On The Road To Mandalay

“No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay . . . “
Rudyard Kipling, ‘Mandalay’

To be honest I’m not sure why we chose to go to Mandalay. The name just conjured up some romantic notions of a bygone age, of Kipling and Orwell – or was it Nellie The Elephant? – and I just felt it had to be done. Sometimes you just have to let those whims have their way. Mind you, Kipling didn’t. Despite writing the poem Mandalay he never actually got there. It mustn’t have been a very good road.

Nowadays Mandalay is a mere one hour’s flight from Yangon. And there is an immediate and apparent difference between Yangon and Mandalay. Whereas Yangon is characterised by its vibrancy and chaos, but also by its creaking state of decline and disrepair, Mandalay immediately appears more orderly, modern and wealthier. We’re not talking huge affluence here – there is still rank poverty – but if Yangon is falling down, Mandalay is growing up.

That said, there is still a delightful lack of hard-sell amongst the local Mandalayers (if that is what they’re called). A visit to the gold-pounders district involves watching three bronzed Burmese fellers, their longyis stripped to the waist, rhythmically hammering the gold leaf. But there’s no charge for visiting the workshop, and although we’re invited into the store to buy some souvenirs, the pressure to buy is refreshingly modest, to say the least.

There’s also a pleasing lack of tourists at the equally pleasing Shwe In Bin Kyaung, a traditional teak building built in 1895 by Chinese jade merchants. Its tiered roof, balustrades, walls and cornices are covered in exquisite carvings. The complex is now home to around thirty monks and their presence no doubt contributes to the peaceful and serene atmosphere of the place. It’s virtually free of tourists, totally free of touts, and free of the gold and glitter that prettifies so many Buddhist temples. It’s a beautiful, tranquil and relaxing place.

But a visit to the Mahamuni Paya temple reveals why all that gold leaf is required. This is a sacred spot. Ancient tradition refers to only five likenesses of the Buddha made during his lifetime; two were in India, two in paradise, and the fifth is here. It is highly venerated in Burma and central to many people’s lives. The inner walls of the complex are entirely covered in gold leaf. And at the centre is a large seated Buddha, to which so much gold leaf has been added by the male-only devotees that much of the statue’s definition has been lost, some features now completely indiscernible. The face remains untouched and the teeth are lovingly cleaned by the monks at 4am every morning. All that gold leaf, contrasted with the deep red floor tiles, creates some stunning colours in the afternoon sun (go to gallery).

Mahamuni Paya is the complete opposite to Shwe In Bin Kyaung, yet they are both magical in their own way. And there’s more to come…

U Bein Bridge as the sun sets

Situated eleven kilometres south of Mandalay, Amarapura is one of Myanmar’s former capitals, and the site of world’s oldest and longest teak footbridge, the U Bein Bridge. It’s a remarkably simple looking structure, with 1,089 teak posts carrying a teak-plank walkway 3,967 feet across the shallow Taungthaman Lake. Part of its attraction lies in the fact that it remains a central part of the community, with hundreds of locals and saffron-robed monks walking their bicycles home along it, and fishermen going to work in the waters beneath. Oh, and the tourists.

Pots and kettles – we are tourists ourselves. But we are not package tourists. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy apparently advocate independent travel as there is a higher chance of the wealth being spread around the country and a greater proportion of it ending up in the hands of local operators, drivers and restaurants. A larger slice of the package tour revenues ends up in the hands of the government. So that’s my conscience cleared.

Anyway, we join the tourists, package and independent alike, locals, monks and all, to take the stroll across the bridge, enjoy a beer in a restaurant on the far side overlooking the lake, and then take a boat out onto the lake. We questioned whether the boat was the done thing as no one else seemed to be doing it, but as the sunset approaches, there is an entire flotilla on the water, all neatly lined up to ensure that everyone has a perfect view of the sunset. And the camera shutters go crazy. It may well be the world’s oldest and longest teak footbridge and I suspect it may also be the most photographed.

And deservedly so because it truly is gorgeous as we’re treated to a perfect silhouette of the bridge against the orange sky. Absolutely gorgeous.

The following morning and we’re up early, of course, this time for a boat ride eleven kilometres up the Irrawaddy to Mingun, a small riverside village with a disproportionate number of unique pagodas. The word disproportionate may also be applied to Mingun Paya. Had it ever been finished it would have been the world’s largest stupa at 150 metres high. But it wasn’t completed, due to an astrologer claiming that, once the temple was finished, the King would die. I fancy that he simply couldn’t be arsed with it anymore. Given the size of it, the workers must have been mightily relieved to be able to stop.

Only the bottom third was built, but that is still gargantuan in itself. The bottom third of a stupa is basically the pedestal, so the monument we visit today is essentially an enormous square pile of bricks, albeit a very impressive pile of bricks. It’s made more dramatic by a couple of huge cracks caused by an earthquake which render the whole thing looking rather unstable. That same earthquake also toppled two huge lions which would have graced the entrance to the paya. Only the haunches now remain but if what remains are just the haunches, the completed lions would have been beyond colossal. The whole thing is so big that the failure to bring it to completion makes it something of a grand folly.

The earthquake-cracked pedestal of King Bodawpaya’s grand folly

King Bodawpaya also had a gigantic bell weighing ninety tons cast to go with his gigantic stupa, which is today the largest ringing bell in the world (is there any other kind of bell?). And finally there is Hsinbyume Paya, a stupa standing atop several gleaming whitewashed terraces, built in 1816 by Bodawpaya’s grandson on an altogether more sensible scale (go to gallery).

Back in Mandalay and there is just time for a quick visit to Mandalay Hill, for a view overlooking the city, one of the most striking things of which is the size of Mandalay Palace. With its two-by-two-kilometre wall it looks like it should be a must-see, but much of the grounds are off-limits, and by all accounts what little can be visited is not worth the effort. Even our guide and the hotel concierge discouraged us from going.

So while the Palace can be missed (at least I hope so), in the tranquil Shwe In Bin Kyaung, the devotional Mahamuni Paya, the beautiful U Bein Bridge and the magnificent folly of Mingun Paya, Mandalay has more than enough to keep anyone busy for a couple of days. Kipling should have made more of an effort.

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