FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Four days in Mandalay

Posted in Mandalay, Myanmar by folkestonejack on November 10, 2017

Mandalay is often omitted from itineraries cramming the sights of Myanmar into a week or two. It’s no wonder when you have such marvels as Bagan, Inle Lake, the Golden Rock, Bago and Yangon to cover, let alone some of the more remote sights such as Mrauk U. However, there is plenty to see in Mandalay and the surrounding area.

The remains of the former royal capitals of Amarapura and Inwa, plus the unfinished pagoda of Mingun, make for terrific outings that more than match the spectacular sights to be found in other parts of the country. First, though there are the sights of Mandalay City itself…

Kuthodaw Pagoda

I’ll start by saying that I found a visit to the top of Mandalay Hill for sunset to be one of the least satisfying sights of our stay, though I am well aware that for many it is the absolute highlight of a stay. I made the long walk up the hillside within a few hours of arriving on our long-haul journey, so perhaps that played a part. On the other hand, I really enjoyed our visits to the religious sights around the hill such as the Kuthodaw Pagoda (often described as the world’s biggest book on account of its 729 engraved marvel slabs covering the Buddhist scriptures, each one neatly housed in its own stupa) and the equally photogenic Sandamuni Pagoda just down the road.

Another highlight among the sites located around Mandalay Hill is the Shwenandaw Kyaung (Golden Monastery), a teak building that was originally part of the palace complex at Amarapura before being moved with the imperial capital to Mandalay as the royal apartments of King Mindon (in which he died in 1878). The re-location of this intricately carved building on the grounds of ‘bad luck’ in 1883 turned out to be anything but as it is one of the few buildings from the palace to have survived the bombing from both sides in World War 2.

Exquisite detail at the Shwenandaw Kyaung

I hadn’t particularly expected to make a visit to Mandalay Palace, a 1990s reconstruction of the 19th century palace complex, but ended up there after our plans went a little awry.

The original palace was constructed in 1858, followed by the completion of city walls and moat in 1859. In its time it was a magnificent sight, with a combination of intricately carved gilded teak and glass mosaic that was said to be unique. The last monarch to sit in the throne here, King Thibaw, was sent into exile by the British in November 1885 following his defeat in the Third Anglo-Burmese War. Under British rule the palace became Fort Dufferin and was adapted to fit this purpose, with features including a garrison church, government buildings, the Upper Burma Club and military barracks.

The first efforts at restoration started in 1901 when the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, saw the dilapidated state of the palace on an official visit and decreed that it should be preserved for future generations. Lord Curzon oversaw the removal of the buildings added under British rule, arranged for the restoration of the palace buildings and the re-building of seven missing pavilions on the walls. Sadly, all these efforts were undone by the incendiary bombs dropped by Japanese forces on the night of April 3rd 1942. The resulting firestorm destroyed most of the palace and what little survived took another battering during the allied liberation of the city. It’s a wonder that any buildings survived.

The poorly reconstructed Mandalay Palace

Today, the vast 1,000 acre complex is a military zone and off-limits to foreigners (including army garrison, prison, sports grounds and even a golf course) with the exception of the reconstructed palace complex at its centre. A handful of interesting survivors can also be seen on the fringes, just off the road from the eastern gate, including the original Clock Tower and Relic Tower.

The restoration generated a wave of condemnation as it was mostly built using forced labour – every family in the city was compelled to provide free labour for at least three days a month during the project (one 50 year old shop-owner described being forced to work in 35 degree heat to dredge the 6 mile long, 11 foot deep moat around the palace).

It’s not the best reconstruction that you will ever see, with concrete and corrugated iron roofing in place of teak, but it does give a vague sense of what this would have been like – especially if you climb to the top of the watchtower. There is some hope that this might change, as King Thibaw’s descendants would like to restore Mandalay Palace to its former glory.

