Mandalay: Not the Venice of the East

I ended my post about Bagan with the iconic words “the road to Mandalay”. I say “iconic” because I can think of at least two songs which feature those words prominently, most notably the Robbie Williams song of the same name. Admittedly, the song has very little to do with the second-largest city in Myanmar. Now I know why.

With such notoriety in popular culture, I had high expectations of Mandalay. It’s one of those mysterious place names, like “Timbuktu” or “Constantinople” or “Damascus”, which evokes a sense that this must be a truly magical place. For some reason, I had imagined it as a sort of Venice of the East; not in the sense of it being full of canals, but in the sense of it being full of culture and interesting things to see and do.

We arrived in Mandalay late in the afternoon and were all pretty tired, so we put off exploration, deciding to rest in our hotel. Eventually, we headed out to look for something to eat. We utterly failed, in this regard. The grid of roads around our hotel revealed only more hotels, a couple of decidedly dodgy-looking streets, a small market selling anything except food and a few motorbike repair shops. Defeated and increasingly tired, we returned to the hotel and ate at the restaurant there.

Mandalay Palace

202_2323-2The following day, we went out to explore all that the city had to offer. This turned out to be staggeringly little. At the heart of the city is Mandalay Palace – the home of the last of Myanmar’s royals. Or, I should say, a recreation of same. That is, unless the buildings of 1857-59 had access to corrugated metal roofing and cheap gold paint. The palace is at the centre of a perfectly square island, surrounded by old walls and a moat. Only the palace and one road leading from the eastern gate to the palace are accessible for tourists, and you have to go through quite a thorough military checkpoint to access even that much. The reason: the rest of the island is a military base.

The palace shows all the signs of having been constructed by the military authorities. They used the cheapest possible materials, the cheapest possible labour and showed no interest in making any of it historically accurate. Most of the buildings – and there are a fair few – were completely barren on the inside and showed obvious signs of neglect on the outside. It was a massive disappointment and I cannot adequately recommend enough that you avoid it completely.

Mandalay Hill

202_2397Our next stop – Mandalay Hill – was considerably more interesting. At its peak is Sutaungpyae Paya which, despite being yet another pagoda, had some beautiful mosaic walls and gave a fantastic view across the city. At this point, I realised that this was not the splendid city I had imagined. From further reading, I gather that it was, for a short time, deserving of its magical notoriety, but much of it was destroyed during the Second World War. Afterwards, it was very rapidly and very shoddily reconstructed in a very practical but very dull grid network of wide roads and blank-faced concrete buildings.

202_2427

202_2491Some of its impressive history did survive the ravages of aerial bombing and two major battles. One such place was next on our list – Kuthodaw Paya. It is home to the world’s largest book, though calling it such is kind of stretching the definition of what constitutes a “book”. If, by book, you mean only a collection of surfaces covered in text, then the 730 double-sided engraved tablets (each with its own private pagoda) gives you an impressive total of 1,460 pages. The inscription isn’t that big, either, so each page contains about 80 to 100 lines of text. In that regard, it probably counts as the largest book both in terms of word count and the amount of space it covers.

202_2503

U Bein Bridge

202_2600Moving on, our taxi driver took us to U Bein Bridge. Another world-beater, it is thought to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world, built in the mid-1800s and spanning a little over 1.2 km (about three quarters of a mile) across Taungthaman Lake. Despite its age, it is pretty sturdy, though you still need to be a little careful on the uneven surface. As impressive as the bridge is, we decided against walking a roundtrip total of 2.4 km, choosing to walk only a short distance out and back.

202_2593And that was it. We headed back to the hotel and ate there, having run out of energy and interest in the few attractions Mandalay had to offer. The following day, Noom and Nan went off to check out some more pagodas before heading to the airport as they had to fly home one day before me. I spend most of the day resting before finally deciding that I had to find an alternative to the hotel restaurant. I checked online and thought that the pathetically short list of nightlife and restaurants must be because the site was outdated. Turns out it wasn’t – there really is that little to do after dark and that limited a selection of places to eat! I was going to check out the traditional puppet theatre, but I got there just after a showing had ended. There was about a three-hour wait for the next one and, not being able to think of anything at all that I could do in Mandalay for that amount time, I called it a night and went back to the hotel.

Mandalay General Hospital

202_2666There was one other interesting site which I saw in Mandalay, but it’s a bit of an odd one. This city was an important stop on my pilgrimage of remembrance for my grandad – my own Operation Longcloth. I therefore visited Mandalay General Hospital which, fortunately, was just down the road from my hotel. Doing so on 11th November – Remembrance Day – gave it a certain extra poignance.

One of the relatively few war stories I know from my grandad is that he was among the first people ever to receive an epidural. While this is now a common painkilling treatment for pregnant women, it was first tested on wounded soldiers. Towards the end of the war, my grandad took a bullet to the foot and had to get a skin graft to patch up the hole. To reduce the pain from taking the skin off another part of his body, they gave him an epidural, which proved to be successful. This was administered at a hospital in Mandalay. Unfortunately, Mandalay has many hospitals, but I chose to assume that it was the Mandalay General – partially because it was closest.

202_2674Not only was it nice to have a direct physical connection with my grandad and his war service, but there was also a mother holding her cute little child just by the entrance when I was taking pictures of the hospital. The kid kept saying hello and, I turned around to say hello back before snapping a couple of pictures. It’s a silly thing to think, but the fact that epidurals are now used in childbirth did sort of strengthen the connection I felt. I don’t believe in reincarnation, but it was a little like saying hello to Grandad.

The following day, I took a taxi to the remarkably grand and impressive Mandalay International Airport (MDL) for my flight home to Thailand.

