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Lure of Mandalay

The city of Mandalay – a byword for the allure of Asia, thanks to poet Rudyard Kipling – makes a great starting point to explore the highlights of Myanmar.

Words & Photography: John Oates

Hsipa woman

A local Hsipa woman.

Pahto and Paya of Bagan

The many temples (pahto) and stupas (paya) of Bagan.

     The India-born English writer Rudyard Kipling, best known for The Jungle Book, has much to answer for when it comes to mythologising Myanmar. He may have spent only three days in the country, which was known as Burma when he visited back in 1889, but his poem Mandalay still fires the imagination.

     Back then, the city of Mandalay was a new imperial conquest, and Kipling never even visited it. Perhaps this is why his lines evoke an exotic nostalgia even though Mandalay was by no means an ancient city. In fact, it had only been founded in 1857, partly as an unsuccessful attempt to convince the British – who ruled Lower Burma from Rangoon (now Yangon) – that Upper Burma was a powerful state best left alone. 

     Today, the roads from Mandalay excite visitors, and with greater air connectivity, it’s easier than ever to use Mandalay as a hub for exploring the northern half of the country. It isn’t that the city itself is without its attractions – such as the sunset climb to join Buddhist pilgrims in the temples atop Mandalay Hill – but it’s very much an urban environment. Even Mandalay Palace is a modern reconstruction, and its long walls house a huge military base. 

     Before you head off too far, though, make time for a day trip to some of the former royal cities in the area. The rulers of Upper Burma had a tendency to move the capital when they took the throne, although just to confuse things they sometimes moved it back to a former location. Practically any tour company or taxi driver can arrange a trip combining two or more of the historical sites. 

     The oldest of the capitals is Inwa, where horse-drawn carriages take visitors to an atmospheric teak monastery and several old stupas (bell-shaped structures built over relics of the Buddha) stranded amid rice fields. Of the other former capitals, the most popular stop is Amarapura, where busloads of tourists arrive at sunset to take photos of a 1.3km-long teak bridge. It’s just as beautiful, and much quieter, at sunrise.

“Back then, the city of Mandalay was a new imperial conquest, and Kipling never even visited it. Perhaps this is why his lines evoke an exotic nostalgia even though Mandalay was by no means an ancient city.”

Stupas of Indein at Inle Lake

The stupas of Indein make an excellent sidetrip from Inle Lake.


If you only have time to take one of the roads from Mandalay, then the dusty plains of Bagan – its formidable temples and bell-shaped stupas – are probably the most obvious choice. Better yet, don’t take the ‘road’ part too literally; instead, get a ticket for one of the regular tourist boats that head there on a nine hour trip along the Irrawaddy River. 

     It’s hard to overestimate the importance of the Irrawaddy: Many of Myanmar’s most significant settlements grew up on its fertile banks and delta, and it’s still a major route for passengers and cargo. The stretch from Mandalay to Bagan is wide, so you rarely get a good look at the settlements on the banks, but the sunrise departure and sunset arrival can be breathtaking. 

Seated Buddha

Many of the temples are quite dark inside, with light streaming through doorways to illuminate features such on this seated Buddha.

     As for the temples, it’s fair to say that they rival anything from Southeast Asia. Angkor Wat may be better known, but the sheer scale of Bagan – hundreds of buildings spread over 67 square kilometres – is astonishing. Together, they are a testament to the might of an empire that united the lands that now form Myanmar, and flourished from the mid-11th century until the Mongol invasion of 1287. 

     The temples range from tiny shrines to imposing multi-level structures, which make great viewing points at sunset. Some, such as the large Ananda Paya, are still in use as places of worship; most are not, and are in varying states of repair. The ‘must-see’ buildings alone could keep you busy for three or four days, but part of the fun is wandering off to explore smaller places away from the postcard and sand painting vendors. 

Sand Paintings outside the temples of Bagan.

Many artists produce sand paintings, mostly using traditional designs, for sale outside the temples of Bagan.

     At the heart of the archaeological zone is Old Bagan, the site of many of the grandest temples. Up until 1990, there was a settlement here, but the government relocated residents to make way for luxury hotels. Keep an eye open for Star Beam, an unassuming restaurant north of Ananda Paya that serves some of the best Burmese food you’re likely to find and, bakes its own baguettes too! 

     Many of Old Bagan’s displaced residents moved to New Bagan, to the south, while the largest town is Nyaung U to the east. The former has some great mid-range hotels, and the latter is where most of the backpacker accommodation can be found.

Sunset View of a brige of Mandalay

A sunset view of a bridge near Mandalay, from a boat which set off from Bagan at sunrise.

“It’s hard to overestimate the importance of the Irrawaddy: Many of Myanmar’s most significant settlements grew up on its fertile banks and delta, and it’s still a major route for passengers and cargo.”

     No matter where you stay, it’s easy to arrange transport. The most flexible way to get around is by bicycle, and there are plenty of places renting them out by the day. You can also hire a car and driver, but it’s much cheaper to take a horse and cart. It’s a slow and bumpy way to get around but is a quintessential Bagan experience.


The other really big tourist draw in northern Myanmar is Inle Lake, a calm expanse of water dotted by stilt villages and floating gardens. The route to the lake from Mandalay runs south along the main highway to Meiktila, then east through the hill town of Kalaw – itself a tourist attraction as the starting point for hikes to ethnic minority villages. Plenty of buses run from Kalaw to Inle Lake but there are also three-day walking routes for those with the time and stamina. 

     More likely, you’ll end up staying in the town of Nyaungshwe – a dusty but friendly place with some decent restaurants and plenty of tour operators keen to arrange your day on the lake. Better prices can usually be obtained by talking directly to the boatmen at the jetty. 

