Header photo: Built in 1878 by King Thibaw Min, the Shenandaw monastery is built in the traditional Burmese architectural style and full of teak carvings depicting Buddhist myths on the walls and roofs.
You’ve likely heard of Mandalay Bay, the casino in Las Vegas, but lesser known is the city it was named after, in Myanmar.
While Somerset Maugham waxed emotive about how sensible men should never visit the old royal capital as no place could live up to its romantic atmosphere and lilting syllables, Rudyard Kipling was struck by the beauty of the Burmese women, writing during the country’s British occupation regarding walking “about with a pretty almond-colored girl who shall laugh and jest too….”
Kipling also penned the poem titled after the city, which would later become the basis for a Frank Sinatra hit. That’s likely how the name got on a Transatlantic flight and made landfall in Vegas.
Formerly Burma, Myanmar has come out of 50 years of Army-imposed hibernation and isolation from the world. Now tourism is on an upswing, with the country’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism saying there were more than 2.8 million foreign visitors in 2018.
Mandalay City was the last royal capital of Myanmar, as well as its second-largest city after the capital of Yangon, and it possesses some breathtakingly beautiful places even just within the city borders. Aside from gold-painted monasteries, there are more than 700 pagodas detailed in the ancient style of various Ayeyarwady River kingdoms who have ruled here.
I arrived in Myanmar on a dry and hot Wednesday afternoon in February, and found the country’s cultural and religious center of Buddhism living up to its reputation. I took off my rubber shoes and donned slippers instead; most of the tourist stops were holy sites, thus the need to go barefoot.
Novice monk boys as young as nine manned tourist booths, young women offered to decorate my cheeks with traditional thanaka make-up, and men in longyi skirts sped by on motorcycles or hung on the backs of open transports, Filipino sabit style.
Good news for Filipino travelers: all Philippine passport holders may enter and stay in Myanmar up to 14 days without a visa. Consider getting a local prepaid SIM from either local network Ooredoo (if you’re mainly staying within the cities of Mandalay and Yangon) or Telenor (if you’ll be backpacking away from city centers) from any of the kiosks at the arrival concourse of the airport. Both offer true 3G, with Ooredoo clocking in a faster speed but Telenor having cheaper SIM-cards and wider coverage.
I got an Ooredoo and it was more than enough for video calls and uploading Instagram photos, definitely blazingly swifter than anything in Manila. Still, if you absolutely, positively need to be online all the time, do what the locals do and buy two SIMS, one from each network.
From the summit of Su Taung Pyei Pagoda on top of Mandalay Hill, the faded glory of the Royal Palace, to the Mandalar Thiri stadium where the tournaments of the national martial art of lethwei bareknuckle boxing are held to the strains of a traditional orchestra, here’s a quick peek at a place that Kipling epitomized in verse as where “the dawn comes up like thunder.”
Karl R. De Mesa is a journalist and writer who co-hosts the fight culture podcast DSTRY.MNL and the dark arts and entertainment podcast Kill the Lights. His latest book is Radiant Void, a collection of essays and non-fiction available from Visprint Inc.