You’ll see a range of similar Shan restaurants, most of which have buffet-style meals, as well as a multitude of local barbecue/beer station-type joints. Several footpath Indian cafes dish up curries or dahls with chapattis and rotis while the air-con diner-style coffee shop and bakery is popular with locals. You’ll also find a cluster of relatively expensive restaurants aimed at well-heeled visitors and tour groups among the midrange hotels on the east side of town.
For breakfasts, while some included hotel breakfasts aren’t bad it’s very rare that the coffee’s any good. Caffeine addicts should head to Mr Bread for a great brew, plus juices and a bakery selection in their smart air-con cafe; this is a fine place to start the day.
If 34th Street is a bit out of the way for you, then pop into the also very good and air-con Mandalay Donut on 78th, opposite the railway station. Decor is diner style, with bright lighting and vinyl benches. The bubbly staff serve good coffee, fresh juices and bakery items as well as offering a cheap and unexpectedly good selection of simple Burmese and Thai dishes. Rice and noodle options go for around 2,000 to 3,000 kyat. Moving west onto 81st Street, an outlet of local chain Fudo also serves coffees, juices and shakes along with a selection from their bakery.
Mandalay has an excellent selection of street food. A fantastic source of cheap local—mainly Indian Muslim—food can be found along 82nd Street, where the section outside the mosque between 27th and 28th Streets turns into a vibrant night market as soon as the afternoon winds down. The top spot is Nay (no English sign but you can’t miss it), on the corner of 82nd and 27th, opposite the Unity hotel. They offer enormous pots of curries and staff feverishly knock out chapattis from huge footpath griddles. Choose your curry—vegetarian options available—and it’s served with dahl, spicy mint sauce and chapattis for 1,200 to 1,500 kyat. Fortunately it’s only open from 16:00 onwards, otherwise we’d have never got round to eating anywhere else in Mandalay.
Around the corner you’ll find more good curries as well as rotis, stuffed murtabaks and so on, while on adjacent side streets there are other small cafes serving dahl accompanied by various kinds of Indian bread.
For restaurant-style Indian, try the very good Pan Cherry nearby on 81st Street. They dish up set menus of curry dishes with accompanying vegetables, rice and bread for around 4,000 kyat. They have a downstairs eating area or an upstairs air-con room but you go there for simple, well prepared grub rather than the decor. No alcohol is served.
Another small night market area Shan Ze sets up on 34th Street between 76th and 77th every evening. This one’s mainly Chinese and Shan, so plenty of noodle stands. Open-fire fried dumplings and Shan noodles drowned in melted tofu are a must-try, or sample a Shan-style hotpot from one of the less than pristine but very tasty restaurants.
This brings us to Mandalay’s numerous Shan restaurants. The most popular are Lashio Lay on 23rd, Golden Shan on 22nd Street and Shan Ma Ma on 81st. There are plenty more but those three are our tried and trusted ones. The former offers a main course and choice of two vegetable options for 3,000 to 4,000 kyat while the latter two are buffet style, with a range of aluminium trays displaying curry and vegetable dishes that are all you can eat for 4,000 kyat per person. Golden Shan has an air-con room upstairs and the food looks a tad fresher than in some others. Longstanding and popular Lashio Lay has a wide choice while Shan Ma Ma has good outdoor footpath seating, is in a convenient location for many hotels and is very popular with both locals and foreigners. All serve beer. As these Shan establishments serve pre-cooked dishes, they may be better lunch than dinner options, but Shan Ma Ma also makes a fine spot for an evening beer and nibbles even if you’re not dining.
Also justifiably very popular among locals is Shwe Pyi Moe over on 66th Street, which though basically is an overgrown tea shop, serves up a wide range of fine local food. There’s all the traditional tea shop snack fare such as samosas, falafels and spring rolls, plus a full English-language menu offering noodle dishes as well as Indian-style thali sets accompanied by parathas and chapattis. These go for 1,500 to 2,000 kyat. They also serve decent coffee and a range of fresh juices. Choose from indoor or outdoor seating. The location is just one block down from the southeast corner of the moat. A very good address!
For evening fare, the city’s residents don’t seem to be able to get enough of the draught beer and barbecue-style cafes. You’ll see many scattered around the centre and even more out in the suburbs but we’ll restrict our suggestions to locations near our accommodation suggestions. They all fall into the same format: draught beer around 700 to 800 kyat a glass, and you pick your own food items which they’ll grill for you. Locals will order several small plates of grilled fish, pork, chicken, meat balls and vegetables to graze on; a kind of Burmese tapas, perhaps. These are social spots, where you catch up with mates or work colleagues or take the family out, rather than formal restaurants. Most will also offer more substantial Chinese dishes for 3,000 to 4,000 kyat. The very lively Rainbow on 83rd is set in a small, older building with an inside seating area and footpath tables. While their food choice is slightly more limited than some others, the beer flows, a large screen seems to show non-stop football and you’ll be lucky to find a free table on a busy evening.
Shwe Kaing III down on 33rd and 83rd Streets is equally popular with a similar lay-out, as is Win Win 3 across the railway tracks on 77th Street. Locals often have a strong fidelity for a certain barbecue joint because of better pork balls or a more far-ranging menu, but we can’t see a lot of difference between them—they all seem pretty good to us. With a flashier outdoor garden setting, Paradise Beer and BBQ Centre has a more relaxed and perhaps tourist-friendly feel, and with a strategic location on the moat opens all day long, whereas most of the others only open up from late afternoon. Most wind down from 22:00 and you won’t find many downtown ones open after 23:00.
