I have to admit, Mandalay wasn’t our favourite place to visit in Myanmar. Mandalay city is quite industrial and lacks a lot of character compared to Yangon. There isn’t a huge amount of family friendly activities however our list of things to do in Mandalay with kids will make your trip a little easier.
I’m probably being a little harsh on Mandalay but I just didn’t love it, not that I didn’t like it but there are definitely other areas of Myanmar I could have spent those 3 days and got more out of it such as Bagan or Inle Lake.
We travelled from Bagan to Mandalay on a day drive in a local mini bus that was overcrowded and travelling way to fast for the weather conditions at the time. It was by far our worst bus trip out of the 4 long bus rides we took but we made it safely in the end.
There were a few contributing factors such as it rained a lot, more than anywhere else and consistently during our visit. Our hotel was next to a fish market, I hate seafood and the smell repulses me and it could be smelt from outside the hotel. Regardless of these few things we still found enough to do and there were a few highlights from our stay in Mandalay with kids and I have listed them below.
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Things to do in Mandalay with kids
Day 1 – Mandalay Tour
We hadn’t pre-arranged a tour guide for Mandalay but when we arrived we organised a Mandalay city tour including sunset at U Bein Bridge. The cost was reasonable for 5 people, we paid 60,000 khat (approx. US$45) and we were out with the tour guide for over 9 hours that day.
However if you would prefer to pre-book your tours I highly recommend a Klook Mandalay City Tour for a competitive price.
Mandalay Royal Palace
We arrived at the Mandalay Royal Palace where security is tight and you will have to leave your passport at the entrance when you purchase your tickets. The ticket, Mandalay Archaeological Zone Fee Card, will cover the main 5 sights in Mandalay and costs 10,000 kyats (approx. AU$10) per person. Children are sometimes free and sometimes half price it really depends on who you get. It is definitely a great place to visit in Mandalay with kids as it will give you a good idea of how the royal family lived back in the last century.
This was the Royal Palace of the last Burmese monarchy. Built between 1857-1859 and founding Mandalay as the new capital city of Myanmar (formerly Burma). Like many other palaces it’s completed in traditional Burmese design with a walled fort surrounded by a moat. The buildings are all single storey however the number of spires on top indicate the importance of the area below.
The palace compound was destroyed during World War II by allied bombing; only the royal mint and the watch tower survived. A replica of the palace was rebuilt in the 1990s with some modern materials. Most of the palace area is now off limits and utilised as an army base, only the citadel is open for the public to view.
Shwenandaw Monastery (a.k.a Shwe Kyaung Monastery)
Your Mandalay Archaeological Zone Fee Card also includes the Shwenandaw Monastery which has an interesting history. It was built by King Thibaw in 1878 at the royal palace in Amarapura, he believed it became haunted by his father’s spirit, King Mindon, so had it dismantled and rebuilt at its current location in Mandalay just prior to his death.
The Monastery is made of teak and the detail in the carvings is very impressive. It is built in traditional Burmese Buddhist architectural style and is the only remaining major structure of the original Royal Palace. Interestingly, its also called the Golden Palace Monastery, because it used to be completely gilded. Atumashi Monastery is right next to Shwenandaw Monastery and is included in the zone fee card. Atumashi Monastery is an active monastery and you will notice just how much bigger they build them now!
Kuthadaw Pagoda – World’s Largest Book
Kuthadaw Pagoda is a gilded Buddhist stupa measuring 57 meters tall. Surrounding the pagoda are 729 ‘caves’ each containing a single marble slab inscribed on both sides in Burmese script. Together, the 729 slabs are called “the world’s largest book”, each stone slab representing one of its pages. The slabs are inscribed with texts of the Sutta Pitaka, the Vinaya Pitaka and Abhidhamma Pitaka, the three parts that make up the Tripitaka, the teachings of the Buddha written in ancient Pali language.
Located at the foot of Mandalay Hill, it was built by King Mindon Min at the same time the nearby Mandalay Royal Palace was built. The British army seized Mandalay in 1885 they vandalised the Kuthodaw complex, stole the gold, jewels and other gems from the hti (the top part of the spire) of the pagoda and removed the gold from the letters on the slabs. Restoration works were mostly funded by donations from Burmese people.
I did really enjoy this Pagoda, it was great for taking photos of the perfectly aligned shrines and the marble books were lovely to explore. The view up to Mandalay Hill was nice and the sun was out briefly during our visit.
One of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Burma, home of the Mahamuni Buddha image, the most highly revered Buddha image in Myanmar. Mahamuni buddha image is enshrined in a small chamber topped with a seven tiered Pyatthat Burmese style roof.
