Mandalay, the former royal capital of Myanmar, is the second largest city (after Yangon) in Myanmar. As the administrative hub of the country, it’s a big, bustling city, which somehow manages to produce it’s own level of charm. There’s plenty of things to do in Mandalay, making a stopover a great addition to any Myanmar itinerary.
Things to do in Mandalay
1. Watch the sunset from Mandalay Hill
A visit to Mandalay Hill is one of the top things to do in Mandalay, especially if you’re a sucker for a good viewpoint! Located at the northern end of the Royal Palace, the 231 meter high hill, offers sweeping views right across the city. At the top, there’s a series of shrines and pagodas, a large viewing platform along with monks and students meandering around, practising English with visitors. It’s a popular, albeit crowded place to watch the sunset, which can sometimes be hidden behind thick smog.
By taxi – You can either take a taxi up the hill to the foot of the escalators or lift. How much you pay will depend on where you are travelling from.
By foot – To make the most of the views, we recommend hiking up one of the several available routes. We took the southern route which started to the right of Kyauktawgyi Pagoda. This lead us up a series of covered stairs, passing several pagodas and shires along the way (shoes must be removed at these points). Allow 30-60 minutes for this route, depending on your fitness level and how often you stop. On the descent, it was easy to find taxi’s at the foot of the hill, although we opted to walk back to our hotel.
Entrance fee: MMK1000, payable at the top.
2. Visit Kuthodaw Pagoda – The world’s largest book
You can’t visit Mandalay without seeing the world’s largest book! 729 white pagodas stand inside the walled area, each housing a stone slab with one of the 729 buddhist monoliths inscribed on it. This is an impressive site and a nice place to wander around. The pagoda is located close to Mandalay Hill, so it’s easy to combine a visit. Entrance is free.
Tip – If you climb the southern stairs to Mandalay Hill, you can get nice views over Kuthodaw Pagoda.
3. Visit Sandar Mu Ni Pagoda
Located right next to Kuthodaw Pagoda, sits the smaller, quieter, yet still impressive Sandar Mu Ni Pagoda. Inside, the pagoda houses the graves of Princes Kanaung, Sagu Mintha, Malun and Maingpyin, along with a massive iron Buddha image. The countless surrounding white stupas make a bold statement, as does the enormous golden stupa placed in the centre. Its location makes it easy to combine a visit to Kuthodaw Pagoda and Mandalay Hill. Entrance is free.
Tip – As with Kuthodaw Pagoda, you can also get great views of Sandar Mu Ni Pagoda from the southern stairs leading to Mandalay Hill.
4. Admire the Shwenandaw Monastery
This historic Buddhist monastery dates back to 1878 and was originally part of the Royal Palace. King Thibaw Min had the structure dismantled and moved prior to his fathers death, believing it was haunted by his fathers spirit. The monastery is made of teak and is famous for its beautiful wooden carvings and details. It’s an easy addition when visiting the nearby Kuthodaw, Sandar Mu Ni Pagoda’s and Mandalay Hill and as it’s small, you won’t need a lot of time here.
Entrance fee: MMK5,000 for monastery only. OR, entrance is included in the Mandalay archeological zone ticket MMK10,000.
5. Stroll along the famous U-Bein Bridge
One of the most popular things to do in Mandalay is to visit the famous U-Bein Bridge. At 1.2km long, it’s said to be the longest and oldest teakwood bridge in the world. Located in Amarapura, a short drive from Mandalay city, the bridge is used daily by locals crossing the Taungthaman Lake. It’s a beautiful place to visit during the day, when there’s less people around, although it can get outrageously hot. When the water levels are high enough, small boats take tourists to the base of the bridge to watch the sunset.
Its increased popularity now means that bus loads of tourists flock to the area, especially at sunset. There’s an abundance of shops and cafes surrounding the bridge, which in our opinion, takes away from the tranquility. During our visit, the area became so crowded in the evening, we could barely move. As a result, we ended up leaving before the sun even set. Although the bridge is beautiful and is worth seeing, it felt like a bit of a tourist trap. A sunrise visit may be a quieter time to visit and an option worth exploring.
By taxi – From Mandalay, you can take a 20-30 minute taxi ride to the bridge. It’s best to arrange a time for your driver to pick you up, as there may not be drivers waiting when you are ready to leave.
Hire a motorbike – You can hire a motorbike and make your own way to the bridge.
