For many, the name Mandalay evokes a mythical Kiplingesque idyll. In reality, Myanmar’s second city is a buzzing, fast-developing metropolis, its streets full of honking traffic. It contains some of the country’s most cherished attractions – sweeping hilltop panoramas, 19th-century teak monasteries and the reconstructed royal palace – and serves as the river-bound gateway to the ancient temple-city of Bagan.

A boatman rows past U-Bein bridge at sunset
A boatman rows past U-Bein bridge at sunset © Dominic Horner / Lonely Planet

The beauty of the old capital doesn’t start at the summit of Mandalay Hill and finish at the palace gates. Mandalay is a jumping-off point for some of Myanmar's best water-themed excursions, from glistening emerald-green falls, mining towns on flooded plains and lively river beaches to life-affirming sunset cruises along the Irrawaddy.

All the locations listed here can be reached from Mandalay by either taxi or motorbike (though you'll probably want to take the boat to Mingun). Most hotels and guesthouses will happily organise transport for you, but keep in mind that some of the fancier resorts may be reluctant to facilitate motorbike rentals. Expect to pay around K30-40,00 per day for a driver, and K9-15,000 for a motorbike. All journey times provided are by car. If you are going to travel by motorbike, you can whack another 30-40 minutes on the clock. We've included GPS coordinates for the harder-to-find sites.

A man jumps from the falls at Dee Doke
Jumping from the falls at Dee Doke © Dominic Horner / Lonely Planet

Swimming at Dee Doke waterfall

Absurdly photogenic with its luminous turquoise waters, Dee Doke waterfall is one of the most beautiful spots in Myanmar. Most visitors congregate for wild swimming and selfies at the main pool, a 15-20-minute climb from the car park. For something a bit more adventurous, you can clamber up to several smaller and quieter pools (there’s a handy rope on the right-hand side of the falls) and at the very top you’ll find a deep, jump-friendly plunge-pool.

Make it happen 90 minutes from Mandalay. Doable year-round but expect cloudier water during the rains (May-October). GPS coordinates: 21.710807,96.355292.

Sunset at U-Bein Bridge

As one of Myanmar’s most iconic attractions, U-Bein (the world’s longest teak bridge) can hardly be classified as 'wild'. But for the quintessential Burmese sunset, it’s second to none. And the best way to experience it is – you guessed it – from the water. At the western bank of Taungthaman Lake you can rent a boat for K10-15,000 that will take you right up to the bridge for your very own classic Myanmar sunset snap. Boats book up early, so arrive around lunchtime to avoid disappointment.

Make it happen 30-40 minutes from Mandalay. Year-round, though the blazing summer months (March-May) turn the lake quite marshy.

Nuns pass by the enormous unfinished monument of Mingun Paya
Nuns pass by the enormous Mingun Paya. The cracks were caused by an 1838 earthquake © Dominic Horner / Lonely Planet

Irrawaddy cruise to Mingun

Envisioned as the world’s tallest stupa, Mingun Paya’s construction was halted upon king Bodawpaya’s death 200 years ago, leaving the still toweringly tall pagoda base unfinished. Completed or not, it remains impressively imposing. A stone’s throw away is the Mingun bell (which can be climbed under and into) and the blinding-white Myatheindan Pagoda – all this set along a rustic beach-like embankment on the Irrawaddy.

Make it happen There’s a daily K5000 ferry that leaves from Mayan Chan Jetty at 9am (get there by 8.30am) and heads back to Mandalay at 12.30pm. For a more flexible schedule you can rent a large private boat for K35,000. This not only allows for valuable meandering time around Mingun, but with some forward planning can provide a very special experience indeed: your very own sunset cruise down the Irrawaddy. By road it's an hour from Mandalay. Entry is K5000 and you can visit year round.

A group pose at the bottom of Whak Kar falls
Enjoying one of the many swimming holes at Whak Kar falls © Dominic Horner / Lonely Planet

Pools aplenty at Whak Kar falls

Just fifteen minutes down the road from Dee Doke, Whak Kar is often overlooked in favour of its shimmering neighbour. But while it doesn’t boast the same instant wow-factor as its sister fall, Whak Kar does provide something else: variety. A wild-water smorgasbord of picturesque streams, tree-jumps, man-made ponds and dramatic cascading falls, it’s a real treat.

