The Mandalay region is packed full of interesting sites that could keep you busy for a week or more. Rather than rush, trying to see three or even four of the ancient cities in one day, we recommend you to slow down and take two or three days to see the main highlights outside Mandalay. With more time to spare, you can visit some of the area’s lesser known attractions.
If you’re looking to explore the Mandalay region, this must-see guide will have you covered. See the various sites for transport options and costs, as well as how best to road trip the Mandalay region at the end.
Likely to be your first stop outside Mandalay, Amarapura is essentially a spread-out suburb of the city that’s set on a wide, shallow lake. Amarapura was the penultimate royal capital of Myanmar, whose name means ‘City of Immortality’. Its period of prominence, however, lasted less than 70 years; after that, in 1857, King Mindon shifted the capital 7 miles north to Mandalay.
Sights in Amarapura
The following sights are listed in the order you’ll likely come across them.
Opening Hours: 8am-6:30pm Entrance Fee: Included in the 10,000ks Archaeological Zone Combo Ticket
To get full value out of your Mandalay combo ticket, you can visit this 1996 reconstruction of an early 19thcentury monastery. It contains an extensive ancient library of Pali scripts and a museum of 19th century Buddha images; also notice the wooden filigree roof work. Nearby there are several tobacco drying barns and, a little further east, the ruins of two former palace buildings.
Opening Hours: Sunrise-Sunset
Erected by King Bagyidaw in 1820, Pahtodawgyi is a bell-shaped pagoda that is the tallest structure for miles around. Only men are permitted to climb halfway to the upper terrace for views over the area’s plethora of stupa pinnacles.
Shwe Linmin Paya
Opening Hours: Sunrise-Sunset
Set beside the lake road near a nursery of flowering plants, this 19th century square-based stupa has a gold spire and white lower sections from a 2006 makeover. There are numerous white and gold Buddha statues on the grounds.
Kyo Aung Sanda
Opening Hours: Sunrise-Sunset
The latter-day monastery, set in a large compound, features a mini Golden Rock, a prayer hall full of monk-posture statues and several rather strange Alice in Wonderland style Tweedledum and Owl figures that have large staring eyes. There are also several huge Buddha figures including a standing one with an alms bowl and a reclining one with a smiling face and long eyelashes.
Maha Ganayon Kyaung
Opening Hours: 7am-Evening
Just west of U-Bein Bridge, Maha Ganayon Kyaung is a large monastery that makes a meditative stop in the morning or afternoon. However, avoid coming here at around 11am when busloads of tourists arrive to gawp while the monks all sit down to eat. At this time the sheer number of visitors, combined with the constant rattle of cameras, makes it a totally inauthentic experience.
The main attraction in Amarapura is U-Bein Bridge, the world’s longest teak footbridge, which stretches 1300yd across the shallow Taungthaman Lake. In dry season the bridge feels very high, crossing seasonal vegetable gardens, and food vendors set up shop on the land either side. With the monsoon rains, however, the area becomes a large lake with water lapping just below the floor planks.
The best time to visit U-Bein Bridge is just after dawn when hundreds of villagers and monks commute across or at sunset, when the light is at its best, though there will of course be more tourists and sellers around at this time.
If you don’t want to cross on foot, boatmen can ferry you across the lake in one of the many colourful rowing boats moored up at the lake’s edge.
Opening Hours: 8am-7pm
Located about 200yd beyond the eastern end of U-Bein Bridge, Kyauktawgyi Paya was built in 1847 by Pagan Min. It was modelled on the larger Ananda Pahto in Bagan; if you’ve seen the original you’ll definitely appreciate the resemblance. Notice the fairly well-preserved life-scene frescoes in the four approaches.
Shwe Sin Tai
Opening Hours: 7am-6pm
In a side street just off the Sagaing-Mandalay Road, this hand-worked silk-weaving workshop welcomes visitors without the pressure to buy. There’s also a shop opposite that sells the finished products.