By bus (pick up truck) – For a local experience, take bus number 8 from 84th & 26th street (by the Zegyo Market) to Amarapura on the Mandalay-Sagaing Rd. The steward will tell you where to get off. From there, it takes around 20min to walk to the bridge. Allow 1-1.5 hours each way for this option as the bus stops along the way to pick up and drop off passengers. A ticket costs MMK500 each way. This was the option we took and although it was much slower, it was actually a nice experience that fit our backpacker budget. Double check the bus number in advance as things change often in Myanmar.
Tip – The bus steward and locals pointed us in the right direction of the bridge. But we recommend downloading Maps.me to help you navigate the walk.
6. Take a half day or full day trip to Mingun
One of our favourite things to do in Mandalay, was a half day trip across the river to Mingun. It’s particularly famous for two main pagodas located close to each other and is the one area we wished we’d had a bit more time to explore.
Now this was one of those pagodas that really wowed us. Carved into a massive slab of stone, Mingun Pagoda is seriously beautiful, but intentionally only half finished. Commissioned by King Bodawpaya in 1790, a prophecy revealed that once the pagoda was complete, the country would disappear.
There is a small shrine at the front entrance of the pagoda which is often busy, however if you pop around to the back, it’s much quieter (and more beautiful in our opinion). Having been rocked by earthquakes in the past, massive cracks almost split the stone in half, adding to the pagodas history and charm.
A short 10 min walk past Mingun Pagoda, leads you to the beautiful Hsinbyume Pagoda. This white pagoda is truely unique in style, making it particularly picturesque. The stairs leading to the top, allows you to stop and explore every level. We really enjoyed visiting this small pagoda and it was one of our favourites in Myanmar.
By boat – The most popular way to visit Mingun is via public boat which departs once a day at 9am (1hr journey) and returns at 12.30pm sharp (45min downstream journey). The ticket office is located by the river in front of the City Amusement Park and the return journey costs MMK5,000 p/p. You will need your passport or a copy to buy a ticket. Be at the ticket office at least 30min early, as the ticket process is slow. The only downside to catching a public ferry is that you are restricted to only a couple of hours to explore the area.
If you miss a public boat, you can hire a private boat for the return journey for around MMK30,000. In the wet season, at least 6 people are required for a public boat to operate. If there’s not enough people, you will need to pay for a private boat at MMK30,000.
By taxi – You can hire a taxi for a day for around MMK30,000 and it takes about 90 minutes to reach Mingun from Mandalay. Hiring a driver gives you the flexibility to leave when you want and to spend as much time as you like at each site. It also enables you to visit more attractions in Mandalay and/or in Saigaing. You can also incorporate a visit to the U-Bein bridge on you way back to Mandalay.
If you visit Mingun via ferry, exit the boat and follow the small track to the dirt road. You’ll come to a small ticket stand where you’ll need to pay MMK5,000 to enter the Mingun area. After you pay, you’re free to explore at your leisure.
Tip – Most people stop at Mingun Paya first and then move onto Hsinbyume Pagoda. For a quieter experience, go against the crowds and walk straight to Hsinbyume Pagoda, visiting Mingun Paya on the return journey.
The Mandalay archaeological zone combo ticket
When visiting Mandalay, you can purchase a Mandalay Archaeological Zone Combo Ticket. It’s valid for 5 days and costs MMK10,000, giving you entrance to:
- Mandalay Royal Palace
- Shwenandaw Monastery
- Athu Mashi Monastery
- Bagayar Monastery (located in Inwa)
- Mae Nu Monastery (located in Inwa)
It was possible to pay single entry to Shwenandaw Monastery for less than the cost of the combo ticket when we visited (MMK5,000 from memory). So the ticket was only really good value if visiting the Royal Palace as well as the Monastery (or the other included temples). Tickets can be purchased at both the Royal Palace, Shwenandaw Monastery or the two monasteries in Inwa.
We decided against the ticket as at the time of our visit, as parts of the palace were closed and all of the reviews we had read suggested there wasn’t really much to see inside anyway. All of the other attractions that we visited weren’t included in the combo ticket, so there was no value in it for us.
Getting around Mandalay
By far the easiest and most time effective way to get around Mandalay is by taxi or tuk tuk. Make sure you agree on a price before getting in. Your accommodation may be able to arrange a taxi for a half/full day trip, or at least advise of current prices. If you’re just taking one way taxi’s, ask the receptionist how much you should pay. It’s a good idea to ask them to write your destinations down in Burmese, in case the driver doesn’t have good English.
By bicycle or motorbike
For the little more adventurous, you can hire a motorbike or bicycle to get around. The roads were too hectic for us to consider these options, but if you’re confident on the road and want more freedom, these may be suitable alternatives. You can hire bikes from some accommodation providers, or check out Myanmar Bike Rental for more information and pricing.
