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Barefoot in Mandalay, the last royal capital of Myanmar

You’ve likely heard of Mandalay Bay, the casino in Las Vegas, but lesser known is the city it was named after, in Myanmar.

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.

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.  

At Kuthodaw Pagoda, where the “World’s Largest Book” is housed, grow star flower trees, the blooms of which are made by locals into flower chains for the Buddha or to wear in their hair.
A couple look on at a photo shoot being held among the white stupas at Kuthodaw Pagoda. A popular place for family picnics, lovers walks, selfies, and photo shoots, since Myanmar lifted its tourism boycott in 2012. There are 730 tripiṭaka tablets and 1,460 pages containing the entire canon of Threvada Buddhism, each housed in the stupas surrounding the golden pagoda.
The current State Councilor of Myanmar depicted with doves flying forth from her hands and a halo. Suu Kyi was once lauded as the great democratic hope of the country, then elected as civilian leader in 2015, after being under military house arrest for 15 years. She has since been heavily criticized for her political decisions, like her silence regarding the Rohingya Muslims. Partly because of this, Amnesty International stripped her of their Ambassador of Conscience Award in 2018.
A parade on the streets of Mandalay City. A majority of the Myanmar population, roughly 48 million, profess to follow Theravada Buddhism.
A couple praying at one of the shrines at Su Taung Pyei Pagoda. Built by King Anawratha in 414, the pagoda sits on top of Mandalay Hill, accessible via an elevator. You can pray for a wish to be granted or survey the vista from a high vantage point.

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.

Before the British occupation turned the palace into Fort Dufferin, it was the residence of Kings Mindon and Thibaw, the last two kings of Burma. The palace is at the center of a walled fort surrounded by a moat and all the buildings are only a single storey in height, but the height and number of the spires above each one indicates how important it is.
The complex of souvenir vendors around the pagoda of the Mahamuni Buddha, one of the major pilgrimage sites for Threvada Buddhism in southwest Mandalay. Like many of the holy places, you’ll need to lose your shoes and go barefoot here.
Two giant stylized lions or leogryphs guard the southern and main approach, on the foot of Mandalay Hill. The holy hill is said to be where the Buddha predicted a great, religious city would emerge, where Mandalay City now stands. Author included for size context.

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.

A young novice mans the tourist desk at the Su Taung Pyei Pagoda on top of Mandalay Hill. Spending time as a monk is a rite of passage for Myanmar boys. You don’t need to make a lifetime vow right away, so a majority spend just a few days or months in service to the local temple.
A young man in fitted jeans (left) and an elder gentleman in a traditional longyi (right) hang on to the back of a converted truck.  While scooters and motorbikes are plentiful in Mandalay, there are also taxis and cars for transport as Myanmar’s tourism rises.
Mom is wearing traditional thanaka make-up, commonly made from a yellowish-white cosmetic cream made with ground bark, and drawn in various designs. Though commonly adorning the face and cheeks, women also use it on their arms not just for decorative purposes but also to protect from sunburn. Thanaka has been used by Burmese women for over 2,000 years.
19-year-old Burmese lethwei fighter Shwe Yar Mann poses at Mandalar Thiri Stadium before his fight. Billed as the most brutal striking sport in the world, lethwei (or the art of nine limbs) is the national martial art that is gaining swift popularity in SEA and the West. Fought without gloves and with legal head butts, young Burmese men and women are finding that fighting in lethwei is a viable profession and a way out of poverty for a sport once fought on sand pits and Buddhist holidays.
Portuguese fighter Antonio Faria gets his knuckles wrapped in gauze and tape for a lethwei fight. As lethwei gains popularity in the fight world, foreign fighters are flocking to Myanmar to train and fight for big purses. Gym owners and proponents are finding that it’s great for tourism and are packaging it as a cultural export, just like Thailand has attracted tourists through Muay Thai.
Located at the northeastern part of the Mandalay Palace grounds, the monastery burned down in 1890 and later rebuilt in the late 1990s through convict labor.
Before the final annexation by the British Empire, Mandalay was the last royal capital of the Konbaung Dynasty, the last independent Burmese kingdom. Today, it is still considered the center of Burmese culture with a population of just around 1.2 million. With its own airport and an upswing in economic revitalization at the city center, Mandalay is seeing rebuilt apartment blocks, shopping centers, and hotels.

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.”