To pay respect to the Mahamuni Buddha image, male devotees apply gold leaf to the image. Mahamuni Buddha is covered with 15 centimeters of gold leaf, which has distorted the shape of the image even making it hard to recognise. Old photos of the image in the temple show the difference in the outline of the image between about a century ago and now. Caelan was keen to place gold leaf on the Buddha however this one wasn’t as easy to participate like the one at the Shwedagon Pagoda.
We also stopped at various workshops including a stonemason, gold leaf workshop and a marble carving workshop. We were able to walk around and watch the masters at work utilising tools and brute strength rather than machinery. While all the workshops are interesting, I can’t imagine such physical labour and often dusty conditions being great for longevity. The attention to detail is definitely amazing though.
U Bein Bridge for sunset
Last but definitely not least for day 1 was my request to visit U Bein Bridge for sunset. Believed to be the oldest and longest teak wood bridge in the world, U Bein Bridge spans the Taungthaman Lake. It stretches 1.2kms and was constructed in 1850. Traditionally used as an important passageway for the local people, it has also become a tourist attraction and therefore a significant source of income for souvenir sellers. There were a lot of young Burmese teens walking the bridge in groups and many tourists when we were there.
We walked right across the bridge and found a good spot to watch the sunset. Our great spot turned out to be a families living area! Oops! They were really good about it though and let us stay there and enjoy the sunset. As the sun started to set we noticed a few more people join us in the same area, I was certain we had a pretty good spot. I wasn’t disappointed, the sunset was lovely but definitely not the best I’ve seen in photos but I was definitely happy with my results. We waited until the sun was just about gone then walked back across the bridge to our tour guide. The foot traffic on the bridge was still heavy and the area was very lively with tourists, markets stalls and food stalls.
Day 2 – Mingun Tour
The second day, we organised a tour guide through an Australian couple we met at the roof top bar of our hotel. Ko Htwe from Trip With Me was fabulous and we can’t recommend him more highly. Ko Htwe picked us up from the hotel at 12pm and we headed out to Mingun about a 40min drive from Mandalay. We stopped at Sagaing on the way to Mingun and Mandalay Hill on the return for sunset. Ko Htwe then dropped us at the bus station and we headed to Inle Lake that evening.
If you prefer to be more organised and book prior to departure, I highly recommend this Mingun and Sagaing Tour available for direct booking with Klook which offers a competitive price.
Sagaing – Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda
This wasn’t part of our original booking however Ko Htwe thought we should visit so we did. The drive up is quite windy but once at the top you’ll get a wonderful view across the Irrawaddy River over to Mandalay. The pagoda is 240m up Sagaing Hill, it has a covered stairway where you can walk up and there are some great photo opportunities especially at Umin Thonze Pagoda and its curved row of buddha’s.
On the way down Sagaing Hill, stop at the timber monastery, we stopped and had a look around and there were offerings for the spirits and a few monks were going up when we were leaving.
Mya Then Tan Pagoda
This Pagoda was my main reason for wanting to visit Mingun. We arrived on a beautiful, hot, sunny day and the sky was a bright blue. The white Pagoda against the blue sky looked absolutely spectacular. We were lucky to be there on a quiet day, there were very few people around and even fewer tourists.
We climbed to the top and took in the views. Ko Htwe bought his drone and we had some fun playing with it and with the kids posing on the Pagoda. We didn’t bring our drone as we were uncertain if we would get it through customs so were very happy be able to use our tour guides.
Construction commenced in 1790 by King Bodawpaya, standing 50m high it is only one third of its intended height. An earthquake on 23 March 1839 caused huge cracks to appear on the face of the structure. A small shrine containing a buddha is still utilised today as a place of worship by the people of Mingun.
King Bodawpaya had a gigantic bell cast to go with his huge stupa. The Mingun Bell, weighing at 90 tons, is today the second largest ringing bell in the world. The kids went underneath the bell and listened to the tone when rung from outside. We all had a go of ringing the bell.
Overlooking Mandalay at a height of 240m, the hill top Sutaungpyei Pagoda is a popular sunset viewing spot. Mandalay Hill is known for its abundance of pagodas and monasteries, and has been a major pilgrimage site for Burmese Buddhists for nearly two centuries. You can walk up 4 sets of stairs to the top or like us you can take the elevator and and be up there in 15 seconds.
Sutaungpyei Pagoda has 360 degree viewing platforms, the views across Mandalay are breathtaking and whether its going to be a great sunset or an average one, its definitely worth heading up just for the views across the city.
You will need a visa to visit Myanmar if you are Australian. We applied for an e-visa and it was easy and straightforward. I get all my visa information from the Smarttraveller website and it directed me to the Embassy of Myanmar website located in the Canberra.
