Mandalay is a prosperous city by Myanmar’s standard due to its historic and present trading activities with China. It is easy to get in via air from different big cities in Asia. The city is built based on a grid system so it is extremely easy to navigate. Mandalay is divided by many quarters per ethnic group - Muslim, Chinese, Christian and so on, each of them has it own Burmese root but ethnic influenced flavors.
What to do:
The city center of Mandalay is quite a way from the airport. You can get to the city by shared taxi or private taxi. Plenty of taxi drivers will wave you to their official taxi stand after customs at the airport. Note: Passengers of AirAsia and Golden Myanmar Airlines will be able to hop on their free shuttles to the city. At our first glimpse of Myanmar, the dirt roads, friendly people, small and primitive airport, we knew we were already falling in love with this country. Plan of having your torch or headlamp with your at nightfall if you are walking around the city. The streets were dim and we wanted to make sure motorists can see us.
To tour Mandalay and its surrounding area, you will need to purchase a 1-week Mandalay Zone Admission Ticket (10,000 kyats) in order to go to some of the sights below. Keep the business card size ticket with while touring Mandalay, as some places you will visit ask for it at the entrance.
We opted to hire a driver along with two backpackers we meet on the street, it was 50,000 kyats for the entire day for about 12 hours. Alternately you can haggle a deal with a motorcycle taxi driver for less of a price if traveling alone. Though less-than-fluent in English, our taxi driver was attentive and very personable. We tour through Mandalay Palace, multiple temples including Sandamuni Paya and Maha Myat Muni Paya, so many of them that I can barely remember all of their names.
He also took us to the boat dock where you will get on a long tail boat to visit the ancient city of Inwa. In Inwa, the only way to tour the region is hire a horse cart, perhaps your rental motorcycle too if you have one. Inwa is like a good preparation for Pagan, it is similar but far less crowded.
We also toured around Sagaing and visited several temples and pagodas. Our wonderful taxi driver invited us to make a stop at a local nun school. It was delightful to see and play with the curious pink uniformed little nuns. We thought it was a wonderful bonus stop. He also took us to lunch at a very local restaurant where we were the only obvious foreigners there, food was wonderful and a mere of 1000 kyats ($1 USD).
On the way back to Mandalay we stopped at a stone-craving street nearby where we saw many people, young and old, kneeling down and craving Buddha out of stone and marble blocks.
Not to be missed is a visit to the U Bein Bridge around sunset time. Is it the best sunset I viewed while in Myanmar. This world longest teakwood bridge is the daily commute for a lot of Monks and nuns from monasteries on both side of the bridge. You can get there by motorcycle taxis or private taxi. We once again got lucky and found backpackers to share a private taxi with.
Eat & drink:
Fantastic news for avid foodies, Mandalay is a great place to get some cheap grub just off the side of the street. Most of the local favorite restaurants either don’t have a name or the name is in Burmese and hard to recognize by us non-residences. I would just use an old tactic - if the restaurant is packed with locals, it has to be a good place.
Myanmar is a food heaven due to its diverse demographics. Shan regional cuisine is exceptionally famous in Mandalay, as well as Chinese influenced Burmese food. Another great meal I had while in Mandalay was a barbeque restaurant off the street in the Chinese quarter (recommended by a local shopkeeper), they serve grilled skewers of meat, veggies, fish, you name it. They are freshly grilled then brought to your table along with multiple little plates of delicious chili sauce. Perfect to slow-eat with a large bottle of Myanmar Beer. We found asking a local on the street who can converse a little English gave amazing eatery recommendations.
Where to sleep:
We stayed at The Royal Pearl Hotel in the Chinese quarter during my time spent in Mandalay. I highly recommend The Royal Pearl because it offers luxurious rooms (and very helpful staff!) per Myanmar’s standard for an exceptional price (~$30/night double). Otherwise, there are plenty of guesthouses around the city that offers cheap beds to lay your head on. During peak travel season, be sure to reserved your room in advance as travel amenity in Myanmar is still at its developing stage and bed space might be scarce (as of April 2015).
There are a few ways to bring yourself to Bagan. We opted for a slow boat cruising down the Irrawaddy River. The boat cost $40 per person including a simple breakfast and lunch. It was an enjoyable 10-hour open deck boat ride. Making your reservation in advance is recommended. Alternatively, you can take the bumpy and uncomfortable train, an air conditioned VIP bus or fly to Bagan with one of the local airlines.