Myanmar is probably not the most appealing Southeast Asian destination today, but it is certainly not impossible to visit it. It is a country that has a rich history, nurturing some of the most powerful kingdoms and empires the entire region has seen.
Most visitors flock to Bagan, the exquisite land of thousands of temples, upon arriving in the capital Yangon. For those with more days to spend, the natural next step is heading to Lake Inle. But, in between Bagan and the beautiful lake, one fabled city is often overlooked.
Mandalay has been immortalized in literature through a poem entitled “Mandalay” by Rudyard Kipling. It was even later rendered into the song “On the Road to Mandalay” by Oley Speaks. George Orwell, while stationed there, wrote “Burmese Days”. All these references made to Mandalay only speak of the city’s reputation and ability to charm anyone who has visited it. But for some reason, the old charm seems to have been forgotten, ignored, or even deliberately avoided nowadays. Is it still worth it to spend a few days in Mandalay? Yes.
Mandalay was the last royal capital of the Upper Myanmar kingdom before the abolition of the monarchy, and it still houses several interesting remnants of its former glory. As Burmese kings loved moving their capitals so often, it is one of the rare places in the world where four older royal capitals lie just close by. This then makes Mandalay a worthwhile destination for those who love to trace back history, appreciate the evolution of Burmese architecture, and witness a living culture that may not have changed much. Let’s get to know each of these ancient cities:
MANDALAY. Mandalay is a massive city laid out in an interesting grid plan. At the center is a huge walled and moated enclosure that houses the Royal Palace. What stands nowadays is a reconstruction as the original palace was destroyed during World War II, with only the watchtower standing as the sole survivor from the devastation. By some luck, the Shwenendaw Monastery made completely of invaluable teakwood was moved outside the palace grounds before the war and, thus, survived as well. It is now one of the finest remaining wooden structures from the Konbaung dynasty in the country today. The city also boasts what is considered the largest book in the world: a collection of 729 steles recording the holy Buddhist texts and teachings called Tripitakas. The largest book is housed in Kuthadaw Pagoda, and has been inscribed in the UNESCO Memory of the World. A hilltop temple also lies behind the pagoda, providing a good panoramic view of the entire city on the bank of the Irrawaddy River.
AMARAPURA. Ten kilometers outside Mandalay, easily reached by a tuktuk, is the old city of Amarapura which is also remarkable for its city planning. It served as the capital of Upper Myanmar twice between 1783 and 1857, until the seat of power was finally moved to the latter. It is known for its living traditions such as silk weaving, and its extensive school and training ground for those who want to become monks. It is what most would describe as a monk town. There are two impressive structures that should not be missed in Amarapura. First, the U-Bein Bridge, which is the longest and oldest teakwood bridge in the world at 1.2 kilometers long, winding through the picturesque Taungthaman Lake. The second one is the unique Nagayon Temple, whose main shrine is strangely draped by the serpent Maculinda that is believed to have protected the Buddha while he was attaining enlightenment.
MINGUN. Right across the river from Mandalay is a site of ambitious projects by a king with delusions of grandeur. Mingun is now a low-key village, but it served as the royal residence of Upper Myanmar monarchs between 1810 to 1819. What was projected to become the highest stupa in the world was constructed in there, the Pahtodawgyi. It was abandoned when cracks showed up after an earthquake in 1819. This leaves us with only the base of the pagoda finished, a mere 1/3 of the envisioned building. In its present state, it is still considered as the most massive brickwork there is to find. Another monumental project, however, was completed: the casting of the Mingun Bell, considered as the largest ringing bell in the world. The nearby Hsinbyume Pagoda embodies a large departure from traditional temple construction and is built in a striking seven-layer mountain outline.
INNWA. The royal capital of Upper Myanmar for five times between 1364 to 1841, Innwa was previously called Ava. It retains its walls and moats, and inside are the remains of important structures dating back from its heyday. The Bagaya Monastery is another all-teakwood monastery that was used a training ground for future kings, and not far from it are several ruins of impressive temple complexes, some of which have no equal elsewhere in the country. Another monumental monastery made of brick is the Maha AungMye Bomsan, which was built by a queen rather than a king. There are two remaining structures from the royal palace: the watchtower and the princesses’ pool. The temples of Innwa are beautifully surrounded by rice paddies and lakes, which never fails to bring about a very calming effect to those visiting.
SAGAING. Nicknamed as “Bagan on a Hill”, Sagaing houses numerous temples and monasteries, some of which have been active since 14th century when it succeeded Bagan as one of the centers of power in Myanmar. The fairytale-like hill protrudes towards the Irrawaddy River, and it remains to be an important religious center. The ancient capital on a hill is capped by its two most important temples, the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda and the U Min Thonze (man-made) Cave Temple. These two temples provide amazing views of the mighty river and the flatlands of central Myanmar.
All the royal cities can be visited in a day, but a longer no-rush stay is recommended. Mandalay captivated the world in the past. It is the time again to revisit the reason as to why it did. All photos by Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero
Image credits: Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero