“For the wind is in the palm trees, an’ the temple-bells they say: ‘Come back you British soldier, come you back to Mandalay!'”
Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Mandalay’ is probably one of the most famous things ever written about Burma, but some will be disappointed to know that he never actually visited the place. His account was actually based on a pagoda in Moulmein (south east of Yangon) he saw during his three days in the country in 1889.
I arrived in Mandalay by road from Bagan – a four hour journey along bumpy roads, passing acres and acres of agricultural land and wooden shacks where many people live.
Mandalay is a fairly young city, built only in 1857 by King Mindon as an attempt to impress the British. But after being occupied by Japan during the Second World War, it was heavily bombed by the Allies, so little remains of the wooden houses that Orwell would have seen when he arrived here in 1922 – his first stint in the country – and studied at a Police Training School. He described it in Burmese Days as “rather a disagreeable town” and a place that was “dusty and intolerably hot”.
But the history of the general area goes back earlier. After the collapse of Bagan in the 13th century, Upper Burma took up the political and military baton and it held the main power in the country until the British overthrew the Burmese monarchy in 1885.
When the new city was built in the 19th century, King Mindon commissioned Mandalay Palace. After the British annexed the country in 1885, it was renamed Fort Dufferin and boasted barracks, a rail track, club, railroad, polo field, and golf course. One official described “the swish of soda water bottles, the crack of ice, the click of billiard balls.” But the palace was heavily bombed by both the Japanese and Allies during the Second World War, so most of what can be seen today is a replica dating from the 1990s.
The sheer scale of the place makes the site a special place to visit – the wall alone enclosing the compound is nearly five miles long. But most of the 1,000 acre complex is off limits to visitors, having long been in the hands of the military (“Tatmadaw and the people cooperate and crush all those harming the union,” reads a sign above the entrance used by tourists). The top of the circular watchtower, accessed by a spiral staircase, is the best place to get an overview of the main central buildings. It is wonderful to explore the various structures, including numerous audience halls, with their spired and tiered terracotta and gold roofs – much like the Forbidden Palace in Beijing.
Downtown Mandalay is made up of drab concrete buildings and can get pretty congested, but from high up on Mandalay Hill things are a lot more peaceful and the city seems as if it is enclosed in greenery. From the very top – where there is a viewing platform surrounding a temple – you can see the whole city. Mandalay Palace hidden amongst trees and surrounded by a moat, a golf resort, the Ayeyarwady River and of course plenty of temples are all in view.
Burma is by no means short of temples, but Kuthodaw Pagoda at the foot of Mandalay Hill is a little special. With another nearby establishment, it’s known as the ‘world’s biggest book’ on account of the 729 slabs, which are beautifully carved with the books of the Buddhist religion, known as the Tripitaka, and each housed in their own mini-stupa. Commissioned by King Mindon in 1857, the complex took a year to complete.
As the sun goes down U Bein Bridge on the outskirts of Mandalay is quite the place to be. The structure, stretching three quarters of a mile across Lake Taungthaman is the world’s longest teak footbridge and is a popular place to promenade. With no sides, it is a miracle that everyone manages to stay on the platform – perhaps they don’t. When I visited it was knee deep with people, all somehow balancing on such a narrow space, perhaps by grabbing onto the person in front. Souvenir and food stalls made it even more tight to pass those going in the other direction way.
Below there is a shanty town, with some people living in an area strewn with rubbish underneath the bridge, their washing hanging on the line and the rest of their worldly possessions under tarpaulin. It is also the place to go if you want to buy from a stall meat from bits of an animal that you probably thought couldn’t be eaten, with a heap of noodles on the side. Next to this madness was a ferris wheel (powered by two people jumping up and down on the frame), from which you must see wonderful views of the river. And someone had set up a bank of speakers to keep everyone entertained by playing an eclectic mix of international music.
Watching the Intha fisherman at work in Inle Lake is a sight that has to be witnessed. Standing on one leg at the end of their long narrow, boats, they move their vessels through the water by leg-rowing – quite literally using the leg they are not balanced on to power their oar. It leaves an arm free to entice the fish into tall cylindrical nets that they have by their sides.
The lake can easily be accessed from the friendly small town of Nyaungshwe, which boasts a good range of restaurants and bars to keep travellers fed and watered. After a short motorboat ride down a canal, you arrive on the main open expanse of water. There are mountains in the distance, but for the most part the green banks surrounding the lake are open and little developed.
