Hubert Burda Media

Temple Bells They Say

Inspired by the likes of Orwell and Kipling, we set off from Yangon to journey “on the road to MANDALAY”

“Mingalarbar”, says our guide, as we step into our car for the 15km drive south into downtown Yangon. “It’s the only word you need to know. It means hello, g’day, blessings…it’s every greeting in one word.” In English perfected with an almost regal cadence, he tells us he has worked and lived in Singapore and Australia, but home is here in Yangon.
It is a city that bustles with five million inhabitants who throng its broad leafy boulevards lined by aging colonial architecture — legacies of the British Raj — and, increasingly, new glass-fronted towers. It’s a cityscape that could so easily be mistaken for Bangkok or Jakarta, a decade ago, save for its gilded pagodas that still cast a magical aura over the city.
Pulling into a quiet side street past the French Embassy and the National Museum, we arrive at Belmond Governor’s Residence, a 1920s teak mansion that was once the official home of the governor of Kaya state. Seemingly lost in time, it is the kind of environ where Somerset Maugham and Rudyard Kipling would, inspired by the tropics, have put pen to paper had it been open to travellers then. For us, it is but a quick port of call where we savour local curries and wine, before heading out to join up with luxury river cruiser, Belmond Road to Mandalay the next morning.
Day One: Mandalay
The Belmond Road to Mandalay (RTM) cruises the Ayeyarwady River between Bagan (620km north of Yangon) and Bhamo (612 km north of Bagan) via Mandalay, stopping off at awe-inspiring wonders along the way. The signature 12-day voyage from Mandalay to Bhamo and down to Bagan passes through the forest-flanked three gorges of the Upper Ayeyarwady, but if you are time-pressed like us, the 4-day “highlight tour” is more than sufficient for falling in love with Myanmar’s greatest waterway.
To join up with the 43-cabin, German-built ship we first fly from Yangon into Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city and its last royal capital. Built between 1857 and 1859, this was one of the outposts at which George Orwell served with the Indian Imperial Police. Kipling was so besotted by the very notion of the place, that despite never visiting, he penned that 1890 poem that gave birth to the phrase “on the road to Mandalay” — the very journey we find ourselves making.
Our time on shore is short, but we manage a tour of Kuthodaw Pagoda and Shwenandaw Monastery. The former with its 730 stupas housing stone inscriptions, is considered the world’s largest book, while the latter was where Myanmar’s penultimate king and the founder of Mandalay, King Mindon died in 1878.
That evening, after a fine, three-course dinner in the ship’s restaurant and a play staged by young actors from Mandalay’s school of performing arts in the Observation Lounge (they re-enacted scenes from the Yamayana, a Hindu creation epic widely performed across Southeast Asia), we retire to our State cabin.
Day Two: Myinmu
Accompanied by guides, the day begins early with a short ship-to-shore transfer. Roughly 35km south of Mandalay, Myinmu has a population of 20,000. But before we venture into town, we congregate in silence along the bank of the Ayeyarwady, where as part of the Burmese custom of alms-giving, RTM staff give food to a procession of saffron-robe monks from the local monastery. With the waking sun glistening against the water, we join in this offering.
Unlike Mandalay and Yangon, Myinmu isn’t home to the largest or tallest pagoda and its young people don’t all have Korean smartphones glued to their palms (phones with internet connection are “very cheap” now, says our guide); It’s an ordinary village where town folk rely on agriculture for livelihood.
By trishaw, we are led past bamboo homes and humble temples, to arrive at the central market, where women in traditional longyi (sarongs) balance grocery baskets on their heads as they meander through the maze of stalls. We spot fresh river fishes and a multitude of vibrant herbs, bananas, gourds, eggplants, tomatoes and fresh flowers, and run into the occasional kindergarten-age tyke, who unlike their city counterparts, still consider us foreign interlopers with enough curiosity to pose for pictures.
Returning to the RTM, we spend the rest of the day languorously lounging by the pool with Special Mandalay Rum (a 12-year aged brew distilled since 1886) in hand. As the boat makes its way down river towards Bagan, Yanderbo, the village where the 1826 treaty between the Kingdom of Ava and the invading British was signed, pass us port-side.
Day Three: Bagan
The ship-to-shore transfer drops us beside a sprawling mansion with soaring windows. Blink and one could have been in Malibu. But this is Bagan, an ancient capital dotted with some 2,200 monuments (and thousands more ruins) built between the 9th and 13th centuries — a time when Marco Polo wrote of “a gilded city, alive with tinkling bells and the swishing sounds of monks’ robes.” We’re told by our guide that the behemoth is owned by the estranged brother of Aung San Suu Kyi, and though unoccupied and “not particularly beautiful”, brought electricity to the township when its own power generator was approved by the state some half dozen years ago.
Our first stop is Shwesandaw Pagoda. Considered one of the “sunset temples” (because tourists and devotees climb its steps in the hopes of catching the perfect sunset), it rises an imposing 328 ft over Bagan. Unlike in the evenings where tourists jostle for the perfect vantage, an early visit ensures enough room to wander about and enjoy vistas of a temple-strewn plain that stretches as far as the eye can see. Today, rising out of the morning mist, the stupas “loom, huge, remote and mysterious, like the vague recollections of a fantastic dream” — just as Maugham had observed in 1930.
We also visit Ananda (whose architect was executed so no other could be built in its likeness), Dhammayangyi (Bagan’s widest temple), and Htilominlo (known for its red brick and elaborate plaster mouldings). But while each was awe-inducing, it was stumbling across the Bagan Free Clinic during our wander around a sunburnt village, which touched us so completely. The clinic, it turns out, is run by our ship’s doctor, Hla Tun, and today, some 250 patients (all sitting quietly on the bare floors) have come from all across the ancient capital. Operational every Friday to Sunday (when the RTM is moored at Bagan), the clinic sees as many as 3,500 patients a month.
Day Four: Farewell
Still moored in the waters off Bagan, we rise early to take in our last sunrise from the ship’s observation deck. Lost in the placid beauty of the Ayeyarwady, it is only after a fellow traveller calls out, “over there, over there!” that we spot hot air, after hot air balloon, rising through the grey morning mist over a conical skyline of majestic stupas to pierce the orange-tinged sky. After four days on the Kipling-inspired, Road to Mandalay, we’ve found our own ever-lasting memory of the country known for its gentle charm.
“Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay? On the road to Mandalay, Where the flyin’ fishes play”
— Mandalay (1892), Rudyard Kipling