Most people I met didn’t really have good things to say about Mandalay and I was advised not to go on more than one occasion. However, I decided it would be kind of stupid to miss out on the opportunity to take the famous „Road to Mandalay“ (even though I took the nightbus and technically didn’t see much of bespoke road). And after all, we’re talking about Myanmar’s second largest city and cultural capital, so I figured that it could not be that bad. And I was not disappointed: To say I fell in love with Mandalay would be an exaggeration. But I did enjoy the relaxed city vibe, met some crazy awesome people and drove a motorbike for the first time in my life. So consider this a semi-ode to Mandalay.
What to do in Mandalay
Mandalay by Bike
Mandalay is large, its streets are vast, taxis are expensive and public transport is pretty much non-existant. So you will definitely need to rent some kind of vehicle to get you around. I rented a bike from my hotel for the first day and decided to follow one of the tours suggested by Loneley Planet. I visited some temples, pagodas and markets and just loved biking around the city. Mandalay is pretty much laid out in a grid, so it’s very easy to find your way around. Just start pedaling and see where the road will lead you. While all the pagodas were nice and all, the best yet craziest part was that I did not meet a single foreigner during the entire day! I am not lying. Not a single one – in the second largest city of the country on a tour suggested by the “bible” of all backpackers. Tourism in Myanmar is developing at a rapid pace, and yet you still feel like you have the whole country for yourself. It was only when I went to watch the famous sunset at Mandalay Hill that I saw some other tourists.
The Pagoda on top of Mandalay Hill is a real must-do when in the city. Not only does it give you a good panorama over the entire city and its surroundings (and some good exercise, for that matter). The hill is also a popular spot for young monks eager to practise their English skills. Do not miss out on this rare occasion to talk to an actual monk, as in most other cases they will not be very keen on mingling with foreigners. It’s such a good way to find out more about their motivations on becoming monks, on their backgrounds, on family and monastery life in Myanmar…
The second major tourist attraction in Mandalay is the castle. I did skip on this one though, as (1) it’s expensive, (2) the money goes straight to the government (which you want to avoid as much as you can) and (3) everybody I met told me it was overrated. I just went around it by bike (it’s huge!!) and decided to explore the local markets instead.
Mandalay by Motorbike
Once you visited all the temples and pagodas in the city center, the best part to get around is by motorbike. Yes, traffic is crazy (even though I found it less intimidating than in Paris…), but you do not need to drive on your own if you do not want to (but I promise that you will want to…). Just inquire at your hostel on where to rent motorbikes and – if needed – a driver to come with you.
On the other side of the Ayarwaddy river, you can drive all the way up to Min Kun – where you can visit the world’s second largest bell as well as Myanmar’s largest, unfinished temple. The ride leads you along numerous small villages and gives you a perfect insight on Burmese life: The vast majority of people are incredibly poor and live in huts made out of simple bamboo mats. And yet, you will be greated with a big small wherever you go.
Make sure to stop in Sagaing and Amarapura as well to witness the feeding of the monks (at 10am – I don’t know if it’s such a big event every day or only on the weekends, as I went on Saturday), to visit local silk factories and also the world’s largest teak bridge. At some point between Min Kun and Sagaing there is also a pretty nice pagoda up on a hill, from which you get an even more impressive view of Mandalay and its surroundings.
If you drive out of Mandalay on the other side of town, you will at some point get to a water fall which is supposed to be pretty nice. I wouldn’t know though, as one of our bikes broke down halfway and we had to return to town. This didn’t matter at all though, as I just enjoyed driving up the hills through the small villages and waved and smiled at the locals from my backseat (I found myself a charming British driver hihi).
While Mandalay is not a beautiful city at first sight, there are some pretty cool things to visit and it’s worth to just drive around and discover the city at your own pace!
Where to eat in Mandalay
As always in Myanmar: Do no bother going to an actual restaurant. The best and – by far – cheapest food is served in the local teahouses. They may look very dirty and you definitely do not want to think about the hygiene of those places – and in many cases you also have no idea what you are actually eating. But I once got a full meal for 50 cents at some teahouse market around 90th and 34st street, so there really is no need to complain!
Where to stay in Mandalay
There are only one or two real hostels in Mandalay and I definitely advise you to stay there if you are a solo traveller and/or want to make new friends. Unlike in other Asian countries, there is no real guesthouse culture in Myanmar (as hard-to-get licences are required for hosting foreigners and strict governmental controls apply) and actual hotels are not the best place to meet fellow travellers. I stayed in Ace Start hostel in downtown and warmly recommend it. The big rooftop terrace is the ideal spot for
getting drunk meeting new travel companions. Bonus: You can do your laundry for free and the breakfast was kind of decent.
Mandalay – Good to know
Most travellers will arrive in Yangon, head on to Mandalay and then continue their travels to some smaller destinations, such as Bagan or Kyaukme. Yangon and Mandalay are fast growing cities and you can buy pretty much anything you can think of in the downtown malls. So in case you need to stock up on anything, I strongly advice you to do so in Mandalay: Sunscreen, mosquito repellent, a new charger for your phone, wet wipes (probably the most important utensile when travelling Myanmar)… – most of those things will be hard/impossible to find in the smaller cities!