Operation Longcloth (2016)

6052a38f-2a23-49d1-acae-da9cd3785e1c_l
LCpl Clifford E. Smith, D Company, 2nd Battalion, Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. My grandad.

One of the three people in my family who influenced my decision to live as an expatriate was, in an odd sort of way, my grandad. It is an odd way because he spent almost his entire life in a tiny village near York in the UK, called Barmby Moor. However, as with most British men of his generation, he was called up to fight in World War II. I will go into more detail about his stories in other posts, but the important part is that he spent 1941 to 1945 in India and, as it was then, Burma.

Jump forward to 2016 and a friend and old travelling companion – Noom, with whom I visited Siem Reap in Cambodia for the first time in August 2013 – posts on Facebook that she is planning a trip to Myanmar (as it is now called) in a couple of weeks time and urgently needs a travelling companion. I had been planning to visit the country for some time, but lacked the motivation to actually start organising it. Noom provided that conviction, so now I’m here!

Time Differences

This trip mirrors that which my grandad took part from 8th February 1943. Operation Longcloth was the first test of Brigadier Orde Wingate’s new special force, the Chindits. Trained in guerrilla warfare tactics, they were to operate behind enemy lines in Japanese-occupied Burma and disrupt lines of communication. Their initial task, in Op Longcloth, was simply to prove that their enemy was not invincible and that the dense Burmese jungles could be used as a resource instead of an enemy. In spite of heavy criticism of the Chindits (both at the time and by modern military historians), even their greatest detractors agree that, in this regard, they were very successful.

chindit_column2c_operation_longcloth
Credit: Imperial War Museums / Wikipedia

There were other objectives, naturally. The intention was to disrupt the rail network (which they did, but it was swiftly repaired) and to scout Japanese positions. My objective, 73 years later, is rather more humble. I am instead scouting out the country, seeing the major sights in Yangon (formerly Rangoon), Bagan and Mandalay. My journey is considerably less arduous, involves a lot less jungle and will hopefully not result in any casualties!

Memorable Comparisons

I do realise that comparing what is essentially a holiday to a military operation from over seven decades earlier is kind of silly. I’m only shooting photos, not a rifle; my route is completely different to that taken in 1943 or any subsequent operations; my objectives are tourist attractions, not enemy installations. However, my grandad’s influence on my life has been considerable. He is the reason why I use “Chindit76” as my web handle. He is the reason why I wear an Aussie-style bush hat. He is the reason why I was so keen to visit Myanmar. These are my own little acts of remembrance, which makes the coincidental timing of this trip, in the week running up to 11th November, particularly poignant.

Actual planning was…well, to be completely honest, it was pretty much non-existent. Neither Noom nor I are particularly good at planning these sorts of trips, preferring to improvise when we get there. This does create a little bit of stress and the risk of missing out on something really cool but, as this is only a reconnaissance trip to hit the key sights, that is not such a concern. I bought a Lonely Planet guide at Phuket Airport – here endeth the planning.

There was a bit of organisation, which I had to rather rapidly handle at extremely short notice. The major problem was getting a visa. Thais can come and go as they please because Myanmar is part of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations – basically, the Asian EU). As a Brit, however, I needed a visa. Living in Phuket presented a momentary concern as the embassies are all in Bangkok, but Myanmar fortunately has a very good eVisa online application service. I applied late one evening and was approved by early afternoon the next day. I then scheduled time off work and booked flights.

Incidentally, I discovered this eVisa service through GOV.UK‘s section for travel advice. Specifically, the section which seems to think that Myanmar is still called Burma and Yangon is still called Rangoon! It turns out that the information is also outdated because it is actually possible to apply for a visa on arrival at Yangon International Airport (RGN).

Companions

201_1057
Noom (left) and Nan (right) in front of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda

The reason for the timing of the visit is that Noom has decided to take her entire year’s leave allowance in one long go. With about a month-long break, she wanted to go to Myanmar, Singapore, Hong Kong and Vietnam (in pretty much that order, I think). She has companions for all of the other parts of the trip, but did not have any for Myanmar. Shortly after I signed up, her youngest sister also did, so we are a party of three.

Noom and her sister, Nan, are similar kinds of traveller to me, when it comes finding a the right balance between ‘the local experience’, ‘as cheap as possible’ and ‘comfortable’. However, neither are as photographic as I am. While I would quite happily spend hours wandering around Downtown Yangon, they have been keeping a reasonably quick pace. This is not a major concern for me, though because, as I said, this is a recce – I can always come back for a second trip and concentrate my time in one more specific destination, rather than trying to cover as much as possible in just one week.

I will be sharing my actual experiences in coming posts, and there’s already a lot to tell! Watch out for more coming very soon.


Addendum

Incidentally, if there are any regular readers who are wondering what happened to my Project52, I’m afraid that I decided to cancel it. I was getting increasingly frustrated with having to post sub-par pics simply because they fitted that week’s theme. Additionally, I was finding myself with increasingly little free time and stopping Project52 was the easiest way to free up some more. Finally, I was getting very frustrated with the fact that what was supposed to be a travel blog had effectively turned into just Project52 posts. I had briefly contemplated deleting all trace of the project in my shame at having been defeated by it, but I quickly realised that doing so would also remove about 80 per cent of my current content!

Anyway, the project has taught me an important lesson. Ironically, it was a point which a commenter on the Project52 introduction post raised – that I should not need “an excuse” to go out and take pictures. If it is my hobby, I should be doing it a lot more. Sage wisdom indeed and, on the back of that, I am confident that Project52 will eventually return.