Travelling in Mandalay

Mandalay: the evocative name of Burma’s present day northern capital rolls satisfyingly off the tongue. Made famous in a host of films, popular songs and books by Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, Frank Sinatra and more recently even Robbie Williams, Mandalay has become a household name, even if most people don’t actually know where it is.

Although closely surrounded by the ancient city sites of Sagaing, Mingun, Inwa and Amarapura, Mandalay itself was only founded in 1857 by King Mindon. Under the name of Yadanarpon, the city was the capital of the Kingdom of Upper Burma until it was annexed by Britain in 1885. The king claimed to be fulfilling a prophecy by building a new capital at the foot of Mandalay Hill, though in reality most of the remainder of his kingdom, and former capitals, had already been swallowed up by the British.

Mandalay was occupied by the Japanese during World War II and suffered severe damaged from both heavy ground fighting, which extended right into the city centre, as well as Allied bombing. Estimates say well over half of the city was destroyed. In more recent times it’s seen a lot of investment and immigration from nearby China and the resulting reconstruction of the city hasn’t been free of controversy.

Today Mandalay is northern Burma’s commercial, cultural and administrative capital; it’s a sprawling, bustling city of some 1.5 million people. It’s also a major transport hub, so an essential stop at some stage for many visitors to Burma, though possessing plenty of fine sights of its own. It unfortunately receives a fair amount of negative feedback from visitors as the romantic and exotic name fails to meet preconceptions. Mandalay does lack Yangon’s fantastic stock of colonial architecture and it’s never going to be Burma’s cutesy equivalent of Thailand’s Chiang Mai. At the end of the day, it’s just a regular, traffic-clogged and bustling large city, albeit with more than its fair share of spectacular monuments. Suburbs sprawl but downtown is still largely free of high-rise and there are still quiet back streets and friendly tea shops to be discovered. We reckon you should allow at least two or three days for a stop here.

Mandalay offers leafy temples, vibrant markets and intriguing surrounding sights to visit, not least iconic U Bein Bridge. The city has a scenic location between the Ayeyarwaddy River on one side and the steep hills of the Shan Plateau rising to the east. There’s a host of accommodation choices and, with a very mixed population, including large Indian, Chinese and Shan communities, a great selection of food to be sampled.

The city’s airport is Burma’s second largest and has very good flight connections, including to several international destinations. The river offers up and downstream travel potential and the railway station links southern and central destinations en route to Yangon, as well as remote northern towns all the way to Myitkyina. The highway to Yangon, via the capital Naypyidaw, is the best in the country while the old China Road, originally hacked out of the mountains during World War II to supply Allied forces in Yunnan, leads off east to Shan destinations such as Pyin Oo Lwin, Kyaukme, Hsipaw and Lashio. To the west, Sagaing Division stretches all the way to the Indian border and Chin State, making Mandalay the gateway to north and northwestern Burma as well as Shan State.