Exploring Mandalay: the Cultural Centre of Myanmar
After spending an awesome three days in Bagan, we headed off to Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city and its last royal capital. Mandalay is often overlooked by travellers, which is odd because it has so much to offer. We had planned two days there, but we left feeling that it really wasn’t long enough.
Mandalay is a cultural and religious centre of Buddhism, which means that it has many monasteries, famous temples, and more than seven hundred pagodas! And just like Bagan, every temple and pagoda that we visited had their own special features, history and atmosphere. You just can’t get tired of exploring all of Mandalay’s wonders. The city itself has more of an urban vibe than Bagan, It’s a busier, noisier affair, and the traffic can be a little annoying. But just like Bagan, it deserves to be explored.
Here are the best sights in and around this fascinating city, to fit into your own Mandalay itinerary:
This gorgeous wooden monastery was built by King Mindon in the nineteenth century and constructed entirely from teak wood. It was originally part of the Royal Palace in Amarapura, but King Mindon ordered it moved to Mandalay. After his death, it was dismantled and rebuilt by his son, who succeeded him. Then in 1880, it was turned into a monastery. This monastery is a masterpiece of wood carving. The ornate carvings and panels inside tell the tales of Buddha’s life. They are all in quite good condition, having been well protected from the elements. The external carvings show more wear and tear, but some still provide glimpses of faded gold leaf patches.
Kuthodaw Pawa the world’s largest book
If you go here expecting to find a book, you’ll be searching for quite a while! The Kuthodaw Pawa has seven hundred and twenty-nine stupas, each containing a marble slab inscribed with text from the Tipitaka (Buddist scriptures), and written in Pali. It was also built by King Mindon, at the same time as the Royal Palace in Amarapura. The central gilded pagoda was modelled on the Shwezigon Pagoda near Bagan. Apparently, it takes over a year to read all of the inscriptions, and that’s only if you spend eight hours a day doing it! That’s why it was named the world’s largest book. I’m a pretty slow reader, so it would probably take me ten times as long!
The Mahamuni Paya is home to the most highly revered Buddha image, and one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Myanmar. Every day, thousands of devotees come to pay their respects to the Mahumuni image (meaning the great image). The Mahamuni image is enshrined in a small chamber, seated on top of a very ornate pedestal. Only male devotees are allowed to enter the chamber; women have to watch from outside.
To pay their respects, male devotees apply layers of gold leaf to the image, and because they’ve been doing it for centuries, the Mahamuni Buddha is now covered with fifteen centimetres thick of gold leaf! Consequently, all of that gold leaf has totally distorted the shape of the Buddha. You can find many photos of the Buddha around the temple that contrast how it appears today with how it looked in the past.
For a panoramic view of Mandalay, head to the top of Mandalay Hill. You can climb to the top if you don’t mind tackling more than a thousand stairs in the heat. But the easiest option is by car. We had a guide and driver organised through Pro Niti Travel, but you can also catch a taxi. Once there, you can take an escalator to the Sutaungpyei pagoda where you’ll have the best views. If you can, try and time your arrival for sunset.
U-Bein Bridge is one of Myanmar’s most photographed sites. Built in 1849, this 1.2-kilometre long bridge is the longest and oldest teak bridge in the world. Only a few of the 1086 teak pillars have been replaced by concrete ones. The best time to visit this bridge is at sunrise or sunset when hundreds of locals use it to cross the Taungthaman Lake. We visited at sunset, apparently along with all of the tourists that were in Mandalay at that time! Sunrise is supposed to be the best time to visit if you want to avoid the crowds. Once there, you can hire a small boat to paddle you out onto the lake, where you can take the best photos.
