“On the road to Mandalay
Where the flyin’ fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder
Outer China ‘crost the Bay.”
Rudyard Kipling wrote that poem in 1890 (he actually never entered the city of Mandalay, though he was nearby) as homage to British soldiers who longed to return to the exotic East in the service of the Queen rather than stay in drab, damp, cold England. The soldier in the poem misses his “almond-eyed Burmese maiden” who wasted her kisses on an idol’s foot — “the Great Gawd Budd” (Buddha!). The British occupied Burma for 65 years until its independence after World War II.
Fabled Mandalay. It was heavily bombed when the Japanese invaded and occupied it during WWII. Later in the 20th century, it suffered a massive fire. So generally the architecture is newish and mundane. But that’s not what makes Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city, an exciting place to visit. It is the commercial, educational, and religious center of northern Myanmar, and as such, the countryside is filled with historic and monumental pagodas, stupas, and palaces, scattered across Mandalay Hill and surrounding historic communities — including three former ancient capitals. The Mandalay area is home to half of the Buddhist monks and nuns in Myanmar, an estimated 200,000 of them, living in hundreds of monasteries.
We spent almost three days exploring the area, including visits to craft workshops where carvers, marble sculptors, embroiderers, and weavers made beautiful and intricate art by hand. Fortune granted us the opportunity one day to witness a private, grand procession of several young boys, accompanied by their families, about to enter the monastery (all boys must go for at least ten days; about 15% stay after that). Truly exciting pageantry! The beauty and calm expressions of both male and female faces remain with me. In the photos below, you will notice the custom of painting the faces of the boys (three boys pictured) entering the monasteries — lipstick, eye make-up, and powder. Surprising.