Last Updated: September 14, 2023
Mandalay is the second-largest city in Myanmar after the capital Rangon and is in the northern central part of the country. Founded at the foot of the pagoda studded Mandalay Hill, the city gently cocoons the Irrawaddy River that lazily meanders past teahouses, pagodas, temples and markets.
King Mindon built the city between 1857 and 1859; Mandalay was the original capital of the Myanmar kingdom when it fell to British troops in 1885. The Japanese occupied the city during WWII. During a 12-day siege in March 1945, Japan destroyed much of the palace and town during its invasion of Burma. Afterwards, the palace and the rest of the city was rebuilt. Gold workshops, riverside hawkers, endless teahouses, bustling markets, monasteries, temples, and mosques have developed Mandalay’s unique charm.
The Myanmarian food embraces diverse regional culinary traditions. Cross-cultural trade with neighbouring countries, including Thailand, China and India, influences much of the food in Myanmar. Myanmar has a wide selection of dishes, including curries, fermented salads and soups, all eaten with rice, noodles or Indian flatbreads.
Mandalay is a favourite for tourists and young iPhone-wielding monks desperate to improve their English. The hill, at 231 metres, proudly reigns over the northernmost grounds of the Royal Palace. You’ll have impressive views of the city, pagodas and shrines that pepper the tropical landscape.
The Sutaungpyei Pagoda is at the top of the hill. It boasts a large patio for magical sunsets over the Irrawaddy River. Spend some time chatting to the locals; they love meeting people from around the world to hone their language skills. Don’t be surprised if a monk wants a selfie with you, and be prepared to answer questions about your favourite film and football team.
Statues gracefully line the hillside and tell the story of the ruler of Mandalay Hill, Ogress Sandha Mukkhi. Folklore has it that when Buddha came to Mandalay Hill, they prayed together with many pilgrims. The pilgrims made offerings, but she had nothing. She sliced off her breasts and offered them to Buddha with the condition she would one day be the King of Mandalay. Buddha agreed, and she was reincarnated as King Mindon over two millennia later. Look for the small shrine that depicts Ogress Sandha Mukkhi offering her breasts to Buddha.
A high-walled fort and a wide moat protect the Royal Palace of Mandalay. Between 1857 and 1859, King Mindon constructed the palace. It became the foundation of Mandalay’s new royal capital city. The palace was home to the last royal family before their final surrender to the British troops, who took over the lavish palace as home in the form of a fort.
The Japanese used the palace throughout WWII as a supply depot. Subsequently, Allied bombers destroyed the majority of the buildings apart from the royal mint and the watchtower. Reconstruction of the palace began in 1989, and much of the palace and grounds remain under construction today. Sadly, the original teak wood structures have given way to concrete buildings and corrugated metal rooves.
Interestingly, the teak Shwenandaw Monastery was once in the Amarapura Palace grounds until Mandalay became the capital. It was disassembled and relocated to the Royal Palace of Mandalay grounds in 1857. King Mindon used the building as his living quarters until he died in 1880. Prince Bagyidaw dismantled the Shwenandaw Monastery, and again it was relocated, but this time, outside the castle grounds. Since then, it’s remained a working monastery. It was once known as the Golden Palace Monastery because it was once completely gilded. Although there is not much gold remaining, the ornately carved teak is stunning.
Kuthodaw and Sanda Muni Pagodas
At the base of Mandalay Hill lies Kuthodaw Pagoda, a spectacular central golden pagoda protectively encircled by 730 white circular stupas topped with a gold ‘crown’. Collectively, the stupas make up the largest book in the world. Each of the stupas contains a marble tablet covered in a daintily carved Burmese script. The first 729 stupas comprise the teachings of Buddha, and the final tablet tells of the creation of Kuthodaw Pagoda. Visitors can wander freely through the stupas, but remember it’s a profoundly religious site, so be respectful.
Nextdoor neighbour Sanda Muni Pagoda provides a similar setting, but this time, a golden stupa encompassed by 1,774 smaller white stupas set close together. As in Kuthodaw Pagoda, Buddha’s spiritual teachings inscribe the marble tablets.
