Fans of Mandalay might object to this, but my hotel reception’s advice to limit my city sightseeing to a half day proved satisfactory.
To be fair, I had actually stayed two nights here and spent a full day on the outskirts of Mandalay (read more) and even further afield (read up). I had also walked the streets at night, wading ankle deep in flooded streets seeking out the poor restaurant scene. On my last day I went to the city’s largest market, inside a new multi-storey building. The Zegyo market proved too “civilised” in my opinion, although not being entirely without charm. Apart from walking, I had been streetwise in a taxi and on the back of a motorcycle.
Goods for sale at the Zeigyo Market in Mandalay
What about sightseeing then? I wrote this in my planning document:
“In Mandalay make sure to visit the 4-metre high Buddha statue called Maha Myat Muni Paya. It is Myanmar’s second holiest pilgrimage site. Mandalay Hill is a 230 m landmark with a host of holy buildings on top and around it, including the world’s largest book. The Shan was Myanmar’s last kingdom and Mandalay was its capital; the Royal Palace is large. Further sights are not necessary to plan for until I get there.”
One should not plan a trip too detailed but be flexible about what to see and do based on the appetite here and now. Being here I decided on not climbing the Mandalay Hill, for two reasons. One, I had climbed Sagaing Hill outside Mandalay two days before for a tremendous view and, second, it had become a rather hot day. I even decided to skip the 4-metre high Buddha. Reason number one: I became “templed-out” starting the day at the Royal Palace and continuing on to no less than four temples / monasteries. Number two: I was heading for Bagan later that afternoon and was afraid I would ruin my appetite for temples by visiting too many here.
That meant of course that there is actually more to see in Mandalay than I did. Here’s a view up Mandalay Hill from below. I looks enticing, doesn’t it?
View of Mandalay Hill from below
Coming up next are the places I actually did visit. They were so fascinating that my advice to others is simple: Mandalay is not to be missed!
The Royal Palace
In the third Anglo-Burmese War the British in 1885 finally managed to seize the entire country and exile the last king, Thibaw, from the country. He was sent to India. The palace in Mandalay was not old. It was King Thibaw’s predecessor King Mindun who decided in the 1850s to dismantle the former palace at Amarapura (in what is now a southern suburb of Mandalay) and move the logs with elephants to his new capital at the foot of Mandalay Hill.
Buildings in the Mandalay Palace
The palace we are able to visit today is actually even younger. It was reduced to ruins by Allied bombings during the Second World War in an effort to get rid of the Japanese occupation. A watchtower is just about all that remains. A replica of the palace was built in the 1990s.
I cannot vouch for the authenticity of the buildings, but the painted corrugated iron roofs did seem artificial to me. Apart from this it was an impressive site. The palace grounds and parks are huge, forming a perfect square with sides 2 km long. The high and thick walls with bastions placed every 169 metres are surrounded by a 69 metre wide moat. The tourist entrance is across a bridge at the eastern gate.
There are a number of buildings inside the palace area. Some modern ones are occupied by the Burmese military while the old (reconstructed) palace buildings are located near the middle of the huge compound. The best looking buildings are the large audience halls of the kings. They offer a good impression of what it would be like in the old times.
The temples and monasteries close to the palace
There are a series of temples and monasteries outside the royal palace, at the foot of Mandalay Hill. Here we also find the world’s largest book!
First off for me was a splendid monastery made of teak wood, the Shwenandaw Monastery. It was built as an apartment inside the royal palace and moved outside by the last king, and turned into a monastery. It remains intact as it was built, unharmed by the WW2 bomb raids. The wood carvings inside, outside and on the roof are wonderful.
The Shwenandaw Monastery in Mandalay
Very close to the Shwenandaw is the Atumashi Monastery. It burned down in the 1890s and was rebuilt a hundred years later. The original 9 metre tall Buddha figure was replaced by a very small one inside a disproportionally huge hall. This place was quite disappointing.
Coming up next were two temples which holds the world’s largest book(s). I was curious what this was about and had various mental images before getting inside the gate of the Kuthodaw Pagoda.
The gilded stupa itself is amazing, and the whole atmosphere is one of tranquillity and peace. On the temple premises are found 729 white-washed caves (or mini-stupas) each with a marble slab with a page from Theravada Buddhism’s holy scripture.
Part of the World’s Largest Book at the Kuthodaw Paya, Mandalay
Close the Kuthodaw is the Sandamuni Pagoda. The two temples look very much alike, as the Sandamuni also contains small white-washed stupas with marble slabs inside. The text on the 1,774 slabs are sometimes called the “World’s Largest Book Vol. 2”. The text are commentaries and sub-commentaries of the Tripitaka and is understood by virtually nobody as it is written in Sanskrit. There is a large iron Buddha inside the temple.
Small stupas containing marble slabs with the World’s Largest Book at the Kuthodaw Paya
This article is part of a series from Myanmar, describing my travels in August 2013. My visit is presented in ten chapters, a planning document and an article with some final impressions from a country which is included on just about everyone’s bucket list. Read all chapters:
(1) Introduction (plan)
(2) The Amazing Shwedagon Pagoda
(3) Central Yangon
(4) The Night Train to Mandalay
(5) The Train Across the Gokteik Viaduct
(6) The Train from Kalaw to Shwenyaung
(7) Amarapura, Sagaing Hill, Inwa and U Bein
(9) The Temples of Bagan
(10) What else to see in Bagan
(11) Inle Lake
Here are more pictures from this day in Mandalay: