Weekend in Mandalay
Fancy a weekend in Mandalay? Rudyard Kipling may never have been to Mandalay but we were recently. We had a magic time in the northern Myanmar city that’s easier than ever to visit. And a weekend in Mandalay is just enough time to get a taste of this fascinating place.
Warm, dusty and windy, the city’s allure isn’t immediately apparent, but follow our weekend in Mandalay itinerary and you’ll soon be charmed by this intriguing former capital.
A Weekend in Mandalay – An Itinerary
Located in Mandalay’s most picturesque neighbourhood, on the southeast corner of the walled city, the Hotel by the Red Canal is the city’s most stylish boutique property with polished floorboards, local textiles, a leafy garden, and swimming pool. More affordable and centrally located, mid-range Hotel Amazing Mandalay, new when we visited a few months ago, is in a renovated Art Deco building on a busy main road within walking distance of the train station.
There’s no better way to kickstart a stay in Mandalay than with a night of laughs at the vaudevillian Moustache Brothers performed on a makeshift stage in their home (39th Street). Show starts at 8.30pm so you’ll need to eat early. Begin your evening under the bright lights of central Mandalay’s bustling downtown. Focused around 26th Street, much of the action lies between 80th and 84th Streets, and 24th and 29th Streets. Feast on rich Burmese curries on plastic chairs in a colonial building at Aye Myit Tar (81st, between 36th and 37th Streets) then walk the kilometre down to the theatre or grab a taxi.
Don’t even think about doing anything but Grasshopper Adventures’ Mandalay Tea Shop tour by rickshaw. Starting at 8am and finishing by lunch (not that you’ll need it!) this delicious foodie tour provides a great introduction to the cuisines of Myanmar and dishes of Mandalay, from the fried vegetable snacks the locals call ‘Burmese tempura’ to Myanmar’s quintessential noodle soup dish, mohinga. You’ll visit a couple of Mandalay’s ubiquitous and atmospheric tea shops, explore a local market and stop at roadside stalls.
You’re unlikely to have space for lunch, but if you do, we love Too Too Restaurant on 27th Street. The spotlessly clean, functional eatery is completely characterless but its fantastic and super affordable food makes up for the lack of atmosphere. Choose a couple of rich curries from the counter and they’ll be served with bowls of vegetables, soup, condiments, and rice.
The best way to get around often sweltering, sprawling Mandalay is by car. Try the knowledgeable Mr Win Thu (09 4311 5737). If he’s not available two-wheeled motor-taxi driver Hasina’s husband is a driver with vehicle (09 3321 0640). Explore the handsome reconstructed Royal Palace within the sturdy moat-encircled city walls (spectacular to photograph at night). Climb the spiral watchtower for views of the complex. Purchased at the entrance, the Mandalay Archaeological Zone ticket (1000 kyats; one week validity) covers the most significant sites. Visit the richly-carved 19th century teak Shwenandaw Kyaung monastery (our favourite) and glimmering gold Kuthodaw Paya and neighbouring Sandamuni Paya, where white stupa hold 729 and 1774 inscribed marble slabs that combined comprise the ‘World’s Biggest Book’. Finish with sunset atop Mandalay Hill.
Feast on first-rate Burmese cuisine in the colonial-style building or lantern-lit garden at the Green Elephant (6-9pm; 27th Street), one of Mandalay’s best restaurants. You’ll need to finish by 8pm to make it to the Mintha Theatre for a classical dance performance or Mandalay Marionettes Theatre for a traditional puppet show. Both theatres are a block from the restaurant; shows start 8.30pm.
Slip on your walking shoes and return to the central Mandalay downtown area to saunter the streets on a comparatively quieter Sunday morning, using the area’s sacred sights as an excuse to take in the everyday life. Start at majestic gold Eindawya Paya, dating to 1847. See if there’s any action at the nearby produce market on your way to colourful Sri Ganesh Hindu temple (27th Street), the red brick Christ Cathedral (23rd Street) and faded Shwekyimyint Paya (24th Street), first established in 1167, although much of what’s standing is more modern.
Tuck into tasty Shan cuisine at the flouro-lit Lashio Lay on 23rd Street, near 84th Street. Have Mr Thu (or another driver) pick you up here for an afternoon drive.
Stop at a Gold Leaf Workshop such as King Galon to watch the boys pounding from gold the fine sheets that worshippers stick on Buddha statues, then visit the lively Jade Market, before heading to the wonderful Mahamuni Paya, Mandalay’s most important pagoda. Buddhists are here to fix gold leaf on the gleaming Buddha, but we love ambling the grounds, taking in the colour, music and atmosphere. Don’t miss the magnificent bronze Khmer statues, said to be from Angkor Wat. After, shop in the surrounding arcades for everything from carved statues to lacquerware, then visit the nearby marble workshops before making a beeline for Amarapura, Myanmar’s penultimate capital from 1783. You can visit even more glittering payas (pagodas) and monasteries here until the light is just right for a late afternoon stroll across U-Bein Bridge, the world’s longest teak footbridge that stretches across Lake Taungthaman, pictured above.
Ensure you make it to the rooftop Sky Bar at the Ayarwaddy River View Hotel in time for sunset to sip a chilled glass of Myanmar wine or a whiskey sour as you savour the sweeping water views while watching the sun go down over the mountains.
HOW TO GET TO MANDALAY
It’s never been easier to visit Myanmar, especially Mandalay. Myanmar E-Visas (28-day tourist visa $50; 70-day business visa $70) are easily arranged online from the government’s Ministry of Immigration website. While they’re meant to take up to a few days to process, we received our official letters within hours of completing the online forms. There are plenty of flights from Southeast Asian cities to Yangon and Mandalay. We flew Nok Air from Bangkok to Yangon on bargain US$50 flights, including free 30 kilos luggage allowance, and took the train from Yangon to Mandalay, however, Bangkok Air and Air Asia both flight direct to Mandalay. ATMs are in abundance these days so no need to take huge wads of crips US$ notes although some hard currency always comes in handy.