Distance from Mahamuni Paya, Mandalay to U-Bein Bridge (western entrance): 9km
Getting to Amarapura
If you want to visit Amarapura by public transport, take a pick-up truck from 84th Street at 29th Street in Mandalay (500ks, 45 minutes), which pass along the main Sagaing road. For U-Bein Bridge, get off just after it crosses the railway tracks and walk east towards the lake.
A return taxi from Mandalay should cost around 10,000ks with an added 90 minutes of sightseeing or around 7,000ks on a motorbike.
The sights in Amarapura are close enough to walk around if coming by public transport.
Since 1364, Inwa has served four turns as Myanmar’s royal capital; indeed upper Burma was often referred to as ‘the Kingdom of Ava’, even well after Inwa was abandoned by the royal court in favour of Amarapura in 1841. Today, Inwa is a pleasant rural site to explore, dotted with ruins, monastic buildings and stupas; it’s a world away from the bustle of Mandalay.
Sights in Inwa
The following sights are listed in an order that you may come across them.
Le-htat-gyi Paya and Sandamuni Paya
About a mile south of the moat lies Hantharwady village that is home to countless stupas; they include the large, gilt, bell-shaped Sandamuni Paya and the four-storey stub of the once massive Le-htat-gyi Paya, which has been badly damaged by earthquakes.
Hidden away in the backstreets of Hantharwady village, stop by Myanma Nwe Sin (open 8am-5pm), an uncommercial lacquerware company that produces monks’ alms bowls.
Shwe Myauk Taung
The three whitewashed pagodas of Shwe Myauk Taung are located near short restored sections of the city wall; both the pagodas and the wall are best viewed from across the moat looking north.
Daw Gyan Pagoda Complex
This ruined temple complex contains several rust-red brick stupas that sit under enormous shade trees; it’s a very peaceful site surrounded by a patchwork of paddies.
Inwa Archaeological Museum
Opening Hours: 9am-4:30pm Tues-Sun
We didn’t actually visit the two-hall Inwa Archaeological Museum as we’d heard it was overpriced at 5,000ks for foreigners. However, we did stop nearby to admire the view of Shwezigon Paya across the moat; it makes a great photo!
One of the most photogenic sights at Inwa, Yedanasimi brings together three sitting Buddha figures and a collection of old brick stupas that are shaded by a giant flame tree. Don’t miss the seated Buddha at the end of what was once a hall, held up by columns. If you come here after rainy season, the surrounding area is lush and green.
Nogatataphu is a large golden pagoda with a multi-tiered square white base; the large Buddha image in the central shrine is particularly striking. There are tree-framed views of several small pagodas from the rough track that gives a false shortcut between Nogatataphu and the Sagaing Ferry jetty.
Visit the 1874 Sinkyone Fortress for great Ayeyarwady River views over to the temple-studded hills of Sagaing. Within the inner square bastion there are still a couple of old canyons; numerous stupas can be found down lanes directly south.
Opening Hours: Sunrise-Sunset Entrance Fee: Included in the 10,000ks Archaeological Zone Combo Ticket
Dating to 1834, this popular teak monastery is supported on 267 teak posts, the largest 60ft high and 90ft in circumference. The prayer hall is cool and dark and has a genuinely aged feeling; notice the repeating peacock and lotus-flower motifs that are inscribed upon the stained timber. Bagaya remains a living monastery with globes hung above the small school section to assist the novices with their geography lessons. Note that it is impossible to enter without a combo ticket!
Just west of Bagaya Kyaung, follow a dirt track to visit a row of disintegrating brick stupas and an array of really interesting, overgrown temple ruins. The scenery is lovely here just after the rainy season, the waterlogged fields reflecting the surrounding trees and foliage.
Another golden stupa with a whitewashed square base, Shwezigon rises photogenically above the overgrown south-west corner of Inwa’s city walls. The best view is from across the moat near the archaeological museum, especially when water levels are high. The main access is via the north-western city gate.
The ‘leaning tower of Inwa’ (90ft) is all that remains of King Bagyidaw’s palace complex. It has been patched up and is still standing after the 1838 earthquake. When we visited the watchtower was closed for safety reasons; if/when it does reopen you can expect good views from the top and a chance to get your bearings of the widely scattered sights.
