Emily Moe continues her guide to Burma series. Mandalay a city once decorated with glimmering jewels and gold has now bustled quietly into a city of commerce and culture constantly evolving with enterprise yet still preserving its royal past which continues to fascinate travellers to the region.
The city is the second biggest (and some would say busiest) city in Myanmar, next to Yangon.
Mandalay was once the royal capital of Myanmar, in which kings and queens lounged in gold and gem adorned houses. Its royal heritage and of Mandalay’s history have been enhanced since it opened the royal palace to the public.
The royal palace was essentially only inhabited by two kings; Thibaw and Mindon- the last two kings to preserve aristocracy in Myanmar. The palace is guarded by a moat and was built near the foot of Mandalay Hill with a distinct compound guarded by a fort built of large brick walls painted a stark maroon colour with signature intricate detailing of roofs.
The roofs are Burmese history reflected by the Burmese love and attention for sophisticated and baroque decorations in which the roofs of guardhouses were designed in a triangular form, with layers stacked upon one another with ornate details running along it. The roofs are composed of simpler layers and decoration; the Mansard roofs with matte paint with each layer bordered with a gold fringe and all four corners marked with small formations of gold.
Each of the constructed roofs are topped off with a pyramid. The royal houses were often based upon simple architecture of pillars and walls without complex interior arrangements. Within the large compound, houses were specifically designed for each of the wives and mistresses of the king; the architecture varying according to the wife’s importance to the king.
Three main features of the Royal Palace are the Watch Tower, the Lion Throne Room and the Hluttaw (Parliament, or otherwise a location for ministers and officials to gather to discuss issues concerning governance).
The watch tower is Mandalay’s celebrated roof with a flight of spiral stairs. The watch tower is largely constructed of sturdy wood and it has been maintained carefully and still open for visitors who are able to view the whole royal compound from a clear bird eye’s view. It is certainly a spot to clear your thinking and enjoy some fresh air while basking in the whispering presence of past royalty.
The Hluttaw is thought to be the most significant structure of the royal palace due to its extravagant architecture and space. The Lion Throne Room is a space specifically reserved for the king and home to the king’s throne – a fundamental symbol of royalty for the king and queen. This rule is because anyone who takes his place on the throne can be considered king and distinguished as a symbol of Burmese royalty.
Mandalay Hill is renowned for its pagoda, the Sutaungpyei, at its summit and thus has become a destination of pilgrimage for Buddhists. The summit can itself can be reached through three different ways: climbing, motorcycle or by car.
Climbing one of the four stairs (each located at north, south, east or west of the hill) is considered to be the most testing yet rewarding experience due to two different reasons: in terms of religion, it is considered to be of merit, but from a rather objective point of view climbing the hill by stairs allows one to view stores offering authentic objects as well as a glimpse into the people living on the hill.
Reaching the summit, one will be able to enjoy fresh air and a splendid view of Mandalay. It’s also a great location for those vying to take pictures or selfies for their Instagram due to the natural lighting and vantage point.
Image Daryn Nakhuda via Flickr
Mandalay retains its Burmese cultural roots as it evolves into a bustling city today. Despite the industry becoming rather commercial, visitors can still enjoy authentic performances of Burmese dances and puppetry. Burmese puppetry plays a significant role in Burmese culture as it represents story-telling as a way of reviving and preserving cultures.
The puppets are often local-made with clothes and craft and evidence of its distinct cultural heritage. The puppets are controlled by strings and are often played out in comedies and fables – providing a form of entertainment for both children and adults alike. It is certainly a must-do activity when visiting Mandalay.
Image Wood carving shop – Mandalay, Myanmar. Kathy via Flickr.
The demographic of Mandalay is largely composed of Yunnans (Chinese) and Burmese. As a result, Mandalay attributes its thriving economy to its economic relations with the Chinese. Most of the businesses in Mandalay ( a majority of which are small in scale) are relatively dependent upon stock imported from China due to its quality and price. Subsequently, Mandalay has become an economic hub of small but prosperous businesses.
Those living in Yangon particularly favour Mandalay for its smaller price tags (compared to Yangon) for products of quality comparable to that in Yangon. Clothes are a popular choice for local visitors who go to Mandalay and buy trendy and fashionable clothes at affordable prices.
Image Winter melon candy and other sweet stuff. @ccfoodtravel via Flickr.
Sweets and fruits are considered to be unique specialities of the Mandalay culture. Fruits such as pineapples are a particular favourite among both tourists and locals alike as the fresh fruits of Mandalay never cease to disappoint; always fresh and every bite full of juicy flavour. Street vendors and stalls offer a variety of choices for fresh fruits ranging from non-ostentatious smoothies to fruit bowls accompanied with ice-cream and toppings.
Mandalay is also well known for its local sweets- a local delicacy that every visitor should sample before returning home. For anyone with a sweet tooth, Mandalay will certainly provide your sugar rush with a wonderland making your childhood dreams come true with its endless variety of sweets, many artisan crafted, and fulfilling your Willy Wonka imaginations.