The Mahāgandhāyon Monastery is in Amarapura, Myanmar’s penultimate royal capital. This monastery is Myanmar’s most prominent monastic college, and it’s home to two thousand monks of all ages. It’s a fascinating place to visit if you want to understand the details of life in a monastery. Every day at 11 am, the many monks line up to receive their lunch. It’s a very colourful experience, and it’s a great place to see lots of monks in the same place. However, sadly it has become a bit of a tourist zoo. To make things worse, some tourists do not respect the rules at all. That’s pretty annoying for those of us who do, and I’m sure it’s pretty frustrating for the poor monks. Who wants a huge zoom lens or selfie stick pointed at their face?
Mingun is found eleven kilometres up the Ayeyarwady River, so the easiest way to get there is by boat. This small riverside village happens to have many sights that are worth exploring.
The Mingun Paya
The Mingun Paya should have been the world’s biggest stupa, but sadly it was never finished. In fact, only the bottom of the stupa was completed before construction halted when King Bodawpaya died in 1819. Finished or not, the structure is enormous and can be seen from far away as you approach by boat. Nowadays, the temple is famous for the several deep cracks that run through it, which were caused by the huge earthquake in 1839.
The Mingun Bell
The Mingun Bell is a massive bronze bell that is thirteen feet high and weighs ninety tonnes. It was the largest working bell up until 2000 when the giant bell of Pingdingshan in China usurped it. King Bodawpaya commissioned this bell to hang in the Mingun Pagoda, but as the pagoda was never finished, the bell was never put in place.
The Hsinbyume Paya is a stunning white temple, not far from the Mingun Paya and Mingun Bell. You can get there by walking through the village, which is a lovely walk to do if you want to see how the locals live. This beautiful, all white temple was built in 1816 by Prince Bagyidaw, the successor to the throne of King Bodawpaya. This unusual looking pagoda has seven wavy terraces, that represent the seven mountain ranges surrounding Mount Meru (the centre of the Buddhist universe). You can climb the stairway to the top of the pagoda for great views of the Irrawaddy River and the Mingun Pagoda.
Located 20 km south-west of Mandalay, Sagaing is on the western bank of the river. Sagaing is another ancient capital of Myanmar and a religious pilgrimage centre, with many pagodas and monasteries dotting the hills around it.
Soon U Ponya Shin Paya
This Pagoda is one of the oldest, richest, and most important pagodas in Sagaing. In the main prayer hall, you will find a giant statue of Buddha, wearing his shining gold robe, his throne surrounded by jade coloured tiles that reach all the way to the ceiling. But it’s the views from the outdoor terrace that are the best part of this visit.
Umin Thonse is also called the Thirty Caves Pagoda because there are thirty separate entrances through which to enter the pagoda. This temple is famous because of the forty-five Buddha images that sit in a crescent-shaped colonnade within the pagoda. It’s definitely a very photogenic temple.
Inwa, also known as Ava, is Myanmar’s most famous old capital (yes another one!). It was the capital city from 1365 to 1842 and was abandoned after being destroyed by the 1839 earthquake. Visiting it today is like taking a trip back in time, as you explore the remains of an ancient city, with its old watchtower, stupas, ruins, monasteries and temples. It’s a great place to escape the hustle and bustle of Mandalay. You can reach it by car or by boat from Mandalay, and the easiest way to see all of the attractions is by horse and cart (note: some of the horses looked a bit worse for wear). Alternatively, you can hire a bike in Mandalay and take it with you on the boat.
Where to eat in Mandalay?
Mingalabar is the best place in Mandalay to experience traditional Burmese food. It’s popular not only with tourists but with the locals as well. The food was very tasty and it comes with lots of side dishes and traditional desserts (complimentary). Check them out on TripAdvisor.
Where to stay in Mandalay?
Ayarwaddy River View Hotel
This is a beautiful hotel with a rooftop bar and great views. It’s located right next to the Ayeyarwady River. Rooms start at US$65/night. Check out the latest prices here.
Mandalay Hill Resort
This hotel is located right at the base of Mandalay Hill and is Mandalay’s top resort hotel. The rooms are large and comfortable, with some offering hill views. The swimming pool is the best part. Rooms start at US$240/night. Check out the latest prices here.
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