammers.
The result is an amazingly thin layer of gold which is stacked between bamboo sheet papers. You can purchase the gold leaf and take it to one of the many temples or pagodas to stick on a statue of Buddha.
See the stone carvers
There is white dust in the air, as we stroll along the road through Mandalay’s marble-carving epicenter. Craftsmen, who work with electric drills here on Kyauk Sit Tan, the stone sculpture lane near the west entrance of the city’s famous Maha Myat Muni Pagoda, seem oblivious to the danger. As the industry moves from hand-crafted to machine-made sculptures, production rates have doubled or tripled – and so has the dust.
There are marble statues of various sizes in workshop after workshop. There are also growing piles of uncut stones, half-crafted figurines and polished statues spilling out onto the street and this is causing worsening traffic congestion. It is a real mess but seeing all these white Buddhas and all manner of other beings just lying about, makes for a great picture.
This is less a market than a manufacturing zone, but of course, you can make a purchase on the spot. Statues range in style and size, from a simple figure that would sit on a table to a giant, exquisite piece that would adorn a temple.
Watch the Moustache Brothers
The Moustache Brothers were a comedy trio whose chaotic act of humor, traditional dance and political satire made them globally famous. They crack politically edgy jokes in a makeshift theater. Unfortunately, since the death of the original lead, the performances have gone downhill
The political tension surrounding their performances has been largely defused by reforms introduced by Myanmar’s present government but their comments in 1996 resulted in two of the brothers being imprisoned for six years. The jailing followed a performance outside the home of Aung San Suu Kyi.
These days it is possible to just turn up most nights and you will get a seat. The performances include humor with a political and historic slant, singing, traditional dance, and video clips of supportive Hollywood performers.
Check out the Cultural Museum
Those interested in the royal history of Myanmar will enjoy the collections of Mandalay regalia, as well as royally commissioned art. The museum on 8oth Streets between 24th and 25th streets is also home to coins, palm leaf manuscripts, and Bagan-period Buddha images. It opens from 9.30 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday.
Visit a bronze Buddha factory
In Mandalay, ancient brass molding factories produce innumerable Buddha images and other decorated objects by skillfully using a primitive technique called the lost-wax method. We watched statues in various stages of production and learned that the finished statue is first carved in wax on top of a clay base mould.
A second clay frame is then molded around the wax statue. Molten bronze is poured in between the two moulds, melting the wax and filling the space that the wax had occupied. When the mould is broken open, the bronze statue inside is a perfect replica of the original wax statue.
Enjoy the Marionette Theatre
Many visitors like to visit the Mandalay Marionettes theater on 66th Street between 26th & 27th Streets, where each evening they are treated to a performance of yoke thay, traditional Burmese puppetry. Marionette operas are performed here with a traditional orchestra.
This was once a popular art form in Myanmar but we learn that locals rarely come to the show, although entrance is free for them. It obviously has international appeal, however, as the puppeteers have been invited to perform at many international events.
See a performance in the Mintha Theatre
The Mintha Theatre on 27th Street between 65th and 66th is dedicated to classical Myanmar dance. Performances are held nightly 7 days a week at 8:30 p.m. Shows are an hour long and consist of a series of short dance pieces in lavish traditional costume choreographed to take you on a journey through Myanmar s dance tradition.
The troupe is composed of 7 dancers and 8 gamelan-style musicians on bells, drums, pipes and harp, and the people involved all seem to take a genuine pride in what they do. The ticket price is 8000 kyats. In a country where poverty and lack of government support has severely restricted artistic movement, the Mintha Theater is a major triumph.
Take a balloon ride
An unusual way to see Mandalay is to take a balloon flight over the city. You will discover hidden sights and treasures of this historic area which can’t be seen from the ground. It is likely you will see monks walking in long lines, barefoot on their morning alms round, people flocking to the central market to buy their groceries, and along the river, herds of water buffalo bathing in the stream and riverboats of all shapes and sizes loading up their goods and passengers.
