All the way to Mandalay

A day of dis­cov­er­ies in the for­mer royal cap­i­tal

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Asia - CHRISTINE McCABE

Ap­par­ently Rud­yard Ki­pling never made it to Mandalay. If he had, surely he would’ve still pre­ferred Ran­goon (now Yan­gon), Burma’s colo­nial cap­i­tal and home to plenty of pukka com­forts.

In Ge­orge Or­well’s Burmese Days, our flawed hero Flory writes of the joy of “those Ran­goon trips” vis­it­ing Smart and Mook­er­dum’s to stock up on the lat­est nov­els and have din­ner at An­der­son’s “with beef­steaks and but­ter that had trav­elled eight thou­sand miles on ice”. In Mandalay, the last royal cap­i­tal of to­day’s Myan­mar, our quest for a book­store ends in a hole in the wall sell­ing mostly toys and a very tiny se­lec­tion of nov­els so dusty and out of date that Flory would have been forced to leave empty handed.

While pan­cake-flat Mandalay lacks Yan­gon’s colo­nial charm, just say­ing its name evokes a spe­cial magic. Down­town streets are dom­i­nated by unin­spir­ing con­crete build­ings (two huge fires in the 1980s de­stroyed many of the city’s tra­di­tional tim­ber struc­tures), but here and there you’ll find a wonky shut­tered tim­ber house, and be­hind small shopfronts peo­ple toil in 19th-cen­tury work­shops, hand-beat­ing gold leaf with enor­mous ham­mers or weav­ing silk on clack­ing looms.

Get­ting around the neatly laid out grids is far swifter than traf­fic-choked Yan­gon and get­ting your bear­ings is easy. Just look for Mandalay Hill; a bare­foot climb up the cov­ered walk­way with monks and pil­grims is es­sen­tial and pro­vides a great over­view of the city. At the foot of this climb, Mandalay Hill Re­sort makes a good base, pro­vid­ing ready ac­cess to the at­trac­tions of the city. Gue­strooms are large, but more three than five-star, and there’s a very pleas­ant gar­den restau­rant with satay and curry sta­tions, host­ing an evening cul­tural show. Be­yond the large pool you’ll find a jun­gle-style day spa; a spot of nim­ble hop­ping across river stones is re­quired to ac­cess the palm-sur­rounded spa bun­ga­lows but the mas­sages are ex­cel­lent.

Fol­low­ing nine days on a group cruise, I fancy a bit of free­wheel­ing so ask ho­tel re­cep­tion to or­gan­ise a taxi for a few hours. Tay Zar ar­rives spot on time in a shiny new air-con­di­tioned car. He speaks good English, knows the city in­side out and makes the per­fect im­promptu guide. We ex­plore “royal” Mandalay first, in­clud­ing the im­pres­sive old palace citadel, sur­rounded by a 70m moat and al­most 6.5km of crenel­lated brick walls. The palace grounds can only be viewed from the street or foot­path; the com­plex was razed dur­ing World War II and now serves as a mil­i­tary can­ton­ment, closed to the public. Nearby is a 1990s re­con­struc­tion of the royal palace, a com­plex of 40 tim­ber build­ings gilded and brightly painted. Don’t miss Kutho­daw Pagoda, again at the foot of Mandalay Hill, hous­ing 729 in­scribed mar­ble slabs, each in its own stupa, con­sti­tut­ing the “world’s big­gest book”.

We make a quick stop at Koffee Korner, a popular cafe that looks and feels a bit Cold War but serves fan­tas­tic fresh smooth­ies and ex­trav­a­gantly pre­sented lat­tes. Be sure to drop by the Zay Cho city mar­kets, a won­der­ful, mote-flecked labyrinth crowded with stalls cheek by jowl, goods stacked 1m high on tee­ter­ing shelves; the nar­row laneways are crowded with trays of spices, bolts of silk and a jumble of house­hold wares. Tay Zar sug­gests lunch at Ko’s Kitchen, serv­ing good, very cheap Thai food in a quaint old build­ing. Over my larb and freshly squeezed pineap­ple juice, I wit­ness one of the more cu­ri­ous idio­syn­cra­sies of trav­el­ling in Myan­mar, as staff refuse to ac­cept US dol­lars from a Bri­tish fam­ily be­cause the notes are con­sid­ered too old, crum­pled and “dirty”. While US cur­rency is widely ac­cepted, you’ll need to be sure your stash of green­backs is brand new, or at the very least, laun­dered and ironed.

Af­ter lunch, we head down to the river and the bustling fish mar­kets, where ven­dors crowd the foot­paths and small shanty towns have been erected on the river flats. Dur­ing the wet sea­son ev­ery­one moves up to the street, says Tay Zar. In this part of town, the nar­row, un­paved streets are lined with hig­gledy-pig­gledy houses and feel more like old Mandalay and less like a sub­urb of the pro­vin­cial city that it’s fast be­com­ing (more than a third of the pop­u­la­tion now hails from China).

Mandalay sprawls al­most all the way to Amara­pura, an­other for­mer royal cap­i­tal and worth vis­it­ing just to see the rather won­der­ful 19th-cen­tury U Bein Bridge, a 1.2km teak span cross­ing Taungthaman Lake. A busy thor­ough­fare, even to­day, the spindly bridge stands on about 1000 tall teak posts sal­vaged from a for­mer palace and is crowded with ven­dors sell­ing slices of wa­ter­melon and elab­o­rate jew­ellery fash­ioned from the fruit’s seeds. It’s a good place to grab a cold beer from one of the lake­front kiosks and sit and watch the world go by.

The large Ma­ha­gan­dayon Monastery, home to more than 1000 monks, is an­other popular stop. Dozens of tourists gather at 10.30am ev­ery day to watch the monks queue for lunch (do­nated and served from vast vats by the city’s great and good). A large dig­i­tal clock, five min­utes fast, counts down to ser­vice be­fore the monks file past, eyes down­cast. It feels very in­tru­sive but I would rec­om­mend vis­it­ing the hellishly hot kitchens where barech­ested cooks stoke the huge fires and rat­tle siz­zling, cart­wheel-size woks.

Aus­tralian vis­i­tors cruis­ing Myan­mar’s Aye­yarwady River will gen­er­ally com­mence or end their voy­age in Mandalay, still con­sid­ered the coun­try’s cul­tural cap­i­tal, and it makes the per­fect book­end to bustling Yan­gon.

Christine McCabe was a guest of Cruiseco aboard the new Cruiseco Ex­plorer.

Monks out­side Kutho­daw Pagoda, left, at the foot of Mandalay Hill; bril­liant colours of busy Mandalay mar­ket, above; and 19th­cen­tury U-Bein teak bridge cross­ing Taungthaman Lake, be­low

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