The Book

Mandalay, the Royal City of the North,
Who Took My Coach?


The city of Mandalay has had many famous foreign visitors, and this is what one of them had to say after his visit in 1923.

First of all Mandalay is a name. For there are places whose names from some accident of history or happy association have an independent magic and perhaps the wise man would never visit them, for the expectations they arouse can hardly be realised. Names have a life of their own, and though Trebizond may be nothing but a poverty-stricken village, the glamour of its name must invest it for all right-thinking minds with the trappings of Empire; and Samarkand: can anyone write the word without a quickening of the pulse and at his heart the pain of unsatisfied desire? The very name Irrawaddy informs the sensitive fancy with its vast and turbid flow. The streets of Mandalay, dusty, crowded and drenched with a garish sun, are broad and straight. Tram-cars lumber down them with a rout of passengers; they fill the seats and gangways and cling thickly to the footboard like flies clustered upon an over-ripe mango. The houses, with their balconies and verandahs, have the slatternly look of the houses in the Main Street of a Western town that has fallen upon evil days. Here are no narrow alleys nor devious ways down which the imagination may wander in search of the unimaginable. It does not matter: Mandalay has its name; the falling cadence of the lovely word has gathered about itself the chiaroscuro of romance.

Before W. Somerset Maugham made that observation about Mandalay's name, an artist by the name of R. Talbot Kelly, who had visited Mandalay before Maugham, in 1905, was less kind in his remarks: "Never were preconceived ideas so completely shattered as were my own with regard to Mandalay! I had expected to find a handsome city of oriental character, instead of which it proved to be as mean as its river approach." And Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, on a visit in May 1985, agreed with Kelly: "I confess to similar sentiments. . . . One begins to understand why this is called the Dry Zone, and to wonder what possessed the Burmese kings to build their capital here, when they could have done so in Maymyo [today called Pyin Oo Lwin]. The heat is so intense as to cause everything to waver before one's eyes. Even the surrounding hills look parched and scorched." Poor Mandalay! Someone has to rise to its defense. So let me provide a short description.

Mandalay lies in the dry central area, which means it is in the rain shadow of the Chin Hills, at an elevation of only 328 feet (100 meters), within the Tropics, and only about a hundred miles south of the tropic of Cancer. No wonder this hot and dusty place is so uncomfortable for the foreign visitor from Europe or North America. With almost seven hundred thousand inhabitants, which includes about forty-five thousand monks and nuns, it is the second largest city in Myanmar. Yangon, the largest, lies 435 miles (700 kilometers) to the south.

Mandalay also lends its name to an administrative division that includes the Bagan area. Situated on the western bank of the Ayeyarwady, it is connected to the old city of Sagaing, across the river, by an imposing British-built bridge, which until November 1998 was the only bridge across this wide river anywhere in Myanmar. When this account reaches the Kachin capital of Myitkyina, we will witness preparations for the inauguration of the second bridge across the Ayeyarwady. A third bridge, at Pyay, and a fourth, at Pathein, should be finished in the early 2000s. It is hard to believe that until recently Burma had only one bridge across the more than 620-mile-long (1,000 kilometers) river. Mandalay is an important railway center: from here lines run to Monywa, Meiktila, Thazi, Yangon, Bagan via Pyinmana, Lashio near the Chinese border, and Myitkyina, the northern end of the line. The royal city of Mandalay is surrounded by more royalty-Amarapura, Ava, and Sagaing are all former royal capitals.

Mandalay's history is a short one because it became the capital only in 1857 when King Mindon moved his court here from Amarapura. The palace constructed for him at Mandalay is used today by the army for its troops. Fortunately for Burma, King Mindon was a reformer who opened up the country to trade with and technology from the West. He also encouraged the Burmese to seek training and education abroad. Although he had many sons, the wrong one succeeded him. King Thibaw rescinded many of his father's reforms and led the country into a third war with the British, who took only two weeks to drive him from his throne and into exile in India. Much of the city was destroyed during that short war. And the city would suffer more later when, during the Second World War, the Japanese and British fought here and yet again as the result of two devastating fires, in 1981 and 1984. Today, few buildings are truly old, and even so, most of them have undergone reconstruction at one time or another.

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