Phuong Nguyen

Welcome spring with an inspiring visit to Myanmar’s last royal capital

The economic center of Upper Myanmar and Burma’s final royal capital, Mandalay is full of culture and history. For tourists, a visit to Mandalay is a must. As the second-largest city in Myanmar after Yangon, Mandalay is home to many pagodas and monuments to Theravada Buddhism –  the country’s predominant religion. Our spring journey started with visits to two of Mandalay’s most famous Buddhist landmarks: Mahamuni Temple and Kuthodaw Pagoda.

Hsinbyume, a magnificent structure beside the Irrawaddy River

Burmese people regard Mahamuni Temple as the second-most important pilgrimage site in Myanmar, after Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. This great temple was built at the end of the 18th century to worship a statue of the Buddha. To pay their respects, Buddhists bring gold leaves and apply them to the statue when they visit.  According to the monks, over time, the statue’s layer of gold has grown 15cm thicker.

U Bein, a famous 1.2-kilometer-long teakwood bridge

Heading to the northeast of amazing Mandalay and circumventing the town’s red brick wall, we discovered a Buddhist stupa even bigger and more complex than Mahamuni Temple. This was Kuthodaw Pagoda, home to astonishing marble slabs inscribed with Buddhist scriptures. Kuthodaw Pagoda was built in 1857 as a part of the royal city. The site holds more than 700 small temples, each of which contains a 1.5-meter-high and 1-meter-wide marble slab inscribed with text from the Tripitaka in Burmese script. This magnificent site is considered a world wonder. Only through a panoramic view can one truly appreciate the enormous efforts of those who created the slabs to form “the world’s largest book”.

A young woman wears traditional Thanaka makeup

Leaving these sacred sites, we headed south to U Bein, a famous 1.2-kilometer-long teakwood bridge. Myanmar’s historic records suggest this 200-year-old bridge is the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world, made of more than 1,000 large wooden pillars. The bridge is also one of the best spots in Mandalay to watch the sunset, an experience visitors should not miss. The site has a fresh and peaceful feeling, thanks to the spectacular antique wooden structure and the locals’ welcoming charm.

Inside Mahamuni Temple

Mandalay is not only famous for Buddhist monuments, but also for its hidden beauty. Throughout its history, Mandalay was influenced by settlers from Yunnan in China. These Chinese immigrants contributed to the city’s culinary culture and lifestyle. Unlike Yangon, where scooters are banned, visitors to Mandalay can rent scooters to explore every corner of the city and stop at sidewalk stalls for amazing street food. You can also enjoy a leisurely ride beside the old palace to the windy banks of the Ayeyarwady River, which originates from the confluence of the N’mai and Mali rivers and flows across the country, passing through big cities like Bagan and Yangon before joining the Andaman Sea.

After days spent chasing the sun in Mandalay, we felt refreshed and invigorated to start a new year full of hopes for tranquility. The sun rises and sets, and all things change as part of their natural cycles. New colors may come and disappear, and rivers may flow away, yet religious architecture grows more beautiful as it stands the test of time.

Visitors can travel by ox-cart

Transport: Visitors can reach Mandalay from Bagan or Yangon by night bus, train, or plane. Local taxis and scooters are easy to find. Be sure to bargain.

Food: Mandalay has a vast array of specialities, from local to international dishes, marrying traditional Burmese cuisine with Chinese flavors.

Note: When visiting temples and pagodas, avoid wearing above-knee skirts or shorts and remove your footwear before entering sacred places.