Day 4: Mandalay

by - May 01, 2014

The Irrawaddy River overlooked by Sagaing Hill
Mandalay has achieved a legendary status amongst travellers as a place whose very name conjures up images of exotic lands - up there with places like Timbuktu or Shangri-La.  This is thanks mainly to the poem by Rudyard Kipling (who it turns out never actually made it to the city) and some might argue that the reputation is not actually particularly well deserved.  It certainly isn’t a particularly old city, with the current urban centre only really being settled for a few hundred years.  The surrounding area has, however, always played an important part in the history of Burma and is home to some of the country’s most iconic and significant sites.  After the fall of Bagan, the country split into two kingdoms - one in the south called Pegu, close to Yangon and another in the north called Ava (known in old Burmese as Inwa).  Strategically situated on the banks of the Irrawaddy, opposite the important religious centre of Sagaing Hill, some believe that Inwa may have been not too dissimilar to a smaller version of Bagan.  The town is 20 minutes south-west of Mandalay and seemed like a good place to start our day, making the most of the van as always.

Ruins of Inwa
Inwa does not immediately give the feel of being a former capital city, with ruins located sparsely across what is now essentially a village.  The site has been hit by several earthquakes which have damaged or partially destroyed some of the buildings.  As a lesser visited tourist site, in a lesser visited country, we were able to happily wander around these ruins without having to pay any entrance fee and didn’t see anybody else around.  In amongst the crumbling ruins and paddy fields were also ancient wooden and stone temples, both used and unused.  One of these monasteries, an impressive teak structure, also served as a school and was full of desks, world maps and posters outlining the English alphabet.  The rafters of this large monastery were stuffed with bats and there was a stark contrast between the thick, stuffy air that belied its past and the shiny laminated English posters that (maybe) pointed towards its future.  On our way out of the temple we were ambushed by a truckload of local children who all wanted a good shot at drenching the westerners.  We got our revenge as best we could with the water that we had, but were too wet to get back into the van and told Jimmy (the driver) to let us walk ahead in the sun for a bit to dry off.

The old teak temple
The Buddhist university at Sagaing 
There was still a lot more to see in Inwa, but our time was reasonably tight so we drove in amongst the ruins to the Irrawaddy at the northern edge of the town for photos before stopping for lunch at a local restaurant (we had given up on menus and taken to just asking for them to bring us a reasonable amount of food, which has been working remarkably well…)  Our stop for the afternoon was Sagaing, on the opposite side of the river, meaning that we had to cross on of the great bridges further upsteam.  The town is based around a large hill, covered in temples, and has been a centre of religious teaching for hundreds of years.  This was emphasised by our first stop, a Buddhist university, where it is possible to take diplomas in a variety of theological courses.  It is officially called the ‘Sitagu International Buddhist Academy’, for anybody who is reading this and thinking of enrolling… The temple classroom that we had seen in the morning and the university were proof of how traditionally education in Myanmar was the responsibility of monks - a system that was progressively destroyed by the British and (to some extent) the generals.  Jimmy continued on our tour of Sagaing by driving up to the top of the hill where a large temple offered spectacular views over the Irrawaddy, Inwa and towards Mandalay in the distance.

View from Sagaing Hill over the Irrawaddy bridges
That concluded our tour of the major sites around Mandalay and we decided that it was time to head back into the city itself.  The excursions had definitely been worthwhile however, especially considering how important both locations have been in the history of the nation.  Our return to the city was to be no less cultured, but potentially far less dignified, as we had allocated the rest of the day to fully experiencing the water festival.  Thingyan, the Burmese name for festival that occurs just before the new year, is comparable to similar festivals held in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.  The period is a national holiday in which people traditionally are free to spray total strangers with water.  This ranged from young children with buckets throwing water at motorcyclists passing outside their houses, to the city centres were thousands of people sprayed high-powered hoses into the streets from large purpose-built structures.  The impact on Mandalay was absolutely astonishing - the streets were flooded with water up to knee-level in some places and traffic in the centre had ground to an absolute halt, with people dancing all over the stationary cars.  Only the photos (taken from Kristine’s go-pro), can give any indication of the absolute chaos of the festival:

The flooded streets of Mandalay 
Dancing of a car bonnet
One of the temporary water-spraying platforms

Your intrepid blogger on the flooded streets of Mandalay

You May Also Like