The second largest city in Myanmar has caught the attention of the travel community over the last few years as one of the best off-the-beaten path destinations in Asia. And alongside its beguiling big sister, Yangon, it deserves to be on everyone’s travel bucket list. So now that you’re keen to head to this little hidden gem, the only question is: What are the must-see attractions when in Mandalay?
To make sure you’re in the know before you go, we count down the best few things to do in Mandalay.
But, before we kick off the list, a little bit of history on how this small village on the banks of the Irrawaddy River came to be such an important Burmese city. It only really came to prominence in the mid-1800s when King Mindon founded the new country capital at the base of Mandalay Hill. He actually moved his sprawling royal palace from Amarapura on the back of a herd of elephants!
What that history in mind, the obvious thing to make it onto the must do things in Mandalay list is to climb up the hill on which the city was founded.
Looming over the city, you really can’t miss Mandalay Hill. And there are two ways to reach the summit: You can take a taxi pretty much to the summit (except the last short section to the top which is accessed by escalators) or the much more fulfilling way, hike it!
It’s good to know that hiking up the 240m hill isn’t a breeze, especially in a city that can get hot and humid, but making the 1,700 plus steps ascend to the summit is so worth it for the panoramic views at Sutaungpyei Pagoda. It should take around an hour, maybe a little less and there are lots of interesting places to stop on your way.
Pro Tip: If you want to hike up, you have to do this barefoot. As with many religious places in Southeast Asia, you can’t wear shoes, so either bring some hardened soles or pack a few wipes to get the grime off.
The most popular route to the summit will see you pass two enormous lion statues, U Khanti’s dazaung and the 28 Buddhas of the past and present worlds. But the real prize awaits at the top, where alongside the stunning Su Taung Pyae Pagoda and the spectacular views, you’ll more than likely be approached by local Buddhist monks eager to practice their English with you. A truly rewarding experience, also best enjoyed at sunset as pink and orange streaks the Burmese sky.
Location: Su Taung Pyae Pagoda
Opening hours: 6:00 am to 7:00 pm
Once you’ve made your way back down from Mandalay Hill, then your next top city attraction is right at the base: Kuthodaw Pagoda.
Also constructed during the reign of King Mindon, the pagoda is home to the world’s largest book! This fascinating place has 729 small stupas that contain stone tablets, each standing around 5 feet tall and beautifully inscribed with Buddhist scriptures.
These smaller 729 white stupas surround a large golden stupa making for one of the most stunning Buddhist religious sites that you are ever likely to encounter.
Pro tip: Although not making it into the top things to do in Mandalay, do yourself a favor and take a walk along 66th Street which is not just near the pagoda but is one of the roads along the moat surrounding the Mandalay Royal Palace – it’s a great way to see local Burmese life up close and personal.
Location: Kuthodaw Pagoda
Opening hours: 8:00 am to 8:00 pm
Speaking of the Palace, another of King Mindon’s creations, it’s a not-to-be-missed stop on any Mandalay itinerary.
Constructed in 1861, the palace complex is enormous and offers some striking teak ornate buildings to visit. It’s also historically important, as it was the home of the last two kings of Burma before they were overthrown by the British.
Must of what you see in the palace today is actually reconstructions, some done as recently as the 1990s. After it was looted by the British, the Japanese took it during World War II, when it was then bombed and burned down. Although this definitely doesn’t detract from it being a top thing to do in Mandalay.
Pro tip: Tourists can only use one entrance to the Palace, the Eastern Gate. And it’s worth noting that it can take a bit of time to walk around the moat, but it’s a really enjoyable wander. If you’re short on time, just hop in a tuk-tuk!
U Bein Bridge
Heading a little out of Mandalay, U Bein Bridge is one of the landmarks of the region and another must-visit attraction. Spanning the Taungthaman Lake you may well have seen the most gorgeous sunrise and sunset shots of this bridge on the ‘Gram.
Built in around 1850, this is the oldest standing teakwood bridge in the world, and at 1.2 km (that’s around ¾ of a mile) in length, it’s a particularly impressive sight!
You’re likely to need a taxi to get out to the bridge, with it being around 10 km and 20 minutes from downtown Mandalay. Do try and go early – it’s become quite popular in recent years as a tourist attraction, so you’ll want to arrive early for sunset to find the best spots for that cracking Instagram shot. You can also take a short boat ride on the lake itself and you’ll find many a willing oarsmen hawking their prices when you arrive at the bridge.
Pro tip: It’s a good idea to ask your taxi driver to hang around for you to come back, they’ll usually happily do that for a good price.
Location: U Bein bridge
Day trip to Mingun
So, technically not quite Mandalay, but given that Mingun is a short boat trip up the Irrawaddy, and the number of sights, a quick day trip there has to make it onto the best things to do in Mandalay countdown.
Starting off with around an hour’s gentle boat ride from the Mingun Jetty, you’ll arrive onto the Sagaing Township of Mingun, where three of the regions most legendary landmarks await.
Try to do the sights in reverse to beat the crowds, heading out to the furthest landmark, the almost pavlova-shaped, brilliant white Hsinbyume Pagoda (also known as the Myatheindan Pagoda) first and working your way back to the jetty.
This Insta-famous template was constructed in 1816 by King Bagyidaw as a memory to his cousin, Princess Hsinbyume, and is a great place to chat to young locals and get those popular pics.
Next up, stroll back to the Mingun Bell, which has previously held the record as the heaviest functioning bell in the world. It weighs an astonishing 90,000kg, which you just would not expect in this small town. You can even give it a ring… go on strike it, you know you want to!
Finally, head back past the uncompleted stupa, Mingun Pahtodawgyi, which was left unfinished intentionally by King Bodawpaya, to ensure that upon its completion he didn’t die (as was foretold by a prophet). Built in the 1790s at 50m in height (it was due to be 150m tall), the stupa holds the record for the largest pile of bricks in the world. Quite the unusual accolade…
Location of the Mingun Jetty: Myo Patt Rd, Mandalay
Departure: 9:00am and returns at 1:00pm
With both Mandalay and Mingun offering a host of spectacular sights, and pagodas galore, it’s hard to pick just a few highlights to top the table. If you’ve got more than a few days in this wonderful city, and need some other activities to add to your Myanmar itinerary, you could check out the Tooth Relic Pagoda, head up Sagaing Hill or see the cave paintings at the U Min Thonze Temple.
Regardless of your roster, Mandalay is crammed with great things to do, and should undoubtedly be on your Southeast Asia bucket list, alongside other Myanmar musts like Bagan or Inle Lake. Packed with heritage, posting more than its fair share of world records and a photographer’s paradise, this breath-taking Burmese city will definitely capture your heart.