Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
In these endless times of self-absorption we strain to make ourselves fascinating in the hashtag universe. Even when trading the mundane for the exotic, skirting the Tropic Zone say, there’s the urge to enhance – lookit me, I’m Bond or Bogart or Henry Morgan Stanley. Some film soundtrack insinuates itself. So it was with Mandalay. With the Myanmarese capital’s rich history and romantic Kipling associations (apparently he’d never been there but no matter), the place cried for the epic strains of John Williams, or at least Adele.
So what am I humming in this ancient capital of the Golden Land? Bacharach and Dionne Warwick. A bastardized version of Do You Know the Way to Mandalay? It was all terribly wrong.
Perhaps the vibe threw me. It’s different in Mandalay. Atypical for the country. Atypical for Southeast Asia for that matter. The food was a different kind of spice (more Indian, one of the locals said). I was hearing the first Muslim calls to prayer since leaving Bangladesh. Bordering five nations, Myanmar has fused many outside influences, besides what is uniquely its own.
My hotel featured elevators with seven different welcome mats, a new one every morning with the day of the week emblazoned. It was cute and practical. If I tweeted, I’d have twittered about those mats.
The cute and practical desk staff offered me a city map that laid out the basic grid of Mandalay, and it was easy to get around. The royal palace dominates both map and city, and I figured to case it after breakfast. As a morning constitutional, it verges on extreme sport. The walls and moats a mile on each side and, allowing for the inevitable photo ops, I was four hours circumnavigating the place.
Across the road to the right were the clean, ghostly white stupas of the Sandamuni Paya, so I dodged traffic to inspect it. This was the temple of 1774 marble slabs engraved with scripture from the books of the Tripitaka and, along with the 729 collected blocks of the nearby Kuthodaw Paya, comprised what is known locally (and vitally important in its snob appeal) as the World’s Largest Book. #Impressive.
The next day I visited the royal palace.
There’s a disdainful sniffing in certain quarters regarding the palace. It’s “inauthentic” (so very important in our personal quests). It was reputedly built with forced labour. Well I’m as snooty as the next guy but the inauthentic charge seems meaningless to me. Compared with what? The place is certainly new as these places go. In the Second World War, the vicious firefight between British and Indian forces and occupying Japanese left the original palace burned to the ground. As for the forced labour, it’s a tricky business, but tourists (like everyone else) are choosy with their offences. Antiquity seems to take care of it. People visit the Pyramids, after all.
The next afternoon, I nursed my soda at the Kipling Café on 26th Street and considered the 230 metres of Mandalay Hill. With its bulbous shape and scruffy tree cover, it hadn’t looked intimidating, not at street level, and if I started at 4 o’clock, that would allow more than enough time to reach the summit and catch the sunset. Between the two massive half lion/half dragon chinthe, I unlaced my shoes, stuffed in my socks and dropped them at the entrance (lamenting for the hundredth time that in these lands of temples and mosques, I should really have invested in a pair of flip-flops) and began the climb. By the fourth set of steps I was definitely feeling it, but 10 minutes later, the temple Byar Deik Paya spread before me – this looked to be the summit at last.
“Are we at the top?” I asked a German tourist.
“Yes, I believe so,” he said.
We congratulated ourselves. Towering above us was a lofty standing Buddha with arm outstretched, pointing in an accusatory way. His finger pointed at Mandalay, a fulfilment of ancient prophecy that said a great city would rise in the Buddhist year 2400 (1857, by our reckoning).
A leisurely stroll along the back railings revealed another set of steps. This was deflating. German tourists usually knew everything. I started to climb. There was another staircase beyond it. Then another and another. Still no summit. Perhaps there wasn’t one. Cue dramatics. Cue the Twilight Zone theme.
A young monk snapped me out of it. I watched him scramble nimbly up a steep grade of red and white steps and I trailed him. He’d know where to go.
Now there was a series of interlocking white arches, the temple of Ngon Minn, with the names of donors adorning its columns.
Now the temples were more ornate. There was a statue of San Dha Mukhi, a mythical ogress, offering her severed breasts. This had impressed Lord Buddha, who assured her reincarnation.
Now there were people. Singles, groups, pairs. Sitting on marble arches with feet dangling in the lazy afternoon. Selfies were snapped. Maps unfolded. Travel books scoured. Waiting.
There was another set of steps, but it was short, maybe a dozen or so. This had to be it. The end. The top. The sun was red and low in the sky, but I hadn’t missed it. Lots of people now. The mood was festive, with “oohing” and “ahhing,” laughter, cameras clicking. The view, regrettably, was anti-climactic, a flat city covered in a hot dusty haze. The summit temples, however, were marvellous – mirrored columns and coloured tile and fine mosaics that held their own with the wats of Bangkok.
The sun was taking its time. The atmosphere was as mellow as a summer barbecue. No dramatic enhancement needed. This evening, Mandalay was just right.
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