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Mandalay and the Road to It

This is part of our Window on Southeast Asia series.

The road to Mandalay, immortalized by Kipling in his poem and in the song of the same name, would be a very bad road to drive on. That's because the "road" he wrote of was actually the Irrawaddi river. If he took the paved road to Mandalay he probably wouldn't have romanticized it.

Normally I would never take a bus ride at night in a country like Burma, but I didn't have too many choices as the only buses to Mandalay ran at night. Despite being assured in Bago that it was a perfectly safe, wide road, the Yangon-Mandalay road was as appalling as any in the country. It may have been the main thoroughfare, but it was still only wide enough for one vehicle at a time. Each time the bus encountered another car, truck, ox-cart, tractor or any other machine using the road, it would have to swerve part way onto the shoulder, and hope the other vehicle would also. Of course, with trucks, tractors, ox-carts and other, equally quaint machines on the road, it often had to pass.

One memorable moment on the road to Mandalay came as we were approaching a thunderstorm, and we were pretty close to it. There was a Burmese soap opera playing on the video screen. As we were passing, several bolts of lightning suddenly flashed, revealing a logging truck, piled high with huge tree trunks, coming right at us. That was just as the soap opera was playing particularly spooky music. All that made for a moment that even the best Hollywood special effects could have never duplicated. There were, of course, plenty of potholes and ruts to make for a totally sleepless night. In the morning we crossed the great Irrawaddy river, known as the "Ganges of Burma." Kipling was probably sorry he never took the road to Mandalay, but for me getting off and checking into my hotel was the best part of the adventure.

Mandalay is one of those places with a magical name that most people assume must be a glittering, exotic paradise. For people who come bearing that image in mind, Mandalay won't fail to disappoint. It's true that, like Bago, the city can be quite charming once you get far away from the center of town. But unlike Bago, the center of town is a huge area. It's packed with unattractive shop houses, mostly made of concrete, its roads are rutted, and it's basically a dusty, smoggy urban jungle. The "Welcome to Mandalay" signs that greet the visitor certainly don't portray this Mandalay; they portray a city with nothing but glittering palaces and pagodas. It reminded me a bit of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (except that Kuala Lumpur is much cleaner, more modern and more efficient) in that it has an exotic name but a very short history. Mandalay, founded in 1857, was the royal capitol for only 29 years before the British seized upper Burma and abolished the monarchy. But, like Kuala Lumpur, there are many places in the city that live up to the exotic name, and below the surface Burmese culture teams.

After checking into a hotel I headed for Mandalay hill, a steep, lone hill in an otherwise flat plain. It was here that the Buddha supposedly appeared to some hermits living in a cave. After delivering his teachings to them, he pointed to the south and predicted that a great city would arise here one day. Needless to say, this story is probably no older than 1857, though the hill has been sacred for centuries. A network of covered stairs leads up the hill from several directions, some stairways branching off to shrines between the stairways and making the hill into one great maze. The most attractive entrance is the southern entrance, guarded by two colossal white cats. Despite their huge size, they look like tame house cats, rather than the ferocious-looking lions that guard most temples and shrines.

Lions at the Foot of Mandalay Hill

Lions at the Foot of Mandalay Hill

After walking between the cats and up the stairs to the first platform, all shoes and socks must be removed. From there, the maze of stairways passes several nat and Buddha shrines. One was a Buddha "footprint." Such "footprints" are to be found all over Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. They certainly don't look like any normal person's footprint. The toe-prints contain conch shells, a symbol of purity. The rest of the footprint is divided into mostly square shapes, 108 in all, each containing a symbol of one of the Buddha's past lives before becoming a Buddha. It is pressed into clay and worshipers drop bank notes onto it as an offering for the upkeep of the shrines on the hill.

One of the most dazzling temples in Mandalay sits at the foot of the hill. The entire interior of the temple is covered from top to bottom with small light blue and green mirrors all set at different angles. The pillars are also covered with the mirrors and have darker colored mirrors that form images of Thangya Min (see my article on the Nats,) the Buddha, Burmese angels, and mythical animals.

One thing you don't see in Burmese temples are crematoriums. The Burmese are unusual in Buddhist Southeast Asia in that they bury their dead. (The Buddha prescribed cremation in the belief that the body, after death, is nothing but an empty shell.) The Burmese do join other Southeast Asians in wanting to ensure that the person's ghost doesn't hang around too long. If someone dies while still employed, their employer will write an official notice relieving them of their duties, which is then attached to the coffin. There is a concern that if the person is too good an employee, he or she might feel compelled to continue their work.

