Completely different from Yangon, Myanmar‘s second largest city and its northern hub feels much calmer and lazier. With wide, relatively uncrowded streets spread out along the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy, Mandalay is home to over half of the country’s monks. It is also seemingly home to half its dust and doesn’t really have many attractions, which is why many visitors stay just long enough to move on elsewhere in northern Myanmar.
Personally, I liked Mandalay; if you wander around outside the traditional center where most of the guesthouses are located, you can find plenty of areas where the pavement vanishes and the dirt roads swarm with Burmese shoppers browsing chaotic, local markets.
Note: Due to a huge increase in visitors to Myanmar, prices have been skyrocketing. Locations and modes of transport I’ve listed as offering the lowest prices will still offer the lowest prices, but those prices will likely be considerably higher than they were when I visited in 2011 (last edited on Apr 5, 2013).
Best Time to Go
November to February is the best time to visit Mandalay, as the temperatures are much more bearable. In the hot season from March to May, temperatures can reach 40ºC or higher. The rest of the year is the rainy season and while it doesn’t rain as much in the area surrounding Mandalay as elsewhere in the country, the rains will most likely still have a negative effect on at least some of your travel plans.
Getting to Mandalay
If you fly into Myanmar, you can expect to pay $8-$10 (after heavy bargaining) for a taxi to central Mandalay, as the airport is quite a ways outside the city.
The train station is right downtown, so you can just take a cycle rickshaw to most accommodation options. You shouldn’t have to pay more than 1000 Kyat, although they will certainly ask for more.
From the highway bus station, you can try to haggle with the taxi drivers, but they will generally refuse to go much below 6000 Kyat (or 2000 for a shared taxi) and bargaining with them can get quite annoying. You’re better off leaving the bus station to the west and hopping on one of the pick-ups for 500 Kyat. Sit on the roof for more breathing room; unless it’s raining of course.
Unlike Yangon, Mandalay has cycle rickshaws that can take you around for 1000 to 2000 Kyat. Taxis will generally be about double that, but still quite cheap. If you really want to save, you can brave the public buses. They aren’t bad, just crowded and not the easiest to figure out. Personally, I walked most places.
Most of the budget guest houses are centrally located in the area around 25th Street between 81st and 84th Street. It’s not easy to find a room under $10, especially in the high season, but it is possible . The most popular place seems to be Royal Guesthouse. I spent one night there and had no complaints, but it does fill up fast, so you might want to call ahead.
My favorite was the AD1 hotel, which is actually located in a different, but to me much more interesting, area—right in the middle of Zeygo market. I loved this location and the rooms are cheap, but don’t expect anything special. It’s definitely a budget place.
Royal Guesthouse:No. 41 25th Street (Between 82nd and 83rd), Tel: 0265697.
AD1 Hotel:Eindawya Sintada Steet in the Chan Aye Thar San Township (in an alley just East of the Eindawya Pagoda), Tel: 02-34505/09-6502430.
As I mentioned, AD1 is a bit removed form the other guesthouses and kind of on its own, but the area around Royal Guesthouse has numerous accommodation options, especially in the budget range. Scope out a few places and I’m sure you’ll find something that suits you.
You’ll also find a bunch of places in all price ranges on Agoda’s Mandalay page. More importantly, you’ll find an excellent accommodation map of the city, which you can use to get yourself oriented.
Eating & Drinking
The area around all the guesthouses has many low-priced restaurants that serve various types of food from within Myanmar and from its neighbors: Shan cuisine is especially common, but also Chinese, Bangladeshi, Indian, etc. You won’t find the same number of street food stalls as you do in Yangon, but there are still a few really good choices.
There was an explosion at Zegyo Market in 2005 and Mandalay is well known for its organized drug gangs, but in reality it is a very safe city. As a tourist, your biggest worry is probably disease.
Things to Do
Mandalay has a lot of Buddhist sites, but I didn’t bother with any of them, because Myanmar as a whole has so many religious sites and after the most important ones, the rest just don’t really interest me.
- Mandalay Hill: A 230-meter hill with pagodas, temples and nice views of the city, especially at sunset. You can walk, take a cheap shared pick-up or a private pick-up for 5000 Kyat. Walking will get you around the $3 entrance fee, but not the 500 Kyat camera fee.
- Royal Palace: a large walled city in the center of Mandalay; tourist entrance on the east side; entrance fee $5; I didn’t go, because it didn’t sound all that interesting to be honest
- Mingun: an interesting village and a nice boat ride; boat departs from the Mingun Jetty at 9am, returns at 1pm; the round trip costs 5000 takes about one hour (45 minutes return); $3 charge at the pagoda, but you can often get by without paying
- Villages on the Outskirts of Mandalay:
- Amarapura, home to the famous 1.2km teak U Bien Bridge, which I’m sure you’ve seen photographed at sunset in every photo collection of Myanmar
- Sagaing and the Sagaing hilltop, dotted with large golden pagodas, one of which can be climbed for a 360 degree view overlooking the Irrawaddy River
- Old Ava, a touristy canal city that still offers some glimpses of local life (you will probably be unable to avoid buying the $10 Mandalay ticket here—decide for yourself if you want to pay this to the government)
Most motorcycle drivers offer tours of all three for 16,000 Kyat (12,000 if you take a boat and a horse cart to Old Ava instead of the motorcycle; the boat is 2000 round trip and the horse cart is 8000).
Money Saving Tips
- take cycle rickshaws or motorbike taxis instead of regular taxis
- eat local food at street stalls or small restaurants; avoid western food if possible
- choose the attractions you visit carefully—entrance fees, which go directly to the government, will add up
- never accept the first price on anything—bargaining is expected; that said, the prices quoted are nowhere near as inflated as neighboring Thailand, so there’s no need to bargain quite as aggressively in Myanmar