Just across the Irrawaddy River are the little town of Mingun and several impressive archaeological sites. Pingun Phtodawgyi is otherwise known as the unfinished pagoda. King Bodawpaya began building the pagoda in 1790, but the undertaking was foolishly huge. The King’s ‘loyal’ advisors devised a fictitious prophecy that the King would meet his untimely demise when the pagoda was complete.
The prophecy had the projected effect, and construction came to a halt. The 50-metre pagoda is still impressive at only one-third of its intended size and height. An earthquake in 1839 left the pagoda with deep cracks.
Next to the unfinished pagoda lies the most Instagrammable site, the spectacular Hsinbyume Pagoda. Prince Bagyidaw built the impressive white pagoda to resemble Mount Meru and commemorate his late wife, Princess Hsinbyume. She tragically died, giving birth to their first son, Prince Setkya Mintha. One hundred thousand emeralds funded the construction of Hsinbyume Pagoda. Historically, it is also known as Mye Thein Tan, which translates into Mye meaning emerald and Thein Tan meaning 100,000. According to Hindu and Buddhist mythology, Mount Meru represents the centre of the universe. It’s worth going early to both of these sites to avoid hoards of camera-brandishing tourists.
U Bein Bridge
U Bein Bridge is the longest teak bridge in the world. It infinitely crosses Amarapura’s Taung-the-man Inn Lake. The 1851 bridge is a little rickety, so watch your step. It’s tricky to decide how to see the bridge; walk across it, and you can mingle with monks and the locals. Or take a boat so that you can view the impressive stretch of the bridge and the hustle and bustle from afar. Sunrise and sunset are the best times to visit. On a clear day, sunset can be spectacular, and you can grab a bite at one of the local market stalls. If you seek a more peaceful experience, come early in the morning as the locals exercise or race to work.
Mahagandayon Monastery is a vast, surprisingly peaceful temple and is home to over 1,000 monks. Monks are not permitted to consume any food after noontime. They are served breakfast at the crack of dawn around 05.00, and their final meal at 11.00. Hundreds of monks make two orderly lines and hold their wooden bowls and metal drinking cups as they wait in turn for their alms. Collecting alms isn’t seen as begging but as a good way for locals to receive dhana and acquire merit.
Monks have very few possessions, the basics being a robe, alms bowl and water filter (so that bugs don’t fall into the water and drown). There are almost half a million monks in Myanmar. Of course, you’ll see many monks going about their daily lives, but to see so many in one place is a goosebump experience of a lifetime. Visiting the monastery is a top-rated stop for tourists. It can be jam-packed with intrigued and rather rude people vying for the best picture. It’s best to go in the rainy season so that the droves are no longer around. The endless tour buses in peak season can make it feel akin to a human safari.
Mandalay Marionettes Theatre
Mandalay has a long and colourful history of puppetry that dates from the 15th century. It’s traditionally known as ‘yoke thay’. In the 19th century, it was a hugely popular form of entertainment. Sadly, the art of puppetry is dying, so before it dies out completely, make sure to see a performance at the Mandalay Marionettes Theatre. Each show is about an hour long and accompanied by music played on traditional instruments.
A complete set of marionettes consists of at least 28 puppets. The stage is gloriously set with ornate backdrops of forests, palaces, thrones and animals. The puppets can be mythical beings, animals or humans, and each ‘being’ has its way of dance and movement. Thankfully, a few active older puppeteers continue to share their knowledge with the younger generations so that the performances can continue.
Each performance is similar and includes an eclectic cast of spirits from the underworld, including a white horse, monkey, snake, two ogres and an alchemist. Representing the sun is the colourful garuda and naga the dragon. Battles ensue until princes, princesses and pageboys, and astrologers take control of the human kingdom. There are scuffles, dance and song. In the end, virtue is rewarded, and evil is punished.
The puppets and the Mandalay Marionettes Theatre have performed internationally on many occasions piquing interest and success. The puppeteers are in high demand and perform at various religious and government festivals.
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