A small group of tourist-orientated restaurants lie along 65 Street, including the modestly named Unique and Amazing plus an outlet of the tour group-popular chain Green Elephant. The latter is set in a delightful old colonial villa with lawn and garden, and the interior seating area has plenty of interesting locally themed decorations. The quality of their classic Burmese fare is very good but our main qualm is the 10,000 kyat (not including 10% tax) price tag for their famous mango and pork curry. Unique and Amazing lack the fancy colonial setting and ‘ye olde’ Burmese decor but do compensate with more sensible prices. Unique in particular looks good, with linen napkin-covered tables set on the terrace of a small villa. Both have similar Chinese-Burmese cuisine, with Unique having an emphasis on fish dishes. Prices are also similar: vegetable and salad dishes are around 3,500 kyat, main meat and fish offerings 4,000 to 6,000, up to 9,000 for freshwater prawns.
If you want to splash out a bit on some authentic Sino-Burmese food in a tremendous setting, then head across town to Strand Road, where you’ll find the classy Mya Nandar. Set in a garden with a wooden deck overlooking the Ayeyarwaddy River, it has a hard-to-beat location. The food isn’t cheap and most dishes weigh in around 5,000 to 6,000 kyat, but at least here you’ll actually see wealthier locals eating as well as tourists. This is close to the Mingun boat jetty, so it makes a splendid spot for a sundowner if you are returning late afternoon from upriver. Draught beer and cocktails are also on the menu. When we last visited the main two-storey wooden building was under renovation and was due to re-open in September 2016.
For classic Chinese fare, try the Golden Duck, another Mandalay institution that’s very popular with well-heeled locals. It’s an air-con spot overlooking the moat on the corner of 16th Street. The house speciality is of course duck and, while it isn’t cheap, the quality is excellent. Main courses start at 4,000 kyat.
Finally worth a mention for those missing a bit of Western comfort food is BBB Bar and Restaurant on 76th Street. This longstanding, bistro-style joint is popular with Mandalay’s well-heeled locals and small expat community, and it’s recently had a makeover with some chic, new decor. Their wide-ranging menu covers competent versions of classic European options like pasta, pizzas, steaks, burgers and kebabs. A couple of years back this was quite a pricy spot but now much more reasonable. Sandwiches and burgers go for 3,000 to 5,000 kyat and pasta dishes are 5,000 and up. There’s also an extensive wine list and full bar menu.
Time for dessert? 83rd Street is home to wonderfully named Nylon Ice Cream, set in an unreconstructed, tea-shack style wood and brick building. Coffee and juices available and this is a fine spot to sit and take in the street bustle.
For bars and nightlife, Burma’s second largest city offers surprisingly little. Downtown the barbecue restaurants double up as beer stations, while Mandalay’s younger, well-heeled crowd head down to Kandawgyi Lake on the city’s south side where larger, more fashionable bars and eateries set up lakeside, often with live bands playing. Flavours of the month down there are transient so maybe check with your hotel staff for some pointers, but you’ll obviously need to get a taxi both ways.
In town, despite the numbers of tourists around, there are no foreign orientated bars. Shan Ma Ma with footpath tables and cheap beer is one of your best bets if you just want to chill out with a few cold ones or try the pleasant garden setting of Paradise. Popular Hunter’s Bar and V Cafe had closed down when we visited in mid-2016, but the latter was promising to re-open at a new address. Some of the better hotels’ rooftop bars are good spots for sundowners and to meet a few of the other guests, with Ayarwaddy River View being the top choice.
Amazing Restaurant: 413A 65th St; T: (02) 23394, (099) 100 1921; open daily 09:00-21:00.
BBB Bar and Restaurant: 292 76th St, between 26 and 27; T: (02) 73525.
Fudo: Corner of 81 & 28 Sts; open daily 07:00-22:00.
Golden Duck: Corner of 16 & 80 Sts; T: (02) 36808; open daily around 10:00-14:00, 18:00-22:00.
Golden Shan: 22nd St, between 90 and 91 Sts; T: (094) 301 2909, (095) 136 546; open daily 09:00-23:00.
Green Elephant: 27th St between 64 and 65; T: (02) 61237; open daily 10:00-14:00, 18:00-21:30.
Lashio Lay: 69 23rd St, between 83 & 84 Sts; T: (02) 22653; open 09:00-22:00.
Mandalay Donuts: 78th St between 30 & 31 Sts; open daily 08:00-21:30.
Mr Bread Bakery & Cafe: 34th St between 76 and 77 Sts; T: (092) 5091 5886; open daily 09:00-21:00.
Mya Nandar: Strand Rd near Mingun Jetty.
Nay: Corner of 82 and 27 Sts, opposite Unity Hotel; open daily 16:00-00:30.
Night Market (Muslim): 82nd St, between 27 and 28 Sts; open daily around 16:00-00:00.
Night Market (Shan Ze): 34th St, between 76 and 77 Sts.
Nylon Ice Cream: 83rd St, between 25 and 26 Sts; T: (02) 65754; open daily 08:00-21:00.
Pan Cherry: 81st St, between 26 and 27 Sts; open daily 10:00-21:00.
Paradise Beer & BBQ Garden: 3 66th St, between 25 and 26; T: (092) 027 995; open 09:00-23:00
Rainbow: Corner of 23 & 83 St; open daily 16:00-23:00.
Shan Ma Ma Restaurant: 81st St, between 29 and 30 Sts; T: (02) 71858, (092) 054 765; open daily 10:00-22:00.
Shwe Kaing III: Corner of 33rd and 82nd; open daily 17:00-22:00.
Shwe Pyi Moe: 66th St, between 26 and 27 Sts; T: (099) 104 1010; open daily 05:00-18:00.
Unique Myanmar: Corner of 27 and 65 Sts; T: (02) 23562, (092) 5809 5620; open daily 10:00-23:00.
Win Win 3: 77th St, between 34 and 35 Sts; open daily 16:00-23:00.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.