Local fisherman on Inle Lake

Intha  shermen on Inle Lake use distinctive conical nets, and wrap a leg around a single oar to paddle the boat while leaving one hand free.

     However you book it, make sure that you know what you’re paying for. Normally, a tour will include visits to stilt villages, on the way to which, you’ll pass ethnic Intha fishermen with their distinctive leg-rowing technique and conical nets. In the villages, there are workshops making things like silver jewellery, lotus fibre textiles and cheroots. 

Making cheroot at workshop of Inle Lake

Making cheroot (local cigar) at a workshop along Inle Lake.

     Most tours will also stop at whichever local market is running that day. While the much touted Ywama ‘floating market’ is a bit of a tourist trap, you’ll find locals shopping in the other markets once you get past the souvenir sellers. If you pay a little extra, the tour will also include the hilltop stupas of Indein. The ride west along a narrow channel from the lake is itself a highlight. 

     If you’re in Nyaungshwe for a few days, then consider hiring a bike and going for a ride through some of the villages around the lake.


Compared to the tourist magnets of Inle and Bagan, the riverside town of Hsipaw (pronounced ‘See-paw’ and located about six hours northeast of Mandalay by bus) is a quiet and laid-back place. It’s getting busier, though, with new guesthouses and restaurants beginning to spring up as tourism blossoms throughout Myanmar.

     For now at least, it’s the kind of place where it’s fun just to hang out for a couple of days. Spend some time wandering the back streets and you’re likely to come across home workshops making things like shoulder bags and cheroots. If you’re up at dawn, then you shouldn’t miss the candle-lit produce market.

     One of the most relaxing spots in Hsipaw is Mrs Popcorn’s Garden, which you’ll find on the northern edge of town close to a cluster of ruined stupas optimistically known as Little Bagan. Since her husband died, the charming Mrs Popcorn has stopped making the snack that provides her nickname, but she serves great juices, as well as Burmese dishes for lunch. 

Kalaw of Hsipaw

A young boy showing off for the camera near Kalaw.

     The real attraction of Hsipaw, though, is as a base for hiking. Like the area around Kalaw, this is one of the few parts of the country where the authorities tolerate foreigners staying in local homes. Since camping is banned throughout Myanmar, homestays and monastery stays are the only ways to put together multi-day itineraries. 

     The most popular option, however, is a single night’s stay in the village of Pan Kam. It’s a not-too-strenuous four to five hour walk, with the route starting at a Muslim cemetery and running through several villages. On the way, you’ll pass fields where buffaloes toil, and be passed by locals scooting along on motorbikes.

     Pan Kam gets quite busy during the peak season from October to March, so consider staying an hour and a half further along in Htan Sant, from where you can continue on to Bawgyo Pagoda on the main road, and then, get a ride back to Hsipaw. Guesthouses in town can arrange accommodation and guides, as well as longer hikes around remote Namhsan village. Sleeping arrangements will be basic, and your hosts may speak little English, but it’s worth it both for the scenery and the chance to experience a taste of village life.


 Before you reach Hsipaw on the road winding its way through the hills northeast of Mandalay, you’ll pass through the town of Pyin Oo Lwin. Built as the summer capital for the British colonial rulers fleeing the heat of the lowlands, today it still functions as a getaway for wellheeled locals. You can see the obvious wealth in the upmarket hotels and plush holiday homes on the south side of town. 

     This is also where you’ll find the Pyin Oo Lwin’s main tourist attraction, the National Kandawgyi Gardens. Founded under the British, these botanical gardens feel uncannily like a slice of Western Europe. The centre of town, the area around the 1930s Purcell Clock Tower, shows further evidence of the town’s colonial past not least in the notably large Indian and Nepalese populations – a legacy of the British, who brought people from other parts of the Empire here. 

Palaung ethnic group.

A woman from the Palaung ethnic group.

     Continuing the theme, there are numerous colonial-era buildings, including some rather grand schools and churches throughout town particularly on and around Circular Road. It’s possible to explore Pyin Oo Lwin on foot, but the town’s signature horse-drawn white carriages tempt many tourists. Make sure you pop into the Candacraig Hotel, formerly the British Club, which has the air of a semi abandoned hunting lodge.

     To finish off the day in colonial style, the prime choice for dinner is the Club Terrace. The food may mostly be Thai, but it isn’t too much of a stretch of the imagination to picture Rudyard Kipling or his contemporaries sipping red wine – these days imported from Australia or produced near Inle Lake – in this half-timbered British-era bungalow.


There are few spectacles quite like the annual fire balloon festival at Taunggyi, a town close to Inle Lake. The event runs for a week, and this year, should culminate on or around November 17 (check dates with local tourism organisations). During the day, things are relatively sedate, as animal-shaped hot-air balloons are flown. At night, though, gondolas full of fireworks are attached to balloons. The resulting displays are always spectacular, but sometimes – when the balloon fails to take off – downright dangerous too! It’s impossible to get a room in Taunggyi during the festival, and hotels in Nyaungshwe are even busier than usual. 


Taking a train in Myanmar is always an interesting experience, not least because the lines and rolling stock have barely been upgraded since the end of the British Empire. It’s almost always quicker to take a bus, but there can be good reasons to opt for a train journey. One is to take the Goteik Viaduct, built in 1901, across a stunning gorge between Pyin Oo Lwin and Hsipaw. Another good reason is to stay in Katha, the little visited town that inspired George Orwell’s first novel Burmese Days. The authorities won’t let foreigners travel there by road, so your best bet is a train to nearby Naba.


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