There are some fascinating and grim stories to be told about the history of Mandalay Palace, including the large-scale massacres of the royal family ordered to protect King Thibaw’s position and the mystery of the disappearance of the most precious of the royal family’s jewels. It could make for a compelling tourist centrepiece with full restoration and the right presentation, but not as it stands today.

Mandalay Palace: A walled city within the city

Another sight to have undergone reconstruction is the Atumashi Kyaung, the largest religious building constructed by King Mindon (1808-1878) in Mandalay. The monastery built over a period of 18 years, from the laying of the foundation stones on 22nd May 1859 to its completion on 29th November 1877, but under British rule was converted into military barracks and burned down in 1890.

The reconstructed monastery re-opened in 1996 and is a bit of an oddity, housing a tiny Buddha where once a huge Buddha with a precious royal diamond once stood (another jewel to have mysteriously disappeared under British rule). Thankfully, the original stairways, archways and balustrade with their beautiful stucco carvings have survived and these more than made up for the poorly reconstructed structure built on top.

Stucco carving at Atumashi Monastery

Other sights we visited in Mandalay included the Kyauktawgyi Temple, the Mahamuni Temple (the most important Buddhist sight in the city) and Shwe In Bin Kyaung (a lovely teak monastery from the 1890s). However, the most interesting sights are those nearby at Inwa, Amarapura and Mingun of which more in the next couple of posts…

Practicalities

Our trip to Myanmar started and finished at Mandalay International Airport, giving us more time in the city than I might otherwise have planned – approximately four days – and left us all too familiar with the hour long drive between airport and city centre. In our time in the city we stayed in two hotels, the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel and the Link 78 Mandalay Boutique Hotel. Taxis were easily obtained and absolutely essential to get between most places (getting around on foot was quite a bit trickier than I imagined).

The first of our two hotels was the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel which was superbly located for all the sights around Mandalay Hill but a long way from anything else. The hotel is a few minutes walk from the entrance to Mandalay Hill and within 15 minutes walk of the various religious sights that surround the base of the hill (Shwenandaw Monastery, Atumashi Monastery, Kuthodaw Pagoda, Sandamuni Pagoda and Kyauktawgyi Temple). Mandalay Palace is roughly 25 minutes away on foot.

Our second hotel, the Link 78 Mandalay Boutique Hotel, was a wonderful oasis of calm amidst the bustling streets of downtown Mandalay at the end of our trip. It’s a smart, stylish place just a short walk from the central railway station (the top floor restaurant looks down on the station). Service was very efficient and incredibly helpful. The only downside to our stay was that some taxi drivers were incredibly confused by the similarity in names to The Hotel 78, Mandalay, and got very angry when we explained that this wasn’t the hotel we wanted!

A five day Mandalay Combination ticket (10,000 kyat) is required to visit Atumashi Kyaung, Mandalay Palace, Shwenandaw Kyaung and Kuthodaw Pagoda. We picked ours up at the Shwenandaw Kyaung. It was checked everywhere except for the Kuthodaw Pagoda.

Mandalay Palace doesn’t tend to feature highly in recommendations and hardly encourages visits with its awkward arrangements for access. Firstly, only one of the four entrances is open to visitors – the eastern gate, roughly half way between downtown Mandalay and Mandalay Hill. Next, you have to surrender your passport at the military guardhouse immediately in front of the gate (they give you a numbered ticket to wear around your neck and then write this number on a sticker that they attach to your passport). Finally, you have a 15-20 minute walk from the gate to the palace complex with signs along the way warning against entering the restricted military zones on either side.

The Shwe In Bin Kyaung monastery is rather underrated but that worked in my favour. It clearly isn’t ever overflowing with tourists but I was one of only two visitors on the afternoon that I visited. One of the monastery guardians kindly took it upon himself to lead me round, pointing out sights that I might easily have missed such as the workshops where restoration work was taking place. There is no charge for admission. To keep things simple I arranged for a taxi to take me to the monastery, wait a short while, then take me back to my hotel.

Gallery

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