The modern megacity

At first glance, Myanmar’s second largest city might seem all honking, congested traffic and concrete buildings spreading out to the east of the Irrawaddy River. But dig a little deeper and this former royal capital turned commercial and cultural hub is also home to some spectacular Buddhist monasteries and temples, artisan gold workshops and jade markets, and traditional teahouses.

Wooden fishing boats bob on the shore against a backdrop of hills dotted with golden pagoda tips and downtown, there are still pockets of quiet backstreets to discover.

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Top things to do in Mandalay

To get your bearings, begin with a climb up Mandalay Hill. The covered walkway passes through numerous temples and pagodas until you reach the gold pillars and reflecting mirrors of the glitzy Sutaungpyei pagoda at the top. One stand-out sight among the cityscape below is the Mandalay Palace, a complex of more than 40 teak buildings that were reconstructed in the 1990s to resemble the 1850s originals after most of the original compound was destroyed by allied bombing during the World War.

Two other equally important landmarks are the Shweinbin monastery and Mahamuni Pagoda, a Buddhist temple. The former, which was commissioned in 1895 by a pair of Chinese jade merchants, is made from intricately carved teak (a departure from the gold seen everywhere else) – even the poles that the main building stands on are made from tree trunks. Get up close and the detail of the engraving is extraordinary. The latter temple is best known for its 13ft-tall gold leaf Buddha seated on a throne. Mahamuni translates to sacred living image and male devotees come here to reverently apply gold leaves to the statue (apart from the face, which is washed daily at dawn).

The city is also renowned for its jade market – Myanmar produces jadeite, the most valuable type of the emerald green stone – where dealers sell their wares and you can watch craftsmen cutting and polishing tiny fragments of rock. It is also worth wandering the two-block gold-pounders district to watch artisans making wafer-thin hammered sheets of gold leaf. A few blocks away, the Unique Mandalay tea room (on 70th street, between 27th and 28th street) serves up all kinds of Burmese classics from Mohinga (a fishy noodle soup, usually eaten at breakfast) and Mee Shay (rice noodles served with chicken, beansprouts and coriander) to tea leaf salad (key ingredients are pickled tea leaves, roasted peanuts and sesame seeds).

Just before sunset, join the crowds at the U-Bein Bridge: at 1.2km it is reportedly the oldest and longest teak bridge in the world. It does sway as you walk across and there are no handrails at times so it is not for the faint-hearted (if it is too rickety, there are a set of wooden steps in the middle where you can pick up a boat to take you to the other side). The best place to be for photographs though, is on the shore with the bridge in front of you as the sun dips and reflects in the water.

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