After that I made my way to Mandalay Fort. Mandalay Fort was the first building constructed by King Mindon when he moved the capitol from Amarapura to Mandalay. Each wall of the square fort is one and a quarter miles long (2 kilometers) and 25 feet high (8 meters.) Parts of the fort are still used as a military base. Approaching the entrance gate, a huge red sign comes into view hanging from the walls of the fort. This one has a translation that reads, "The Tatmadaw [military government] and the people work together to crush the enemies of our union." The streets of Mandalay, like any other city, are lined with red signs that define "enemies" as anyone who is "unruly" or "disobedient." Other signs warn "enemies" that the state is watching and issue plenty of other dire warnings in Burmese only, the content of which we can only imagine. Yes, George Orwell did visit Burma as a British officer. That experience inspired writings about the abuse of the Burmese people at the hands of the British government. He probably had no idea when he wrote "1984" that he was writing about the future of Burma.

Inside the Mandalay Fort is Mandalay Palace, or rather a copy of it. Myanmar had the unfortunate position as the Southeast Asian battlefield of World War II. Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Malaysia fell to the Japanese and were returned without much of a fight, and Thailand cooperated with the Japanese. Burma was to be the Japanese staging ground for an attack on British India and taking it back was the only way the British could save the jewel in the crown of their empire. On March 20, 1945, the city was fought over between the Japanese and the allies. The palace caught fire and burned to the ground, except for a royal temple located just outside the palace walls. Records and photographs left behind by the Burmese and British were detailed enough to enable the government to rebuild the palace exactly as it had been. When the government began the rebuilding, all male citizens in Mandalay were required to work one day a month on it without pay. Tourists got wind of this and reported it to the foreign media. The negative publicity forced the government to abandon its use of slave labor to rebuild the palace.

Entrance to Mandalay Palace

Entrance to Mandalay Palace

Having been completed only recently, it's still new and glittering. It should come as no surprise that in the original palace, gold was used liberally. Only a small portion of the gold used today is real. At the entrance stands a nine-tiered, red and gold tower in classic Burmese style, with a "banana bud" and umbrella at the top. Two statues of Thangya Min guard the gate. The seat of the throne stands a good 10 feet from the ground, behind it is a huge gold doorway. The king did not climb up to the throne; he entered from the door behind it. He would have sat cross-legged as there was no backrest. Outside the palace is a wonderland of Burmese architecture, with multi-tired red roofs with gold trimmings, elaborately carved wooden doorways plated in gold, and courtyards and gardens all connected by a maze of boardwalks.

Mandalay Palace

Mandalay Palace

Near the palace is a wooden building that looks a bit like a temple but actually isn't. It's the marionette theatre. A puppet theatre may not sound very important, but puppets have a revered place in Burmese culture. Burmese puppets are known as "Yokthwe pwes." They are usually very elaborate and beautiful and it takes great skill and practice to make them. To be an official Yokthwe troop, there must be at least 28 characters represented, among them kings, queens, princes, princesses, magicians, demons, zagwes (see my article on the nats,) a parrot, nats, a hermit, ogres, a monkey and other such beings. Part of a performance includes dancing. But they do not imitate Burmese dancers, quite the opposite: aspiring Burmese dancers are taught to dance by the Yokthwe! Classical Burmese dancers really do look a bit like puppets in their moves. In the old days, every town and village had at least one set of Yokthwes, a puppeteer, and an orchestra to go with them. In addition, troops of puppeteers would roam the country, bringing news and entertainment to the towns and villages they visited. The most impressive troops, of course, were the ones attached to the royal court. Royal messengers would often hire the royal troop to deliver bad news to the king in hopes that the king would take out his anger on the Yokthwe rather than the messenger.

The puppeteer must have enormous talent. The more complex Yokthwe pwes have up to 60 strings controlling even the eyebrows. The puppeteer must be able to memorize hundreds of lines and songs. He has to handle the strings while moving the handle up and down to make the Yokthwe appear to breathe. The stories they tell are often Burmese fairy tales, as well as religious and morality plays, and informative plays about current events. Performances among troops located in a town or village occur at pagoda festivals, holidays, nat-pwes, and other such occasions. Roaming Yokthwe troops perform whenever they enter a town or village.

When a new Yokthwe pwe is made and purchased by a puppeteer, a nat-pwe is held for the patron nat of the yokthes, named Lamaing. During the ceremony, the nat Lamaing bestows a butterfly soul on the yokthwe, thus giving it life. The puppeteer will from then on address the yokthwe pwe as "Son" or "Daughter." His human children will address it as "Brother" or "Sister."

