Built along the Ayeyarwady River, the city of Mandalay is steeped with both ancient and modern cultural intrigue. High red-bricked walls and a large moat separate the ancient palace from the rest of Myanmar's second largest city. Inside the fortifications sit a completely reconstructed palace, much like the one that stood there in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Outside the wall and moat, you'll see locals doing Tai Chi along the perimeter sidewalk. Although the population is majority Burmese, Mandalay's close proximity to the Yunnan region means that this area has strong Chinese influences.
Beyond the palace walls, most of the city is flat. Uninspired concrete buildings and low-budget housing pop up all over this sprawling metropolis. However, within and around the city visitors can find a wealth of alluring places worthy of a visit.
A plethora of natural resources such as white marble, jade, and vast teak forests feed into countless handicraft workshops. From jewelry makers, to sculptors, to woodcarvers — this area is rich in folkloric traditions. For the local people, these fine art trades are an alternative to working in the rice fields.
Although Mandalay lies flat in the Ayeyarwady River Valley, a small outcrop stands at the northern end of the city known as Mandalay Hill. To the south, two giant Chinthes guard the entrance to the covered stairwell that leads to the Sutaungpyei Pagoda at the top. This is probably the best perch in Mandalay to view the sunset with clear views of the city, the Ayeyarwady River, and in the distance, Sagaing Hill.
Another superb vantage point is located just south of the city, on Taungthaman Lake near U Bein Bridge in the Amarapura area. Spanning 1.2 kilometers, the pedestrian bridge is believed to be the oldest and longest teak bridge in the world. At dusk, the lake's glassy surface reflects the iconic silhouette of the bridge. It is quite crowded at this time, as buses deliver scores of tourist to the area. Hiring a boat is highly recommended to best enjoy the view cast by the dreamy, burnt-orange sky.
Early each morning, monks head out from their monasteries to collect alms. With such a gigantic monk population, some processions have hundreds of saffron-colored robes marching single file from their monasteries into the community. One of the most popular viewing points is near U Bein Bridge, but this area often has more tourists than monks. Fortunately, away from the paparazzi there are plenty of other monasteries where visitors can view this sacred morning ritual in a much quieter environment.
Across Mandalay are some of Myanmar's holiest religious sites. One the most famous is the Mahamuni Buddha Temple, which is home to the large golden Buddha referred to as the Mahamuni, which means "Great Sage." After the Burmese conquest of the Arakan Kingdom, the massive statue was taken and carried to its new home in Mandalay. It is said that Buddha himself breathed on the image and it became an exact depiction of his likeness. Under high, arched ceilings, pilgrims line up to pray and place gold leaf upon the holy statue.
Another popular site is the Shwenandaw Temple, which is made out of teak wood and is a stunning example of the craftsmanship of the 19th century Burmese. Not far away is the Kuthodaw Temple, which displays the world's largest book, page by page, on giant marble tablets. Originally built as a way to preserve Buddhist Dhamma teachings for all time, the text is etched into five-foot high marble slabs. Known as Kyauksa Gu or stone-inscription caves, the pages are contained in an impressive assembly of 729 small white stupas, which symmetrically surround the 188-foot pagoda.
Surrounding most religious sites are souvenir stands which sell a wide variety of religious statues, traditional clothing, and the popular marionette puppets. For those who arrive early and peruse one of these stands, you should know how important the first customer of the day is. According to the local superstition, if the first customer of the day buys something than the vendor will have good luck the rest of the day, but if they don't, then their fortune for the day will be unfavorable.
While crossing the Ayeyarwady River toward Sagaing Hill, you'll be impressed by the hundreds of golden spires protruding from the hill's lush green forests. On the top of the hill sits Sone Oo Pone Nya Shin Pagoda, which offers an unobstructed view of the Ayeyarwady River and Mandalay.
South of Mandalay is Inwa (Ava) Island, which for centuries served as the imperial capital of the Burmese Empire. Once on the manmade island, tourists can hire horse buggies to shuttle them around to view the ancient city walls and picturesque pagodas.
Not far from Mandalay lies the spectacular Anisakan Falls. The ninety-minute journey getting there is quite remarkable as the road climbs several thousand feet from the valley of Mandalay into the neighboring hills. The air becomes cool and clean and fields burst with wildflowers. Upon arrival, a moderate hike leads to the mesmerizing view of the 400-foot (121-m) high waterfall as it crashes with a roar into large pools at its base.