Published on April 9th, 2013 | by Simon

The Road to Mandalay

Back in 1890, a young 24 year-old named Rudyard Kipling was making his way back to England from India when his ship made an unscheduled stop in Moulmein, the previous capital of British Burma. He was reportedly so impressed by the looks and confidence of the Burmese women he saw that he was motivated to write ‘The Road to Mandalay‘. As the city was many hundreds of miles inland, he had never actually visited the place but it embodied all that was exotic about Asia in the minds of his British audience.

Even now you cannot walk more than a kilometre without bumping into yet another bright gold stupa, but the city has grown into a large metropolis. So you need to be lucky and chance upon a festival of some sort to capture the old flavour. This is one such where a male child is accepted into a monastery as a novice for a limited period. He may then stay for life or exit again in a few weeks but hopefully with a better understanding of Buddhist teachings. This is something of a contest between families to present the best costumes – based on old royal fashions. It’s worth remembering that a long plaid skirt or longhi is common dress for most Myanmar men, though the elaborate makeup which makes the whole thing look quite effeminate to Western eyes, is not.

Every family is expected to give one son to a monastery for life, though with half a million monks in a population of fifty million, I’d guess many families just can’t make such a sacrifice. Once in the monastery, the regime is strict. One meal a day at about 11am, though the rice, vegetables, and chicken curry I saw looked pretty good, even if the cooking methods dated back a century or so. All monks survive by begging for alms and as the giving is a blessed activity, there is a daily lineup of the 1,000 living here – novices and youngest first. It does seem strange that the visiting Thais are offering them packaged foods, but I guess they get used or resold.

Looking at the weight of some of the more senior monks, and the fashion options available to them (as long as it’s a shade of ocre), I’d say they have a liberal interpretation of some of their vows. That said, the people take religion very seriously, and the pagodas are always full. Many have sellers of offerings in open shops at the entry walkways. But this one was for monks and the seller took great care folding the robes with a ruler to bash the fabric flat and make sure the folded dimensions were exactly the same every time – not that he got it wrong the whole time I was watching him.

Mandalay is a strange contrast of modernity and struggling infrastructure. Many of the hotels sport neon that would not be out of place in Vegas, but there are four or more power cuts every day which makes the hotel’s generator quite welcome. And there is almost no street lighting, making nightly expeditions quite risky given the holes in the roads (there are no pavements worth risking). Not to mention the unlit bikes that may get a bit too close for comfort. The road from the airport is a huge four lane highway which is almost completely empty. The odd roundabout and 90 degree turn add interest as did a small contest with an ox cart on one such roundabout as my taxi reckoned without an ox cart having a rudimentary braking system.

As always there is the produce market (ZayCho Market) which is huge. On my way somewhere by taxi one day, the driver pointed out the very first western-style supermarket – just recently opened. I hope they keep using the markets – the food looks fresher, cheaper, and without wasteful packaging. Even the displays compete – here a seller of the betel leaves used to make ‘pan’ the betel leaf/areca nut chewy wrap that produces the bright red spit which decorates the streets.

Every pagoda has its own unique feature – some an overwhelming number. But one of the most atmospheric is the Mahamuni. 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 the Mahamuni Buddha. Given its importance, tissue thin gold leaf has been applied to the image over the years (by men only) to the point where it is estimated to be now 6 inches thick. What is reported is that when in 1884 the pagoda burned to the ground and the image was destroyed, some 90 kilos (200 pounds) of gold was recovered. This is not the only monumental buddha image. In the Kyauktawgyi Pagoda there is a giant seated buddhe, carved from one piece of marble. It is said that some 150  years ago it took 10,000 men nearly two weeks to cart it from the Irrawaddy River to the pagoda which is perhaps 3 kilometres away…

Talking of the Irrawaddy River, this giant artery is till about a kilometre wide some 700kms upstream from the Bay of Bengal. Until  very recent times it was the only practical route inland and even now is a major transportation method for the big and heavy stuff. Then it’s down to some very ancient trucks to complete delivery. I first saw these in China about 3 decades ago. Now China has the wealth to afford an upgrade, they have sold these workhorses to Burma. The Burmese affectionately call it ‘The Chinese Buffalo’.

One of the advantages of eating alone across the river in Sagaing was the ability to eavesdrop on fellow diners. On this occasion it was a group of four French tourists with their young female Burmese guide. As the guide spoke English, the exchange was lengthy, involving much translation, and so pretty easy to follow. One Frenchman was quite pushy in his attempts to get the guide to admit that the goverment prior to the recent relaxations of control, was totally venal. I’m not sure what drives people to do this (more often than you would think), but I find it a very impolite form of cultural superiority if the topic hasn’t been introduced by the person whose country you are criticising. Anyway, in amongst this exchange, the Burmese guide came out with one telling observation and one astounding assertion.

She said – “We’ve been told we have freedom, and yes, we can buy mobile phones, and use ATMs, and we have more tourists, but we don’t understand what freedom means”. Nobody can identify the real causes of the sectarian violence that has broken out between Buddhists and Moslems, but concern about an ethnic minority is prone to wild exaggeration and effectively distracts people from the real issues. And this can easily be driven by misinformation. As the Burmese guide said –
“There are too many Moslems, they think they are superior after they come back from Mecca, and they worship pigs”.
Yes, we all stopped talking and wondered if we had heard that correctly. We had! As she had been told (by who knows what agent provocateur), Buddhists eat all kinds of food, but Moslems do not eat pork because the pig is holy and pigs are what they worship – they have no god. Now this is an educated English-speaking guide… I only hope the explanations offered by the French convinced her otherwise.

I was now in Inwa, one of the ancient capitals outside Mandalay, things took a further time-warp and the transport on offer was simply horse and cart. It was remarkably peaceful and matched the old crumbling atmosphere of the temples which, to my eye, seemed more akin to those in Cambodia. Even the longest teak bridge in the world is showing some signs of wear and tear!


And as an end to a magical Mandalay day, these nuns were looking very fashion forward while collecting donations door to door exactly opposite my hotel.

Click on map for large image (courtesy of Smart Hotel)


Please take a look at all the images from Mandalay here.


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