Yangon and Mandalay
Myanmar is a vast country harbouring a huge diversity of landscapes and sights. For those in search of urban attractions, the country certainly delivers with myriad historical, religious and cultural treasures scattered throughout its cities. Here we cover two of Myanmar’s most prominent – Yangon and Mandalay. Boasting spectacular Buddhist temples, atmospheric colonial architecture, bustling markets and incredible street food, these two urban destinations should form part of any traveller’s itinerary when visiting Myanmar.
First up is Myanmar’s principal city (but no longer its capital), Yangon, where most visitors to the country start and end their journey. This is one of southeast Asia’s most fascinating urban destinations, renowned for its striking colonial buildings, colourful street markets, picturesque parks and, of course, plentiful stunning religious sites. Yangon is a sprawling city of over 5 million, making it by far the largest in Myanmar. It’s the country’s cultural, commercial and intellectual hub and has long served as an important melting pot for different ethnicities and religions over the centuries. Yangon is very much a city of the past and still developing, but you’ll find that decaying buildings and monuments are being renovated and a wealth of new hotels, restaurants, bars and shops are popping up to accommodate the recent tourist influx. Best of all, it remains an overwhelmingly safe and friendly place to visit.
Top of the list should be the striking Shwedagon Pagoda, the monumental religious shrine that is so sacred to the country’s Buddhists. It easily rates as the most important religious monument and one of Myanmar's prime tourist attractions. The pagoda’s towering pinnacle is visible from almost anywhere in the city, whilst its gold-clad and diamond encrusted exterior shimmers brightly in the sun. In stark contrast, the interior is rather minimalistic and eerily quiet, providing a peaceful retreat from the urban chaos outside. Another unmissable landmark is the beautiful Sule Pagoda, a focal point of Burmese politics, home to numerous government buildings and a popular site for rallies and protests.
Downtown Yangon is an exciting place to explore, with its atmospheric colonial architecture, streets teeming with food and book vendors and vibrant open-air markets. The city is home to the largest concentration of colonial-era buildings in southeast Asia, representing an almost unique example of a nineteenth century British colonial capital. The best-preserved architecture can be found along the riverfront around Strand Road, as well as along Sule Pagoda Road.
Yangon is home to a large collection of museums, art galleries and markets. The city is awash with animated markets brimming with fresh produce and intriguing items. One of the best is the Bogyoke Aung San Market, a great bazaar that’s the ideal place to pick up some authentic wares. The National Museum is a must for those looking to gain greater insight into Burmese history and culture, boasting an impressive collection of artefacts, artwork and religious relics. For some respite from the chaos of downtown, head to the peaceful Kandawgyi Park and stroll around its lake, enjoy picnic or simply sit back and take in the local life.
Yangon’s ethnic diversity is also reflected in its incredible food. Burmese dishes draw heavily from Thai, Chinese and Indian influences, resulting in a mouth-watering and truly unique cuisine that is rarely found outside its borders. The city is home to some of the country’s best restaurants and street food, making it the ideal place to try sample some of its most popular dishes, including mohinga – rice noodles submerged in a fish-based soup – that can be found virtually everywhere. Tea shops are also an important part of daily life in Yangon and the ideal way to mingle with locals. Finally, the city has a vibrant nightlife, whether you fancy cocktails, karaoke and hot pot, or beer and BBQ in action-packed Chinatown. A visit to the city of Yangon is a top on the list of reasons to go to Myanmar.
Mandalay was the last royal city before British colonisation took over in the 1880s and is therefore home to a wonderful array of religious and cultural attractions. It’s a sprawling city, the country’s second-largest, and serves as a hub and gateway for Upper Myanmar. In addition to the historical sights, the city’s fantastic street food, colourful markets and panoramic views, make it well worth a couple day’s exploration.
Mandalay’s streets are peppered with countless pagodas and monasteries, along with a mosques and Hindu temples, but all these are overshadowed by the magnificent Royal Palace that dominates the centre of the city. Surrounded by enormous walls and a lengthy moat stretching over 2km, this vast complex dates from the Konbaung dynasty, though it has undergone recent renovation. The palace itself contains several pavilions and chambers harbouring some interesting artefacts and art pieces. Another of the city’s most important historical sites is the Mahamuni Paya, a 4-metre tall Buddha statue adorned with gold and precious jewels. Visitors can take part in the ceremonial tradition of decorating the monument in gold leaves.
For an astonishing perspective over the city and its surrounding landscape, make the trip up to the 760 ft Mandalay Hill. The walk up a continuous covered stairways passes an abundance of Buddhist statues and is always busy with locals and monks making the pilgrimage up to the sacred summit. Up top, admire pagodas and panoramic view over Mandalay, including the glistening Irrawaddy River and the mist-shrouded green hills in the distance. Be sure to make your way up for sunset for the best atmosphere and views.
Mandalay is also a convenient base for exploring several other former Burmese capitals, such as Inwa and Sagaing, both renowned for their stupas and pagodas. Also easily accessible from the city is the legendary U Bein bridge across Taungthaman Lake in Amarapura. Constructed around 1850 entirely out of teak and spanning 1.2 kilometres it’s the oldest and longest bridge of its type in the world. Strolling its atmospheric walkways is a real experience, especially at sunrise or sunset, when the bridge attracts hundreds of locals and visitors alike.
*Photos of: Mandalay Palace, Mandalay Hill, Shwedagon Pagoda are courtesy of Wikipedia.