Mandalay, the former imperial capital of the past Burmese kingdom, is once again in the limelight after so many years of being overshadowed by Yangon to the south. These days, Mandalay is at the centre of great prosperity due to the opening up of Burma to the outside world, with its proximity to China and India aiding matters as well.
With a huge influx of tourists no longer burdened by their conscience due to the previous presence of a military dictatorship, Mandalay is once again on the radar screen of travelers as well, with a disproportionate share (50%) of Burma’s monks living here. As such, temples are plentiful, so fans of religious structures, especially in the realm of Buddhism, will find no shortage of payas to explore.
The first temple that visitors should grace their presence with should be Maha Myat Muni Paya, the second holiest Buddhist site in all of Myanmar. This temple reputedly contains a Buddha image that was made during a visit by the man himself. After it was completed, it is said that he was very pleased, and breathed on it, proclaiming it to be his earthly representative for 5,000 years onwards. These days, worshippers spend 1600 kyat for a packet of gold leaf to hammer onto the image, venerating the image with a coat of riches. As a guest, you are welcome to do the same, if you so choose.
As far as other temples in the city are concerned, it is well worth your while to purchase a bulk admission ticket ($10 USD) that will grant you access to the following temples: Shwenandaw Monastery, Sandamuni Paya, Kuthodaw Paya, Maha Atulawaiyan Monastery, Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda, and the Myanan San Kyaw Golden Palace. As to the highlights of each of these temples:
The Shwenandaw Monastery is the only part of the Royal Palace complex to escape bombardment during World War II, and thus is still in its original form. It is endowed with teak wood beams, and there are many intricate carvings made from this heavy but beautiful wood located throughout the monastery grounds.
The Sandamuni Paya is located at the base of Mandalay Hill, and is best known for having the world’s largest iron Buddha idol. Additionally, it has 1,776 marble slabs containing commentaries on the Tipitaka, Buddhism’s most sacred religious text.
The Kuthodaw Paya contains the world’s largest representation of the previously mentioned Tipitaka, with the entirety of the text inscribed on stone tablets. These tablets are housed in 729 white stupas on the temple grounds, effectively making it the world’s largest “book”.
Maha Atulawaiyan Monastery is a reconstruction of an old monastery that had burned down a century prior to 1996, when it was rebuilt in brick and concrete form. Apart from the fact that it looks cool, all the original artifacts that were inside when it burned down 100 years ago were consumed, so if you are low on time, feel free to leave this place off your itinerary.
The Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda has a Buddha idol carved out of a single block of marble, sourced from the nearby Sagyin Hill. Surrounding this image to complete an impressive display are figures called arahats, who were disciples of the Buddha.
Finally, Myanan San Kyaw Golden Palace, or the Royal Palace was the home of the kings of the Burmese monarchy. It was razed by Japanese bombs during the Second World War, but it has been reconstructed to its former glory in recent years. Be sure to check out the Great Lion Throne in the Hluttaw building.
For those who are templed out, or are not interested by such structures, there are a number of other things that can be done to occupy your time in Mandalay. Climb Mandalay Hill, and get a sweeping view of the city below. Even if you are burnt out on temples, the sight of some small ones and shrines on the way up make for an excellent highlight to your journey as well.
For those looking for a comedic insight back into the times of the military junta, the Moustache Brothers comedy troupe is worth taking in. For 8,000 kyat, they will perform a series of sketches and skits skewering the former regime leaders with the sneakiest weapon in the book: comedic satire.
Finally, for those looking for an adrenaline-pumping good time, Waterfall Hill is a destination you should seek out during your time here. Offering cool times beneath cascading sheets of cool water (not in the peak of the dry season though, sadly), and opportunities for rock climbing junkies, this place offers a nice counterbalance to the culture heavy bent of activities in this town.