Myanmar is like no other place on earth. It is renowned as “The Golden Land”, a name inspired by Marco Polo to describe the dramatic views of the gold-spired pagodas that can be found throughout the country. Mandalay, the former capital city of the Myanmar Kingdom, is a spectacular destination for historical and cultural travellers. Overlooking the city is Mandalay Hill and from this vantage point visitors are offered the picturesque sight of pagodas, the distinctive architecture of the Royal Palace, and much more.
Our three-day visit to this magical land was enhanced by the fun-loving people we came into contact with everyday, from kids in the streets to monks in the temples. It seemed like their lives remained simple and relaxed, perhaps something like the inhabitants of Chiang Mai or Nan several decades ago. Less than two hours by air from Bangkok, Mandalay lies within reach of some of most remarkable archaeological sites in the world, sites that have inspired visitors for nearly a thousand years. Founded in 1857 by King Mindon, the last of the Burmese monarchs, the city is the second largest in Myanmar and sits on the banks of the Irrawaddy River.
We decided to base ourselves on the edge of town at the Mandalay Hill Resort, a stunning hotel with amazing gardens, swimming pool, and spa. The hotel sits at the bottom of Mandalay Hill and on the doorstep of the famous Su Taung Pyai pagoda, the first on our list of tourist attractions. A short drive up the hill leaves you at the modest entrance. All visitors remove their footwear here and continue up a series of escalators (there is also a lift) to the main pagoda and its ancillary pavilion.
It is said that Mandalay Hill is the holy hill from which Buddha reportedly predicted that a great religious city would emerge. The original pagoda was built around 1052 by King Anawratha and over the millennia has become known as what our guide called a “wish-granting” pagoda. We were also informed that a hermit once spent 41 years living on the hill and raised substantial funds for major renovations, including for Su Taung Pyai itself, where he spent many years.
The views from atop are breath-taking and you can clearly see the city below laid out in all directions with the Irrawaddy River off in the distance. Intricate coloured glass and tiles adorn the entire structure and arches, walls, and doors jump out at you with reflected bursts of sunshine. Even in mid-July the temperature at the top of the hill is lovely and cool, gentle breezes making a visit all the more special.
As one of Myanmar’s most important cultural centres, Mandalay is home to artisans and craftsmen, many of whom still use traditional skills and methods. The side streets are not only their homes but also their workshops and goods spill out on to uneven pavements. Colourful umbrellas, wooden boats, local paintings, silver and gold work, silks, vivid tapestry and textiles all vie for space next to food stalls serving a city of over one million inhabitants.
In many ways it can be said that Mandalay is still living very much in its past and a visit is rather like stepping back in time. The stunning pagodas, mosaic shrines, dramatic fort with Mandalay Hill as a backdrop, itinerant monks, a wide choice of traditional Burmese food, and the dramatic surrounding countryside framed by the hazy blue Shan mountain range and the mighty Irrawaddy River, all combine to make this one of the most extraordinary parts of Myanmar.
The centrepiece of the city is undoubtedly Mandalay Royal Palace, another jewel in the crown of King Mindon. Before the development of Mandalay in 1857, the former royal city was at Amarapura but a devastating war against the British forced the king to relocate a few miles to the north. To sell the deal to his people, King Mindon reminded them of Lord Buddha’s prophecy that a great city would one day evolve at the foot of Mandalay Hill. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Amarapura is a a township of Mandalay and almost every tourist pays a visit here to photograph and be photographed on U Bein Bridge. At over one kilometre long, it is the world’s longest teak footbridge.
The construction of Myanmar’s final “royal” city relied heavily on what today might be considered Feng Shui. With input from court astrologers, an auspicious date was picked to begin work and the orientation of buildings was carefully studied and implemented with the four corners of the city’s walls facing the cardinal points of the compass. The 12 city gates were also marked with a different zodiac sign. Looking at the metropolis on a map it is easy to see a perfect square; each side is exactly 6,666 feet in length.
The palace is dominated by a 78 metre high tower known as the “centre of the universe”. It is made entirely of wood, much of which came from the dismantled palaces of Amarapura. The huge watchtower allowed palace guards to scan the city for fires, but today it serves as the perfect viewpoint to take in the breathtaking beauty of Mandalay Royal Palace and the numerous additional buildings.
Another stunning religious complex is Kuthodaw Pagoda, a huge walled temple at the base of Mandalay Hill. It has hundreds of white stone-inscribed stupas all perfectly aligned. The central golden stupa stands at an impressive 57 metres and is surrounded 729 mini stupas, each of which is home to a marble slab inscribed with part of the Buddhist Tripitkata. Together they form what is known as the world’s largest book.
An hour’s riverboat trip up the Irrawaddy River brings you to Min Kun or Mingun, depending on which sign you read, and the world-famous bell. It’s a short walk from the pier to the bell but there are several forms of transportation to take you there if you’re feeling tired. A stone tablet informs visitors of the history of the bell and its relevance to other great bells in Moscow and London.
In 1808, King Bodawpaya cast the bell for a huge stupa being built. It was the heaviest functioning bell in the world at several times in history, weighing 55,555 viss (90,718 kilograms or 199,999 pounds), easily remembered by the consonants representing the number 5 in Burmese astronomy and numerology. Visitors strike the bell three times before crawling underneath for look inside, although there is a risk of being deafened if people strike the bell while you’re in there!
A visit to our final temple on this trip required us to wake up at 3am, travel across town, and a sit patiently until just after 4am when monks arrived to unlock the doors to the mesmerizing Mahamuni or Great Sage statue. This is one of the most venerated images in Myanmar and over the years it has been covered with millions of sheets of gold leaf. Like us, other worshippers arrived at the shrine early to observe the face-washing ceremony in which monks ritually bathe the image.
Although originally bronze, the Buddhist image has been covered in over 15 centimeters of gold leaf by devout followers. Once the monks have finished cleaning it, only males are allowed to climb the frame that surrounds the cast to attach their inscribed golf leaf. Some people say that while the monks cleanse the image, the Buddha’s eyes sometimes open.