BY THE old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay! “
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay ?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!
Although Rudyard Kipling never reached as far as Mandalay, he etched it in our memories for posterity. He wrote this in Moulmein, on the coast, when homeward bound from India via the Americas.
Our road to Mandalay is via the train from Hsipaw (superior class seats, reclining, with footrests and anti-Macassars) and over the Goteik Viaduct built by the Brits in 1899. Its one of the great railway journeys of the world, complete with our very own Fat Controller who belches disgustingly and waddles down the aisle at intervals, receiving thick brown envelopes intermittently from the guards. We reach the gorge after about four hours of lurching at snails-pace down the hillside. As everyone rushes to one side for the view, it’s a wonder the train doesnt topple over! Truly breathtaking.
Our bus is there to meet us after the viaduct and we stop for lunch at a famed local beauty spot, Pyin U-Lwin, May Town in colonial days, known for its temperate climate and botanical gardens, and the former summer capitol. Ghi Ghi’s idea of a ‘ very boo-tiful’ waterfall lunch spot sadly does not chime with ours: it is the only dirty place I see on our whole travels, stuffed with greasy spoon noodle shops (our lunch has an immediate effect on poor Lucille) and trashy souvenir stalls. Oh, and the waterfalls perhaps sport a drop of 12 feet!
We gladly jump back on the bus, which takes us down a windy mountain pass, bearing us from the Shan hill state to the great river plain at dusk, its lights twinkling beneath us. Our hotel is a great disappointment after the remoteness of Hsipaw – a glitzy Thai-inspired edifice, teeming with geriatrics. Which we are not of course!
Despite warnings to the contrary, we find Mandalay rather charming and wish we had another day. Our first stop is the Kuthodaw Pagoda – shady and cool, but eerily empty apart from local tourists and lotus sellers – which houses the world’s largest book, the first ever rendition of the sacred Buddhist Tipitaka scriptures, all inscribed on marble tablets. When unveiled it took 2400 monks six months to recite – to give you an idea of the scale!
Next stop the Shwe Nandaw Kyaung monastery, the only remaining structure from the original Palace complex, which was razed to the ground by Allied bombing in the Second World War. It’s an ancient teak pagoda, its fine carvings originally covered in gold leaf. Again, practically empty apart from a few monks.
From here on in on our tour round Myanmar we hit the mass tourism trail. We are whisked off to Amarapura, an 18th century capital city, to see the monks having lunch at the Mahagandhayon Monastery. Monks only eat twice a day: breakfast and luncjh. The former is in the wee hours before prayer and lunch is between 11 and 12 in the morning. We are horrified by the spectacle of hundreds of tourists jostling for position to see the monks lining up to receive their food and gifts from the donors, who have to sign up months in advance for the privilege of both cooking and giving. It’s more like going to feeding time at the zoo and we are ashamed that we had not done our homework better and have to witness this degrading sight – not that the monks minded, it is more that the foreigners behave so shamefully. Having said all that, I think being a monk isn’t at all bad – free board and food, people, gifts of goods and money…its a primitive form of social security especially for the poor, who entrust their children to the monastery if they cannot afford to keep them. Better than the workhouse…
From there to the U Bein bridge, another famous landmark, measuring 1.2 km it spans the end of the lake and is made from solid teak. Impressive but, once again, crowded with visitors and it is the first place we meet any unpleasantness from the vendors – a sign of things to come I am afraid.
It is here that we first become victims to the local craft ‘attraction’. In fact we all want to see how weaving, gold leaf and woodcarving are done (and it hasn’t changed for centuries) but as we discover, we will share the experience with many others. This is to be repeated in Bagan (lacquer – but of exquisite quality) and Inle Lake – more weaving, from lotus fibre this time, paper-making and cigar-rolling.) Of course we buy stuff like everyone else…we just wish the experience had been less mass-market!
However, in the evening we manage to escape the crowds and pootle down the Ayeyarwady to Mingun, home to a massive pagoda which was never finished and then was destroyed by a series of earthquakes, but remains an impressive monument; another pagoda – Myatheindan – all white and surreal, built to be a replica of the pagoda that sits on top of the holiest Buddhist site, mythical Mt Meru. Of course we could not resist having a bash at ringing the famous Mingun Bell, weighing in at 87 tonnes and just under 4 m tall. The local monks also all enjoyed wielding the heavy teak mallet. And that was all we had time for, as we caught the sunset chugging back downstream to the hotel.
The next morning finds us back on the river again, this time aboard our private boat for the 12 hour trip to Bagan. The boat is fitted out with comfortable chairs on deck, lined up rather like the deckchairs on the Marie Celeste (heaven forbid) – but each with a cosy blanket; tea and coffee are provided, there is a ladies AND a gents; and a slap up lunch complete with beer appears miraculously at 1pm. We enjoy cruising down-river, passing pagodas and villages, zigzagging to avoid the sandbanks. We are passed by several swanky river boats, some even with pools on deck; but mostly we see huge barges, laden almost down to the water line with coal, and other river craft – dredgers, smaller boats like ours, all plying their way up and down this great river.
We pass the time companionably, chatting, reading, looking at the view. At around sunset we approach Bagan, our destination – and see a few of the pagodas, stupas reaching out, finger-like into the skyline as the sun goes down. A perfect antidote to our first few days of whistle-stop touring in Myanmar.
We will be spending the next few days exploring Bagan…wait for the next blog.