Mandalay holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Myanmar, being the site of the capital of the last Burmese kingdom.
To this day Mandakay is the national centre for traditional Burmese culture. It is also an important crossroads for commerce between upper and lower Myanmar, to and from China, and along the mighty Ayeyarwaddy River as it flows through the middle of the country.
The city is anchored by Mandalay Palace and Fort, surrounded by a 230-foot-wide moat and high protective wall. Built in 1857, the fortress was home to the last of Myanmar’s kings before the British annexed the northern part of the country in 1885. Just to the northeast of the fort is Mandalay Hill, which rises 760 feet above the otherwise level city. Crowned by a popular pagoda that can be reached by a long stairway or escalator, the hill affords spectacular views not only across Mandalay but also well beyond the urban area to the farmland to the north, the Ayeyarwaddy River to the west and the hills of Shan State to the east.
Near the foot of the hill lies a collection of intriguing Buddhist cultural sights, including the finely carved teakwood Shwenandaw Monastery, and Kuthodaw Pagoda, where the collected Buddhist scriptures are inscribed on 729 slabs of marble, each protected by its own small temple.
Mandalay’s most venerated religious site, Mahamuni Pagoda, is located in the southwestern part of the city. The pagoda’s famous seated Buddha image, brought from Rakhine State by the Burmese army of King Bowdawpaya in 1784, sparkles with gold leaf applied year after year by Buddhist pilgrims seeking to gain merit.
Mandalay and its southern suburb Amarapura are famous for their abundance of traditional handicraft workshops, where skilled weavers and artisans create everything from beautiful silk clothing and sequined tapestries, to wooden marionettes and marble statues. Visitors can watch the artists at work, and shopping at some of the bigger workshops can be like exploring a treasure trove of cultural artefacts. Amarapura is also well known as the site of U Bein Bridge, a stunningly picturesque pedestrian span that stretches more half a mile across Taungthaman Lake. It is one of the best places in all of Myanmar to watch the sunrise or sunset.
Mandalay is the best jumping-off point for trips into northern Myanmar. The nearest destinations include the quietly charming ancient capital of Inwa, best explored by horse cart, and the monolithic unfinished temple at Mingun, which is normally reached by a short boat ride up the Ayeyarwaddy River from Mandalay. Also along the river is Sagaing, whose tranquil, tree-covered hills are dotted with scores of pagodas, monasteries and nunneries.
Farther north of Mandalay is the town of Monywa, home to an amazing 424-foot-tall standing Buddha image, one of the tallest in the world. Nearby is Thanboddhay Pagoda, celebrated for its ornate design and bright colours. Monywa lies along the wild Chindwin River, and a boat ride to the far bank takes visitors to Hpo Win Daung, a complex of hundreds of alcoves carved into the limestone hills that hold Buddha images and murals. Northeast of Monywa lies Shwebo, another ancient capital that provides easy access to the pottery-making village of Kyaukmyaung and the pre-Bagan ruins of Hanlin.
Another popular trip from Mandalay is the old colonial hill station town of Pyin Oo Lwin, less than 40 miles distant by road but worlds away in terms of climate and atmosphere. Set at an elevation of nearly 3500 feet above sea level, Pyin Oo Lwin offers cool temperatures, well-preserved colonial architecture, lush National Kandawgyi Gardens and short hikes to picturesque waterfalls. Visitors usually explore using the town’s unique, decorative horse carts.