A typical flight includes hotel pick-up from about 5.30 a.m. and a return about 9 a.m. The flight itself usually lasts about one hour. You will be served pre-flight tea, coffee and pastries, and a picnic and celebratory chilled sparkling wine after your flight.
Take part in sport
Golf courses can be found both within the city and in outlying areas. The city course is located to the north of the fort, just off 73rd street. Courses outside the city limits include the Shwe Man Taung Golf Resort, which is around 10 minutes by car from the city center and Yay Dagon Taung Golf Resort, about 20 minutes by car from the center.
Several of the larger hotels have both swimming and tennis facilities and some places allow non-guests to use them for a price.
You may not want to participate but you can watch Htou’hsi Tou, a traditional, informal game which is played outdoors and involves one team attempting to penetrate a marked-off space before being tagged by someone from the opposing team.
The traditional Asian sport of kick boxing- Burmese style – can be seen in action on 76th Street, at a small training facility, and full matches are held at various venues around the city.
Gems, jewelry, and handicrafts are some of the things Myanmar is known for and all these can be purchased in Mandalay. There are countless stores selling precious stones, gold and silver jewelry. As the country’s crafts centre, Mandalay also has many locally produced souvenirs such as sculptures and Buddha images and you can visit workshops where these are actually produced.
Mandalay doesn’t have many of the big shopping centers that you find in Yangon so you are better off looking in the local markets and family stores. Here are some suggestions.
Kai Tan Market
This market on 28th Street, between 86th and 87th Streets, has 315 shops on five levels offering fresh produce and local foods of every description. Those who need some fish paste to spice up the local food, or a warm and comforting bowl of Moiling a, a fish noodle soup, will find the second floor a paradise.
The Thiri Mandalar Market
The ten buildings comprising Thiri Mandalar Market on 89th Street, between 22nd and 23rd Streets, house over 2,300 shops. Everything that originates in the surrounding rural regions ends up here. That makes this enormous market a must-see for visitors looking for regional products.
This market between 84th Street and 86th Street and between 26th Street and 28th Street has a huge selection. The city’s oldest marketplace is where you can find a little bit of everything. Busy business people and ethnic people in traditional dress all go here. This is Mandalay’s main market and it is a one-stop shopping place for locals. Trays of spices, bolts of silk and a jumble of household goods are stacked high on teetering tables and shelves.
The Man Thiri Market
Because it is close to the Zegyo Market the Kai- tan Market, the 500-shop Man Thiri Market on 86th Street, between 25th Street & 26th Street is frequently visited by shoppers from the other two markets.
Mahar Aung Myay Gems Dealers’ Market
This is home to a large number of gem dealers, and you will find some of the world’s finest and most reasonably-priced jade and other gemstones. It’s fascinating watching the gems being appraised and sold; you are also accosted by people trying to sell you gemstones of all qualities.
They allow visitors to watch, for an entrance fee of US$1, but if you look like a local, you’ll pass for free. There are coffee/drink stalls you can sit and watch the madness. The market is between 39th Street and 40th Street, between 87th Street and 88th Street. It has recently been upgraded and expanded.
The mall between 33th and 34th street, on 78th Street, is the glitziest shopping center in Mandalay. There is a large supermarket in the basement, you can enjoy American and Asian 3D movies in the cinema, and have decent American, European, Chinese, Korean and Japanese food on the top floor.
You can also spend some of your hard-earned money on diamond rings, Rolex watches, clothes and technical stuff. There are beauty treatments and massage services available as well. If you run out of cash you will find ATMs on the ground floor.
Be aware, however, that prices here are higher than most other shopping centers in town and that many locals never come here to buy anything because of that. That partly explains the empty spaces that still exist within the complex.
Great Wall Shopping Centre
Before Diamond Plaza opened, this was the king in these parts. Now it is struggling and may never catch up. It is on 78th Road, between 32nd and 33rd Streets.