Mandalay's most famous temple is the Mahamuni Paya. The temple's most famous image is a 12-foot high brass Buddha that is at least 500 years old. It has been covered with gold leaf by worshippers for all that time and now has six inches of gold leaf. Only men are permitted to place gold leaf on a Buddha statue, as is the case in any Burmese temple. The Burmese believe that a person must be born as a man before he can reach nirvana. (The Buddha, by the way, taught no such thing. In fact, he founded an order of nuns.) Not that very many men will reach nirvana, but they at least have the possibility of doing so in this society. If you think that makes Burmese society a chauvinistic society, think again.

The Burmese like to brag that there has never been a "women's lib" movement because there has never been anything to liberate women from. With a few exceptions, women can enter just about any profession and have the same opportunities to advance as men. They are almost always paid the same. Literacy rates for men and women are about the same and there is no discrimination in education. Women normally manage the household affairs. Most Burmese men give their paychecks to their wives to sort out, and their wives given them an allowance. Despite the obvious prejudice in religious matters, there are more nuns in Burma than other Southeast Asian countries and many of the great religious scholars have been nuns.

It should come as no surprise by now that Burma is famous for its arts. Ten of the arts are regarded as the most important, and are referred to as the "10 flowers" (though there are several others). The Burmese art of lacquer, known as "Pan-yun," is widely recognized as the best in the world, rivaling that of Japan and Russia. ("Pan"is Burmese for "flower" and the prefix for all arts.) The art is so exquisite that there is no point trying to describe it here. Despite the fact that lacquerware is considered by most outsiders to be the greatest achievement of Burmese art, the most prestigious art in Burma is goldsmithing, or "Pan-teim." Woodcarving or "Pan-bu" is another highly esteemed art, and is often on display in temples. The pinnacle of this art is found in the temples of Mandalay. One temple I visited was Shwe-In Kyaung, one of several wooden Mandalay temples with amazingly exquisite carvings covering the multi-tiered roof, surrounding the doorways and filling the interior. Two angels complement each doorway, each one holding a lotus bud, standing on a lotus flower and possessing a serene smile. In fact, I would venture to add one more "flower" to Burmese art—the art of portraying a sense of serenity on Buddha statues, angels and other images. This, along with the bells and a generally peaceful atmosphere gives almost every temple in Myanmar an amazingly serene and quiet feel, even when packed with worshippers.

Temple Door at Swee-In

Temple Door at Swee-In

Burma has fascinated me for years, and living in the north of Thailand, occupied for 225 years by Myanmar, gave me a tantalizing taste of it, as did my trips across the border to Thaichalik and Myawaddy. With its endless legends, symbols, quiet people, mysterious temples, strange sub-cultures (like that of the nats,) Burma must be one of the most enigmatic countries on the face of the earth. It would take an expert many years to unravel all the mysteries of this long-isolated land, if it were possible at all. For all the isolation, its long-suffering people are still warm and welcoming towards foreigners. If its culture is a mystery to outsiders, so is the condition of its people. Its people live in extreme poverty in a place known historically as "The Golden Land." It is a place where comedians go to jail for telling a joke, justice is non-existent, and knowledge of the outside world is forbidden. Most of the people have first-hand experience with slavery, having been forced to work for free, sometimes in chains, for the generals who misrule their lives. They've lived with every kind of injustice and human rights abuse, with almost no way to inform the outside world. And they live under the eternal shadow of the red signs that order them to obey their tormenters or else.

And yet they still manage to enjoy life, weather it be a pilgrimage to the Shwedagon, a local celebration, or just an afternoon of gossip at the tea-house. It's a great credit to the Burmese people that they can still enjoy life despite living in silence through appalling conditions of poverty, repression, and injustice. Seeing what Burma has been in the past and what the corrupt generals have turned it into is enough to make anyone weep. But then, thinking of what the country could be when the people and their utterly boundless creative potential are finally set free is enough to give anyone reason for hope.

Robert Wilson is an English teacher in northern Thailand. Pictures of his travels can be seen at photos.yahoo.com/robert_92122.

Other stories in this series:

Bago, on the Road to Mandalay
Kyaiktiyo:   The Golden Rock That Balances on a Hair
Shwedagon:   Myanmar's Holy Land
Into the Burmese Supernatural
A Thai Funeral
Brunei: The Abode of Peace
A Glimpse of "Last Time" in Borneo
Finding Religions—Plenty of Them—in Kuala Lumpur
Luang Phabang: The Lao Fairy-tale City
From Monkey to Monk
Along Cambodia's Backroads
Listening to the Rice Grow:   A Journey Up the Nam Ou River in Laos
(Part 1 and Part 2)

Don't miss future articles from Robert in our continuing series, Window on Southeast Asia.

© 2005 by Robert Wilson

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