Traveling to Mandalay Myanmar (Burma)?
Here's what you need to know

The former royal capital often gets overlooked when visiting Myanmar but I found Mandalay more interesting and less hectic than Yangon, so I highly recommend it!

Here is all the practical info you need to visit Mandalay Myanmar (Burma)

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This post contains affiliate links to tours that I did and loved. This means if you book them I will earn some pocket money in commission, at no extra cost to you. (Not enough to buy my own yurt or anything). 

Mandalay airport

It’s easy to get here: Mandalay has an international airport. 

There are money changers as well as ATM machines here and I recommend getting some kyat (pronounced ‘chat’), the local currency straight away. You will need cash to pay for your ride into town.

How to get to Mandalay from the airport

The airport is a fair distance from the city but there will be a number of mini vans waiting right outside the airport arrival hall. Tell them your hotel name and they will point you to the best mini van to board.
 
Note that you can only pay cash (not by card).
 
The van will leave as soon as it is full. 

The ride takes about an hour depending on where exactly you’re going – Mandalay is a large city.
 
On the map, streets looks deceptively normal but are in fact super long!
 
At one point I thought the map on my phone had stopped working as I couldn’t see the blue dot moving at all. But it turned out that streets are simply so long that we were moving very slowly on the map despite travelling at a reasonable speed in the van.
 
Streets sometimes have proper names and but mostly have numbers for names (like New York does, for example) as the city was build on a grid system. It makes places easy to find.
TIP: Download a map of the city before you arrive so you can use it offline as you might not have a SIM card or other reception. 
 
Here is how to download a map for offline use in Google Maps:

How to get around Mandalay Myanmar

In general I love walking but in Mandalay, this is not really an option as distances are too far. 

Don’t be deceived by the map! Distances are impractically long.  

There’s no easy public transport. (There are buses but it’s very hard to work out where they’re going!) 
 

However, taxis are very affordable and reliably turn up on time. 

If you stop one in the street always agree on the fare before taking the journey. Haggling and bargaining are expected.

There are also motorised rickshaws which are even cheaper than taxis and very good for shorter journeys.

It’s also cheap and easy to rent a scooter/motorbike. However, traffic is quite mad in Mandalay and riding here is not much fun. I soon realised that I much preferred going by taxi. (I do highly recommend hiring an e-bike scooter in Bagan though!) 

TIP: When you meet a driver with good English and a comfortable car take his number so you can continue using him. Many drivers use WhatsApp (free to use on wifi worldwide).
Beware that "e-bikes" in Myanmar are actually scooters!
TIP: Sometimes scooters here are called e-bikes, when they run on electricity. When I rented an e-bike I thought I was renting a pedal bicycle with an optional motor attached. But these are NOT pedal bikes, they are proper motorised scooters! 

Mandalay Hotels

I had a very comfortable stay at Hotel Apex in Mandalay which is very reasonably priced. 

Rooms are a good size and beautifully decorated. 

There’s a lovely pool and also a roof top bar with stunning views. 

The hotel is centrally located and a well known landmark. Both your transport from the airport and all the local taxi drivers will know it. (This is important as English is generally not so well spoken and communication can be difficult.)

Is Mandalay safe for tourists?

Yes, I found it very safe. 

I went there as a solo female traveller and never had any problems at all.  

People are very friendly and there is a very low level of crime against tourists.

The UK’s official travel advice website says, “Most visits to Myanmar are trouble-free. The most common types of consular assistance cases are related to lost passports, petty theft and road accidents.”

The US advises “increased caution” but this really refers to specific border territories which are restricted for travel and not Mandalay or other tourist areas at all.

The Australian government also advises a “high degree of caution” which is level 2 out of 4. However, again this refers mainly for other parts of the country and tourist areas are generally considered very safe.

The best safety advice I found was at Myanmar’s own website which states
 
  • It is advisable to avoid large public gatherings and demonstrations, as there is always the outside possibility of clashes and violent incidents.
  • Tap water is not safe to drink; you should always buy bottled water.
  • Outside established tourist and top-end restaurants, food preparation is not always up to western standards.
  • It is important to guard against insect bites.
     
Note that this travel advise applies to pretty much all other Southeast Asian countries too. 