78 Shopping Centre
This has been a favorite for quite some time and although small, it still seems to be doing well. It is at N0.208/A, Corner of 78th and 38th Streets.
Eating, Drinking, and Where to Stay
See this post for detailed information about eating and drinking in Mandalay.
See this post for detailed information about where to stay in Mandalay.
There are a few places around Mandalay worth visiting.
This is situated approximately 30 minutes by car from Mandalay. There is a famous pagoda in town which is called the Palate Snake Pagoda. The reason for its name is due to the pythons that surround the main Buddha figure. These passive snakes are quite happy for visitors to hold them and take pictures and at n a.m. every morning they take a bath in the small pool nearby.
Each year, thousands of the faithful make a pilgrimage to the temple, and the walls of the pagoda are lined with photos of families visiting the semi-holy serpents. Some depict toddlers happily bathing alongside the snakes.
The area surrounding the snake pagoda is also worth exploring and is full of overgrown and beautiful ruins rarely visited by tourists.
Pyin U Lwin
This pretty little hill resort, 67 km east of Mandalay at an altitude of 1070 m is a great contrast to Mandalay. Formerly called Maymyo, this cool retreat from the heat of the central Myanmar plains is pleasant at most times and at certain times of the year it can get quit chilly. You find a large Indian population and strong Anglo communities here because it was once an Indian military base.
The town is surrounded by low hills and the whole area is dotted with pine and eucalypt trees. Coffee, vegetables, and strawberries are grown on the slopes of the hills. The town is the center of the country’s principal flower and vegetable production and these are exported to every corner of Myanmar throughout the year.
Pyin Oo Lwin is also the center of Myanmar’s rapidly growing coffee industry. A number of factories in the town process coffee beans for country-wide distribution, with a growing amount now prepared for export.
Frequent pick-ups to/from Mandalay (1,500 kyats) arrive/depart from the center of town. Shared taxis to/from Mandalay (8000 kyats) are also available and if you need a private taxi it is likely to cost around 35,000 kyats. Along the way, you will see villages, bullocks in rice fields, people on bicycles, cars fully laden with goods on the way to China and cars similarly laden with goods on the way back from China.
Alternatively, you can travel by train and this is an interesting, if rather long, ride due to the sharp bends and a steep ascent. The town is easy to get around on foot or by bicycle but the favored transportation in the town is horse-drawn carriages, which have more in common with 19th century London than 21st century Myanmar.
The Candacraig, which is now a hotel, is a colonial mansion built as a guest house for a British trading company in 1904. It was made famous by Paul Theroux in the wonderful Great Railway Bazaar. The National Kandawgyi Gardens about 1.5 km south are undoubtedly the highlight of the town.
The gardens have a rich and diverse collection of flora, and some say they are among the most beautiful botanical gardens in the world. There is a rose garden, a stupa in the middle of a pond, and an orchid garden amongst other attractions.
Engineering types and train buffs venture 50 km or so north-east to see the famous Gokteik Viaduct which was built in 1900. At 102 m high it was the second-highest railway bridge in the world when it was built and at 690 meters it is certainly the longest in Myanmar. I’m told that no other similar trestle has ever exceeded it in size except for the Lethbridge Viaduct in Canada.
There is a local train that runs across the viaduct between Pyin Oo Lwin and Nyaung Pain and a service for train enthusiasts and tourists from Nawngkhio and Nyaung Pain stations which is used occasionally by groups. The latter 26-kilometer journey on a train that can carry only 20 passengers includes a 10-minute stop for photographs but has not been very successful because of the high cost.
The town is very much into elephants. Elephant masks and toys are sold at numerous kiosks, white elephant statues guard the gigantic golden Buddha halfway up local Webu Hill and a nationally famous elephant dance competition forms the centerpiece of Kyaukse’s main festival. Remains of pagodas and old cities are found throughout the area.
For centuries, Kyaukse townships Tamote Shin Pin Shwe Gu Gyi Pagoda lay hidden. Now, just a few years after its rediscovery and excavation, the Government is considering its listing as an ancient heritage site (November 2015).
