All the way to Mandalay
A day of discoveries in the former royal capital
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quest for a bookstore ends in a hole in the wall selling mostly toys and a very tiny selection of novels so dusty and out of date that Flory would have been forced to leave empty handed.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