Mandalay, the last royal capital of Myanmar, is a delight for born explorers, temple-hoppers and even penny pinchers. Let our four-day itinerary and travel tips help you make the most of your visit to this famed city without parting with much of your hard-earned cash.
Words & Photography: Abby Yao
The city of Mandalay, the second largest in the country after Yangon (formerly Rangoon), is becoming a byword amongst travellers for its golden temples, teak monasteries and splendid skyscraper-free vistas. What used to be a niche market for luxury travellers is now accessible and affordable to backpackers, families and even solo travellers.
What can you expect in Mandalay? Let our four-day Mandalay itinerary and the travel tips that follow help you plan for your next Myanmar adventure!
2 PM – Arrive in Mandalay city centre from Mandalay International Airport. The hour-long ride takes you through sunflower fields dotted with brick stupas into the grid-patterned city of monks, motorbikes and overloaded 30-year-old pickup trucks, where men and women wear longyi (long tube skirts) and sport thanaka (tree bark paste)-covered faces.
AirAsia shuttle bus from Mandalay International Airport: free.
3 PM – Meet your driver for your half-day city tour, covering the largely reconstructed Royal Palace, the carved teak Shwenandaw Golden Palace Monastery, the wedding cake-like Atumashi Monastery, the world’s largest book – Kuthodaw Pagoda, and the city’s highest point, Mandalay Hill for sunset watching.
Combined ticket to the Royal Palace and sites in the three surrounding cities: 10,000 kyats (say “chat”, approximately 1,000 kyats~ USD1). Half-day city tour by Jeep: 15,000 kyats flat rate for up to 5 passengers.
7 PM – Dinner in Mandalay. Consider Shan cuisine at the reasonably priced Lashio Lay Restaurant on 23rd St, between 83rd and 84th Sts.
Dinner: 2,000 – 4,000 kyats.
7 AM – Get started early on your ancient capitals tour of Sagaing, Inwa and Amarapura. Remember to negotiate with your driver on the price beforehand. Although drivers usually have a set itinerary, mention what you want to cover, in case you have any requests for stops you don’t want to miss.
Full day 3 cities tour by taxi: 35,000 kyats for up to 4 passengers.
Before you leave Mandalay city, spend some time at the magnificent teak Shwe In Bin Monastery and the revered Mahamuni Buddha at its eponymous pagoda.
Mahamuni Pagoda camera fee: 1,000 kyats.
9 AM – Drive the bumpy roads outside the city and cross the bridge over the Ayeyarwaddy River, continuing onwards to the pagoda-dotted Sagaing Hill to visit the hilltop pagoda and its surrounding monasteries.
12 PM – Temporarily part with your driver and take the boat to the rustic town of Inwa (Ava) and have lunch before hopping on a horse carriage to see the sights such as Bagaya Monastery, the Leaning Watchtower, Yadana Hsimi Pagodas and the Maha Aungme Bonzan Monastery.
Boat ride to Inwa: 4,000 kyats return. Horse carriage ride: 3,000 kyats per person, minimum 2 persons per carriage. Lunch: 5,000 – 9,000 kyats.
4 PM – After your boat ride back from Inwa, reunite with your driver for the short trip to Amarapura. Cross the longest teak bridge in the world, the 1.2-km long U Bein Bridge and get on a rowboat for the best views of the bridge at sunset. Alternatively, enjoy a coconut under the bridge and relish the view both below the bridge and on it.
Boat ride at U Bein Bridge: 4,000 kyats per boat for up to 4 passengers.
830 PM – Catch a disappearing art at one of Mandalay’s two marionette puppet theatres.
Marionette show: 8,000 – 10,000 kyats.
8 AM – Depart from your hotel and arrive at the jetty for the one-hour boat ride to the village of Mingun at 9am.
Boat ride to Mingun: 5,000 kyats return.
10 AM – Although it is possible to walk the sights in Mingun, such as the Mingun Bell, Mingun Pahtodawgyi, and Hsinbyume Pagoda, the heat might convince you to give the local economy (and yourself) a lift by hiring an oxcart.
Oxcart ride: 6,000 kyats per oxcart for up to 4 passengers.
2 PM – Return to Mandalay city by boat and take a half-day drive around the city for some shopping at Zegyo Market. Ask your driver to take you to the Jade Market, the gold beating workshop and weaving workshop to see craftsmen at work.
830 PM – It’s not for everyone, but the Moustache Brothers political satire mixed with traditional singing and dancing is as close as you can get to subversive entertainment.
Half-day city tour on Jeep: 15,000 kyats. Moustache Brothers show: 8,000 kyats.
