Formerly known as Burma, Myanmar always seemed like a mythical place- somewhere I wasn’t sure I would ever make it to.
The biggest country in Southeast Asia, Myanmar has been attracting more and more tourism interest.
We chose to visit Mandalay, the former royal capital of Myanmar. When people speak about Myanmar, they often rave about Bagan, Inle Lake, and Yangon- Mandalay is somewhat of a forgotten city.
Under military dictatorship rule for so many years, tourism infrastructure in Myanmar is new, and behind its neighbours in SE Asia.
This can make travel there challenging, but at the same time, refreshing.
Getting ready to leave Asia in October, to head to India and then Europe, I decided to make a spur of the moment decision to stop in Myanmar.
Myanmar was one of the only places I hadn’t been in Southeast Asia.
Plus, flights were affordable from Kuala Lumpar, which I’d be in after Sri Lanka for a week. Also, flights from Mandalay to Jaipur (via Bangkok to India) were surprisingly well priced as well.
Debating on flying up for a few days, I had my concerns.
Namely because of the ongoing Rohingya genocide crisis.
The Rohingya refugee crisis is a series of ongoing persecutions by the Myanmar government against the Muslim Rohingya people. The Rohingya crisis is very much an active issue, and there’s a lot of scrutiny of how the country’s leadership has handled, and is continuing to handle it.
The plight of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people is said to be the world’s fastest growing refugee crisis.
Who are the Rohingya?
Rohingya Muslims represent the largest percentage of Muslims in Myanmar, with the majority living in the Rakhine state.
They have their own language and culture, and say they are descendants of Arab traders and other groups who have been in the region for generations.
But, the government of Myanmar, a predominantly Buddhist country, denies the Rohingya citizenship. They even went so far as to exclude them from the 2014 census, refusing to recognize them as a people.
The government views them as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
Risking death, over 700k have fled from the Rakhine province for neighboring Bangladesh since 2017. This exodus began after Rohingya militants launched deadly attacks.
Those who fled say they did so after troops, backed by local Buddhist mobs, burned their villages and killed civilians. Amnesty International has said that, during this period, the Myanmar military also raped and abused Rohingya women and girls.
At least 288 villages were partially or totally destroyed by fire in northern Rakhine state after August 2017, according to analysis of satellite imagery by Human Rights Watch.
The imagery shows many areas where Rohingya villages were reduced to smouldering rubble, while nearby ethnic Rakhine villages were left intact.
Presently, Rohingya continue to face restrictions and abuse.
There’s little sign of accountability or a path to citizenship, as demanded by Rohingya who’ve been forced to flee.
As recently as 2018, 15,000 Rohingya have fled conditions in Myanmar for Bangladesh.
Right before I visited in fall 2019, they were facing internet restrictions on both sides of the Myanmar-Bangladesh border because of a ban on selling SIMs.
The internet blackouts in these areas further exacerbates the difficulties facing aid agencies, the media, human rights monitors, and the civilian population in undertaking legitimate activities.
In early September, the internet was restored in five of the townships, including the former Rohingya strongholds nearest the Bangladesh border, but others remained in internet darkness through the fall.
Whether you visit is obviously a decision you have to make for yourself.
Read the latest news from neighboring countries, who are trying to pressure the government to act differently.
Of course, I was concerned whether I’d be supporting what the military is doing with my tourist dollars. After doing as much research as I could, I decided to go because the anecdotes I read made it seem like local businesses really needed the tourism revenue.
However, I was adamant we didn’t stay in flashy lodging (many hotels of this nature are government owned), or take big group tours, which again- are more likely to be controlled by, or profit share with the government.
Instead, we stayed in a family run hotel, and coordinated a day trip driver directly through them.
We found Mandalay to be a safe place to visit, assuming you stick to the parts developed for tourism- and I’d wage a bet that goes for the entire country.
There’s active conflict in so many places around the world. It’s always been my opinion that if you’re educated about it, aware, and do what you can to help, that’s better than nothing.
During our stay, the Burmese we encountered weren’t just tolerant- they were welcoming.
When we arrived in Mandalay, it was the day a four day fever I’d been suffering from had broken. At the time, I didn’t realize I had Dengue Fever, but I knew I’d been seriously ill and needed to take it easy.