All other nationalities I suggest you go through the Myanmar Online Visa website and follow the bouncing ball and pay at the end.
The online e-visa process cost us AU$60 per person.
Best hotels in Mandalay
There are many hotels and guesthouses in Mandalay and options that are suitable for every budget. As I stated above I wasn’t a fan of our hotel so I won’t be recommending that. The more expensive hotels are located around the Mandalay Palace in central Mandalay. Below I have listed the best hotels in Mandalay to suit each budget:
- Budget – Smart Hotel – clean but small rooms, good value for money. Ask for a balcony upper room and you’ll have distant views of Mandalay Hill and Mandalay Palace.
- Mid range – Kyi Tin Hotel – Burma colonial style balcony fronted bungalows on spacious land with manicured gardens. Traditional style furniture with black lacquered floors.
- Luxury – Hilton Mandalay – top of the range and recently refurbished. This hotel is located directly across the road from the Mandalay Palace.
Where to eat in Mandalay
I tend to steer clear of street food when travelling with the kids and I’m happy to pay that bit extra to ensure no one gets sick. Especially when you are moving every couple of nights like we were on this trip. We were recommended restaurants by our tour guides and they turned our to be great recommendations.
- Tom Yam Koong Restaurant – Thai cuisine and absolutely delicious, restaurant is clean and air conditioned. The food come out fast and hot and the kids loved it, meals were reasonably priced.
- Mingalabar Restaurant – Burmese cuisine, the restaurant is a double storey complex and the food was quick and delivered hot. The restaurant was very busy with both local groups and tourists. Burmese food is a cross between Chinese and Indian and the meals were tasty and well priced.
Getting to and from Mandalay
- Fly – flights are available to Mandalay International Airport from most airports across Myanmar and international flights from across Asia, you can book direct or with travel agents on arrival in each city. Flights are generally between US$50-$100 each way for local flights;
- Bus – we travelled all around Myanmar by bus, day and overnight buses are available. There are various levels of comfort from local mini buses to VIP luxury buses. You will be provided with a meal, blanket and pillow but be warned there are no toilets on board. You will need to wait until the bus stops which is does a few times each trip. The bus is very cost effective, we paid between US$7-$12 per person per trip;
- Boat – travel between Mandalay and Bagan depending on water levels, it is however a very slow trip taking at the very least 10hours (bus between Mandalay and Bagan is 6 hours). I have been told if the water level is low the river bank is too high to see over which then makes it a very boring trip with nothing to look at. You can book your boat tickets here;
- Train – the train to Mandalay takes about 15 hours Yangon, expect to pay AU$25 for a seat and AU$35 for a sleeper. There are mixed reviews online regarding the reliability quality of the service. It’s also a very bumpy ride as the tracks are not frequently maintained. Give it a go if you’re game though.
What to pack for Mandalay
When travelling in Myanmar always dress respectfully when planning to visit any temples. Shoulders should be covered as with your knees. I had a skirt that fell to just below my knees and that was fine at nearly all the temples we visited. I had one request I wear a longhi (wrap around skirt) which was provided for a small fee.
I also suggest you carry a shawl, I had a pashmina wrap with me at all times. I was requested to wear it once when I had a t-shirt with a cross over back on, it actually just slipped my mind when I put that particular top on but the shawl was just fine. There doesn’t seem to be an issue with kids, however our 13 yr old daughter was asked to wear a longhi over her shorts a couple of times.
Budget for visiting Mandalay
Like all South East Asian countries you can get away with spending as little as US$20 per day if you wanted to. However with us being a family of 5 and we were closer to US$80 per day, including accommodation, food and tours. We could have done this a lot cheaper had we not eaten at the hotel, on a good note all hotels in Myanmar come with breakfast included. Overall Myanmar is a very budget friendly destination however I’m not the best person for making or sticking to budgets!
Mandalay with kids, my thoughts!
As stated above Mandalay with kids wasn’t my favourite place in Myanmar. Looking back now, we did actually see quite a lot when we were there. The city felt very industrial and it just didn’t have the character and charm that Yangon, Inle Lake and Bagan had. I think the fact that it rained a lot didn’t help all that much either.
I really enjoyed U Bein Bridge and Mingun but I could easily have spent an extra day or two in Bagan or Inle Lake and be just as happy. The underwhelming hotel choice didn’t help either. My advice would be to fly into Yangon, visit Bagan and Inle Lake then travel on to Mandalay for a night and fly out from there. I think I would have been much more content with that and it would have been less time in overnight buses.
The kids were very much over temples at this stage, I’m proud of them as they took it in their stride and ponied up and did it for us. I definitely recommend a visit to U Bein Bridge, it was worth it, just for that!
Sal, Craig & Our3kids.