But moving down the various tributaries off the lake, there are some 300 villages lined with timber and bamboo homes along streets in the water. Many properties are quite large, consisting of several storeys, and house extended families. Villagers that don’t work as fishermen may find employment in various craft workshops producing silver, textiles, tobacco and the like. Naturally these are popular stopping points for boatmen to take tourists, where after a quick demonstration souvenirs are offered for sale.
Considering how relatively new mass tourism is to Burma, it is interesting to see how enterprising people are. Restaurants and cafes – built on platforms surrounded by water – serve decent food and fresh coffees made from espresso machines. Hotels are built over several platforms, each room in its own detached building.
We paid for a villager to take us for a short trip from a restaurant jetty in small canoe and away from the many drag people’s homes were much simpler. Some lived in just a single room, sleeping on the bamboo floor next to a charcoal stove. The homes were served by electricity pylons, but apparently it doesn’t always work.
At the southern end of the lake, “floating gardens” have been created for Intha farmers to grow fruit, vegetables and flowers. Mud is dredged up out it the lake and placed on a layer of weeds, then held in place by bamboo. Amongst the carpet of green we saw tomatoes and hyacinths growing.
Inle Lake is in the west of Shan State, which takes its name from the Shan – Burma’s second largest ethnic group (amounting to some five million people, occupying one-quarter of Burma’s land mass). They are culturally and linguistically related to the peoples of Laos and Thailand and most are Buddhist. The Intha are considered a Shan subgroup.
But away from the calming waters of Inle Lake not all is peaceful is Shan State. For decades there has been conflict between the government and a number of militias. While a peace deal was struck with the Shan State Army in 2011, there has been renewed fighting in recent years with the military and other groups – many of whom are calling for an autonomous Shah nation.
Under the Panglong agreement, the Shah were given the right for a referendum to break-away from Burma 10 years after independence i.e. in 1958, but this seems to have been ignored by the government. After the 1962 coup, the military went ahead with attempting to eradicate Shan culture; people were told they couldn’t use the Shan language in schools or during official business and some of their treasured buildings were destroyed.
The conflicts mean that a vast swathe of Shan State, from east of the capital at Taunggyi (just seven miles from Nyaungshwe, the gateway to Inle Lake) is closed off to foreign visitors – or at least require special permission from the authorities to visit. Burma’s government doesn’t want the outside world is going on in that region.
“They have seen their old kingdom culturally and politically obliterated, only to be divided up into so many nacro-statelets pushed up against the Chinese border,” wrote Richard Cockett in an excellent book on modern Burma. “The eastern Shan region is now the epicentre of the booming regional production of heroin and yaba. Much of this is smuggled out of the country, mostly to China, but the main victims of the drugs trade are increasingly the Shan themselves.”
Richard Cockett reports that jobs for the Shan are in short supply. Some people end up working as sex workers or work on construction sites or Thai shrimp boats. Others work as farmers producing the opium poppy, which the government, militias and drug lords all take lucrative cut from. Half of Shan households’ annual income is said to come from this trade, but with opium flowing around so freely in the eastern region the unfortunate impact is that many people have become addicted to it.
After a week travelling around Burma and visiting some fascinating places, I returned to Yangon – the country’s largest city. Arriving at the international airport was quite a contrast to the smaller terminal buildings I had experienced – it was shiny and modern, with luggage carousels and screens keeping travellers updated on their flights.
If Burma wants to win over a new generation of tourists it needs to keep on developing. As I enthused in the first blog I wrote about the country about colonial Rangoon (now known as Yangon), preserving heritage buildings is important and adds character to a place. But tourists expect modern hotels and other attractions.
Yangon still suffers from blackouts and flooding, while stray dogs roam the streets. Many live and work in crumbling buildings and shop at dusty markets. But a new Yangon is emerging, with high end hotels and shopping malls, like Junction City on the edge of downtown and bursting with international brands. It looks little different to the modern offering in Bangkok, Singapore and the like.
Elsewhere in the country, some places are a little – or in cases a lot – further behind in terms of development. ‘Established in 2015,’ was a sign I saw again and again on cafes, bars and restaurants, indicating how new tourism was to many places in Burma.
Burma’s greatest asset is its people. I found that staff in hotels (and not just high end ones) and other establishments couldn’t do enough to help with travellers’ requests. The smile displayed by many was infectious.
Perhaps the main thing holding back Burma’s tourism industry is its reputation in the eyes of the international community. I know from travelling around the country how physically isolated Rakhine State is from the areas that foreigners are permitted to visit, but images on TV of hundreds of thousands of Rohingyas being forced from their homes and reports of genocide is hardly a good PR move to encourage westerners to visit. It is the Burmese government’s opportunity to put an end to this crisis.