Journey back in time to Mandalay, where the grandeur of the past and the exoticism of Asia combine to create an unforgettable experience.
Text & Photos by Nani Budiman
Ship me somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be —
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!
(from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Mandalay”)
Mandalay is the former capital of Burma (now Myanmar). It was called Yadanabon, which means “golden city,” when it was founded by King Mindon in 1857. Mandalay has stirred the imaginations of famous writers, poets and songwriters, who have immortalized it in their work. But the “golden city” has had a turbulent history, from British colonization to Japanese occupation to the military junta. What’s remarkable is the extraordinary resilience of the Burmese people, most of whom are devout Theravada Buddhists. Though they have suffered a lot, they remain warm and friendly. Mandalay is located on the eastern banks of the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River, a 2,000-kilometre- long waterway that flows from the north to the south of the country.
The river was the economic hub of Upper Burma for centuries as the main backbone for the transportation of goods. In fact this celebrated river has given life to the Burmese since the sixth century, first as a transport route and then a network of irrigation canals for rice cultivation in the delta.
To this day the river is still the heartbeat of the country, both commercial and agricultural, and a lifeline for those living in its banks. When Mandalay beckoned with its enchantments, my three travel buddies and I glided down the Irrawaddy in a “boutique” craft from Bagan. I thought this was the perfect way to sense the country’s rhythm, understand its history and embrace its people. I was right.
Bagan (formerly Pagan) is best described as a “city of a thousand pagodas.” It is located on the eastern banks of the Irrawaddy River, 140 kilometres south of Mandalay. It was founded by Thamudrit in 107 AD. One of his descendants, Anawrahta, the 42nd king in the dynasty, led Bagan to its golden era with his conquest of Thaton, the Mon capital, in 1057. He brought the Theravada scriptures back to Bagan along with a group of Buddhist monks, artists and craftsmen. It was thought that building religious structures gained merit for a king and his subjects, and thus Bagan buzzed with architectural and artistic activity, with thousands of temples being constructed on this riverside plain between the 11th and 13th centuries. Alas, disaster descended on the city in 1287 when Kublai Khan, a grandson of Genghis Khan of the Mongol Empire, swept over the kingdom. The city was abandoned by King Narathihapate (1255-1287) and thousands of pagodas were vandalized by the Mongols.