There’s something about the word Mandalay that made me want to go to the city before I knew anything about it. Man-da-lay. The sound of it, the way it rolls off the tongue. I pictured a lazy river town, blanketed in rolling fog, with men steering Burmese-style gondolas against the background of mossy-green mountains. A painting come to life. But like most places I romanticize, Mandalay was far from what I imagined.The city was sprawling, dusty and noisy. The humidity was thick and the air hot. Rain water pooled in the pot holes littering the roads.
But it wasn’t all bad. In fact, hidden behind the dirty facade of the country’s second biggest city was something worth exploring. Here are the highlights, which I saw in one day, thanks to the wonderful driver from Hotel Yadanarbon (about $20 USD).
1. The Golden Buddha at Mahamuni Paya
After visiting all of the temples and buddha statues in Bagan, I really had no desire to see another one. However, I’m glad the driver talked me into it. Every day, religious devotees gather around the giant figure to paste gold leaf on its body. In fact, over the years the statue has grown six inches in thickness because of it.
2. The Shwenandaw Monastery
Also known as the Golden Monastery, this building is famous for its teak carvings of Buddhist myths. Adorning the walls, doors and roof, these miniature works of art make it possible to imagine what the Royal Palace once looked like, since it’s the last wooden structure left after the fire during World War II.
3. The Mandalay Palace
Even though most of the palace was rebuilt in the 1990s, walking through the complex is still worthwhile. The now concrete buildings were modeled after the original palace, constructed in 1857 by King Mindon Min, and was destroyed by Allied bombing during the second world war. Make sure to climb the stairs of the watch tower to view Mandalay Hill.
4. Kuthodaw Pagoda & “The World’s Largest Book”
When I heard the driver was taking me to “The World’s Largest Book” I assumed it would be something like Burma’s take on America’s roadside entertainment (“Biggest Ball of Yarn, Exit 7!), but I was wrong. It was much better than that. Built by King Mindon, 729 marble slabs stand at the bottom of Mandalay Hill, inscribed with Buddhist teachings. The project took about eight years to complete and is definitely worth seeing.
5. Mandalay Hill
If you ask anyone about the one thing you should see while in the city, they will most likely say Mandalay Hill. With views of Mandalay and the Irrawaddy River, it’s the perfect place to watch the sun go down. It’s also a good chance to interact with locals, as many monks and students wait at the top for the chance to practice their English skills.
Where I stayed: Hotel Yadanarbon. Located in downtown Mandalay, and reasonably priced, this was the perfect option for me. I was really impressed with the cleanliness, the friendliness of the staff, and the driver they employed to take me around the city. The hotel also has a “sky bar” that serves food and traditional entertainment, including a puppet show and music.
Tell me: Have you been to Mandalay? If there’s anything you loved that I left out, please comment. I’d also love some food suggestions, as I didn’t find anything notable on my own.