This whitewashed pagoda complex dates to the Bagan period; there are pretty gold-leaf topped stupas and numerous chinthe. If you visit here first, before Maha Aungmye Bonzan, you can access the latter for free, avoiding the combo ticket checkers! Just leave Htilaingshin Paya via the back gate, which leads directly onto the grounds of Maha Aungmye Bonzan.
Maha Aungmye Bonzan
Opening Hours: Sunrise-Sunset Entrance Fee: Included in the 10,000ks Archaeological Zone Combo Ticket
The highlight of our visit to Inwa, Maha Aungmye Bonzan is a royal monastery temple built of stucco-covered brick that dates to 1822. The best time for photographs is late afternoon when the sun casts a golden glow over the faded structure and makes it looks especially pretty. There’s little to see inside, apart from a few small Buddha shrines, but the thick walls ensure the interior remains a cool respite from the afternoon sun.
Distance from U-Bein Bridge (western entrance) to Hantharwady village: 17km Distance from Mahamuni Paya, Mandalay to Hantharwady village: 26km Distance from the Pinya Stupa Ruins to Hantharwady village: 6.5km
Getting to/around Inwa
If you want to access Inwa by public transport, you can take a Mandalay-Sagaing pickup truck as far as the Inwa Lanzou junction, just west of Ava Bridge. From there it’s a 15-minute walk or a 10-minute trishaw ride (200ks) to the Myitnge river crossing.
A covered wooden longtail boat shuttles across to Inwa’s eastern jetty (800ks, with bicycle 1,000ks, with motorbike 1,500ks) roughly every 15 minutes according to demand until 6pm. Unless you specify otherwise, most taxis and motorbike taxis will drop you at the Myitnge Jetty.
Motorbikes can, however, drive right into and around Inwa via stupa-speckled Hantharwady village. There are no taxis or motorbike taxis available in Inwa, so hire one from Mandalay. The same is true for motorbike/scooter/bicycle hire. The various sights are much too spread out to make walking feasible.
Many people choose to hire a horse cart to explore the ruins (10,000ks); dozens of carts wait at Inwa’s eastern jetty. Although this can be a quintessential Inwa experience, cart drivers typically stick to a fixed route, so it doesn’t allow as much flexibility as having your own wheels.
Sagaing became the capital of an independent Shan kingdom in around 1315. Although Pinya had emerged as the new regional capital, its rulers’ son set up Sagaing as a rival centre of power. Its period of importance lasted about half a century; in 1364 the founder’s grandson, Thado Minbya, moved the capital to Inwa. Sagaing became capital again in 1760 but this time only for four years; from then on its significance became more spiritual than political.
Sagaing is easily recognised by the crest of green hills dotted with white and gold pagodas that define the skyline of this laidback, friendly town. A major monastic centre, Sagaing is home to thousands of monks and nuns and is also a place Myanmar Buddhists often go to meditate. Although no individual sight in Sagaing stands out as a particular must-see, the scene as a whole is a delight to explore and it makes a serene escape from Mandalay.
Sights in Sagaing
Long before you enter Sagaing, you’ll see the two parallel bridges that link Amarapura to Sagaing over the Ayeyarwady River. The 1934 Ava Bridge was partially destroyed in 1942 to prevent the advancement of WWII Japanese troops; it wasn’t repaired until 1954. The large new bridge was completed in 2005 and is the one you’ll pass over to reach Sagaing.
Come to this little hillock on the east side of the Ayeyarwady for sensational views towards Ava Bridge and Sagaing. There are a number of small stupas here, which are part of the larger Shwe-kyet-yet site on a gentle rise across the road. Shwe-kyet-yet is home to many gold-and-white stupas.
Just up from riverside Strand Road, this massive white stupa was originally built in 1444; it’s unusual in that it has three circular storeys, each one incorporating arched niches with miniature Buddha figures and golden stupas. The golden spire of this stupa is visible from miles around.
