So what are those all-important first impressions? The Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel appears to be wilfully hiding its light under a bushel. Or behind palm trees, bougainvillea and other assorted tropical foliage. Turning off the dusty roads of Mandalay, the new arrival is greeted by a rather generic looking hotel, albeit one fronted with an expansive porch that incorporates traditional Myanmese designs and colours.
Things take a distinct turn for the better in the lobby – in which golds, ruby reds and traditional stonework are employed liberally – but it is not until the visitor gets beyond the impressive pool and multi-storey pagoda to the rear of the main building that the luxury senses are stimulated.
Amid 12 acres of manicured parkland and behind high walls, the Mandalar Villa is opulence itself, and so agrees its en-suite spa.
Location, location, location? Just north of the red-stone walls of the fortress that surrounds the Mandalay Palace, the resort sprawls between a golf course, the site of the racecourse at the time of empire, and the lively Kyauktawgyi Paya Buddhist temple. But it is the backdrop that steals the show. From the rear boundary of the hotel, Mandalay Hill begins a gradual rise to the golden stupa that crowns the peak.
It’s admittedly not an especially epic geographic landmark, but the view from the top over the flat river plain is worth the 40-minute hike.
What’s the competition like? Limited. Mandalay has sights to see, but it is more of a backpackers’ stopping-off point for more adventurous parts of northern Myanmar. Hostels and budget properties predominate, giving the Mandalay Hill Resort something of a clear run at the upper end of the market.
With democracy coming to the country and more well-heeled travellers looking for destinations that are off the beaten path, expect the international chains to catch on to the city’s appeal sooner rather than later.
After a hot and dusty day sightseeing, can one get a drink? I thought you would never ask ... Despite not actually making it this far up the Irrawaddy River, Rudyard Kipling wrote the most famous homage to this city, The Road to Mandalay (1890). It is appropriate that the hotel bar is named after the poet who arguably put the city on the map and the gentleman’s club atmosphere of Kipling’s Bar is designed to recapture the aura of empire, circa 1890s.
The bar area may be more Myanmar glitzy gold and red, but the seating area is all wood-panelled walls, deep sofas and wing-back armchairs, in which daytime patrons can sample a traditional English high tea – finger sandwiches, scones and fruit tartlets – or wait for the sun to be over the yard arm.
The drinks menu is liberally splashed with lines about drinking from some of Kipling’s most famous works, including The Man Who Was (1890), Letters From the East (1890) and Kim (1900). The bar has a selection of local wines from the Inle Lake area of Shan State, including a good 2015 rose at US$40 a bottle. A more contemporary glassed-in cigar room overlooks the gardens.
What are the dining options? Glen Campbell has his place, but it’s not Mandalay. Background music excepted, though, the ground-floor Yadanabon Cafe is perfectly adequate, with breakfast buffets that offer local and international dishes. Of an evening, the hotel lights up a barbecue and sets up a buffet in the Kinsana Garden Theatre. Myanmese, Chinese and Thai cuisine is served for dinner in the impressive surroundings of Ming’s Asian Kitchen.
Did you sleep well? Excellently! My corner deluxe was spacious and airy, with stunning views of the Irrawaddy to the west and Mandalay Hill to the north, where the golden stupa is picked out in spotlights all night long. It rather paled against the Mandalar Villa, of course, where the panelled walls, traditional gold-detailed carvings, spa treatment rooms, a vast soaking tub, steam room and garden shower, work their magic.
What’s the damage? A double superior room starts at a reasonable US$240 per night while the executive suite won’t break the bank either, at US$550. The Mandalar Villa can be yours for US$1,380 a night.