And so, for the better part of our three days in Mandalay, I slept.
We considered cancelling the trip, but both of us had connecting onward flights through Bangkok that we didn’t want to forfeit.
My friend had been to Mandalay before, and didn’t mind resting while I recovered. And, on my end, I just wanted to visit a few temples.
And so, we decided to go to Mandalay with the intent of taking it easy for the most part, and really, just resting in an air-conditioned room.
Thankfully, we had high-speed internet in our hotel (a rarity in Mandalay), and were able to truly Netflix and chill for three days, with a few hours spent sightseeing.
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed at Hotel Sahara for $14 USD a night. Our room was clean and comfortable, and the hotel was centrally located with very friendly staff.
Would 10/10 recommend if you’re looking for somewhere to stay on a budget as well.
WHAT TO DO
- Take a day trip to Mingun: Most people take a morning boat from Mandalay, and return on the early afternoon one. We paid $20 USD to take a car both ways (~1 hour there and back) since I wasn’t feeling well, and we wanted to be on our own schedule
- Getting to Mingun: The boat from Mandalay to Mingun leaves every morning from the Manadaly Jetty at 9am. The ride down the Irrawaddy River takes about one hour and it costs $3 per person (make sure to have your passport with you). We originally planned to take a boat to observe local life, as you’ll pass by local villages, built entirely on water
- Hisinbyume Pagoda: This pagoda was the reason I was the most excited to visit Myanmar. The thing that differentiates it from other temples around the world is its architecture. This temple has several different layers that look like waves. The terraces represent the seven mountain ranges surrounding Mount Meru, which is considered to be the center of the universe in the Buddhist cosmology
- Mingun Pagoda: Most people, especially domestic travelers, venture to Mingun to see this massive, unfinished pagoda. Construction of the pagoda began in 1790 under the rule of King Bodawpaya, but the pagoda was never finished. Massive cracks are the result of an earthquake in the eighteen hundreds
- Nearby the Mingun Pagoda, you can also visit the Mingun Bell, which currently holds the record as the second largest bell in the world, weighing 90 tons
- Walk around the world’s largest book: Kuthodaw Pagoda, in the city of Mandalay, holds the world’s largest book. While you may envision a traditional book, it’s actually hundreds of stupas that are home to marble slabs that contain the teachings of Buddha. There are 729 white stupas, each containing a slab
- Relax at Shwenandaw Monastery: Located in the city center, we loved this monastery made entirely of teakwood. The carved details are incredible. I’d recommend sitting on a bench underneath a tree outside, and just watching people come and go- we did so for about a half hour, and especially enjoyed seeing monks going about their visit
- Watch sunset from Mandalay Hill: The Su Taung Pyae Pagoda on top of Mandalay Hill is covered with a mosaic of broken colored mirrors, reflecting the golden sun rays of the sunset. The whole temple illuminates in a golden glow, creating a unique sunset glow
- Peruse the Zay Cho Market: This huge, partly covered market is open most days from 6 am – 5 pm, and offers everything from fresh fruit to fragrant spices to kitchen tools
- Explore Mandalay Palace: Located in the centre of Mandalay, the palace is the last royal palace of the Burmese monarchy. The palace was constructed between 1857 and 1859 and was home to the last two kings of Myanmar: King Mindon and King Thibaw
- Visiting Mandalay Palace is one of the most popular tourist things to do in Mandalay
- Take a walk around the compound and admire the beautiful palace from up close
- Many of the buildings were destroyed during WWII, but in 1990, replicas of the original buildings were built
- Be sure to bring your ID, as you may be asked for it upon trying to enter
- Swim in Anisakan Falls: We didn’t have time to make it to these stunning falls, in part, because they’re located one town over, in Pyin Oo Lwin, but I’ve heard they’re beautiful and refreshing on a hot day. Friends told us the hike to the waterfall is down a steep road, and takes 45 minutes to an hour to get there. Once there, you’ll be rewarded with a spectacular view
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK COFFEE
- Goffee-Coffee: I was surprised by how modern this third-wave coffee shop is, offering cold brew, drip coffee, lattes and iced coffee. The iced drinks we had here were great, and much needed under the Myanmar sun