We walked everywhere in Mandalay but be warned, there can be long distances between your hotel and some sights. The perimeter of the Royal Palace for example, is a little over 9km. It can get hot and stuffy walking around, especially during the middle of the day. So, take water, sun protection, good shoes and some cash incase you decide to grab a taxi after all!
Best time to visit Mandalay
Nov-Feb – In our opinion, this is the best time to visit Mandalay. This is the dry season and during these months, it rains very little. Although it’s still hot and humid, daytime temperature are bearable, but nights can get chilly, so have a jacket handy. This is the peak tourist season with Dec-Jan holidays being the busiest months. Of course this also means that prices are at their highest.
Mar-May: This is still the dry season and the hottest time of the year. Temperature often reach over 40°C. This can make sight-seeing unbearably hot during the day.
Jun-Oct: This is the rainy season and heavy downpours can occur. For this reason, it’s the quietest time to visit with far less tourists around. This also means accommodation will be cheaper.
How much time do you need in Mandalay?
2-3 days is a good amount of time to spend in Mandalay. We combined a visit to Kuthodaw Pagoda, Sandar Mu Ni Pagoda, Shwenandaw Monastery and Mandalay Hill on our first full day, then visited Mingun and the U-Bein bridge our second day. We still had plenty of time to see other attractions like the Royal Palace, pagodas and the Saiging region. If you like taking things slower or want to visit more of the regions many pagodas, factor in an extra day.
Where to stay in Mandalay
Seeking a budget option with a good location, we stayed at the A.D.1Hotel. Although the hotel was pretty basic, it ticked all of our boxes. We paid US$11 p/nt for a double room with private bathroom, fan, free wifi and breakfast. It was close to the Zay Cho Market, ATMS and a few restaurants/cafes. The Mingun Jetty was a 20min walk (1.7km) and Mandalay Hill was about 7km away. They stored our bags on our last day and let us take a shower in the evening before our night bus. If you’re just looking for a place to sleep, this was a decent budget option. For other accommodation options, check out booking.com.
Where to eat in Mandalay
We came across Pan Cherry noodle house & cafe on our first night in Mandalay and ended up eating most of our meals there! This small, local cafe had a good menu with tasty food and local beer at cheap prices. It’s located on 81st St, between 26 & 27 St. Open daily 10:00am-21:00pm.
If you’re looking for street food, there’s some night markets worth checking out:
- Night Market (serving mostly Indian Muslim cuisine) – Located on 82 St, between 27 & 28 Sts. Open daily around 16:00pm-00:00am. A popular vendor is Nay (no English signs), located on the corner of 82 & 27 Sts, opposite the Unity Hotel.
- Night Market Shan Ze (smaller market serving mainly Chinese & Shan cuisine) – Located on 34 St, between 76 & 77 Sts.
Getting to & from Mandalay
Mandalay’s International Airport, is located roughly 1 hours drive (40kms+) from town. If you’re arriving by plane, you’ll need to take a taxi to your hotel, unless a free shuttle is provided by your accommodation. Taxi rates are fixed at MMK12,000 for a private car or MMK4,000 for a shared car (as of Feb 2019).
Mandalay is well connected by bus. Popular destinations include Bagan (4-5 hours), Inle Lake (7.5 hours) and Yangon (9 hours).
We took an overnight bus with JJ Express to Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake) which departed at 22:00pm and arrived at 5:30am. The journey was very smooth and very comfortable. Our tickets cost around MMK15,000 p/p but did not include a pick up from our hotel, so we got a tuk tuk to the bus station. You need to arrive around an hour before departure (we were advised of what time to be at the bus station), as they formally check you and your luggage in. Overall, it was a great journey with a very well run company.
Trains operate between Mandalay-Yangon and Mandalay-Nyaung Shwe (Inle Lake) and a few other destinations, however the journey’s are slow and notoriously bumpy. For timetables, ticket information and more details, check out seat61.
For a slower and more scenic journey, consider taking a boat between Mandalay and Bagan. There are several companies operating this route, so the duration and price will depend on which company you book with. But expect to pay between MMK50,000-MMK85,000, with the journey taking between 8-11 hours. Malikha River Cruises get decent reviews and you can pre-book online (recommended as this route can sell out in advance).
Most nationalities will need a visa to enter Myanmar. Most people can obtain a e-visa online which lasts for 28 days and cost US$50. You’ll need several printed copies to enter the country. Note that you generally can’t get a visa on arrival, so it’s best to grab your e-visa in advance.
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