Is it ethical to visit Myanmar?

This is still a very grey area. You can read more on the ethical debate about visiting Myanmar here.
 
If you do decide to go I’d recommend making sure that you spend your money with locals who run small businesses. 

It’s the ordinary ”little” people who suffer from political decisions that they have absolutely nothing to do with who need our support the most. 

Mandalay Myanmar weather

March to May will be very hot, probably too hot to enjoy a visit. 

June to August is rainy season and it will quite possibly rain non stop for long periods of time – not fun. 

September to October will be a mix of rain and sunshine. 

The best time to go is November to February when there’s no rain and the temperatures are warm but not too hot. 

Mandalay Myanmar restaurants

My favourite place was Nova Coffee (between 79 & 80th Street)
 
They’re on the 1st floor but so you have to climb some narrow stairs but don’t let that put you off. 

The place is very modern, clean, air conditioned, and despite the name they do a full range of food as well as great coffee and cakes. 
Mandalay Myanmar pin
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Is Mandalay worth visiting?

At first glance Mandalay is a bit of a concrete jungle, sprawling and dusty. 

It is not the exotic oasis that the image of its name might conjure up. But it has some outstanding heritage and beautiful sites that are well worth visiting (see below).
 

Only in Myanmar 

Before setting off to explore I recommend having your face painted with a natural sunscreen. 
 
This is a beautiful and fun custom you will only find in Myanmar. The sunscreen is called Thanaka and made from tree bark – you can see people grinding it into a paste everywhere. It is painted on the cheeks in beautiful patterns and worn as sun protection. 
 

TIP: When you find someone with a Thanaka pattern you like complement them on it and they will be glad to paint the same pattern on your face too!

You will need a “zone ticket” to visit the sites which costs Ks10,000 (about US $7). This is valid for a week at all the tourist attractions, so you only need to buy it once. It is available at all the sites that require you to have it (i.e. at all the pagodas etc). 

Thanaka natural sunblock

What is there to do in Mandalay Myanmar?

Here are my personal highlights which I enjoyed the most: 

The World’s Largest Book: the Kuthodaw Pagoda

Mandalay is known as the City of Culture in Myanmar.

It has what is called the world’s largest book. 

It its not really a book that you can read but rather the entire teachings of the Buddha chiseled into marble slabs which are housed in these small temples called stupas. 

There are hundreds and hundreds of them and it fills you with a feeling of awe and wonder when you stroll around this sea of small white temples.

Wooden Gilded Monastery: Shwenandaw

Myanmar is sometimes the Golden Land. Everything seems to be made of gold or wood – or both: 

This stunning Buddhist monastery called the Shwenandaw Monastery in Mandalay is made completely of wood and used to be entirely gilded.

U-Bein Bridge

My absolutely favourite place was a simple bridge.
 
Made from teak wood, 1.2 km long. U-Bein bridge is in fact the world’s longest wooden bridge.
 
But it doesn’t just seem to lead you across the river. It seems to lead you to a different realm altogether.
 
Walking this bridge at sunrise was perhaps the most magical hour I have ever spent.
 
The light, the gentle mist, people’s smiles, the cries of the birds, the Buddhist chanting coming from somewhere not far and yet unseen, the fishermen calming gliding on the river – it felt like I had been transported to some mystical land beyond this earth. 
 
And this was not put here for tourists, this is just everyday life in Myanmar, used by people going about their daily lives. The beauty of it made my heart overflow.
TIP: Make sure you come at sunrise, because at sunset there are a LOT more tourists!
The bridge is slightly outside of Mandalay. Yes, it means getting up very early but it’s so worth it! Best to go by taxi well before sunrise, the ride takes about 35 minutes.

Mandalay Hill

This hill is very famous for watching the sunset. 

However, I must say I found the views from the roof top bar at the Apex Hotel more stunning (plus easier to get down after dark – and fewer mosquitoes).

alternative itinerary: see the countryside and authentic local culture by bike

If you’re looking for an alternative itinerary where you get to see more of the countryside, daily life and authentic local culture then I’d recommend a half day bike tour with Grasshopper Adventures.

