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I always find it impossible to say the name ‘Mandalay’ out loud without having at least a small flutter of excitement. For many foreigners it conjures up irresistible images of lost oriental kingdoms and tropical splendour. The unofficial Poet Laureate of British colonialism, Rudyard Kipling, is partly responsible for this, through his well-loved poem ‘Mandalay’. But the name also tugs at Burmese heartstrings. The city was the seat of power in Burma, and it was there that the last Burmese monarch, King Thibaw, reigned.

Emma Larkin, Finding George Orwell in Burma


So begins Rudyard Kipling’s poem depicting the nostalgia of a British soldier back in damp, foggy England, pining for the exoticism and vibrancy of Burma and all that is ‘East of Suez’.

Cast in a veil of romance by Kipling’s poem, Mandalay, Myanmar’s most majestic city, was always to attract visitors. It is the third largest city in the country and the ‘second city’ of Myanmar excluding, for the moment at least, Nay Pyi Daw, the capital since 2006. Mandalay’s name derives from the Pali word ‘Mandare’ which translates as ‘vast and flat land.’

Passing through in the 1920s, Somerset Maugham wrote that wise men kept away from Mandalay, aware that the city would never be able to live up to the ‘independent magic’ aroused by its name’s lilting syllables. Mandalay lacks the vibrancy of Yangon and the splendid beauty of Bagan and Inle Lake which sometimes leads to it receiving a bad press from visitors to the ‘Grand Four’. However the wide and dusty streets, pious architecture, and culturally-sensitive, liberal locals imbue this city with a heady charm and those prepared to delve below the surface will find in Mandalay delights absent from country's other cities. Seen by some as the 'Melbourne of Myanmar', as Rough Guides puts it, Mandalay has 'a cultural and historical lustre compared to which Yangon is a mere colonial upstart, and Nay Pyi Daw a deranged military fantasy.'

Brief History of Mandalay

Largely due to Kipling, Mandalay, Burma’s last Royal City, is often assumed to be an old romantic city of an ancient Burmese kingdom. However in actual fact Mandalay is a relatively new metropolis, having been built the same year that Macy’s department store first opened their doors to customers in Manhattan. In the 18th Century the site of Mandalay was nothing but swampy paddy land and rank jungle. The city was created out of a small settlement by King Mindon in 1857 to be the new capital of the Konbaung Dynasty. The Royal Palace and moat at the heart of the city was also the seat of power of Mindon’s son Thibaw, the last king of Burma. (In fact, from his coronation to the day he was deposed by the British, from fear of usurpation, not once did the young King Thibaw leave the palace complex).

Sadly for the city, since the fall of the last Burmese Kingdom, Mandalay has never quite regained its grandeur or opulence. Humiliated by the almost unopposed arrival of the British in 1885, Mandalay and its citizens were further ground into the mud through Allied bombing raids against the occupying Japanese in the Second World War. The Japanese military, like the British before them and the Burmese Tatmadaw post-independence, took up residence in the Royal Palace complex, and this led to almost the entire wooden compound as well as the moat falling victim to heavy shelling. The casualties included 8 of the 9 ornate royal thrones used by Thibaw and his wife Supayalat when they reigned. Today, tourists can visit the Lion Throne, the only one to be recovered from the flames and rubble, at the National Museum in Nay Pyi Taw.

Mandalay Today

Though much of its majesty has been lost, due to the religious fervour of King Mindon, Mandalay is Myanmar’s central Buddhist hub. There are over 1, 000 monasteries in Mandalay - housing roughly 100, 000 monks and novices - including two of the largest monasteries in the country, Mahagandayon and Masoeyen. In Mandalay there is also a selection of intriguing paya including the ornate Mahamuni Pagoda, often referred to as ‘the Shwedagon of Mandalay’, King Mindon’s private quarters Shwenandaw Monastery, as well as Kuthadow Pagoda, dubbed the ‘World’s Biggest Book’, due to the 730 marble tablets inscribed on both sides with dense Pali, comprising the Theravada Buddhism canon in its entirety.

