On the Road to Mandalay

Highlights of Myanmar
By Fred J. Eckert
Fred J. Eckert
Fred J. Eckert
October 23, 2019 Updated: October 23, 2019

The chorus of the famed song keeps running through my mind. It’s from an 1890s poem by Rudyard Kipling that Billy May set to swing in a 1950s Frank Sinatra tune. It’s about a faraway land that is exotic and mysterious: it’s about this enigmatic country that I am watching unfold before me.

“On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!”

I am on the observation deck of a luxury riverboat cruise ship, watching the sun go down ever so slowly as the ship glides smoothly along the wide and vast Irrawaddy River through this land that used to be known as Burma, now named Myanmar.

Riding in a pony-drawn cart is a fun way to visit the pagodas of Bagan. (Fred J. Eckert)

Along the far-offshore is a tiny village. I can make out people walking about. Some of the women are carrying bundles on their heads. A few people sitting together not far from the river’s edge have musical instruments and are playing pleasant melodies. Not far from them, two water buffalo are pulling an oxcart with an overflowing load while a young man walks alongside, prodding them forward.

And, as has been the case with all the other villages that we have sailed by today, towering over everything is a large pagoda, a Buddhist temple that doubles as a place of prayer and a center for family and community social activity.

Against the backdrop of the orange-blazed setting sun, I see on the river the silhouettes of fishermen in small boats casting large nets.

The striking outline of the pagoda, the shadowy silhouettes of the net-casting fishermen, and the music all seem to come together to capture the aura of the East—sights and sounds that remind me that I am a long, long way from back home in the United States.

The chorus keeps running through my mind:

“On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!”

But wait a minute. It’s been hours and I haven’t seen any flying fish in the Irrawaddy!

Wait another minute! I know my geography. I’ve seen maps and globes showing where Myanmar/Burma abuts China. There isn’t any bay anywhere along the 1,356-mile border between these two countries!

“A sort of general mix-up of the singer’s Far-Eastern memories”—that’s how Kipling explained it, I learned after I returned home and did some extra research. The great Nobel Prize-winning writer never traveled to Mandalay! He once spent a few days in Burma when an ocean liner that he was sailing on briefly visited the far-from-Mandalay ports of Rangoon (now Yangon) and Moulmein. That’s it!

Too bad for Kipling—and maybe us, too—that he didn’t take the time to see more of this roughly Texas-size Southeast Asia land of 53 million people that lies south below China above the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea, touching India and Bangladesh to its west and Thailand and Laos to its east. It is an incredibly fascinating place —one of the world’s truly exotic destinations.

U Bein’s Bridge, a 200-year-old teak footbridge, on Lake Taungthaman near Mandalay. (Fred J. Eckert)

The Best Way to See Myanmar

The best way to see Myanmar is to include cruising its river road to Mandalay—the Irrawaddy River—from, say, Bagan to Mandalay aboard a luxury ship, of which there are many to choose from, most of which offer comfortable fully equipped air-conditioned cabins with great views from wide windows.

Myanmar is the largest country in mainland Southeast Asia and was once the most prosperous one. After a Marxist general seized power in 1962 the country shut its doors and locked out virtually all contact with the outside world for the next few decades until finally, the government decided that tourism might be a quick-fix source of badly needed foreign exchange. Many snubbed the country because of its repressive policies; eventually there was a forced loosening and in recent years things have been looking up for Myanmar, which is not to suggest it has arrived where it should be.

Puppets and puppet shows are very popular in Myanmar. (Fred J. Eckert)

Beginning in Yangon

I began my tour with a visit to the Yangon, formerly Rangoon. While crumbling some, Yangon is considerably more attractive than I had anticipated. A city with some eye-appealing wide boulevards and several lovely parks and sparkling lakes, it has a look that says that this was once a British colony.

What makes it special is the towering 2,500-year-old Shwedagon Pagoda that is visible from most parts of the city. It is the most important religious shrine in Myanmar and one of the largest and most sacred Buddhist temples in the world.

A soaring 326-foot-high bell-shaped superstructure called a stupa sits atop a terraced base and is covered with gold leaf. Another dazzling feature is the umbrella-shaped dome that crowns its pointed top. It is studded with precious jewels—rubies, sapphires, and topaz—and has silver bells dangling from it. The pagoda’s gold and silver weathervane is decorated with more than a thousand diamonds.