Mandalay to Bagan by boat

There are so many beautiful sites along the boat ride, like the ancient city of Inwa. 


The ride takes about 10 hours which sounds long but it didn’t feel that way! It was a very comfortable and leisurely cruise and I’d highly recommend it.

 
There are different boat companies and the quality varies considerably, so make sure to go with one that has high ratings on TripAdvisor or similar.
 
 

I went with a company called Alliance and they were excellent.

 

Their cruises are available October to March. You can book them directly, or on Viator for extra reassurance.

 

The trip starts very early in the morning but that does mean you get to see the sun rise from the boat, beautifully reflected in the water.

 
The food on the cruise was very good and they even put on a little cultural show, showing you how Burmese men wear the traditional lunghi (like a sarong for men – there is a surprising variety of ways of wearing it!)
 
 
On my way back I took a car but between the two, even though the car ride was shorter I much preferred the boat trip.

How many days Do I need in Mandalay Myanmar?

I stayed 3 days and found it the right length of time. (If you’re a completist and feel you need to see absolutely all the sites I would add on another day.)

 

Bonus

Bagan Myanmar

Bagan is an extraordinary city of temples.
 
When Buddhism first came to Myanmar it was embraced so enthusiastically, first by the king and then by the people, that over 10,000 pagodas were built in the area of Bagan alone. (This was between the 11th and 13th century.)
 
Today, over 2000 of them are still standing, all in and around the small city of Bagan.
 
I’ve discovered the stupa in the photo just by wondering around the neighbourhood of my hotel in New Bagan.
 
There were virtually no tourists here. Just locals, praying. So the pagodas are still very much in use.
 
As a bonus there were no touts trying to sell me any souvenirs/paintings/clothes…
Bagan Stupa

Touts in Bagan Myanmar

The number of touts trying to sell you things can be quite overwhelming in the typical tourists spots and sometimes spoiled the otherwise idyllic setting for me.
 
I personally travel very light and don’t buy many souvenirs. (There just isn’t room in my carry on luggage!) I find the best tactic is not to even look at their wares. 

This seems harsh but if you show any interest whatsoever even just by having a look they will not let you enjoy a site or a sunset in peace.

It’s also great to venture off the well trodden tourist paths to escape the touts.

Local knowledge:
What is the difference between a pagoda, a temple, and a stupa?

A pagoda is a collective term for both temple and stupa. 

A stupa is like a temple but it doesn’t have an entrance. You just go around it. It represents the mind of enlightenment and is filled with holy artefacts like mantras, relics etc. 

If the building has a door then it’s a temple and inside there will be a Buddha statue. (Or actually 4, one for each direction.) 

 

Where to eat in Bagan?

My favourite was The Moon (in Old Bagan) and The Moon 2 in New Bagan.
 
Don’t be put off by the sightly funny name, the food here is excellent.  

And by the way, don’t think “new” means “modern” in New Bagan 🙂 This photo shows my idyllic walk from my hotel in New Bagan to the restaurant The Moon 2.

Ban on Climbing the Bagan Pagodas

You used to be able to climb onto the pagodas and get a spectacular view over all the temples. The Shwesandaw pagoda was particularly famous for this.
But for preservation reasons this is no loner allowe.
Please note: Climbing the Shwesandaw pagoda for sunset (or any time) was banned in 2018 and is now no longer allowed.
Now what you can do is go up a small hill to watch the sunset instead. This is the view you get.
I wholeheartedly agree with preservation over short term gain like a quick photo. But I must say the view here is not very spectacular.
 
Furthermore, there were hundreds of other tourists there as well as many, many touts.
 
I’m usually quite happy with whatever is on offer but I would honestly not recommend this hill for sunset as a must-see or must-do!
 
Instead I found that when I set off without a plan I found the most memorable “gems”.
 
The big famous stupas (Ananda and Shwezigon) are certainly impressive. But I enjoyed the little ones just as much that the local people built and look after.
 
It’s so much more of an experience when they proudly open it for you to visit. (And if they do you should leave an offering for them by the Buddha statue.)
 

Now over to you!

Have you visited Bagan and found any gems I should add to my article? 

Or are you planning to travel to Mandalay Myanmar and have any questions? 

Let me know in the comments!

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