The lay of the land can be a great tell about a people just like a first view of Myanmar on a sunset landing.
Mandalay | Mandalay State | Myanmar (Burma)
The flat land around Mandalay had thickets of bulbous trees, winding rivers and parched sandy embankments; there were ponds and oblong fields stitched in with trees and bushes.
But it’s the temples and pagodas that stand out. Their vertical golden spindles are omnipresent, and looking down from the plane in the pink sunset-light, they shimmered, glinted and winked in an electric, neon gold, outdoing the beauty of the land with the help of the day’s last light.
These gold pinnacles weren’t just occasional, they were everywhere, sprinkled generously on hills, on the flat suburbia of Mandalay, sitting there in their perfect ornate rings of gold and pastilles.
Myanmar’s devotion to her Buddhist faith was spectacularly and eye-catchingly apparent even before we had even touched down.
Where’s the inconvenience?
Contrary to my expectations, things were easy on arrival. The airport had lines of gleaming lit-up ATMs, and counters for 4G tourist SIM cards. Gone are the days when tourists had to carry wads of pristine, unfolded and unmarked dollar notes. Gone are the days when Myanmar’s ATMs didn’t accept foreign bank cards and some places wouldn’t even accept their own currency, the kyat. Go figure.
Everything in our first few nights in Myanmar felt so normal, so convenient. Our hotel about three miles from the centre, was a relatively comfy place, that played Bryan Adams and the theme to Titanic at breakfast and served coco pops that even made the milk chocolatey. It all felt so familiar.
Myanmar’s moving on, and now is a great time to visit it; the tourist conveniences are happening and yet she’s still off the beaten track of hordes of tourists. I was expecting a little more inconvenience from Myanmar, cancelled flights, ATMS out of order, a dearth of taxis, having to fill in forms or show your passport for any activity including sneezing; these were hassles we thankfully never found.
We had a favourite restaurant that served great food, Burmese, Chinese, Thai, played rock, served draft beer and accepted card.!And when we tired of eastern cuisine, yes we went to the KFC next to the hotel for chicken wings, maxed fries and huge Fantas.
But there were hints that this wasn’t quite Bangkok which we had just left, when we had browsed its bright and airy shopping malls and watched Aladdin in a multi-plex. The Mandalay Airport electricity cut out, the luggage carousel froze and for a few seconds the entire airport was suspended in blackness; it was only a matter of seconds though, and the light soon returned.
We spent three days exploring Mandalay, a sprawling flat-as-a-pancake city, visiting its pagodas, climbing Mandalay hill, ambling its ancient moated city and watching its puppets and people at Marionette shows, and at the jade market.
Before I arrived the name Mandalay evoked for me a certain romanticism, of ornate carved teak palaces of elephants strolling on wide open lawns. In reality the city is not pretty, it’s a huge series of wide intersections where roads are named by numbers, and it’s not particularly pedestrian-friendly either with its occasional broken and missing paving stones, expose booby-traps of the brackish water underneath. But taxis and tuk-tuks are plentiful and cheap and getting around is easy. And on the plus side for pedestrians, the traffic is conformist, and traffic lights are generally well respected.
“I get knocked down but I get up again…”
Mandalay was made the royal capital in 1857, the previous capital having been dismantled and brought over by elephants. By the time the British had won the final Anglo-Burmese war and arrived, they shifted the capital down to Yangon.
Mandalay’s sprawl is a result of the Japanese bombing in the Second World War (60% of its houses were destroyed) so today nearly all the structures are modern.
Even the moated royal city, which was the final royal city before the Brits came and told the king and queen to kindly leave, or words to that effect, was recreated in the 1990s because the allies had bombed it in the Second World War as the Japanese had used it to store provisions.
Today it is the Chinese who are rebuilding central Mandalay. Many players, it seems, have had a part to play in either building up or knocking down this place.
A visit to the jade market of Mandalay
Since colonial times, Myanmar has been famous for its mining of rubies, sapphires and jade.
Sarah and I were keen to visit the jade market in Mandalay, where rows and rows of gem traders, bright torches in hand, wait to sell their jade stones, all lined up in trays or in huge slabs of rock striated with veins of rich green and white.
It’s a labyrinthine place, of alleys of dust and noise, its floors dotted randomly with betel nut spit; there are shops and eateries, small bars and people playing pool or carom.
The people at the jade market are mainly men. Away from business, it all looked distinctly like the men were enjoying themselves, sometimes too much, in a relaxed and slightly raucous environment, gambling with cards and conch shells, staring intently with cigarettes dripping from their lips.
The market is a socialising area, you can feel that vibe in abundance. I can just imagine some Mandalayan man telling his wife ‘just going down the jade market love,’ raising her expectations of a shiny green present, but all ending in him playing pool, having beers with his mates, getting home late and going straight in the dog-house.
It was worth going to the jade market just to people-watch, because in the euphoria of the buying and selling, and people unwinding, people come together and just be their unselfconscious selves.
In the evening the streets of Mandalay are on a dimmer switch; the street lights aren’t that powerful and are quite sparse in places. It gives the night a medieval feel. We took a tuk-tuk in this half-light to the Myanmar Marionettes show.
Myanmar has a rich 500 year old history of marionettes, which died down over the years and this little theatre is trying to keep the dying form alive. They had a little orchestra to which the puppets came on stage and danced, there were horses and people and their movements were agile and supple and quiet lifelike. It was a lovely evening.
U Bein: The longest wooden bridge in the world
In the suburbs of Mandalay is a bridge of teak, 1.2 kilometres long, to where Mandalayans in their relaxed, recreational selves throng.
It’s rather a special bridge because it dates from 1850, and is considered to be the longest wooden bridge in the world. More importantly, it occupies a special place in the hearts of the locals and at sunsets you are treated to seeing a cross-section of them chilling out.
The people of Mandalay traverse this bridge with a slow amble; the wooden slats are a little uneven meaning you have to watch your steps and there are no hand-rails; but anyway, it’s evening and people are relaxed; it’s a promenade and there’s a distinct feel of being at the seaside, what with the food stalls, the sandy embankments, the boats ferrying people on the lake and the horse and cart hires.
The ambiance on the bridge is worth absorbing well before sunset; whole families chat and laugh together; cool teenagers with their bleach blonde mop-tops and ripped jeans listen to music on their phones; secret teenage sweethearts seek some quiet time to whisper sweet-nothings; Buddhist monks in their elegant maroon robes traipse thoughtfully across the slats.
I got chatting to an elderly bespectacled monk as we watched the sun set from a bench on the bridge. He spoke perfect English and his narrative was full of hope for the country; he mentioned how beautiful the Myanmarese are; how he felt the country was improving since the return of democracy especially in rural areas. He told me about his life of early starts and meditating five times a day (one hour a go) and an evening walk along this bridge every day at sunset.
We spent three days in Mandalay and then took an early morning flight, empty except for 5 other people (I told you now is a good time to visit) to Bagan; we had been introduced to urban Myanmar, but next came a place that would prove to be truly special.
This post is part of the series called 90 Days in South East Asia about our travels in India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia and Malaysia in March to June 2019, and was written on-the-road.