Sagaing Hill and Soon U Pon Nya Shin Paya
Opening Hours: Sunrise-Sunset Camera Fee: 300ks
A number of stupa-topped hillocks come together to form Sagaing Hill, a long tree-dappled north-south ridge that begins roughly 1.5 miles north of the market area. It’s possible to drive to the top via a narrow winding lane, or you can take the 350-step stairway that begins from One Lion Gate.
The first shrine you’ll come to upon reaching the top of the stairs from One Lion Gate is Soon U Pon Nya Shin Paya, the most important of the temples on Sagaing Hill’s southern crown. The central 97-ft high gilded stupa was originally built in 1312. Local legend says that it magically appeared overnight, constructed by the local king’s faithful minister, Pon Nya, in a superhuman flurry of activity inspired by a magic Buddha relic.
The central shrine at Soon U Pon Nya contains a large and rather impressive gold-and-white Buddha figure set against a backdrop of shining green mosaic. Views from Sagaing Hill are expansive, giving panoramas over the Ayeyarwady River and across the stupa-dappled ridgetop.
U Min Thonze Caves
The name of this sight is actually rather misleading as there are no caves as such! U Min Thonze is about a 10-minute walk north of Soon U Pon Nya Shin and is known for its crescent-shaped colonnade of 45 Buddha images.
Sitagu Buddhist Academy
This academy was founded in 1994 to educate the brightest young monks; it’s a major intellectual centre for Theravada Buddhism. For visitors, the main attraction is the centre-piece Sanchi-style stupa, gilded and embossed with dharma-wheel patterns. Photos of Asia’s great Buddhist sites are displayed in the surrounding arcade.
One of our personal highlights of Sagaing, Tilawkaguru is a cave monastery located at the foot of Sagaing Hill. Supposedly constructed in around the 1670’s, this site contains some of the most impressive and well preserved cave paintings in Myanmar. Vivid frescoes depict the life (and past lives) of the Buddha, animals, warriors, battles, kings, peasants and mythical creatures.
You’ll need to swing by the Buddha Museum (5,000ks, 9:30am-4:30pm) about 2km away to find the keyholder; he’ll gladly follow you back to Tilawkaguru and open it up for you.
Shin Pin Nan Kain Stupa
Opening Hours: 8am-7pm
Although this stupa sits on a hilltop that’s lower than Sagaing Hill, the wide-reaching panoramas are even better, especially at sunset. Views encompass Ava Bridge, boat traffic on the Ayeyarwady and Sagaing town. As well as the brass-clad stupa, there’s also a golden seated Buddha statue that differs from Myanmar’s usual white-painted Buddha figures.
Thakya Dita Nunnery
It took us a while to find this nunnery, so well hidden is it within the backstreets of Sagaing. Come here to see the 16ft, 6in gilded wooden-cane Buddha figure in an air-conditioned glass chamber.
Located about 8km from One Lion Gate on the Sagaing-Monywa Highway, Kaunghmudaw is a vast gilded stupa, shaped like a pudding, rising 150ft high. It was built in 1636 to commemorate the re-establishment of Inwa as the royal capital. Some scholars claim that it was modelled after Ruwanwelisaya stupa in Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.
The surrounding area has many other stupas and is well known for its silversmiths. You can stop by Ubamin Silverware on your way to/from Kaunghmudaw to see artisans at work; there’s also a shop in front of the workshop where you can buy the finished products.
Getting to/around Sagaing
It’s best to visit Sagaing on a taxi/motorbike taxi tour or else have your own wheels. The sights in Sagaing are fairly spread out, so walking isn’t the best way to see them.
If you want to travel to Sagaing by public transport, take a pick-up from Mandalay (500ks, one hour) that will drop you in the main market area. From here you should be able to find transport to show you around the sights. Pick-ups return to Mandalay from outside Aye Cherry Restaurant by Ava Bridge’s south slip road.