Despite being peppered with holy architecture, the city feels more like a large, sprawling village than a town. Less built-up than Yangon, with the lack of clogged traffic the arteries of this town run smoothly, allowing for a greater sense of freedom, ease and flexibility than its southern sister. There appears to be an infinite amount more tea-shops and beer stations than offices and high rises, and the empty roads are invaded by little boys to be used for hysterical football practice from 9pm onwards.

Along the banks of the Ayeyarwaddy and towards the suburbs, the city is quickly superseded by rurality, and a stray foal holding up the traffic on one of the central streets is not out of the ordinary. The villages surrounding Mandalay are green and spacious, allowing for airy and invigorating bicycle rides. The royal moat adds a spacious touch to the centre, and offers good opportunities for a morning stroll, or indeed, a chance to make use of the various fitness apparatus peppered on its banks looking upon the royal compound.

That said, at rush hour the roads can fill with erratic motorcyclists. Indeed, if the children of the Sea Gypsies in the Myeik Archipelago are born swimming like fish, and if the bairn of the Chin Hills are raised with feet as sturdy as mountain goats, then the children of Mandalay grow up on two wheels. Throughout your stay in the Royal City you will witness whole families impossibly and indifferently balancing on motorbikes, granny clinging on to her young grandson manning the vehicle, while docile babies are slung under an arm or nonchalantly totter upon a protruding knee.

Mandalay People and Culture

Though Mandalay is predominantly Bamar in ethnicity, there is a large population of Shan and Karen, as well as Chinese, both recent migrants and the descendants of those who immigrated to Burma during colonial rule. This influence from the East can be observed in the Chinese-style glass buildings evident throughout the city. Chinese influence is perhaps most pronounced at the fervent jade market. This is a world in itself and can be slightly unnerving to the unsuspecting visitor. Pushing your way through the throng you will pass shrewd, betel-spitting buyers inspecting the quality of the jade with a magnifying glass; young boys operate the whizzing cutting machines while their older brothers power the slippery polishers, green cheroots hanging lazily from between their lips, while in dim corners, podgy, fanny-pack-clad and bespectacled Chinese punters compare notes.

Mandalay is Myanmar’s city of crafts, and during your trip you can delve into the wood carving quarter, the stone carving quarter, weaving workshops and those of blacksmiths fashioning gongs. The Burmese spoken here is said to be the most beautiful in the country, and the women have the curious tendency of using the male first-person pronoun ‘cănaw’ instead of ‘cămá’, used by Burmese women in the rest of the country. Mandalay is also the best place in Myanmar to witness traditional performing arts, such as puppetry, music, dance, and even the antiquated ayeint comedy sketches (mostly based around puns, so perhaps the humour will be lost on some travellers).  

Against this slightly recalcitrant anomalie, students in Mandalay, Myanmar’s second educational hub, have been particularly vocal over the last few years in the demand for greater freedom and democracy. In 2014, one of the largest student movements against a new National Education Law that was perceived as undemocratic began in Mandalay, and the students of the city have since been steadfast in their demand for the release of their peers who were imprisoned following the protests. The mix of traditional arts and crafts with the fiery, liberal streak leads many to regard Mandalay as culturally richer than Yangon, and all together a more punchy metropolis.

Things to do in Mandalay

Day trips to Amarapura and the U-Bein Bridge, Mingun and Inwa are all recommended when staying in Mandalay. Other things to do include travelling to the Jade Pagoda made purely of the ornamental rock about 30 minutes outside the city, and embarking upon a bicycle tour of Mandalay’s environs visiting top Mandalay restaurants on the way. From Mandalay, one can take a taxi, pick-up truck or train to the cool hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin.

Like Bagan, Mandalay receives little of the monsoon rains that Yangon is plagued with from June to September. It is however very hot from March until May, and can become refreshingly - and surprisingly - cool in its winter, lasting from October to February. Flights to Mandalay into Mandalay Airport are regular, and since welcoming international flights, the city is becoming an increasingly popular starting point for a sojourn in Myanmar. Flying from Yangon to Mandalay is a quicker option than taking the bus, though less luxurious than sailing up the Ayeyarwaddy. A cruise from Mandalay to Bagan or vice versa is the most indulgent and stunning way to travel between the two.

You can have a look here to find out about hotels within and around Mandalay, and on these pages you can find out more About Sampan Travel and our Suggested Journeys.

See more of Mandalay on our Pinterest board here.

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