9 AM – Take the free AirAsia shuttle bus to the airport for your flight to Bangkok.
Alternative Itinerary If you have the energy, skip the boat ride to Mingun and drive to Mingun and the three cities on Day 2. This will free up Day 3 for an excursion to the hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin, famous for its botanical gardens and waterfalls.
Change money at the airport. Unlike most other countries, Myanmar has good exchange rates at its international airports. Make sure the USD bills are new (2006 and later) and in mint condition, or they might not be accepted by money changers. Note that Thai Baht is still not officially exchanged in Myanmar.
ATM Machines. International ATMs can now be used at certain machines in Mandalay (such as CB Bank and KBZ Bank) but bring extra USD to be on the safe side.
Bring a friend. When it comes to saving money in Mandalay, it pays to be with friends (or make new ones). More often than not, the fees for transport are per vehicle, so the cost per person comes out cheaper with a group.
Set your budget. It is possible to spend the equivalent of USD 50 or lower per day, including accommodation, as basic but comfortable double rooms range from USD 20-40.
Take to the streets. Avoid arranging transport using your hotel to save on commissions. There will be enough drivers hanging around downtown who can give you the street price. Ask to see the vehicle first before you seal the deal. Mandalay can be very dusty, and some travellers prefer air-conditioning, which is the exception rather than the rule for most Mandalay vehicles.
Tours. Air-conditioned luxury sedans can cost upwards of 100,000 kyats per day, though it might be possible to lower it to 80,000 kyats. Blue taxis (old Mazda pickups) in the city and motorbike taxis will cost 20,000 kyats or less. Regular (old) taxis are in the middle range, around 35,000 kyats.
DIY tours. If you’re on a shoestring budget, opt for a self-guided tour and read up on the attractions either beforehand or with a guidebook. An experienced English-speaking driver will also know more about the locations and answer questions.
Talk can be cheap. Finding a driver you can easily communicate with will save you a lot of frustration. We hired San Htay (+95 9 259021450 /+95 9 402697952) not only for his reasonable rates, but also for his fluency in English. It’s possible to get by with very little interaction with your driver, but it’s always a plus to have better communication for a more enjoyable trip.
Two-wheel deal. If you are a motorbike rider, ensure that your travel insurance has a motorcycle supplement, as most travel insurance policies won’t cover motorbike riders. Note that there are areas of the country where you cannot ride on a motorcycle (Yangon being one), but Mandalay and its surroundings are fine.
FOOD & DRINK
Go local. Ask your driver to take you places frequented by locals – you’ll be astounded by how small the final bill amounts to. But even the tourist-focused restaurants are considerably cheaper than other Southeast Asian cities. Burmese food has Indian and Chinese influences. Curries are mild and fresh vegetables are served with various side dishes.
Bring your own bottle. Unless you are particular about the temperature of your drinks, bring your own water as drinks at tourist attractions are more expensive. Alternatively, share a fresh coconut with a friend.
Fixed-price for non-hagglers. Drop by the supermarket for food products to bring home. The supermarket at the Diamond Plaza basement has a shelf devoted to locally made products. Look at labels closely as many products are imported from Thailand and other countries.
Longing for longyi. A simple cotton longyi costs between 2,000 and 4,000 kyats. More elaborate fabrics will cost considerably more.
All that glitters… Unless you are knowledgeable about gems, be wary of buying them in Myanmar as you may be buying imitations and synthetics.
WEATHER & CLOTHING
Dress for the tropics. The temperature in Mandalay is generally high, with midday temperatures going over 30 degrees Celsius. Dress as you would for sunny, cloudless days, bearing in mind that shoulders and knees need to be covered as a sign of modesty in religious buildings.
Light layers. November to January are the most comfortable months for travel as the temperature is cooler. Bring a cardigan or light jacket for early mornings and late nights, when it gets chilly. December to March will be dry, which means it can get very dusty. A scarf is useful as a protective cover-up.
Wear your sunscreen. You might also want to bring some extra head cover if your skin is sensitive.
Slip it on. Use easy-to-remove footwear such as sandals, as you will need to remove them before entering a temple (which will happen often every day).
Discouraging begging. It is not advisable to give away food and money to beggars, especially children. However, feel free to buy products to help locals earn their living.
Holy favours. Beware of “monks” who collect money as monks are generally not allowed to receive donations other than food.
Tipping. Although not mandatory, a few extra dollars for a job well done will be most appreciated by your guide, driver and bellboy.
See more of Mandalay in Travel 3Sixty’s Facebook album.
Got your own tips and itinerary for Mandalay? Sound off in the comments below.
GETTING THERE Fly to Mandalay from Bangkok via AirAsia. For flight information and the lowest fares, go to www.airasia.com.
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