With its poetically evocative name, and the romantic oriental air summoned by Kipling, it is easy to get the wrong impression of Mandalay, which the author never actually visited, the poem’s actual inspiration drawn from an experience in Mawlamyine, then known as Moulmein, in southern Myanmar, during the author's return Journey to England from India.


Founded explicitly to 'fulfil' an earlier prophesy, by King Mindon in 1857, Mandalay is the last of the pre-colonial capital cities of Myanmar, which enjoyed a brief period of prominence before falling to the British in 1885.

The old city is set beneath Mandalay Hill, which affords a good view over the city, via a worthwhile thirty minute barefoot ascent of its covered stairways. At the top of the climb, a standing Buddha statue points toward the Royal Palace.

Beneath the hill, a 64 metre (210 feet) wide moat surrounds the impressive eight kilometres of wall surrounding the Royal citadel, within which the Royal Palace sits. Unfortunately for posterity, the British rather disrespectfully made use of the palace as a fort and parade ground, demolishing many of the original buildings, and much of what remained was further fatefully consumed by fire during the fighting in World War II.

Thankfully, the beautiful reconstruction of the citadel, based on the original buildings, provides an authentic air of the former glory of the citadel, its notable features being the Watchtower, the Lion Throne Room, Clock Tower, Great Audience Hall, Glass Palace and Royal Mausoleums. An on-site Museum provides additional displays.

The only truly authentic surviving structure of early Mandalay’s Royal Palace is the beautifully carved Shwenandaw Monastery, a stunning teak masterpiece and an example of Burmese master carpentry at its very best. In a twist of fortune, the building was moved by King Thibaw, the country’s last monarch prior to the British takeover, thereby escaping the subsequent destruction and now sits outside the city walls at the northeastern corner.

Nearby, Kuthodaw Pagoda, is surrounded by 729 stupas, each containing inscribed marble tablets, which together comprise the entire Buddhist Tripitaka, and is often popularly described as the world’s largest book.

Although modern Mandalay is largely fairly uninspiring, there are a number of beautiful pagodas hidden among the contemporary bustle, and the area is full of interesting workshops. The main reason for Mandalay’s significance to tourism is its location close to the earlier post-Bagan capitals.   

Mandalay is also a highly important feature of Ayeyarwady Cruise ships, with the majority of itineraries either departing or culminating here. A number of ferries also operate for day trips to nearby Inwa and Sagaing.


Close to Mandalay, a little way to the south, are the former capitals of Sagaing, Inwa and Amarapura. The earliest of these is Sagaing, built immediately after the Bagan period in around 1315 as the capital of the Shan Kingdom.

Crossing the modern bridge across the Irrawaddy, the lovely leafy green hills of Sagaing present a beautiful backdrop to the forest of shimmering pagodas nestled within the landscape. If you have the time, a relaxed walk of its sights and covered stairways is a highly rewarding and peaceful journey into another world.

Any and all of the numerous superb white and gold temples here are worthy of a visit, but the most culturally significant is Pon Nya Shin Paya, at the southern end of Sagaing Hill, reachable by an ascent of its 'One Lion' stairway. The 30 metre (97 feet) gilded stupa is the subject of fanciful, if fascinating, legend, its very existence ascribed to supernatural powers.

In 1364, the capital was moved across the river to Inwa, also known as Ava.

The original palace of King Bagydaw, lies in ruins after the 1838 earthquake. One of the main attractions is the ornately decorated teak monastery of Bagaya Kyaung, while the brick built Maha Aungmye Bonzan monastic temple is among the best of the survivors. Nearby is a collection of stupas of varying ages, some as old as the Bagan period. A popular and fulfilling way of seeing the remaining features of the city is via a horse and cart ride.

Even closer to Mandalay, and now virtually a suburb, Amarapura was its immediate predecessor as capital. Most of the ancient palace was moved to the ill fated site at Mandalay and consequently little now remains, other than the ruins of the city gate and royal tombs, but the picturesque Taungthaman Lake setting is home to the 1.2 kilometre teak built U Bein Bridge, built utilising wood salvaged during the removal of the Royal Palace, a fascinating photogenic structure, which remains an important crossing point for locals and Monks.