Mandalay, the last royal capital of Burma, is Myanmar’s second largest city and the center of Burmese culture and Buddhism. Yet while the word “Mandalay” may evoke the splendors of the Burma of old, many are surprised to learn that Mandalay is the furthest thing from an ancient city. It is actually quite a young and dynamic metropolis, marked by its cultural diversity and neat British urban planning filled with hoards of bicycles and motorcycles. Even its palaces are relatively new. Most of its original late-19th century splendor was destroyed by the Allies during World War II, only to be replaced with modernized reconstructions.

Today, Mandalay plays its cards well as the epicenter of commercial trade in Upper Myanmar. Its growing trade prosperity with bordering China and India has created quite the bustling atmosphere that can sometimes—at first glance—overshadow its cultural charms. But the madness of the city is just a ruse, constantly interrupted by a series of beautiful pagodas, striking churches, Indian temples, and notable mosques lurking around each corner. The fascination of Mandalay continues within one of its many traditional silk and cotton weaving workshops and it concludes atop one of its iconic palaces and pagodas. The temple-topped city reveals numerous monasteries and more than 700 pagodas, including the regal teak Shwei-in-bin Monastery, the famous Shwenandaw (Golden) Monastery, the elaborate white marbled Kuthodaw Pagoda, popularly known as “the World’s Biggest Book” for its stone scriptures, and the crowning royal achievement that is the Mandalay Palace.

But for all of the pagodas and nearby daytrips to destinations like the “Beautiful Town” of Amarapura, the grand “unfinished” Pathodawgyi pagoda, and the Buddha footprints in Mingun, the culmination of any journey to Mandalay resides in the perspective. Many opt to finish their days in Mandalay with an ascent to the top of Mandalay Hill for a bird’s eye sunset view of the city sprawl and interactions with the young monks who are always quick to practice their English. Yet Ker & Downey does one better with the offering of hot air balloon rides over the city, a totally different view of the city and the Irrawaddy River, the veritable “Road to Mandalay”.