On the road to Mandalay, where the flyin’-fishes play, an’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay….
So wrote Rudyard Kipling in 1890, so struck by the beauty of Burmese girls, one in particular, that he put pen to paper, enshrining the city, and Burma, in literary history forever.
It’s fair to say then, that we had high expectations of Mandalay. Not just because of Kipling’s fabled verses, but for other reasons. It signalled the end of an unforgettable two weeks exploring this fascinating country and after beginning in bustling Yangon, and making our way to the more rural areas of Inle Lake and Bagan, it would be our second city experience. Yangon, for all its choking fumes, trip-inducing avenues lined by stall after stall after stall and swarms of people filing across the streets in all directions, had a strange kind of charm and soon had us hooked discovering the nuances of street life.
Arriving in Mandalay, we were eagerly awaiting a similar, colourful adventure, but our late afternoon flight meant it was dark before we could hit the streets. And dark Mandalay, with its lack of anything seemingly useful such as street lights, street signs and even a functioning pavement devoid of sewage filled potholes, was not welcoming to say the least. We trudged around the smelly streets for hours misguidedly trying to find a local bar recommended in our book, to no avail. But like all good travellers, we adapted to our surroundings and found a busy beer station in which to pull up a seat, and here’s where things in Mandalay started looking up for us.
Our skinny, moustachioed barman kept the cold pints of Dagon beer coming, as well as, bemusingly, rolled up pieces of paper towel that he would tear off and place onto our table as soon as we’d used up the one he’d prepared just moments before. He spoke little English, but we were eating chicken wings with our fingers, so the rate we got through the paper towel he so dutifully provided became a bit of a running joke. It was the same story with the soup, a bottomless bowl that he would diligently scoop up before we’d even finished our last sip and within minutes, return full to the brim.
In the morning, we set out for Mandalay Hill, a barefoot pilgrimage that, incline by incline, bend by bend, would take us through a series of mini temples inhabited by imposing larger than life Buddhas, creche-like grottos which locals use on special events to pose for photos, souvenir and food stalls, script-inspired rolling archways and even fortune tellers. With most of the walk being sheltered, the open air piece de resistance that is the top of Mandalay Hill, complete with 360 view of the city, is a welcome delight. As is taking in the crowds that have also completed the pilgrimage, who pay their respects by kneeling, placing flowers around the Buddhas and pouring water over the flowers. But the young monks taking pictures of each other on their mobiles had to be my favourite.
We persevered with Mandalay, and in the end, it won us round.
Over the last few posts you’ve read our impressions of Burma, but I’ll leave you with more words from Kipling, determined to save the Burmese girl of his dreams:
I love the Burman with the blind favouritism born of first impression. When I die I will be a Burman … and I will always walk about with a pretty almond-coloured girl who shall laugh and jest too, as a young maiden ought. She shall not pull a sari over her head when a man looks at her and glare suggestively from behind it, nor shall she tramp behind me when I walk: for these are the customs of India. She shall look all the world between the eyes, in honesty and good fellowship, and I will teach her not to defile her pretty mouth with chopped tobacco in a cabbage leaf, but to inhale good cigarettes of Egypt’s best brand.
We flew to Mandalay from Thandwe, changing in Yangon, and stayed at the Yandanarbon Hotel.