Story and photography by Gina Gouveia
Scene: Thanksgiving morning. My sister’s residence in Golden Valley, Yangon Myanmar.
Ten days have passed since my arrival in this developing nation. I send off a text to a friend in the States…”Happy Thanksgiving. Heading to the airport for our trip to Mandalay…who says that?”
Her reply: “No one!”
And so it begins…
Eight months into her post with the U.S. State Department supporting its ambassador there, my sister Jana already navigates Rangoon with ease. Referred to by the locals as Yangon, Rangoon is the old capital city of Myanmar (formerly Burma) in which most of the foreign embassies are based. Since my arrival I’ve explored a lot of the city on my own, with the aid of a capable and knowledgeable driver, and am reveling in the immersion in a culture, a world, a people and a geographic and political climate so different from home.
The telltale elements exist, reminding me in some ways of India but not entirely. The influence of nearby Vietnam, Thailand and China are at play, too. I’m in sensory-overload and jet-lagged, but I can’t get enough. I’m scouring guide books and hitting many of the highlights – Shwedagon Pagoda, the oldest, largest and most formidable in its skyline; The National Museum, filled with centuries of history; Bogyoke and Theingyi Zei, two of the city’s largest marketplaces; and destinations off the beaten path such as the Helping Hands community, where locals craft garments and accessories for just above-market price to benefit children and families in disadvantaged communities. I happily leave with a colorful stash of summer garments for the grandchildren.
When my sister is able to join in, it’s mostly for dinners out – a trip to what she calls a “splurge” restaurant – a tried-and-true place from her top 10. In my explorations, I even find places and dishes that need to be added to her list. One standout is the chicken and vegetables steamed in a large banana leaf with pea leaves and chilies (of course) at Shan Yoe Yar, a bustling two-story restaurant with an open kitchen, featuring dishes from Shan State to the north. Like much of Burmese cuisine, it’s got all the elements for an adventurous palate – a perfect melange of flavor and spice with just the right amount of heat and crunch. “I want to eat this every day,” I tell her.
I find myself travelling further downtown just to visit Genius Coffee’s modest café for their single-origin coffee from the Shan Highlands. It is pure liquid gold. Located in a congested commercial section of the city on the fringe of “Little India,” Genius Coffee is where I get my fix (plus four pounds to bring home at 6,600 kyat per pound, or roughly $5. Also to my delight, I discover the local roadside stands selling abundant vegetables, exotic fruits and flowers indigenous to this land. November to February is, after all, Myanmar’s “winter,” meaning that the average daily temperatures peak anywhere from 85 to 90 humid degrees, leading you to wonder what summer could bring. With its cooler evenings, winter comes on the heels of a four-month monsoon season, producing the lush tropical foliage associated with the country. As in much of Asia, nature is adored, akin to worship really, and despite the dusty, dirty roadways, the street animals and the lacking infrastructure affected by violent floods, its beauty pops at every turn this time of the year.
The commercial downtown, scattered with large buildings, is home to classic examples of the original grand British Colonial architecture now in various states of disrepair or, in some cases, happily rejuvenated, as in the case of the recently reopened Strand Hotel, built in 1901. We stop in one evening for cocktails in Sarkies Bar, named for the original owners, a handsome and inviting space where one can imagine the notorious characters who once passed through this storied space.
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”
– Rudyard Kipling’s “Mandalay”
Unlike Kipling’s, my road to Mandalay was an easy one — a 45-minute flight from Yangon International Airport outside Yangon (Rangoon), a former capital city of Myanmar, where my sister Jana is stationed as a diplomat. What strikes you immediately about Mandalay — the country’s last royal capital and second largest city, 445 miles to the north — is the blueness of the sky, the vastness of the surrounding farmland and the drier, more moderate temperatures. Humble roadside stands boast bright-colored melons while lazy oxen and herds of cattle appear here, there and everywhere. Workers in coolie hats pop up more sporadically, tending to crops almost in solitude. As we leave the farmland and wind through the vibrant city, we arrive at the spot where Mandalay Hill just comes into view. It’s breathtaking, even at a mere 787 feet, and dotted throughout with classic golden pagodas, their gilded stupas pointing skyward from the sloping verdure.
It was Kipling’s poem, published in 1892 in his “Barrack-Room Ballads, and Other Verses,” that inspired the song “On the Road to Mandalay” performed by Nelson Eddy, Count Basie and, most famously, Frank Sinatra over the years. To visit Mandalay is perhaps to be one with Kipling and Ol’ Blue Eyes. The entire region, but particularly Mandalay Hill, is so unexpectedly scenic and exquisitely romantic, I imagine that it would make for a great destination honeymoon — or just a good place to drop off the grid.
There’s no beach or ocean, but there is the famous Irrawaddy River and its tributaries, which provide passage for the many industrial barges that support the area’s vast timber business. Just at the foothills is a most impressive 200-feet-wide moat surrounding the remains of the Imperial Palace (2.5 square miles in total), the last vestige of British rule. It is currently undergoing some restoration so we are only able to view this landmark from its imposing exterior.
Our arrival day at the elegant Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel — hospitable and perfectly located at the base of Mandalay Hill — is one of relaxation and decompression from travel, with long, luxurious spa treatments in a detached, antique wooden and tile building on the property’s spacious grounds, which we reach by crossing a lily pond on concrete stepping stones that must be navigated with care. Ensconced in my private therapy suite perched above the water, I don’t want my service to end so I linger over tea — anything that will prevent my departure from this oasis of serenity.
