On the road to Mandalay, where the flyin’ fishes play.

Rudyard Kipling

Mandalay is one of those exotic locations that inhabit the imagination.  In my case, I might even claim that the word itself was enough to inspire vivid daydreams of the far-flung corners of what was once the British Empire. Raised in post war Britain, with a goodly dollop of Rudyard Kipling, I was well into adulthood before I realised that ‘the road to Mandalay’, that old time musical hall hit, was the Ayeyarwady River, or, as it was known in Kipling’s time, the Irrawaddy.  Kipling visited Burma in 1890 so there were few roads and the only sensible way to travel from Rangoon (now Yangon) to Mandalay was by riverboat.

My first trip to Mandalay was with my friend, Enerys in 1999.  It’s 716 kilometres north of Yangon. Kway Zin Kywe drove us there in the priceless family car, studiously navigating every pothole.  The city lies in the flood plain of the Ayeyarwaddy River . From Sagaing, a sacred hill on the opposite side of the river, you get a good view of just how flat Mandalay is with Mandalay Hill seemingly a bump on the horizon.

 I well remember the noise of the city.  

 “The government only gives electricity for one hour a day,” I was told so enterprising shopkeepers and hoteliers generated their own.  The upshot was that walking down any street was a tenuous experience at best.  The generators, noisy beasts guzzling diesel, sat in the road and large cords snaked across the pavement.  Pavement is rather a grand word for the walkway, comprised of bits and pieces of concrete, lining the side of the road. One stumbled forth, executing Highland fling dance steps across the cords, trying not to stumble and end up nose first in the dust.

But I remember Mandalay with a great deal of fondness, not least because Kway Zin had an unerring nose for Shan (Thai) food and spearheaded expeditions across vast swathes of generator cords to reach his favourite restaurants.

I know we ‘did’ the major sites – sunset on Mandalay Hill (I was glad of the car) and the Royal Palace compound – but any images are on slide film buried in my basement.  We saw the mandatory sunset from Mandalay Hill and very nice it was too even though I have no photo to prove it.  But the Royal Palace was a bit of a letdown.  King Mindon founded Mandalay in 1857 when he moved his capital from Amarapura (now a suburb of Mandalay) and called it Yadanabon.  The king had the old palace at Amarapura dismantled and transported by elephants to the foot of Mandalay Hill.  The British conquered Upper Burma in 1885 and King Thibaw Min (son of King Mindon) and his Queen, Supayalat, were exiled to Ratnagiri in India.  This was an exciting time in Burmese history and you can read all about in in the novel The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh.  You can find a summary of this novel (and the history) in a previous blog post by clicking here. (Blog post 4 on Yangon).

The palace compound has four walls each 6,666 feet long – Buddhists see multiples of three as auspicious – with turrets with gold tipped spires every 555 feet.  The whole lot is surrounded by a moat that is 210 feet wide and fifteen feet deep.  Once again, I was glad of Kway Zin’s car.  There are three gates on each side and five bridge cross the moat.  The palace and other structures inside the compound were all wooden buildings and were destroyed by bombing in World War II.  When I visited in 1999, you could go inside the compound and see a model of the original buildings, not quite the palace of Amitav Ghosh’s novel.

On my next visit to Mandalay, Malcolm, the Brit with the nose for Chitty (Indian) food was with me.  I remember arriving by bus at midnight and being glad of Malcolm’s company as we negotiated a ride to find a hotel.  I recall climbing a steep flight of stairs to rooms on the first floor.  

The next morning provided me with one of those indelible scenes that eventually take up lodging in every traveller’s brain.  I came down the steep staircase to an arresting scene.  The lobby had been transformed into a restaurant – full of travellers enjoying the standard Myanmar breakfast – eggs – done anyway you like – but only eggs.  

The waiters were transfixed to the floor and all eyes were on a woman of a certain age (obviously American) who was screaming about the eggs.

“Always bloody eggs.  I’ve had it with the eggs.  Can’t you do something different” – a statement rather than a request. 

Here my memory draws a curtain over the scene but she probably flounced out while the waiters shuffled off to bring yet more eggs (with toast) for those of us caught descending the stairs.  In true Myanmar style, everybody politely ignored the outburst, and turned back to their eggs.  Only those who had nothing but eggs for breakfast for two or three weeks can truly appreciate the American woman’s agony – with probably too much sun and dust thrown in as well.

Yet I still recall Mandalay with a great deal of pleasure. There is plenty to see and experience in Mandalay itself and it makes for an excellent base for day trip to the surrounding areas.  In the next few posts, I will reveal the delights awaiting an adventurous traveller.  

The map (from Google Earth) gives an overview of the city and the surrounding towns.  You can locate the places I’ll write about including Mingun (Min Kun on the map), Amarapura, an ancient capital, U Bein’s Bridge , Ava (Inn Wa on the map) yet another ancient capital and, across the Ayeyarwaddy, Sagaing, considered to be a holy site and covered with temples and monasteries.

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