In 1892 Rudyard Kipling published Barrack Room Ballads, a collection of poems about the life of British soldiers stationed in colonial India. It included the poem “Mandalay,” in which a lovelorn soldier longs to return to Burma and his Burmese sweetheart. While the road to Mandalay may not necessarily lead to love, it does lead travelers to a fascinating experience of Myanmar’s culture and history.
The fabled city of Mandalay lies on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River.
The last capital of Myanmar before the British took over in 1886, it
is second only to Yangon (Rangoon) in size and lies in the center of
the country. It was founded by King Mindon in 1857 in an empty area that,
according to prophecy, would be the location of a town that would come
into existence on the 2,400th jubilee of Buddhism. To fulfill
this prophecy, the king moved his capital from Amarapura, dismantling
the wooden buildings and royal palaces and loading them onto carts and
elephants to relocate them seven miles south to Mandalay.
The city gets its name from Mandalay Hill, which rises more than 700
feet above the Mandalay Fort. Visitors can climb up two covered stairways
that wind up the hill, stopping at the shrines, stupas and monasteries
along the way. Near the top is a standing Buddha image pointing to the
place where the city would be built according to the prophecy. Once on
top, visitors are rewarded with sweeping views of the plains, the Palace
and the Shan mountains in the distance.
The road to Mandalay is a route studded with ancient cities, where cars
share the road with ox carts and markets teem with life. Although most
of the significant buildings in the ancient royal capital of Amarapura
were moved to Mandalay, some interesting structures still remain. The
most picturesque is U Bein’s Bridge, the longest teak bridge in
the world, which stretches three-quarters of a mile across Taungthaman
Lake. A stroll across the busy bridge is a great way to experience the
local ambiance. At one end of the bridge is the Maha Ganayon Kyaung monastery,
where thousands of young monks live and study in a strictly disciplined
setting. Each day at 11 a.m. they may be observed eating their main meal
in complete silence.
A few miles south down the road is the ancient city of Ava (Inwa), which
was the capital of the northern kingdom for almost 400 years, succeeding
the nearby city of Sagaing. Both of these cities boast a number of interesting
pagodas and historic sites.
One of the most interesting of the ancient cities on the road to Mandalay
is Mingun, where in 1790 King Bodawpaya decided he would build the world’s
largest pagoda. Despite employing thousands of slaves and prisoners to
build it, he died before it was completed. What remains is the massive
brick base that stands over 50 meters high. Although damaged by an earthquake,
it is possible to climb the ruins for a wonderful view. The king also
had a gigantic bell cast—weighing 90 tons, it hangs nearby and
is the largest ringing bell in the world.
There is much to see on the road to Mandalay, but unlike the poem, there
are no flying fishes and, alas, China is not across the bay.
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