Travelling Homebody - what to do in Mandalay, Myanmar

What to do in Mandalay, Myanmar — your 24 hour travel guide

I have to be honest and say that Mandalay was one of my least favourite places in Myanmar. It was hot — and challenging in a number of ways. It was here that I started to wonder where the lovely Myanmar people were that everyone raved about (and this was from tourist services touch point perspective). I found there was a lot of nickel and diming of tourists going on in Mandalay, much more than in Yangon. I get that many people were hustling to make a buck (and it was low season) but the perpetual negotiation (and then renegotiation) of prices e.g taxis and tuk tuks was exhausting. Run a meter already, people! To note: English is not widely spoken in Mandalay (unlike Yangon) although the local people we met out and about were delightful and welcoming despite the language barrier. 

#1. Getting to Mandalay

Because we were pressed for time, we flew from Yangon to Mandalay, and we organised these flights in Hanoi. The drive via was bus would have taken most of the day as opposed to a couple of hours by plane. You can also take a boat, if you have plenty of time. A friend who works in travel advised us to book our flights through a travel agent (rather than book online ourselves) because it was low season, and there would be a problem with cancelled flights. That kind of happened, but rather then being cancelled, the flight times changed — multiple times. Our travel agent advised us, so there were no dramas. The Mandalay International Airport is small, and located 38 km from Mandalay, or around a 45 minute drive. You can share a shuttle, which will cost you around 8,500 kyat, or take a taxi will set you back 12,500 kyat. Hotels will generally be able to transfer you, but this will be more expensive.

#2. Where to stay in Mandalay

We stayed at the Bagan King, which was only a couple of years old and was situated in a reasonably central location. The foyer smelled of sandalwood (one of my most favourite scents in the entire world). We were greeted with moist towels (smelling of sandalwood) and a delicious watermelon welcome drink, which was much needed after the 40km drive from the airport. My room was beautifully decorated in what I can only describe as modern-traditional Burmese, and quite luxurious. The staff spoke good English, and the customer service was excellent. The happy hour was fabulous — free cocktails! —  and the food was decent, although a tad on the expensive side.

**Download your FREE map of Mandalay here!**

#3. What to see and do in Mandalay

Check out local markets

We arrived late in the afternoon from Yangon (we flew) and after checking in and having (free!) cocktails and dinner, we went to check out the night market. Don’t be fooled by the distance — it may have seemed just a short walk from the hotel on the map, but it was a looooooong way. We ended up getting a tuk tuk for a few thousand kyat. The night market is mainly for food, but it as lively and interesting, and the locals were friendly and slightly bemused by two Western women wandering around taking pictures of unsual fruits and vegetables. One lovely vendor invited us to try thanaka (the yellowish circles that are often seen on the of Burmese women and girls) which she applied on our cheeks. We spent an hour or so there, before wandering back to the hotel.

The next day, the hotel advised us to visit the Zegyo (day) Market. Except it wasn’t open. Apparently it was a public holiday — and the staff member forgot about it, and (apparently) only remembered once we were in our tuk tuk. We made the best of it though, and found a few street stalls that were open (I bought a new green sarong), and found another (smaller) market that had nooks and crannies we explored with glee. I love local markets because they are so interesting. You gain an insight into local culture — food staples, spices, fruits, vegetables, meat and other products — that is missing in a supermarkets (although I also love checking out local supermarkets too!). There’s a certain vibrancy and atmosphere that makes visiting — and photographing — local markets a fascinating experience. Getting transport back to the hotel proved rather challenging  — English (or lack thereof) was a major issue, as was where to actually find one. I would advise getting the taxi or tuk tuk to wait for you. Or you could use Grab, if you don’t mind taking motorcycle taxis, but this is difficult if you are travelling with others.

Visit Mandalay Palace

Actually, don’t. It’s a complete rip-off. Not only are you charged USD$10 for the privilege, but you ALSO have to pay for a motorcycle to get to the entrance of the castle (it’s one kilometre away from the ticketing area) AND to use the toilet once you are inside the palace grounds. That annoyed me the most, because it was less than sanitary and there was no toilet paper.

And then there’s the palace itself. It’s neither beautiful nor interesting, and not the slightest bit palatial. It may have been glorious in its hey-day, but it’s certainly not now. I get that it was rebuilt in the 1990s (after being almost destroyed in WWII) and money is probably an issue, but it could have been done so much better. Galvanised iron roofing? Really? The guide book warned us to avoid it, but we ignored it and paid the price. Literally.

If you do go (you were warned!) you will need your passport. You will “sign in” and leave your passport with security. I don’t like leaving my passport with anyone, but their system was actually fine, We got an (overpriced — we couldn’t be bothered negotiating prices) taxi back to the entrance, and the driver stopped at security so I could pick up my passport on the way out

Get thee to a spa

Located near the hotel on 28th Street was The Best Spa (yes, that’s its name). And it was THE BEST. I was rather over Mandalay by the time we exited the palace. My friend — wisely — suggested we de-stress with a foot massage. Of course, I agreed! I am never one to knock back a foot massage. And this one was awesome! One hour of pure bliss for around 10,000 kyat! We were given delicious ginger tea and told to “pick a man” (as in a man to massage our feet). We just asked for handsome ones! My foot massage was so good, I stayed on for another hour, and had a full body massage. Highly recommended to soothe the savage traveller.

What we could have done (if we had been so inclined):

#4. Where to eat in Mandalay

My impression of Mandalay is that it’s not really a touristic city (compared with Yangon), so we really didn’t venture out to eat, preferring the sanctuary of our hotel, which had great food (and free cocktails!). Transportation was difficult, which also hampered our willingness to try local restaurants. I’m sure there are fabulous eateries in Mandalay, but this visit wasn’t the time to try them.

Last word on Mandalay:

What I liked:

  • Our hotel, the Bagan King — great food, gorgeous rooms, and who doesn’t like free cocktails?
  • The night market — wonderful to get up close and personal with locals
  • My new green sarong, bought from a street stall
  • The Best Spa — for the best foot and full body massage I have ever had in my life.

What I didn’t like:

  • The day market being closed for a public holiday — the hotel didn’t tell us, so we didn’t find out until we got there
  • Mandalay Palace — a complete ripoff
  • Transportation — even with tuk tuks and taxis, it’s difficult to get around; you’re better off hiring a driver
  • Cost of drivers as quoted by the hotel — very expensive
  • Where are all the coconuts? — I was desperate for coconut water right out of the shell (this mystery is solved in Bagan).

Photo on Visualhunt.com

2 Comments

  • Kevin Casey June 3, 2018 at 11:14 am

    Hi again, Diane!

    It’s interesting how quickly places that you don’t expect to be ‘too touristy’ can so quickly adopt some of the worst qualities of tourism. I haven’t been to Myanmar yet (I’m more of a European summer/winter in South America kind of guy 🙂 but it’s good to read about your impressions. Keep up the travels!

    Reply
    • Diane Lee June 3, 2018 at 1:33 pm

      Thank you for stopping by, Kevin! It will be interesting to see how Myanmar develops its tourism industry, particularly as it seems to be largely unregulated and anyone (with a horse and cart, boat, car, motorcycle etc.) can offer touristic services. A friend of mine said that Vietnam was the same 20 years ago, and tourism was a way to earn some quick coin without thinking about the experience of the traveller. It’s generally not that way now, unless one heads to more developing areas. I plan to get to South America one of these days!

      Reply

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