Mandalay Burma – a very evocative name but as with say Casablanca or Shangri La, (which is, of course, mythical but which the Chinese government has now seen fit to locate in northern Yunnan Province), the reality may not live up to the expectation and these days Burma’s 2nd largest city is busy, grubby and to many visitors, somewhat lacking in charm. Traffic is hectic, the old citadel and palace is nowadays a re-construction utilised as a military base and even Mandalay Hill can be under-whelming.
Whilst it might not live up to some visitors more romantic expectations it’s not an unpleasant spot though, as large Asian towns go, and the setting between the banks of the mighty Irrawaddy River and the picturesque hills of the Shan Plateau is certainly attractive plus there are some great sites to be visited outside the city.
Mandalay does, of course, have more than its fair share of fabulous Buddhist temples with perhaps the famous Mahamuni Paya being a highlight amongst many and then there’s the ancient city of Ava, (or Inva), conveniently located between the airport and downtown. The iconic spot is U Bein Bridge though – reputed to be the world’s longest teak bridge, hugely popular with travel photographers and which you’ll see frequently featured on various guide-book covers.
Another ancient city, Mingun, lying slightly upriver from Mandalay, the hill-top pagodas of Sagaing on the opposite bank of the Irrawaddy and the 2-hour distant hill-station of Pyin U Lwin make for interesting and photogenic side trips but allow a day for the latter, including its famous botanical gardens, and 1/2 a day each for the other 2.
Finally back in town – as you’d expect in Burma – there are some fascinating markets to wander whilst the riverfront area makes for an interesting and photogenic stroll. Note rather than pay the entrance fee and hike up Mandalay Hill you could do worse than try the Ayarwaddy Hotel’s ‘sky-bar’ for a great sunset view over the river. It’s only on the 5th floor, (if we remember correctly) but views across the low rise town or over the adjacent river are wonderful.
So forget Kipling or even Bob Hope, and contemporary Mandalay is an excellent spot to hang out in for a few days. It’s a manageable size compare to Yangon, has a good choice of accommodation and eateries and also, usefully, is one of the few provincial towns to have direct international flights.