Immortalised by Kipling in the 19th century, the city is relatively young at just 150 years old when compared with the ancient treasures surrounding it. Founded as capital of the Burmese empire in 1861, Mandalay saw the swansong of the last kings of Burma. Poetic though the name may be, Mandalay is a thoroughly modern city, the second largest in the country. It's impossible not to be impressed by the golden Buddha of Mahamuni Paya, as well as the striking Khmer bronzes on display here from the time of Angkor. However, the real attractions lie beyond in the ancient cities of Amarapura, Inwa, Sagaing and Mingun. These are spiritual centres and three in five of Myanmar’s Buddhist monks reside here. The town continues to boom thanks to Chinese investment and, unofficially, from the red, green and white trades - rubies, jade and heroin.
The climb is long and hot, but the view is spectacular. 230m above the plain, the horizon extends to the Shan hills and the Ayeyarwady. Near the top, a standing Buddha image points down at Mandalay, to where, legend has it, Buddha once stood and prophesied a great city would be built in the Buddhist year 2400 (the Roman equivalent of 1857), the year Mindon Min decided to move the capital here. To the south and southeast of Mandalay Hill lie a cluster of important pagodas.. Kuthodaw Paya, aka the ‘world’s biggest book’, is famous for its 729 slabs that retell the Tripitaka canon. A couple of hundred metres south, the intricately carved wooden Shwenandaw Kyaung is the only surviving part of the original Mandalay Palace, and was moved outside the palace walls following King Mindon’s death.
On the advice of their celestial advisors, the ancient kings moved their palaces every generation or two. Mindon Min, one of the last kings of Myanmar, ordered the old palace in Amarapura dismantled in 1861 and relocated to this sprawling, moated complex. Thibaw Min occupied it until the Brits drove him out. During WWII, fierce fighting between occupying Japanese forces and advancing British and Indian troops resulted in fires that burned the original to the ground. The new palace was built using concrete, aluminium and forced labour.
The central Buddha image here is the most famous in all Myanmar and is so highly venerated the thick gold leaf obscures its features. It may have been cast as early as the 1st century AD. Male worshippers apply new layers of gold leaf daily. Women are not permitted to approach the central altar. In the northwest corner of the surrounding pavilion are six intricate bronze Khmer figures, spoils of war that have been dragged, carted and floated from Angkor Wat via Thailand.
Shwe In Bin Kaung
This elegant wooden monastery, also known as the Teak Monastery, dates from 1895, when wealthy Chinese jade merchants funded its construction. It’s a lovely spot, far enough from the tourist trail, and the elderly monks may invite you to watch their prayer. The surrounding area is something of a ‘monk’s district’, with hundreds of monks walking to and fro along the leafy lanes.
The ‘City of Immortality’, a short-lived capital 11km south of Mandalay, is famed for U Bein’s Bridge, the world's longest teak bridge at 1.2km. At 200 years old, the bridge has 1060 teak posts, and is still in use with monks and fishers crossing it daily. It leads to Kyauktawgyi Paya and small Taungthaman village with tea and toddy shops. Just west is the Ganayon Kyaung thousands of monks take their breakfast at 11am, an iconic Buddhist sight similar to the dawn call to alms in Luang Prabang.
Cut off by rivers and canals, Inwa (known as Ava by the British) served as the Burmese capital for nearly four centuries. The finest sight is the atmospheric and unrenovated Bagaya Kyaung, a teak monastery supported by 267 posts. The 27m Nanmyin watchtower leans precariously. Look for the breast-shaped Kaunghmudaw Paya in the distance, across the river about 10km west of Sagaing.
The stupa-studded hilltops of Sagaing loom over the Ayeyarwady. With 500 stupas and innumerable monasteries, Sagaing is where Burmese Buddhists come for a break. Tilawkaguru, near the southwest base of Sagaing Hill, is a mural-filled cave temple dating from 1672.
The Mingun Paya is actually the remains of a huge 150m stupa which was never completed. Just north is the Mingun Bell, the world’s largest uncracked bell. The real reason to visit Mingun is the slow boat trip up the Ayeyarwady River from Mandalay, offering a peaceful glimpse of everyday life in the Burmese countryside.