Myanmar Guide: Mandalay and Yangon

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Myanmar was once almost impossible to visit—this is when I went the first time. The year was 2010, the country was an international pariah and being there felt like a trip back in time.

Then, it opened up, and everyone was going. Bagan, with its temples and hot air balloons, seemed to become almost as possible as Ayutthaya and Angkor Wat. Then, as a result of ethnic cleansing and the imprisonment of the woman once regarded as the only hope for the country’s democracy, the country become a pariah again—and suddenly, going there was controversial (if not as difficult as it used to be).


Your Travel Guide to Myanmar  

I visited both of Myanmar’s main cities on my first trip to the country—which, as I explained during the intro to this piece, took place in late 2010. Back then, leaded cars were as common the roads as ones that took unleaded fuel; you had to go to an internet cafe to access (a very censored version of) the internet and there was a profound sense of disconnection between local people and the outside world. I could write a paper about it (and, as you’ll have seen if you clicked the link above, I sort of did!).

Yangon was where I arrived, and where my trip began. If I’m honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of the city as a whole, although it was difficult to deny the beauty of its massive Shwedagon Pagoda. Mandalay, on the other hand, was more overtly charming, even without excursions to watch sunset from Mandalay Hill or behind U-Bein Bridge. Oh, I also nearly died from food poisoning, though I’m not sure whether meals in Yangon or Mandalay were to blame.

Comparing Mandalay and Yangon


Yangon is loud, noisy and dirty—there’s just no way around it. While there are places (well, one in particular) that you can escape this, in generally I consider it a city to be endured, not to be enjoyed. Mandalay, by contrast, has a walkable and charming town center, never mind all the excursion options.


When it comes to Mandalay vs Yangon, there is slightly more nuance with this piece. On one hand, Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda is arguably one of the architectural gems not only of Myanmar, but of Southeast Asia more broadly. In Mandalay, it’s more about the diversity of attractions, with my personal favorite being Mahamuni Paya temple and the Mandalay Hill sunset spot.

Natural landscape

Yangon is flatter than Mandalay, which makes sense because it’s so close to the coast. Mandalay, on the other hand, features gorgeous, rolling hills all around it—which, even if you don’t head up to Mandalay Hill to watch sunset as I advise above, makes for stunning views in all directions.


Unsurprisingly, neither Yangon nor Mandalay has a well-developed public transportation network. You’re basically at the mercy of pick-up truck taxis, motorbikes and tuk-tuks if you don’t just walk everywhere, which is thankfully possible (though not always enjoyable, especially in the case of Yangon) in both city centers.

Day Trips & Excursions

Mandalay is surrounded by a trio of beautiful villages—Sagaing, Inwa and Amarapura, with the latter being home to the iconic U-Bein Bridge. With Yangon, meanwhile, the only realistic “day trip” you can take is to Shwedagon Pagoda—which, again, is in the city—you can’t really call it a “day trip.”


Other Myanmar Destinations

Have longer in Myanmar than the 3-5 days it will take to explore Mandalay, Yangon and the various attractions within day-trip distance of them? Consider visiting these other top spots:

  • Bagan: Home to literally thousands of temples, this is a picturesque place where it’s worthwhile to get up at the crack of dawn for a hot air balloon ride.
  • Inle Lake: If you want a natural break, meanwhile, chill out here for a few days—obviously, there are plenty of boat rides you can take.
  • Mergui Archipelago: These islands are, in my opinion, the very best in Southeast Asia, although they are unsurprisingly very difficult to reach.
  • Naypyidaw: Did you know that Yangon is not the capital of Myanmar? Neither did I, until relatively recently. Naypyidaw is…an interesting city, to say the least.

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