Mandalay is a surprisingly young city, founded in 1857 by King Mindon partly to show the British, who were ruling Lower Burma from Rangoon, that his kingdom was still mighty. After being taken by the British in 1885, the city prospered until the Japanese invasion of 1942, which saw many of the old buildings levelled by Allied bombing. Today Mandalay is the commercial hub of Upper Burma, particularly important for trade with China and with a large Chinese community. It's also considered to be Myanmar’s cultural capital, and a handful of regular shows offer foreigners a glimpse into traditional performing arts.
Much of the downtown area, particularly south and southwest of the old royal palace, where many budget guesthouses are located, is constantly traffic-choked and first impressions are rarely positive. Yet even here the backstreets can hold surprises, such as the huddle of mosques and Hindu temples on 82nd and 83rd streets, between 26th and 29th streets (which are particularly atmospheric in the early evening). The streets further west, towards the river, are significantly quieter and a popular area for exploring by bicycle.
There are several other temples and monasteries at the base of Mandalay Hill. The most impressive is probably Shwenandaw Kyaung, a teak structure built within the palace walls as a residence for King Mindon. The building was converted to a monastery and moved to its current site east of the palace after Mindon died in it, as it was considered bad luck by his son, Thibaw; this later saved it from burning alongside the palace’s other buildings.
Close by is Atumashi Kyaung, a temple originally built in the 1850s to house a Buddha statue that went missing – complete with the diamond in its forehead – when the British took the city. The current building is a reconstruction dating back to the 1990s.
Kuthodaw Paya, just north of Atumashi Kyaung, is home to a set of 729 marble slabs inscribed with the Tipitaka (the canon of Theravada Buddhist scriptures), each kept in its own small stupa. Impressive in its sheer scale, the set has been described as the world’s largest book. The nearby Sandamuni Paya has marble slabs with commentaries on the same scriptures, while the centrepiece of the Kyauktawgyi Paya (just west of Sandamuni Paya) is a huge Buddha carved from a single piece of marble. It’s the site of the city’s biggest festival every October.
Pretty much all of the gold leaf applied to Buddha images by devotees in Myanmar comes from a small area of Mandalay. There are about fifty gold leaf workshops, many of them based in homes, in the blocks around 36th Street, just east of the railway line.
It’s possible to watch the hammerers at work an discover the process of turning a 12g piece of gold into hundreds of sheets, each just 0.0003mm thick. The shops sell gold leaf and a few other souvenirs, but there’s no pressure to buy.
The stalls in the large Jade Market sell mostly to dealers, and it probably isn’t a good idea to make a purchase unless you know what you’re looking for, but it’s a fascinating place to visit. Jade is big business in Myanmar, although trade with the Chinese has declined somewhat since they imposed tough new import tariffs.
The main trading in the market takes place in the morning, but it’s possible to see jade being cut, shaped and polished at any time. You can also see the same being done outside the market itself, on the east side. While in the area, take a look at Shwe In Bin Kyaung, a peaceful, late nineteenth-century teak monastery (89th St 37/38; free).
The most important Buddhist site in the city, Mahamuni Paya is a large complex south of the centre. At the heart of the pagoda is a 3.8metre-tall Buddha figure, stolen in 1784 from Mrauk U by King Bodawpaya’s army. Male devotees visit to apply gold leaf to the figure; women are not allowed within the inner area and instead hand their gold leaf to a male assistant. The figure itself is said to weigh six tonnes, and the gold leaf covering it adds another two tonnes. At 4am each day crowds gather while the face, pretty much the only part not covered in gold leaf, is washed. If you can get up in time then it’s fascinating to witness.
It’s worth spending some time exploring the complex. Northwest of the main shrine is a cream concrete building containing Hindu figures taken originally from Angkor Wat by the Rakhine, before being appropriated by Bodawpaya at the same time as the large Buddha. Outside the complex, to the southwest, is a dusty and noisy district of stone carving workshops (although the city authorities have threatened to have them moved).
For many people the 45-minute walk up Mandalay Hill for sunset is one of the highlights of a visit to the city. The usual starting point is the staircase between a large pair of chin-thé (lion-dogs) on 10th Street; there is another entrance a little further east.
Whichever route you choose, the concrete steps run uphill beneath a corrugated iron roof, lined with stalls selling drinks and souvenirs. The two routes meet just before Byar Deik Paya, from which a large standing Buddha points back the way you came. The story goes that the Buddha visited the hill and foretold that a great city would be built at its foot.
There are numerous other shrines on the way up the hill, including Ngon Minn Stupa, where the names of donors are written on the white columns. As you get higher, the crowds become thicker, particularly around sunset, but the wide terrace of Sutaungpyi Paya (“wish-granting pagoda”) at the top accommodates the mixture of pilgrims, tourists and novice monks, who are there to practise their English.
Built as the residence for King Mindon and the Burmese aristocracy, Mandalay Palace is protected by walls and a moat more than 2km long on each side. After the British took the city they used it as a fort, and most of the huge site is still an off-limits military base. The palace complex itself is right at the centre (daily 7.30am–4.30pm; $10 Mandalay ticket), although the wooden buildings all burnt down towards the end of World War II. What you see today is a 1990s reconstruction.
Foreigners can only enter the walls through the east gate and are not allowed to deviate from the straight road to the centre. The best way to get an overview of the palace is by climbing the 130 steps of the helter-skelter-like watchtower in the southeast of the palace area. The iron roofs of the forty or so timber buildings that make up the palace may look inauthentic, but were actually specified that way by King Mindon. Generally though, the buildings, reminiscent of a film set, are impressive from a distance but less so when examined up close.