Entrance Fee: 5,000ks (as of June 2019)
The pretty riverside village of Mingun is home to several unique sights, including the foundations for what would have been the largest temple in the world. The roughly 20km journey from Sagaing to Mingun is part of the attraction, following the quiet road alongside the wide Ayeyarwady River.
Sights in Mingun
The following sights are listed from south to north, in the order you’ll likely see them.
Overlooking the Ayeyarwady, diminutive Pondaw Paya gives you an idea of what Mingun Paya would have looked like had it ever been completed. Nearby lies Settawya Paya, a square white structure topped with a central golden stupa and four smaller ones on each corner. Both of these sights can be found just before the ticket booth.
Sitting across from Mingun Paya, these two house-sized brick-and-stucco ruins are the haunches of what would have been truly massive chinthe (half-lion, half-dragon guardian deities).
Mingun Paya (Pa Hto Daw Gyi)
Mingun Paya, which was begun in 1790, would have been the world’s largest stupa had it ever been finished. Work ceased when King Bodawpaya died in 1819, leaving only the bottom third complete. It is often described as the world’s largest pile of bricks!
The resulting structure that you see today is still impressive, a roughly 240ft cube on a 460ft lower terrace. Stairs to the top were closed at the time of our visit; if they reopen there are said to be amazing views of the surrounding countryside from the summit.
In 1808 King Bodawpaya commissioned this bronze bell that weighs 90 tonnes, is 13ft high and more than 16ft across at the lip. For many decades it was the world’s largest ringable bell, until the giant bell of Pingdingshan (China) was built. Many people find it amusing to duck beneath and stand within the bell while someone gives it a good whack!
This beautiful, unusual white pagoda was built in 1816 and rises in seven wavy terraces that represent the seven mountain ranges around Mt Meru, the mountain at the centre of the Buddhist universe. It is believed to have been built using materials taken from Mingun Paya.
You can walk up and around the terraces to the shrine at the top. For an amazing view over the temple, take the track to the left of Hsinbyume up to a small golden stupa; the birds eye panorama from this vantage point is worth the extra walk.
Getting to Mingun
Mingun is a pleasant drive from Sagaing, easily added to a full-day taxi or motorbike tour from Mandalay. It’s also possible to reach Mingun by boat, which leave from Mandalay’s 26th Street ‘tourist jetty’ (Mayan Chan) at 9am, returning at 1:30pm. Foreigners pay US$8; it’s one hour to Mingun and 40 minutes back.
Distance from Sagaing Hill to Pondaw Paya: 19km Distance from Mahamuni Paya, Mandalay to Pondaw Paya: 36km
Werawsana Jade Pagoda
This stunningly beautiful pagoda is reportedly the first in the world to be made entirely from jade. The design is totally unique with a mosaic of intricate patterned stonework on the exterior and jade Buddha figures comprising the inner shrines. Apparently, it’s also a sight to behold in the evening when it radiates a soft green glow.
You’ll need your own wheels to get here; its 10km south of Amarapura and easy to find using Google maps.
Golden Tooth Pagoda
An exact replica of the Golden Tooth Pagoda (Swe Taw Myat) in Yangon, the Golden Tooth Pagoda, or Tooth Relic Pagoda, in Mandalay is said to house a tooth of the Buddha. It’s an eye-catching sight with its gilded corncob spire and five-tiered base; the colonnaded interior is expansive with the sacred tooth hidden inside glass casing at the centre.
Also on the grounds is a garden with hundreds of small golden Buddha statues set in neat lines. Again you’ll need your own transport to reach this sight; it’s 10km north-east of Werawsana Jade Pagoda; follow Google maps!
Paleik Snake Pagoda
Opening Hours: 7am-9pm
The modest but rather kitschy Snake Pagoda was named after its three resident giant pythons that appeared from the nearby forest in 1974 and never left. Many of the statues within the temple compound replicate a scene from the Buddha’s life when he sheltered from the rain under the hood of a naga (a cobra-like water dragon). Many people come here, however, to witness the daily feeding and washing of the pythons at 11am.