Make it happen 80 minutes from Mandalay. Go June-October – Whak Kar is open for business year-round but by December/January half the pools are dried out. Entry is K1000. GPS coordinates: 21.759424, 96.335311.

A man takes in the view at the Eight Floor waterfall
Taking in the view at the Eight Floor Waterfall © Dominic Horner / Lonely Planet

Climbing the Eight Floor Waterfall

This monsoon-only waterfall rewards the intrepid. The higher you climb, the more impressive it gets. It’s fun to explore the canopy-shrouded base of the falls but to get to the really good stuff you’ve got to climb the mountain. The trail to the upper floors is a proper workout but you’ll be rewarded with fantastic views, pristine waters and increasingly stunning natural pools.

Make it happen One hour from Mandalay. Go June-October. GPS coordinates: Lashio highway turning 21.873606, 96.240479, base of the falls 21.871447, 96.282257.

The view over Seven Mile Beach takes in stalls, boats and the Dotehtawaddy River
Seven Mile Beach is packed with activities © Dominic Horner / Lonely Planet

Family fun at D-Garden Waterboom and Seven Mile Beach

D-Garden Waterboom advertises itself as a conventional water park with flumes, sprinklers, and a foam machine. But it has a festive energy that borders on the anarchic. That might have something to do with the music, which, in time-honoured Burmese tradition, is cranked up to ear-bleeding volumes.

Just up the road, on the banks of the Dotehtawaddy river, Seven Mile Beach is more mellow though just as overstuffed – you couldn’t get the kitchen sink in here if you tried. There’s an arcade, zip-lining, jet-skiing, a speedboat, a water trampoline, a caged Burmese python and a roped-off swimming area.

You can expect a uniquely Burmese (and potentially quite boozy) experience. It’s a great place to befriend locals and if you're travelling with kids this makes for a fun, if decidedly manic, family outing.

Make it happen One hour from Mandalay. Go November-April – the resorts remain open all year but for the full-on party atmosphere you should avoid the monsoon season (May-October). Entry is K1000.

White dust fills the air as workmen sand down a slab of alabaster in Sakyin
White dust fills the air as workmen sand down a slab of alabaster in Sakyin © Dominic Horner / Lonely Planet

The floodwaters of Sakyin

Sakyin (pronounced: Sah-gin) isn't really set up for tourists yet and its dusty charms won’t float everyone’s boat. But if you want to get off-grid and soak up a bit of Mother Nature, this has your name on it.

Sandwiched between horizon-hogging white alabaster mountains, this is one of the strangest towns in Myanmar: the entire community is given over to the mining, chiselling, carving and ornamenting of Buddhist statues. The sounds of drills and hammers fill the air, while everything and everyone is caked in a thick layer of white powder. It feels for all the world as if you’ve stepped into a bizarre alternative-reality Wild West town where the frontiersman have swapped their cowboy hats for bamboo coolies and their pistols for power tools.

The monsoon downpours flood the surrounding plains, upgrading Sakyin from a quirky curio to a wild swimmer’s paradise on a freshwater inland ocean. You’ll need to put a bit of initiative into this but it’s possible to hire a boat to take you out onto the water for breathtaking views of the mountains.

Make it happen 90 minutes from Mandalay. Go mid-June to mid-October. You can visit the town itself anytime but if you arrive outside of monsoon season you can forget about the boat trip. GPS coordinates: 22.288531, 96.071016.

Wild swimming safety and etiquette

  • Always check water depth before jumping
  • Wear shoes at all times
  • At each of these swimming holes you’re sure to find plenty of locals splashing around and you’ll notice that a good number of them (including all of the women), will be fully clothed. For female travellers, while you’re unlikely to be reproached, wearing a t-shirt and shorts over your bikini is probably a good move. For men, trunks, and even briefs, are fine.
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