The Book

Mandalay-The Last Royal Capital

The drive into the city of Mandalay was an ordeal physically because the road consisted only of potholes and the old hotel car lacked shock absorbers. The bumpy road led through open fields and past dimly lit shops and private houses. The traffic was light, but the headlights of the oncoming cars were annoying because of the continuous use of high beams-if they had any headlights at all.

Of the two hotel employees who had come to meet me, one, the chief accountant, spoke some English, and he directed the driver to a pharmacy after I had told him of my predicament. Mandalay is a big city, and I was sure that I could get the right medicine without any trouble. But I almost despaired of success when the pharmacy turned out to be more of an open stall with shelves crammed with bottles, pills, and other remedies. When I described my symptoms to the shop's employees and gave them the names of two medications, they looked at me with a puzzled expression. I was ready to give up when a returning employee took one look at my handwritten note, went over to the shelves, and hurled the two drugs onto the counter. It was just what I needed, and the price was incredibly low-I would gladly have paid many times the requested price.

Hongta Hotel, located in the center of the city opposite a branch of the Central Bank, was a new and simple hotel, seven stories of dark glass and steel. The atmosphere was a little somber owing to the dark interior-scarcely any light fell into the rooms and the corridors. The lobby, decorated to impress the visitor, was furnished with heavy Chinese furniture, including those uncomfortable wooden Chinese chairs that had been placed in front of a big, loud television set. A domestic English-language newspaper was available for the guests. The standard rooms were so small that I opted for a US $42-a-night junior suite that had two large beds and a spacious bathroom-with the showerhead inevitably positioned so that it would flood the whole room every time it was used.

Mandalay, some 430 miles (600 kilometers) north of Yangon, has a short but royal past. It is only some 150 years old and served the nation as its royal capital until 1885, when King Thibaw was exiled by the invading British. Despite a history of devastating wars and fires, Mandalay has grown rapidly and, with some seven hundred thousand inhabitants, the city now serves as the economic, religious, and cultural center of central and northern Myanmar. A good deal of its uniqueness and charm stems from the small, two-story houses, the open-fronted shops and restaurants, and the vendors that line the streets. This former capital has a large-but-uninviting moated palace and a significant military presence-that is, it seemed to me that there were too many uniformed soldiers in the streets of Mandalay, some of them merely young country boys carrying semiautomatic weapons. Compared with other cities in Myanmar, traffic in Mandalay is heavy, even though it is still predominantly bicycles and rickshaws. From the roof of the hotel, one could see the arrival of modernization: construction sites, new and higher buildings (but a marked absence of high-rises), and, at night, neon signs and the sounds of blaring pop music from discos and bars.

Mandalay outshines Yangon in a few respects. For example, in addition to the many temples and stupas, Mandalay has over fifteen hundred monasteries that accommodate some twenty-three thousand monks and nuns. It is also the city of artisans and craftsmen, among them bronzecasters, stone sculptors, wood-carvers, goldsmiths, and umbrella makers, and it is famous for keeping alive the arts of traditional music and dance and the puppet theater. The neighborhoods near the city center look almost pastoral with their open-style private houses, children and chickens running around, and Burmese, Indian, or Chinese faces appearing at the gates or windows.

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