The romance of Mandalay lies in its ancient traditions, customs and charming locals. Revel in its beauty and take home memories of a city standing still in time.
Words & Photography: Ira de Reuver
Mandalay. There is certainly a romantic ring to it. It was Rudyard Kipling who wrote the poem Mandalay, later used by musician Oley Speaks to compose the very popular song On the Road to Mandalay in 1907. But, as I make my way to this city, it’s the Robbie Williams’ song The Road to Mandalay that rings in my mind. I hope this city will live up to its reputation.
Mandalay is the economic hub of upper Myanmar and has long held great importance as a cultural centre. Established in 1857, the nation’s second largest city was once the royal capital of the last independent Burmese kingdom before the British took over. In 1885, the conquering British forced King Thibaw and his Queen Supayalat into exile. Ratanapunja was the ancient name of the city, and its current name derives from Mandalay Hill, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city.
Hypnotic Buddhist chanting from the loudspeakers of the monasteries awakens me early in the morning. Outside, as I watch the city come to life, I catch sight of monks and nuns traversing barefoot the streets from house to house. They carry alms bowls, while families and shop owners graciously donate rice, food or money for merit-making. Mandalay is a mosaic of Buddhist monasteries where crimson robed monks and pink robed nuns paint the streets with colour. A friendly monk tells me about the quiet beauty of Shwe in Bin Kyaung (translated as ‘golden monastery’), a small monastery housing only a few monks. Meandering through the maze of streets, I locate the compound of the monastery, where the scent of ripening mangoes welcomes me.
A peaceful haven tucked away from the bustling street, a young monk by the name of U Suzaya offers to show me around. He explains, “Shwe in Bin Kyaung monastery was founded in 1895, when two wealthy Chinese merchants commissioned talented craftsmen to build this monastery, made completely of teakwood. Myanmar is renowned for its woodcarving and this monastery is a great place to appreciate the exquisite quality of this art. Seldom crowded, admission is free at this monastery. U Suzaya tells me that there are many monasteries in Mandalay. “As Mandalay is the centre of Buddhist learning, monasteries located in the city are the most important in the whole country,” he explains.
Stupas and Pagodas
The next morning a trishaw driver named Kyaw Kyaw is waiting for me in front of my hotel, greeting me with a big smile and Mingalarbar – the Myanmarese version for ‘Hello’. He pedals me to the river jetty for a visit to Mingun. Mingun is one of the four old towns surrounding Mandalay. The 45-minute trip by a special tourist boat is pleasant and comfortable, insists Kyaw Kyaw. I sit down on the boat and I completely agree with him. As I sink into a comfortable bamboo chair, I gaze at life along the Ayeyarwaddy River while enjoying the breeze and warming sun. The massive stupa, Mingun Pahtodawgyi, comes in sight. It is the first landmark I see when the boat approaches Mingun. After getting off the boat, a dirt road leads the way to Mingun’s tourist sites.
King Bodawpaya commissioned the stupa in 1790, but sadly, it was never completed after an astrologer claimed the king would die if the stupa were finished. In 1838 it was severely damaged by an earthquake and huge cracks remain as silent reminders of that disaster. You can climb to the top of the stupa to enjoy superb views across the river. Further up along the road is the largest functioning and undamaged bell in the world, weighing as much as 90 tonnes. Continuing along the dirt road lined with tea and souvenir shops, the beautiful white Myatheindan Pagoda suddenly appears. This pagoda was built in 1816 by Bodawpaya’s grandson Bagyidaw and he dedicated this pagoda to Princess Hsinbyume.