Storied Mandalay was founded in 1857 and was the last independent royal capital of Burma (Myanmar); today it's arguably the cultural centre of the country with a good swag of sights to see.
In 1885, a successful British invasion meant Mandalay fell under colonial rule. Then the Japanese occupied Mandalay from 1942-1945, when a part of the city and most of the 19th-century-built royal palace was destroyed by Allied bombings. Today, a rough estimate of a third of the population in Mandalay is Chinese, many of whom immigrated since independence in 1948. Many destroyed properties were purchased by the Chinese, and their presence has been somewhat controversial in the rebuilding of the central city.
The final two kings of Burma called Mandalay Palace home; pagodas scattered across the city host iconic statues, and relics that may be older than Mandalay itself have been brought from all over Asia. Groups such as the Shan, Indians and Chinese live all over the city, but are also clustered in certain areas, lending a feel of growing "towns" – Chinatown, or Little India, for instance – though nothing quite so definite just yet.
Mandalay is still finding its place in the newly opened Myanmar, but at a slower rate than its big brother Yangon. Budget guesthouses are mostly all on the west side of town, with the main cluster near the southwest corner of the palace moat. The east side of the city boasts some scattered, reasonably priced accommodation, but mostly high-end hotels, and local guesthouses that are still forbidden to host foreigners.
Due to its location in the north, a diverse array of food is available and it can be extremely tasty if you find the right spots. No one should go through Mandalay without the experiences of eating at a Burmese teashop, a Shan buffet, a Chinese restaurant and an Indian chapatti/roti street stall. There are not as many street stalls as other places in Burma, but most of the restaurants still keep the local prices, which makes it cheaper than Yangon.
Nightlife is nearly non-existent, with few beer stations being open past 23:00 and Western bars numbering: one. For the best collection of beer stalls and tea shops open past dinner time, Diamond Plaza has a surrounding concentration of both, with most of them lining 77th Street.
Sights and activities are spread throughout the city and a map is a must. Most hotels and guesthouses have their own versions, which can be decent or absolutely horrible, or they sell a generic one for US$1. Gold Yadanar Hotel has one of the better quality maps with a good list of hotels, restaurants and sights around the city, while Mandalay City Hotel has a good map on plain paper that has a slightly different list.
The famous pagodas, payas and relics are dotted across the streets of the city as well as its outskirts; royal structures and Mandalay Hill are to the north. Since very little will be close to your accommodation, visiting multiple sights in a day can be strenuous and time consuming. We found it best to befriend a taxi driver who will give you a good day rate -- about US$25-30 -- and to split the fee with friends for a good tour around the city plus wherever the driver may suggest.
Mandalay is also known for its surrounding ancient cities such as In-wa (Ava), Mingun, Sagaing and Amarapura. These places not only host their own sights, but can be a great escape from the traffic and bustle of Mandalay. Around US$35-40 a day will get you a local taxi-tour guide and if you're lucky a history buff to show you all the best spots.
Most of the must-see sights in the city can be seen in one to two days with good transport. The surrounding ancient cities are open and beautiful, but one full day can give you a healthy tour of the outlying area, whereas two full days may cost more than it's really worth. With so many other amazing places to see in Myanmar, we suggest putting aside just two to three full days here.
To the north of Mandalay's city centre lie the palace grounds, around 1.5 kilometres square and surrounded by a towering brick wall and vast moat. From there, a giant grid of streets extend outwards, home to an estimated one million people and fewer than five sets of traffic lights.
Almost every street is numbered, with east and west running streets being from roughly 5th Street to 40th Street, and north and south-running streets being from roughly 60th Street to 90th Street. Street numbers get higher as you head south and west.
To the west of the city centre runs the Ayeyarwaddy River, with scattered jetties lining the north-south bound waters. The main Gawein Jetty is off 35th Street. Mandalay airport is 35 kilometres south of the city, or about an hour's drive, and the train station sits near the middle of the city on 78th Street, just south of the palace moat.
There are three bus stations in Mandalay. The main one is Chan Mya Shwe Pyi Highway bus station (Kywe Se Kan) and is 10 kilometres (about 45 minutes) south of the city centre and buses depart here for Yangon, Bagan, Taunggyi, Inle Lake, Kalaw, Pyay and even Mawlamyine and Myawaddy. Pyi Gyi Myat Shin bus station is on the east side of the city centre on the corner of 60th and 37th Streets, where buses depart for Pyin Oo Lwin, Hsipaw, Lashio and Muse. Thiri Mandala bus station is west of the city centre on 23rd Street, just west of 88th Street. Here you can catch buses to Monyar, Shwebo, Mogo (with permission) and Pakokku.
ATMs are becoming a more common sight. CB Bank currently has the most machines: one on 78th Street between 27 and 28; one near the clock tower on 26th Street between 84 and 86 and one on 32nd Street, between 83 and 84. There is an ATM in the airport; a couple of them around Diamond Plaza, which sits on 33rd and 78th Streets, and one at New Star Jewelry on 78th Street between 32 and 33.
As for money exchanges, be aware that the black market is no longer a good option. We highly recommend changing at banks, established moneychangers or at the airport. Most CB Banks can change money, along with Sedona Hotel on 68th Street between 26 and 27 Streets, and at Mahar Myat Mhuni Pagoda on 82nd Street near BoBaHtoo Road.
Internet has become more common at guesthouses and hotels and a few restaurants, such as BBB, Vcafe and Hunters Café and Bar, now have WiFi. Internet cafes are still scattered and possible to find, but no matter where you are, do not expect a good or reliable connection.
As far as medical services go, we still advise that if an ailment can wait to be treated elsewhere, wait; but if you find yourself dealing with something that can't wait:
Mandalay General Hospital is on 30th Street, between 74th and 77th Streets and has local prices with local conditions. T: (02) 21041
The City Hospital (Myodaw) is on Theik Pan Street between 65th and 66th Streets. It is more expensive and you should expect to pay upwards of US$100 for most visits. T: (02) 66851. http://www.cityhospitalmandalay.com
Mandalay Children's Hospital is on the corner of 30th and 74th Streets. T: (02) 21508.
Contact the Central Police Office at (02) 36869/39635 or in an emergency call 199.