Rich in history, this former capital offers travellers a trip back in time
Compared to the many other ancient capitals scattered around Myanmar, Mandalay is a relatively new city. It was constructed in 1857, along the Irrawaddy River at the foot of Mandalay Hill. Before its final annexation by the British Empire, it was the last royal capital of the Konbaung Dynasty. But on November 28th, 1885, the conquering British sent King Thibaw Min and Queen Supayalat into exile, thereby ending the Third Anglo-Burmese War. And while Mandalay remained the most important city in Upper Burma during British colonial rule, the commercial and political importance of the nation had shifted to Yangon.
In 1892 this former capital was immortalized in Western culture by the poem “Mandalay”, written by Rudyard Kipling. The poem tells of a British soldier and his nostalgia and longing for the exoticism of Asia, and the countries and cultures located “East of Suez”. The soldier’s Mandalay memories contrast starkly with the cold, damp, and foggy climates of his own land, not to mention his homeland’s rigid social disciplines and conventions. Nowadays, however, it’s easy to get back to Mandalay, and Bangkok Airways flies here direct from Chiang Mai (flight time just over an hour).
In the centre of the city sits the sprawling grounds of Mandalay Palace—a legacy of the Konbaung Dynasty—which is surrounded by a 2km long wall on all four sides, and a perfectly square moat (64 metres wide) outside those walls. Tragically, Mandalay was bombed extensively during WWII, and this palace was almost entirely destroyed, along with much of the rest of the town. The palace was rebuilt in the 1990s, staying faithful to the original design, and has since become a major tourist attraction. Highlights include the 24-metre-high Watch Tower—which visitors can climb up to get great views of the palace grounds—and the informative Cultural Museum.
As one of the few royal palace buildings to survive the bombings of WWII, the Shwenandaw Monastery—also known as the Golden Palace Monastery—is a piece of living history. It is built completely of teakwood, and is decorated inside and out with fantastically detailed and ornate carvings. It used to be one of the main palace buildings, but was moved to its current location, just to the northeast of the palace, in 1880. Admission is 10,000 Kyat.
In 1860 construction began on the Kuthodaw Pagoda, a 57-metre-high golden Buddhist stupa. Surrounding the stupa are 729 identical and ornately designed white kyauksa gu, or stone-inscription caves, and each of these enclosures contains a large marble slab, inscribed on both sides with a page of text from the Tipitaka (the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism). Taken as a whole, the entire collection forms the largest “book” in the world.
Every morning at 4am a large crowd of Buddhist devotees come to the Mahamuni Paya temple to watch the ritual face cleansing—and teeth brushing—of a 13 foot tall seated golden Buddha (popularly believed to be some 2,000 years old). Male and female devotees are kept separate—men in front and women in the back—and the solemn ceremony, performed by monks, lasts about one hour. Respectful tourists are welcome to observe what is a fascinating glimpse into the spiritual life of the people of Mandalay. A 1,000 Kyat fee is required in order to take photographs.
Rising up 224 metres, Mandalay Hill offers visitors some magnificent views of the surrounding city and countryside. At the summit sits the ornate Su Taung Pyae Pagoda, and the wide terrace here is a great place from which to enjoy the sunset. There are four covered stairways leading up the hill from the south, southeast, west and north, but you can also save time by driving most of the way up the road that leads to an escalator and lift—each of which takes visitors up to the pagoda level. Pagoda entry fee is 1,000 Kyat.
U Bein Bridge
Just to the southwest of Mandalay city you’ll find Taung Tha Man Lake, in the Amarapura district. The lake is lovely, but the main draw here is the U Bein Bridge, which at 1.2km is the longest teak bridge in the world (and it’s reportedly the oldest teakwood bridge as well, built around 1850). The bridge crosses this broad lake at its narrowest point, and depending on the season—rainy or dry—the water level may be shallow enough for a fisherman to stand up in, or high enough that the water reaches to just below the bridge’s slatted wooden floor planks. A leisurely walk across to the other side and back, with lots of photo stops along the way, will take about one hour. A great time to visit the bridge is just after sunrise, when hundreds of villagers and monks commute back and forth across it, or at sunset when the structure is silhouetted against the evening sky. Whichever time, expect to see lots of foot traffic, and lots of laid back hawkers along the way selling snacks, drinks, and souvenirs at shaded rest stops situated along the length of the bridge.
Landmarks of Mingun
Taking a boat trip to the town of Mingun, about 10 km northwest of Mandalay, lets you enjoy the gently flowing currents of the muddy Irrawaddy River. But it also brings you up close to some amazing historic landmarks, the first of which is the Mingun Pahtodawgyi, a large but unfinished pagoda. It began as a massive construction project by King Bodawpaya, in 1790, but a prophecy foretold that as soon as the building was complete the country would also be gone (another variation was that the King would die once the project was completed). Thus, construction was slowed down to prevent the prophecy’s realization, and when the monarch eventually died the project was completely halted. Then, on March 23rd, 1839, an earthquake caused huge cracks to appear on the face of the remaining structure, which are still visible to this day. Admission into this archaeological site is 5,000 Kyat.
Nearby the unfinished pagoda is the Mingun Bell, which weighs 90 tons—making it the largest uncracked working bronze bell in the world (the largest “cracked” one is in Moscow). It was cast in 1808, and is thoroughly intact, although hundreds of people have carved their initials and other messages into the inner surface.
Finally, the highlight of visiting Mingun is a trip to the blindingly white Myatheindan Pagoda (also called the Hsinbyume Pagoda). The massive and intricately designed structure, modelled after the mythical Mount Meru, was built in 1816. It consists of seven concentric terraces, which represent the seven mountains that rise up to Mount Meru, and representations of mythical creatures can be seen in the pointed niches of the shrine. Visitors can climb the stairway to the top of the structure, which offers commanding views of the river and countryside. It’s definitely a must-see attarcation!
Where to Eat
Golden Palace Restaurant: For a crash course in Burmese cuisine, make a stop at the Golden Palace Restaurant on Sagaing Mandalay Street. It’s an indoor restaurant, with comfortable air conditioning, and while the décor is fairly basic, lots of daylight comes in through the floor to ceiling glass windows. Set menu lunches serve up large portions of curry-based main dishes that comes with lots of extra sides and fresh salads. The staff is friendly and courteous as well.
Where to Stay
Eastern Palace Hotel: All hotel stays in Myanmar need to be in government sanctioned properties (in other words, no homestays), and as such the Eastern Palace Hotel—located in the heart of the Mandalay’s main business and historical district—is a good choice for upscale business and leisure travellers. It offers 114 modern guest rooms and suites, each with in-room Wi-Fi, mini-bar and fridge, flatscreen TV, and more. The hotel also offers a sky bar, fitness centre, swimming pool, and restaurant. However, getting hot water in the bath and shower can sometimes be an issue.
Words and photos by Bruce Scott