Mandalay: the evocative name of Burma’s present day northern capital rolls satisfyingly off the tongue. Made famous in a host of films, popular songs and books by Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, Frank Sinatra and more recently even Robbie Williams, Mandalay has become a household name, even if most people don’t actually know where it is.
Although closely surrounded by the ancient city sites of Sagaing, Mingun, Inwa and Amarapura, Mandalay itself was only founded in 1857 by King Mindon. Under the name of Yadanarpon, the city was the capital of the Kingdom of Upper Burma until it was annexed by Britain in 1885. The king claimed to be fulfilling a prophecy by building a new capital at the foot of Mandalay Hill, though in reality most of the remainder of his kingdom, and former capitals, had already been swallowed up by the British.
Mandalay was occupied by the Japanese during World War II and suffered severe damaged from both heavy ground fighting, which extended right into the city centre, as well as Allied bombing. Estimates say well over half of the city was destroyed. In more recent times it’s seen a lot of investment and immigration from nearby China and the resulting reconstruction of the city hasn’t been free of controversy.
Today Mandalay is northern Burma’s commercial, cultural and administrative capital; it's a sprawling, bustling city of some 1.5 million people. It’s also a major transport hub, so an essential stop at some stage for many visitors to Burma, though possessing plenty of fine sights of its own. It unfortunately receives a fair amount of negative feedback from visitors as the romantic and exotic name fails to meet preconceptions. Mandalay does lack Yangon’s fantastic stock of colonial architecture and it’s never going to be Burma’s cutesy equivalent of Thailand’s Chiang Mai. At the end of the day, it’s just a regular, traffic-clogged and bustling large city, albeit with more than its fair share of spectacular monuments. Suburbs sprawl but downtown is still largely free of high-rise and there are still quiet back streets and friendly tea shops to be discovered. We reckon you should allow at least two or three days for a stop here.
Mandalay offers leafy temples, vibrant markets and intriguing surrounding sights to visit, not least iconic U Bein Bridge. The city has a scenic location between the Ayeyarwaddy River on one side and the steep hills of the Shan Plateau rising to the east. There’s a host of accommodation choices and, with a very mixed population, including large Indian, Chinese and Shan communities, a great selection of food to be sampled.
The city’s airport is Burma's second largest and has very good flight connections, including to several international destinations. The river offers up and downstream travel potential and the railway station links southern and central destinations en route to Yangon, as well as remote northern towns all the way to Myitkyina. The highway to Yangon, via the capital Naypyidaw, is the best in the country while the old China Road, originally hacked out of the mountains during World War II to supply Allied forces in Yunnan, leads off east to Shan destinations such as Pyin Oo Lwin, Kyaukme, Hsipaw and Lashio. To the west, Sagaing Division stretches all the way to the Indian border and Chin State, making Mandalay the gateway to north and northwestern Burma as well as Shan State.
The centre of sprawling Mandalay is laid out in a grid pattern around the high brick wall and moat of the old palace grounds. To the west the mighty Ayeyarwaddy (formerly Irrawaddy) River separates the city from the older settlements of Sagaing and Mingun, while Mandalay Hill emerges from the still largely low-rise city blocks on the north side of town. To the east, the city peters out into farmland on a narrow plain before an abrupt escarpment rises to form the jagged edge of the Shan Plateau. South of the city centre, Lake Kandawgyi breaks up the grid, beyond which lie the ancient cities and former capitals of Inwa (or Ava) and Amarapura, home to U Bein Bridge.
Two parallel road and rail bridges span the Ayeyarwaddy from Amarapura to reach the pagoda-studded hills of Sagaing, while to the east 35th Street eventually turns into the China Road, which passes the former hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin and modern-day trekking hot spots of Kyaukme and Hsipaw, before arriving at the capital of North Shan State, Lashio. Beyond that is the border with China’s Yunnan at Muse. Mandalay’s international airport is around 35 kilometres south of the city, off the new highway that heads south to Naypyidaw and ultimately Yangon.
Today’s downtown area is located to the southwest of the palace in a block roughly bordered to the north by 26th Street, which runs along the south side of the old compound, and 35th Street to the south. 78th and 84th form the east and west sides of this rectangle and the city blocks held within contain much of Mandalay’s commercial district as well as many of its hotels. More upscale accommodation and a clutch of tourist restaurants lie to the east of the palace among rows of quieter residential streets.
If the city has a main street, then wide 78th is a candidate, featuring the central railway station and huge shopping mall Diamond Plaza. Also known as Yadanarbon Market the five-storey building is home to some 3,000 shops selling pretty much a bit of everything. You’ll find banks, travel agents and change booths scattered among the clothes, electrical goods and household wares plus cinemas on the top floor showing Burmese and foreign movies. 26th Street is a major west-east artery and houses the old clocktower and main municipal market, Zay Cho. Also worth a look is the lively fish market down by the riverside, which boasts an amazing variety of fish on sale, most of which have been hauled out of the adjacent Ayeyarwaddy. It’s located on the city side of Strand Road a couple of blocks south of the Ayarwaddy River View Hotel before it intersects with 26th Street.
The post office is on 22nd Street as is Thiri Mandalar Market, while more local markets and several hospitals are dotted throughout the suburbs. Mandalay General Hospital is on 30th St, between 74 and 77 (T: (02) 21041) while private City Hospital (Myodaw) is on Theik Pan Street between 65 and 66 (T: (02) 66851); this is a more expensive private one and you should expect to pay upwards of US$100 for most visits. The central police station is on 35th Street near the corner of 83rd (T: (02) 36869/39635 or emergency 199).
Boat jetties are strung along the riverside Strand Road while road transport is split between three bus stations. See our travel section for more details.
With regards to street numbers, 1st to 50th Streets run east-west and 51st and up, north-south. The palace complex and moat are bordered north-south by 12th and 26th and on the other two sides by 66th and 80th. Addresses commonly include the street, then the adjacent two that bracket that block, such as: 80th Street, between 30th and 31st Streets. This is often abbreviated to simply 80, 30/31 and may be referred to as either 80th Street or just 80 Street. Corner locations are then indicated as 35 and 78, for example.
Finally, note that a 10,000 kyat entry ticket is required for all sights within the designated Mandalay Archaeological Zone. As of 2016, this “combo ticket” is valid for one week and includes Mandalay Palace, Mandalay Cultural Museum, Mahamuni Pagoda, Kuthodaw and Sandamuni Pagodas, Shwekyimyint Pagoda, Setkyathiha Pagoda, Atumashi Kyaung, Kyauk Taw Gyi, Shwe Nan Daw Monastery, Zay Cho market, Shwe Inn Bin Monastery, Amarapura and Inwa. Ticket purchases are only possible at busier sites and indeed will only be checked at certain sites too. Smaller temples, or the municipal market Zay Cho, have zero facilities for either. The main points you will find ticket booths are the palace, the hill, Amarapura and Inwa.
Sagaing and Mingun, which are officially in a different province, are covered by a separate 5,000 kyat ticket which is valid for one day only.
Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Mandalay or check hotel reviews on Agoda and Booking . Hungry? Read up on where to eat on Mandalay. Want to know what to do once you're there? Check out our listings of things to do in and around Mandalay. If you're still figuring out how to get there, you need to read up on how to get to Mandalay.
By Mark Ord.
Last updated on 25th September, 2016.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.