Traditional Myanmar barbeque, music and dance await at one of the hotel’s acclaimed restaurants, an outdoor affair with a dramatic stage set for the evening’s festivities. If only there were better lighting, we think, as we sit in the now chilly evening amid candlelit tables to experience the show. We are enthralled with the costume and instrument changes, the ever-present puppets, both diminutive and life-size, and the grand buffet of every Myanmar specialty you can imagine. The performers charm and entrance us. My sister tells me that this, too, is on a must-do Mandalay list and it’s right at our hotel.
Mandalay was built up in the mid-1850s on the grandest of scales by King Mindon (reigned 1853-1878), who wanted to reestablish the prestige of Burma (as Myanmar was then known) after its crushing defeat in the Second Anglo-Burmese war. The city’s historical richness beckons so we set out the following day with Alex, an engaging guide whose English is almost-perfect.
We stop at the car park on Mandalay Hill before taking a series of escalators to reach the summit and the panoramic view we have anticipated (shedding shoes before we embark in respect of the Buddhist sites we will enter). Those with more time and fortitude are able to ascend the hill by walking up a series of covered steps (1,729 to be exact) to reach the peak.
The centerpiece of the main promenade is where we pay homage to the many Buddhas depicted and make offerings depending on our wishes. My sister chooses the Buddha for beauty, and I, learning from Alex that there is no Buddha for animals, choose to make my offering for electricity to support this monumental project. Descending, we have been forewarned, requires walking down steep, broad concrete stairways in various stages of decomposition. Along the descent we will encounter shrines to other Buddhas of bygone eras, each with a drama-filled story.
On to Shwenandaw Monastery, which has been preserved from Mandalay Palace and moved to its current location. It was at this monastery, hand-carved from teak and laden with gold leaf, that King Mindon, the most revered of the Burmese monarchs, died. The monastery’s preservation has been a significant undertaking over the course of many years, with some support coming from the United Sates, but funds have run out and it’s evident that progress has been slowed.
We travel to the outskirts of the city to take in more sights, including one of only two locations where gold leaf is made. The demanding physical labor and conditions on display are stunning; the facts and figures about the hours and processes required, mind-numbing. Young male laborers beat the molten gold with oversized hammers in a noisy, chaotic fashion that makes it impossible not to gasp and stare. The last stage is accomplished by young women — overseen by an older, austere supervisor — sitting cross-legged in cramped quarters, cutting and stacking the now perfectly flattened leaf between precisely cut squares of bamboo paper to prepare it for shipment.
Another nearby former capital city is Amarapura, and it’s here that we visit Shwe Sin Tai Silkwear’s modest but ambitious production and retail facilities. It’s mostly a female affair, with pairs of girls working in tandem at wooden benches, following intricate patterns penciled on a grid hanging above their workbenches. Their craft is so intense and precise, they rarely acknowledge the presence of visitors. At another lonely station is an older male whose leathered feet enable him to operate a weaving machine skillfully. Their finished products are works of beauty sold across the street for modest prices, $12 to $20.
Also in Amarapura is the U Bein Bridge, the oldest and longest pedestrian bridge in the world. How can we resist? Spanning Taungthaman Lake, it’s a popular destination for locals and tourists alike, especially at sunset, so we arrive just ahead of it in hopes of missing the crowds. My savvy sister announces in advance that she will be staying in the car. It’s not until we encounter sheer madness that even I, an adventurous traveler, understand why.
The “parking area” is almost unnavigable — rutty, rocky and dusty terrain with the largest dose of humanity I’ve yet to experience since we arrived. I proceed on foot with Alex to the quietest corner of land where I make a video and take photographs as he explains the lay of the land and the history of this bewildering site. Constructed of teak by hand in 1850, the bridge spans three quarters of a mile, is a mere 6 feet wide and has no handrails, so one misstep and you’re in the lake. Colorful wooden boats and local guides are available for viewing the bridge from the lake below.
From my vantage point, the whole bridge is a fluid structure — bodies moving to and fro against a dusky sky. The spectacle of the moment is well worth the effort, but I leave wishing only that I may return one day to have this experience, better equipped physically and mentally for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Jan. 4 marked the 69th anniversary of Myanmar’s independence from British rule. In 1948, Burma had been decimated, the prospect of rebuilding gargantuan for a less than adequately prepared populace and government. Yet its future promises growth, high political hopes and a rising GDP.
Thant Myint U, a United Nations diplomat, author, noted historian and grandson of U Thant, the U.N.’s third secretary general of, reminded us of Burma’s struggles on his Facebook page on this year’s Independence Day.
“There is a myth that Burma at independence had all the attributes of a country fated for prosperity. Burma in January 1948 was actually in ruins after five years of war between the Allies and the empire of Japan. Every port, airport, oil refinery, railway line and station, bridg, and factory had been destroyed or severely damaged. Entire towns, including Mandalay, had been razed to the ground…On Jan. 30 1948, Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, just months after India’s partition and the first war between India and the new Pakistan…Around the same time, remnants of the defeated Chinese nationalists would cross into the Shan states, igniting a new round of violent conflict…The uplands of Burma have not known a real peace since. Overcoming this myth of a lost golden age and appreciating Myanmar’s ever changing international context are, I think, important in facing more clearly the scale of the challenges ahead.”