The Pagoda was built in the middle of the eleventh century. It was one of nine pagodas outside the ancient city that showed the extent of the Bagan Empire and it displays the characteristic masonry and wall paintings of the period.
However, for many years its existence remained a mystery. The original temple and a second storey added a century later, were both encased inside a huge stupa built by King Uzana of the Pinya dynasty (1324-1343). This in turn became hidden underneath a hill, which in 1915 was topped by a new stupa.
In 2008 it was excavated and is now easy to admire. There is an image of three enclosed Buddha of Bagan era. There are also some wall paintings in the tunnels.
The temple and Kyaukse are situated 4okms to the south of Mandalay and 200kms from Bagan. Historians say the temple is prime evidence of the large area of the Bagan Kingdom.
Hsipaw, an old mountain valley town in the heart of the Shan Province, was once the administrative center for the state formerly ruled by Shan princes. Travelers come to trek to hill-tribe villages in the area, which are far less frequented and accustomed to foreigners than the country around Kalaw near Inle Lake.
The town is noted for its European-style palace, where the last sawbwa, Sao Kya Seng, lived until the military coup of 1962 when the chief disappeared. He was later found to have been murdered by the regime.
You can reach here by bus from Mandalay in about six hours but many say the best way is by train which winds its way over some incredibly steep hills and across the Gokteik Gorge, an outstanding feat of engineering. Rail buffs consider this to be one of the most spectacular rail journeys in the wTorld. It only costs US$9 for a first-class cabin though the journey takes a lengthy 15 hours to complete.
Hsipaw’s main pagoda is the Mahamyatmuni Paya on Namtu Road, which is worth a visit for its immaculately painted stupas and gleaming brass Buddha statue, backed by a halo of flashing red and purple lights. Of more traditional interest is the old quarter just north of the center where, among numerous antique wooden buildings, stands the Maha Nanda Kantha Kyaung, home to a Buddha made entirely from strips of woven bamboo.
The Central Market is undoubtedly one of the most ethnically diverse trading posts in all of Myanmar and you’ll find different tribes in ethnic dress selling their goods. You can pick up food, clothes and even electronics from China quite cheaply but you need to be early. It opens around 4 a.m. each morning and is usually finished by 8 a.m.
The Market has several stalls that serve snacks and Shan noodles with meat and vegetables in a sweet and spicy broth. At other times there are a few small restaurants on the bank of the Dokhtawady River.
For a great panoramic view over the town, head 1 km south to Five Buddha Hill, where the terrace fronting the Them Daung Pagoda is a popular destination for a late-afternoon stroll. The Shan pagoda of Bawgyo Paya, 8 km out of town in the direction of Mandalay, should be visited.
While there are plenty of Buddhas here, the pagoda also has some ancient statues of Hindu origin in the plaza outside, that date back to the earlier pre-Buddhist origins of Myanmar.
Rental bikes allow you to get out of town where you’ll find several good waterfalls and Shan villages. You don’t need a guide to enjoy the area. If you’d like to head further afield, you could visit the village of Namsham by motorbike or shared jeep. This is a beautiful mountaintop village which is surrounded by tea plantations and is virtually cut off from the outside world.
This surprisingly large city lies two hours further east towards the Chinese border. It is the capital of the Shan Province and a hive of activity. Its position near China means that it is the center of much of the growing trade between the two nations. The city’ itself is the beginning of the once infamous Burma Road which extends all the way to central China and the city of Kunming.
The road between Mandalay and Lashio may be one of the most diverse routes in Myanmar. When you arrive in Lashio, there’s a certain modernity that is noticeable. The city’s many Chinese guests are catered to by an array of newly built hotels. The food is a blend of Burmese and Chinese cuisine, and the best can be found in the night markets that dot the city.
