Mandalay | The Dawn Comes Up Like Thunder…
Kipling was right, after a fashion. Dawn in Mandalay did indeed turn out to be a thunderous affair. However, on this particular early monsoon dawn, his description rang more meteorologically than metaphorically true. And truthfully, my first impressions of Mandalay were those of overwhelming disappointment. As I stood in the window of my room looking down on the soaked and muddy street below, I found it hard to identify any romantic traces of the lush Mandalay Kipling had planted in my imagination. Instead of palm trees gently swaying in the breeze and golden pagodas breaking the horizon, I saw an unattractive and dilapidated concrete sprawl. The Irrawaddy paddle steamers replaced by a relentless flotilla of noisy and rusty trucks shrouded in lung-piercing fumes. After lunch, once the ominous clouds gave way to the afternoon sun, and with a determined desire to restore some of the magic the city’s name conjured up, I rented a bike from the repair shop across the street from my hotel. Full of battle scars after a long service in the Mandalay traffic, the bike was not aesthetically pleasing, but a sturdy enough contraption to efficiently (if not safely) get me around town and help me in my exploration of Myanmar’s fabled second city.
The oppressive military generals that ruled Myanmar with iron fists for 5 decades were not ones for preservation and cultural heritage, as such the once grand moated palace that housed the last kings of Burma, had been turned it in to military barracks, and consequently on moral and practical grounds, strictly off limits to the public. I settled on cycling the dangerously cracked pavements along the impenetrable palace walls, admiring the ornately spiked, six tiered bastions at each corner – modest signs of the grandeur that once was. In the distance behind the palace however, an object of closer inspection rose from the flat plains: the sacred pagodas and monasteries of Mandalay Hill.
At the bottom of the hill I paid the bicycle guards 1000 kyats to keep my transportation safe during my climb up the hill and walked across the busy road to one of the four covered ‘saungdans’, or stairways, leading to the top. As soon as I passed through the gate guarded by two giant ‘chinthe’ lions, the raucous and frantic street seemed curiously muted, as if I had crossed an invisible portal in to a serene sanctuary. Up ahead, a barefoot climb of 1729 steps separated me from the centuries old sacred site of pilgrimage for Burmese Buddhists at the summit. The tunnel like ‘saungdans’ gently snaked their way through the green landscape, lined with small, decorated shrines and market stalls selling offerings in the form of flowers, figurines and refreshments, friendly thanaka decorated faces greeted me with ‘mingalaba’ along the route. People seemed to use this space as a respite from the bustling city below, its sacredness guaranteeing tranquility. Arriving at the Sutaungpyei pagoda at summit late afternoon, I was rewarded by a colourful spectacle as the mirrored tiles of the monastery changed colour with the setting sun and breathtaking views of the Mandalay Plains rice paddies. It didn’t look too bad from above.
Playing families mingled with young couples and worshippers, monks chanted and prayed, and every now and again a gong sounded in the distance. As well as being a sacred place of worship, it was in use by everyone from every walk of life, turning Mandalay Hill in to a living and breathing space in the city. I sat there sipping a cold lemonade, soaking up the atmosphere, watching as the shadows grew longer, and reluctantly accepting the fact that I’d soon have to descend back in to the poisonous fumes of the city before it got too dark. The sun set quicker than I had anticipated, and an hour later I was back on my bike, precariously navigating potholes and crumbling old lorries on the streets in complete darkness, the lack of street lighting not advertised in advance. By sheer luck both me, and my bike, safely arrived back at the hotel unscathed.
After a shower and rest in my room, I found myself having dinner, due to lack of any restaurant nearby, balancing on a bright red child sized plastic chair at the side of the road, plastic plate full of delicious lamb curry in one hand, a green plastic fork in the other and a bottle of beer safely placed by my right leg. Around the corners some kids were playing cricket, with a growing crowd of cheering spectators gathering. As more people arrived for dinner, everyone joined forces and transformed our crumbling little street corner in to an impromptu neighbourhood party, the toxic fumes of the day time replaced by the smell of barbecuing. Mandalay was nothing like I’d imagined, and did not live up to its name, however the city was not without its charms – charms that were found not in a poetic version of romanticized history, but in the people that used the city’s spaces.