Though Yangon is the modern day capital, Mandalay, or the 'City of Gems', remains the Golden Land's cultural centre. Situated in the heart of Upper Myanmar, the city lies at the hub of river routes from China and India, and land routes from the Shan massif and Siam beyond. It pulsates with life and trade. A city of markets and monasteries, (with a monastic population of over 100000), Mandalay is the economic and religious centre of Upper Myanmar. It has been said that to know Mandalay is to know Myanmar.
Yet Mandalay is a relatively recent. One story tells that King Mindon decided to move the capital to a new site from Ava in 156 because the whistles from the steamers of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company kept him awake at night! The reality was more that Mindon, a modernizer and reformer, was anxious to break with the past and establish a new era of peace and prosperity for Myanmar.
To symbolize his vision, he ordered the building of a vast palace-city as the capital. The original moat and walls a mile and a half on each side still stand with splendid Pyartho spires over each gate. Within lay the forbidden city, an elaborate arrangement of teak pavilions, throne rooms and halls. Tragically this was subsequently destroyed but it has now been reconstructed to give an impression of the awesome scale of the royal palace and its sumptuous gold leaf and lacquer decorations.
Around the palace area, the devout King lavished donation upon donation, constructing grand teak monasteries for the royal monks, rest houses for pilgrims, shrines on Mandalay Hill and most significantly of all, the great Kuthodaw Pagoda.
The Kuthodaw lays just claim to be the world's largest book as here the king had the buddhist scriptures inscribed on 1774 marble slabs, each housed in its own private pavilion. These many dedications may be visited today and truly conjure and image of the strange mix f opulence and obeisance that existed in royal Myanmar.
The British captured Mandalay in 1885 following a campaign for control of the Ayeyarwady. A new city based on the grid plan was laid out extending to the river bank and its vital port. This plan remains today though sadly many of the old colonial buildings have been lost. However, glimpses of the old colonial city may still be seen, particularly in the area around Mahamuni Temple, the city's principal shrine.
Mandalay has excellent air, rail, road and river connections and is a great base from which to explore the rest of Upper Myanmar. And, it is here that perhaps the real interest in Mandalay lies, not in the modern city but in the surrounding areas.
The hill station of Pyin Oo Lwin (Maymyo) is a short drive away. There much of the colonial architecture and atmosphere remains for today's visitors.
A morning trip up-river from Mandalay is the great unfinished pagoda of Mingun, the largest working bell in the world.
Ava and Amarapura are former capitals situated only 30 minutes drive south of the city. In these tranquil settings the magic of rural Myanmar can truly be felt. Though the royal palaces have gone, the pagodas, temples and monasteries remain. Of particular interest is the three quarter mile long wooden footbridge built by U Bein at Amarapura.
Across the river from Ava is another former capital, Sagaing. In the rolling hills beyond the modern town are countless hermitages for both monks and nuns. Most date from the turn of the century and are built in a fascinating mix of colonial and old Myanmar styles. A traditional place of pilgrimage for the people of Mandalay, people come to Sagaing to find peace away from the fast pace of city life.
There can be nothing more sublime than to wander in these hills beneath a canopy of flowering trees, surrounded by the gentle murmur of chanting monks and nuns.