Ethnic violence gripped the city for a period in 2013 with open warfare between Buddhists and Muslims. Three religious buildings, dozens of shops and several homes were torched during the fighting. At one stage some 300 Muslims were taking refuge at a monastery in Lashio, guarded by armed police and soldiers. Tensions seemed to have settled down somewhat by years end but visitors should make enquiries before visiting.
The major attraction in Lashio is a Buddhist temple. The Mansu Temple is about 5 km out of town and can be reached by bicycle or taxi. It is part Shan and part Burmese and, as with much of Lashio, there are Chinese influences. Another place worth visiting is a small gilded stupa on a hill top above the town. The Quan Yin Shang is a modern version of a classic Chinese temple to the south of the city.
It’s likely that Lashio will change rapidly over the coming decades because of its role as a trading hub with China so a visit now may allow you to see the city before it becomes too developed.
This is a town situated 1170 meters above sea level about 200 km north of Mandalay. It is a bonejarring, seven hour trip through farmlands, jungle, mountains, and hill-tribe villages. The mountain ranges of Mogok are a part of the great Shan plateau and the town is in the center of four mountains.
Visitors are rewarded by views of forested mountains, the distant Ayeyarwaddy River, and green plains. There are nearly one thousand bends and curves along the route into town. Visitors have the chance to see Shan, Palaung and Lisu villages along the route and see their traditional customs and daily work.
Mogok as a town came into being around 1207 AD during the Bagan Era. In the Shan language, it is known as “Mongkat” which means “a cool and pleasant town”. It is alternatively known as “Ruby Land” because it produces the highest quality rubies in the world.
Mogok also produces highly valued star sapphires and a whole variety of semi-precious gems like garnets, topaz, and many others. There are now over 1000 mines, and gems are extracted both through traditional methods of digging by hand and mining by machinery equipment.
The valley has half a million people and there are untold shops catering to the gem trade. Many residents make their living by mining, cutting, polishing and marketing gemstones. Each day, at various parts of the valley, you can find a number of outdoor gem markets, where you can buy stones.
In the mid-i8th century, this was the capital of a newly reunified Burma for a short while under the Konbaung Dynasty. The city some 100 km northwest of Mandalay on the road and railway line to Myitkyina until recently made little of its history. Virtually nothing remains of the enormous walled city except for a few sections of moat and some pagodas.
The government has in fairly recent times undertaken the reconstruction of the palace buildings, parks, and has dredged the royal lake for the benefit of the visitors and locals. The Shwe Tansar Pagoda is one of the oldest in Shwebo. It is supposed to have been built by King Alaung Sithu of the Bagan Dynasty. The Shwe Theindaw Pagoda also dates back to the Bagan Period.
The Shwebon Yadana Mingalar Palace was built by King Alaungphaya U Aung Zeya who was the first founder of the Konebaung dynasty, in 1753 A.D. The original palace was destroyed in 1766 A.D. but it was reconstructed on the original site in 1999.
Perhaps more interesting is Hanlin. now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, about 20 km to the south, where excavations of an old Pyu city from the 1st to the 9th centuries can be seen. In the town itself, there are numerous old stupas decaying in the sun which give a surreal feeling to the whole place.
Believed to have been founded somewhere around the first century, Hanlin was the largest and most important Pyu city’ until around the eighth century, when it was overtaken in importance by the much larger city Sri Ksetra, located near modern Pyay.
The walled city, with 12 gates and a moat, is three kilometers by 1.5 kilometers sloping to the south. The hot springs, which are still used today lie south of the ancient city. The city had a dam, they used irrigation, and in terms of agriculture, they were quite advanced.
Today it is possible to see the southern gate, a 12th century pagoda, a square monumental excavation, with three sets of standing stone slabs dating from the second century AD suggesting a connection to the megalithic culture found at Laikor in India, and a museum.
Take the boat from Mandalay to Bagan
This is a popular way to travel between these centers and the trip is a wonderful way to see ordinary life along the river. If you have done much of your Myanmar touring by air this gives you a good opportunity to see numerous pagodas, people farming, fishermen, people bathing in the water and numerous other sights as you leisurely pass by.
