Mandalay: A tale of two cities, part two

Lonely Planet opens its chapter with the words ‘it’s the rare traveller who immediately falls for Mandalay…it doesn’t have a ton of immediate appeal’. A fellow Kiwi we met had passed through a few weeks beforehand and, having followed her blog, it was clear she didn’t have the best time; not terrible, but a case of mismatch between anticipation and reality.

Add to this the rather more mixed reviews I’d been reading about its food – and, as I’ve reflected before, I now realise how central eating a nation is to how much I enjoy the experience of travel – and I had started to worry that Myanmar was going to be a case of incompatible expectations.

I needn’t have worried. As I wrote in part one, our initial experience of the city was completely shaped by Thingyan, the wild Burmese New Year celebrations. Thankfully, once ‘normalcy’ returned, we got the explore the city unencumbered. Mandalay intrigued me, and it really did so from the moment we stepped off the plane, walking across a tarmac that felt slightly otherworldly, or at least like an outpost airport in the middle of the desert.

The greater area was home to the Burmese kingdom, and is thus considered the cradle of Burmese culture and civilisation. Since 1364, with few exceptions, the capital moved back and forth around three locations, which today are the key historic sites to visit outside of the city (the kings had a habit of moving capitals, literally).

As a city, Mandalay only came into being in the mid-19th century, within what is now the fortified palace grounds surrounded by a magnificent moat. It was the last capital of the Burmese Kingdom. Its reign was short though, as the Brits arrived in 1885. The grid city layout of today was initially laid down during the colonial era, and continued to expand post-independence in 1948. After having been occupied by the Japanese during WWII and coming under severe attack, a lot of the city, including the palace, lay in ruins.

With this patchwork history, there is actually a lot to see. With two days lost to Thingyan, we abandoned hope of exploring the countryside, and instead focused on the city. What emerged was a fascinating sense of dualness: a city that is both rural and urban at the same time; a city that has fragments of the brash new Myanmar ripping through its dusty crust; a populace dressed in typical Burmese dress, while wildly colouring its hair a new shade of twenty-first century, social media-tinged, freedom.

As a relatively new city, there is an absence of history in Mandalay, both pre-colonial and colonial; not altogether but noticeable. Aside from a number of notable examples – some of the older pagodas, for example – much of the city feels and looks post-mid twentieth century, post-independence.

Post-colonial Myanmar obviously exists right in front of our eyes, but at the same time it is everywhere, it also feels nowhere. At the moment, it doesn’t exist in that there are not many ways for us to understand how what we’re seeing is shaped by its recent past. In other words, the years after 1962, when the military took over and the wall came down, is not yet available to us.

There are no museums or art galleries to fill in the gaps; no memorials to the disappeared; no urban history books contextualised against life under military rule. Although democracy has come to Myanmar, it is still embryonic and fragile. There will come a moment when those stories can be pieced together and spoken freely. Understandably, we’re not quite at that moment yet.

It is probably that inaccessibility that made Mandalay even more intriguing. What I’ve learnt at this point is that, for me, the best travel is where my interest is sufficiently piqued, where I’m intrigued and really want to know a place better. This is either achieved (or near enough to), or leaves me wanting more, wanting to return. Either way, intrigue is a key measure of success.

‘Downtown’ Mandalay is where this patchwork history is on full display. It’s a fascinating mix of some (late) colonial era buildings, some new cookie-cutter buildings (identical to other fast growing SE Asian cities we’ve visited, see Phnom Penh, Saigon, etc.), some more interesting new additions, and many more mid-century gems. All rubbing shoulders with residential houses, grand market buildings, and temples, along grand wide avenues.

I wouldn’t call it ‘pretty’, like, say, Paris, but I really found it fascinating. It’s an architectural wonderland (or possibly dystopian nightmare!) and I felt like I could have spent days in and around those streets, observing its rhythms, documenting its style, and probably making a nice coffee table in the process!

The city’s dual rhythm is mapped out on its grid pattern. Its urban pulse is located along its key arterial routes; busy, busy thoroughfares teeming with traffic, people, big new commerce, bars and restaurants. It’s loud, it’s brash, it’s new Myanmar. These arteries are most immediately surrounded by almost-as-busy suburbia, where the traffic is still teems but the shops and restaurants are more suburban, more family-sized.

But step back literally only a street or two further, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by unsealed village-like lanes. Here, a much quieter life is taking place. Mandalay reveals both massive houses and compounds surrounded by canal dwellings. From the atmospheric Mandalay Hill at sunset, you can see that even the most frenetic city spaces are literally surrounded by countryside, which engulfs the city as soon as you get beyond its urban fringe.

This dualness is reflected in the people, who are revelling in newfound freedoms and connectivity/exposure to the outside world. Typical materials/patterns and lungi-style dress (think sarong but more fitted and better looking) are still seen everywhere, even in young people.

However, alongside this, locals are expressing themselves in interesting ways: loud, big, comparatively wild hairstyles, and clothing I would call a localised version of ‘80s ‘cock rock’ or maybe ‘90s grunge (black jeans, old rock band T-shirts, checked shirts, chains and jewelry). It stood out so much because it contrasted quite sharply with the more gentle look and feel of typical Burmese dress.

It is such a cliche, but, after all of our traveling, the overwhelming friendliness of locals was memorable. Everywhere we went (or cycled) we were met with warm and curious stares, smiles, and waves. There were hand shakes, attempts to communicate across languages, English practicing with youngsters, a couple of full-on conversations, and an avalanche of hellos and his. It may sound silly, but having literally hundreds of moments of connection every day, even if only fleeting, was a real serotonin booster! I was totally charmed.

Mandalay made me want to go back. It’s reminiscent of all the Southeast Asian cities we’ve visited undergoing these hugely rapid transformations, and I’m fascinated to think how much it will have changed in five years, ten years, down the track. I feel like we only scratched the surface…

Two days cycling around Mandalay, what we did:

Day 1 – cycled around the moat, explored ‘downtown’ including Eindawya Paya and market area, lunch, back around the moat, Kuthodaw and Sandamuni payas, Mandalay Hill walk for sunset.

Day 2 – Mandalay Palace, Shwenandaw Kyaung monastery and Atumashi Kyaungdawgyi, Kyauktawgyi Paya, cycled around the moat, lunch downtown, cycled out to and along the riverfront, down to Shwe In Bin Kyaung (continue on to the U-Bein bridge for sunset).

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