The Snake Pagoda is 8km south of the Golden Tooth Pagoda and almost 10km south-east from Werawsana Jade Pagoda.
Pinya Stupa Ruins
A mini-Bagan without the crowds, the Pinya Stupa Ruins are well worth a detour. The ancient capital of Pinya rose to prominence in 1303 in the aftermath of the final Mongol attacks. Its founder was governor-king Thihathu, whose son set up a rival kingdom across the river in Sagaing; the two co-existed for half a century.
Today, the large brick stupa ruins are a delight to explore, each of which housing well preserved Buddha images reminiscent of those in Bagan. Pinya is an 18km drive from Paleik Snake Pagoda and around 6.5km from Hantharwady village near Inwa.
On the outskirts of Mandalay lies temple-topped Yankin Hill, which is mostly worth climbing for views towards the city and of the lovely green rural surrounds. The Shan foothills loom behind. Obvious covered stairways lead up the hill from either end; you can then walk right across the ridgetop along covered walkways, shrines and Buddha statues your ever present companions.
Mya Kyauk Monastery lies near Yankin Hill’s northern base; it has a dazzling brassy stupa and is famed for its water. It’s around 6.5km from the east entrance of Mandalay Palace to the bottom of the northern stairway (along 19th Street). Some pickup (5) services terminate here, otherwise a taxi should cost around 5,000ks return or 3,000ks for a motorbike taxi.
Dee Doke and Three Step Waterfalls
Dee Doke is a stunning, multi-tiered waterfall with a large turquoise pool perfect for swimming; it’s possible but not easy to climb up to the higher levels. The setting is tranquil and on most days you’ll likely have it to yourself; indeed not many tourists make it out this far!
It’s about a 1.5 hour drive from Mandalay to Dee Doke and then a 20 minute climb from the parking area. Take the Mandalay-Lashio Road towards Pyin Oo Lwin and then take a right turn just after the toll plaza (beside two petrol stations). It’s a straight route from here; the turn-off to the parking area was, however, only signed in Burmese when we visited. Look out for a restaurant on the right side of the road, which is opposite the turn-off!
A short way back towards the Mandalay-Lashio Road, you’ll see a signed turn-off to the Three Step Waterfall. Head down the dusty track to the parking area then follow the obvious trail to the falls, which get increasingly impressive as you near the top. The final level is definitely worth the climb, especially towards the end of the wet season.
How Best to Road Trip the Mandalay Region
In order to see all of the above highlights in the Mandalay region, Ollie and I hired a scooter over a couple of days. We paid 10,000ks/day for an automatic bike; petrol was extra.
See below for our itinerary:
Day 1: Amarapura and Sagaing Day 2: Werawsana Jade Pagoda, Golden Tooth Pagoda, Paleik Snake Pagoda, Pinya Stupa Ruins, Inwa Day 3: Mingun, Sagaing, U-Bein Bridge for sunset Day 4: Yankin Hill, Dee Doke and Three Step Waterfalls
Our days were fully packed with early starts and explorations until sunset; ideally set aside an extra day or two for all of the above to enjoy the sites at a more leisurely pace.
If you’d rather hire a car and driver, most hotels and agencies in Mandalay can organise a full-day trip to Amarapura, Sagaing and Inwa for around 50,000ks (around 20,000ks for a motorbike taxi). Remember that for Inwa, most drivers will drop you at the Myitnge ferry, assuming you’ll cross then tour the ruins by horse cart.
You can pay motorbike taxis around 2,000ks extra to drive around Inwa; add another 2,000ks to see Paleik on route and 5,000ks to include Mingun. Doing everything in one long day would be incredibly rushed, however, and you’d likely miss a number of sights. Ideally make at least two day trips.
So there you have it, your must-see guide to road tripping the Mandalay region! Let us know in the comments if you have any questions or if any of the information we’ve provided has changed!
If you’re in Mandalay for a few days, don’t forget to check out our post: 21 Awesome Things to See in Mandalay. Or why not head to the laid-back town of Hsipaw for some trekking, it’s just six hours by bus from Mandalay!
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