|“On the Road to Mandalay, Where the flyin’ fishes play, An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ’crost the bay.” – Rudyard Kipling
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.
Please join us on one of our California Native Myanmar Adventures.