- We loved Goffee, and visited several times during our stay, both for their great drinks, and delicious pastries. Other coffee shops that were recommended to us, many of which serve breakfast as well:
- Nova Coffee
- The Little Mushroom Coffee
- Blesse Bear Coffee
- Sugar & Butter
- Nylon Ice Cream also came recommended to us, if in the mood for a cool treat
- Since I was sick, and not eating much during most of our stay, we didn’t really look up the ‘best’ restaurants. My friend, who had been to Mandalay before, went out for street food while I slept. One night, we took a Grab to an upmarket Italian restaurant because the only thing that sounded good to me, after several days of eating very little, was pasta with tomato sauce. Here, we found surprisingly good Italian food (for Southeast Asia). There’s lots of great eats to be found in Mandalay, but sadly, I just wasn’t physically up for finding or eating it
EXTRA TRAVEL TIPS
- Visa: Apply in advance for a 28 day e-visa, there are no VOAs (visa on arrival) available
- The fee is $50 USD for US citizens
- You’ll need to allow several days for processing time (up to 3 business days), and there’s an express option for 24 hours at an incremental fee
- You’ll also need to print out your approval letter to bring to the airport, and then onward to Myanmar immigration
- Language: Burmese. Transactional English is widely spoken in upmarket establishments in tourism hubs, like Mandalay
- Currency: Burmese Kyat
- I withdrew from a bank ATM at the airport. Look for Visa and Mastercard images on an ATM- that means it’s global, and only withdraw from a bank one (there’s less of a chance your card will be skimmed). I’d advise carrying cash on you- many purchases are so small, you won’t meet the card minimum if the place you’re at even takes cards. And, we noticed that places that took cards were mostly hotels or upmarket restaurants
- Budget: One of the cheapest places I visited in SE Asia. You can definitely spend money in Myanmar, if that’s your thing and you’re living the luxe life, but if you’re trying to ball on a budget, you’ll have no problem eating well here, and fitting in a few activities
- Getting There:
- Flying: We flew into Mandalay’s airport, which is about 40 minutes from city centre. Upon arrival, we booked a shared airport taxi for only the equivalent of $2-3 USD per person. On our return, our hotel told us it wouldn’t be a good idea to take the shared taxi, as it can run late. Normally, I’d disregard this kind of advice, since it’s often a thinly veiled up-sell to get you to use their services. Even though I believe that was the case in this instance, nothing sounded worse than walking around in the heat with my luggage when I was sick, so we agreed to use their return private taxi service for $8-10 USD total (only a few dollars more than taking the shuttle would have cost, and at much greater convenience)
- Getting Around: The city is bigger than I thought, but the streets also felt walkable. We took tuk tuks for the most part, since I wasn’t well, which were always plentiful in the Grab app
- When to Visit: We visited in early November, and while it was warm, it wasn’t too hot or humid
- Winter (October – March) is a good time to visit, when it’s dry and cooler than the much hotter summer months
- Tipping: We never encountered a situation that warranted tipping, although I’ve heard it’s becoming more common practice with the influx of tourism and Western travelers
- WiFi Access: We’d decided not to work while in Mandalay because we were worried the internet would be spotty, or there’d be coverage blackouts. Everything turned out to be fine- in fact, we had unbelievably fast WiFi in our hotel- +20 upload, +15 download speeds
- SIM Card Options: I bought a tourist SIM at the airport, which was priced at $6 USD for 1.5 GB
Have you ever visited Myanmar? Is it on your list of countries to experience one day?
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2 thoughts on “A Mini Guide: Two Days Exploring Mandalay, Myanmar”
Mandalay looks lovely, especially the white temple! Myanmar has intrigued me for some time, but given the instability of the country these days, I hesitate to go. In any case, your post demonstrates the beauty in the tragedy, and it would be worthwhile to see Myanmar if I’m ever in SE Asia! Can’t wait to read more of your time there. 🙂
Yeah, I can relate to and understand the hesitation to visit. When I was researching for our trip, I came across so many blog posts and travel guides that either glossed over the conflict, or barely referenced it. And, because of its horrific nature and the fact it’s still ongoing, felt important to mention here.
We only visited Mandalay on our trip, but I’d definitely return to see other parts of the country one day.