We have never been big fans of Rudyard Kipling, but it has to be said that if it wasn’t for him we might never have heard of Mandalay before going there. Now we have even travelling there on Kipling’s own Road to Mandalay, the wide and mighty Irrawaddy river!
Myanmar, in our schooldays known as Burma, still goes under both names. We travelled from our Cambodian island Koh Rong via Phnom Penh and Bangkok to Yangoon, and discovered a delightful country that was easily accessible, safe and friendly to foreigners. We did go a bit upmarket when it came to accommodation, paying between 70 and 80 USD per night, and for that money we got a good international hotel standard and staff speaking a very reasonable level of English.
The one thing Myanmar is internationally known for these days, is the deadly crackdown by the army on the Rohingya Muslims in the west that has sent hundreds of thousands fleeing across the border into Bangladesh. This is also the one thing you will not come into contact with as a tourist. The area is off limits for foreigners, and should you get a chance to ask local people about the conflict they will say as little as possible. If they say anything at all they are most likely to defend their governments actions. Myanmar consists of about one hundred ethnic groups, and with the Burmese majority the Muslims are not the most popular.
The government’s actions in general, and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi specifically, are widely defended. Her face can be seen on posters all over the country. Some of them are set up quite recently in connection with her appearance at the international court in The Hague where she defended the ethnic cleansing operations against the Rohingyas.
– I love her like my own mother, one of our tuk-tuk drivers stated with passion.
– She is honest, she loves her people, she does not work to enrich herself. I support everything she does.
He was very happy to be rid of the military rule, but what the military might be doing in the Rakhine State he did not want to know.
– It is complicated, you know, it is far away, I do not really know very much…
What he did know, however, was where to find the most beautiful temples and pagodas. Religious monuments grow out of the fields and the hillsides wherever you look. The main temples are huge and shiny and covered with gold, others are simple little red brick towers built by local farmers and used by a family or two.
We started our tour of a thousand temples by visiting the most stunning of them all, the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangoon, within walking distance from our hotel. It towers close to one hundred meters high and is covered by 27 metric tons of gold leaf. Legends tells us that it was first set up 2600 years ago when two brothers, having met the Buddha in person, came back to their homeland with eight straws of the Buddha’s hair. The straws are still there, and so is the pagoda, having been rebuilt and enlarged a number of times throughout the centuries.
During 25 years of military rule tourists stayed away from Myanmar, and even though the number of visitors is now on the rise the main attractions are far from crowded. This goes for the Shwedagon Pagoda, and even more so when you visit the lesser known attractions elsewhere in the country. For us, the most impressing sights were those of Bagan, an ancient city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site some 600 kilometres to the north of Yangoon. Visiting Bagan is like visiting the Cambodian temple complex of Angkor Wat – with one important difference being that the temples of Bagan are kept up and are in daily use. There are almost 4000 buildings and monuments, most of them dating back to the period from the 11th to the 13th century, making up what is recognized as the largest archaeological site in the world. We spent 3 days tuk-tuking the area, and we could probably have spent 30 without visiting the same places more than once. It is both impressing and depressing to see how much energy and resources this society has put into religion. Which word to choose would depend on whether you focus on the art and the beauty, the importance of spiritual belief or the power structures that profits from people being more preoccupied with religion than with social wellbeing.
The trip from Bagan north to Mandalay was the last leg of our journey, a trip we did following Rudyard Kipling along the Irrawaddy River. If he ever went there, that is, because his famous Mandalay poem is so full of mistakes that you wonder if he ever did go up the river at all. As for us, we did the 200 kilometers on a boat that took 12 hours, from 5 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon. The start was a bit chilly, Myanmar in January is not particularly warm, and the early morning on the boat made us wish we brought the extra jacket that we did not think we would need in the tropics. For a northerner the climate was actually very comfortable, with the exception of the four hours it took for the sun to light up the river and heat up our bones.
From our seats we saw a quiet landscape, we saw gold diggers and barges full of rainforest timber, we saw fishermen and villagers, but we did not see a single flying fish! Kipling got that part wrong as well!
In Mandalay however, we realized we were «templed out» as our guidebook put it. There is only so much you can take in before you need time to sit down and digest. We spent two of our three days in Mandalay sitting in the pleasant outdoor restaurant of our guesthouse sorting pictures, writing our diaries and trying to figure out what this country was about – before going to the airport to fly back to what in this context is the westernized civilization of Bangkok. As for Myanmar, it was very much worth the two weeks we got to spend there, and we would love to go back.