The river is really a watery portal back to the 19th century with the agrarian countryside and white stupas unchanged since Rudyard Kipling fell under the spell of Old Burma. You will see women collecting urns of water and carrying them on their heads, or pounding laundry on river stones while children and dogs play on the bank.
On land, there are wizened farmers driving creaking bullock carts or following water buffalo as they flow a field.
The trip on the public boat takes about 9-12 hours depending on the season. You leave Mandalay at 6 a.m. so it’s a good idea to have a boxed breakfast with you.
The seats are quite comfortable and you can move around to take photographs, chat with other passengers or simply relax. There are two brief stops along the way so you can buy fruit and another where women sell blankets. The cost is $18.00.
Luxury boats replicating the polished teak and brass of the original steamers are also available on this stretch of river and you can take these as far south as Yangon. Service 011-board is excellent but you pay a high price for the quality.
Taking a boat north from Mandalay
Far fewer tourists take boats north but there is much to reward the inquisitive explorer. Between Mandalay and Myitkyina, the Ayeyarwaddy flows through interesting farm land and forest, some villages and towns worth seeing, and three narrow gorges. There are regular public boats on the river and a few tourist boats with infinitely better facilities.
Yandabo is a village famous for its terracotta pots, made from the riverbank clay. The ports are transported by boat all over the country. It was also the place where, under a tree on the riverbank, a peace treaty was signed at the end of the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1826.
Kyauk Myaung is a small town located 29 km east of Shwebo on the western bank of the Ayeyarwaddy River. It is known primarily for its production of glazed pottery, including the large Martaban Jars which were used as water containers throughout rural Myanmar. The pottery is made in the Ngwe Nyein district just south of the main town.
Tagaung is situated on the east bank of the Ayeyarwaddy River, 127 miles north of Mandalay and 56 miles north of Shwebo. The area has been populated for nearly 2000 years. The ruins of the fort walls and traces of a moat are the only remnants of this ancient site. As the new town occupies almost the whole of the ancient site, excavations of archaeological interest have not been carried out to any great extent.
Katha is a town on a bluff on the west side of the Ayeyarwaddy. It is 12 hours by rail north of Mandalay and there is also a direct bus service along a bumpy road. The main economy of the town is fisheries and farming of kidney beans.
Katha is the setting of George Orwell’s first novel Burmese Days which he wrote in 1934 after served here in the Indian Imperial Police. The British Club, police station and town jail are locations mentioned in the novel that can still be visited today. You can also see his gloomy red brick house. The town is still charming with its teak homes and quaint streets and looks exactly as Orwell described it.
Apart from this, the fire station’s collection of IFC ship’s bells taken from sunken ships in the Second War is of some interest. There is an elephant logging camp in the hardwood forests of the hills that surround the town and this can be visited.
Bhamo is at the end of the navigable section of the Aveyarwaddy, and some 900 miles from Yangon. The town stretches along the river’s east bank in a series of villages approached through the spectacular second Gorge of the River.
Bhamo is one end of a famous old caravan trail through the mountains into China which was centuries old when Marco Polo discovered it in the 13th century. That route is still in use today. In town, you can explore the local market often filled with ethnic tribes such as Kachin, Lisu, and Shan.
Visit the magnificent Theindawgyi Paya pagoda the city ’s most venerated Buddhist temple, with its beautiful. Mon-style ordination hall, many Buddhas, and tall gilded stupa. Other things to see include the Shwe Kyi Na pagoda and historic Catholic churches.
Nearby are the 5th-century ruins of the trading city of Sampanago of the Shan kingdom and the impressive bamboo bridge that allows you to make your precarious way across the wide Tapin River. This is replaced every year after been washed out by floods. From Bhamo you can also take a small launch to explore the First Gorge of the Ayeyarwaddy River, not often visited by foreign travelers.
Bhamo has a couple of hotels, restaurants and other facilities. There are flights to Yangon, Mandalay, and Myitkyina.