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Myanmar's former royal capital, Mandalay is a heady mix of gleaming pagodas, busy markets and swirling, chaotic streets. Most of the city is built on the Irrawaddy River's flat flood plains, meaning that Mandalay Hill (northeast of the centre) has uninterrupted views of the city. While much of the city is modern, it has a few significantly historic buildings, including the wooden Mandalay Palace and ornate Kuthodaw Pagoda. Look out for glittering Buddhist statues adorned with rich jewellery and layers of gold leaf.
Most hostels in Mandalay are clustered in the Chanayethazan Township, within walking distance of the city centre. You can stay in a colourful, modern Mandalay hostel close to Zegyo Market, cosy accommodation with a rooftop Irish pub or boutique traditional-style rooms. As well as basics like free Wi-Fi, many Mandalay hostels have extras such as free breakfast and toiletries; some even have mosquito repellent and sunblock for guests to use. A few hostels also have free bike rental.
The city has several neighbourhoods to explore. At the centre of the city is Aungmyaythazan Township, which is where you'll find landmark attractions such as Mandalay Palace and Mandalay Hill. To the south, commercial Chanayethazan Township has Zegyo Market and Mandalay Central Railway Station. Downstream is the ancient city of Inwa; Myanmar's capital for several centuries, the city was abandoned after an earthquake in the 19th century and it's now known for historic buildings and temples. Head across the river for Sagaing's rolling hills, sprinkled with pagodas.
You could spend days exploring Mandalay's top sights. These include gleaming Sutaungpyei Pagoda, set at the peak of Mandalay Hill; made from thousands of mirrored mosaic pieces, it's best seen in the golden light of sunset. Mahamuni Pagoda is known for its awe-inspiring Buddha statue, covered with over two tonnes of gold leaf – you can see gold beaters at work at a traditional workshop on 36th Street. Another place to explore is the city's lively Jade Market, full of merchants polishing their wares and traders haggling.
Mandalay International Airport is 35km south of the city (45 minutes by taxi). You can also catch a train from Yangon (a 15-hour journey) or a bus from Yangon or Inle Lake. Attractions in the city tend to be spread out, so the best way to get around is by bike or tuk-tuk. You can hop on a ferry to cross the river or take a boat all the way downstream to Bagan.