This is a great sight that Kipling did happen to see during his few days in the country—he called it “a beautiful, winking wonder.”

Walking barefoot through this great Buddhist shrine during my first day in Myanmar—one has to take off not only shoes but socks to walk in a Buddhist temple here—I am enthralled by the serenity of this land and the gentle disposition of its people.

People here are expected to live by a code of behavior known as “bamahsan chin,” meaning “Burmese-ness.” It calls for a quiet and self-effacing manner, a reverent respect for elders, modest dress, discreet conduct in dealing with the opposite sex, and treating others always in such a kindly manner so as to never hurt someone else’s feelings. At the core of their conduct is the belief that losing face or causing someone else to lose face is one of life’s worst misfortunes.

Yangon is an unusually safe destination, as are all other parts of Myanmar that are open to tourism. That’s partly because penalties for hassling a tourist are strong—but certainly also because of the exceedingly kind nature of the Burmese people. At no time anywhere in the country did I ever feel anything but completely at ease. The people are extraordinarily friendly and many of them speak English well, it being the country’s second language.

Three Buddhist monks take a break together under a shade tree on the grounds of a pagoda. (Fred J. Eckert)

Mandalay: Religious and Cultural Center

Mandalay, the country’s second-largest city, was the last royal capital of Burma’s king before the days of British colonization began in 1886.

Sparkling white temples or stupas dot the surrounding hillsides. They look almost like huge piles of snow reaching for the subtropical sky.

The Mahamuni (or Arakan) Pagoda is the holiest shrine in Mandalay. It features a 12-1/2-foot bronze Buddha image that is believed to be a true likeness, but its original features have been blurred because over the years pilgrims have layered it with sheets upon sheets of gold leaf.

So widespread is the practice of pilgrims plastering pagodas and images with gold leaf that gold-leaf making is one of the leading industries in Mandalay.

Most Burmese women decorate their faces with thanaka, a fragrant yellow sandalwood paste that is considered both a beauty mark and a sunscreen. (Fred J. Eckert)

A Very Different World

Anywhere you turn in Myanmar you sense that you are in a very different world.

The Burmese call their world “Shwe Pyi Daw,” which means “The Golden Land,” reflecting its gilded pagodas, its dramatic golden sunsets, its wealth of resources—jade, rubies, teak, and oil—and the richness of its soil, some of Asia’s finest farmlands.

A constant reminder of just what a different world it is, is the near-total absence of so many of the Western influences that abound in many other Asian countries. It may be hackneyed to say that there is a feeling of stepping back in time, but it’s true.

Almost all of the women decorate their faces with “thanaka,” a fragrant yellow sandalwood paste. It is considered a beauty mark and is also supposed to have the advantage of acting as a sunscreen and skin rejuvenator.

Men as well as women wear skirts called “longyi.” Made of cotton, or occasionally silk, longyi come in all colors, are always in style, and are considered appropriate for either casual or formal wear.

And, of course, almost every direction you look, you see that same special scene that always reminds you what a truly different land this is—monks walking about nearly everywhere. Sometimes alone, sometimes in groups of twos and threes, and sometimes in long lines of as many as a couple of dozen, monks decked out in plain orange or crimson robes walk about carrying their black-lacquered alms bowls. The shaved head and simple robe symbolize the monk’s renunciation of worldly pleasures following the example of the Buddha. They are totally dependent upon the generosity of their fellow Buddhists for their subsistence. They are not permitted to grow their own food or till the soil for others.

A young Buddhist monk, begging bowl in hand, standing near a pagoda in Yangon. (Fred J. Eckert)

Incomparable Bagan

Nowhere does Myanmar seem more like a totally different world than in Bagan—mystical, mysterious, moving, majestic, and surreal, it is one of Asia’s most awesome sights, ranking among the top archaeological wonders of the world,

For nearly two and a half centuries—until the Mongols captured it in 1287—Bagan was home to a prosperous, peaceful, Buddhist renaissance. During that period a great royal city stood here, and more than 13,000 pagodas were constructed in a 30-square-mile area on the dry plain of Bagan at a bend of the great river.

Today all the secular buildings of ancient Bagan are gone. Once hundreds, if not thousands, of them stood here. They were made of wood, which long ago decayed.

But even after the pillage of the Mongols and seven centuries that brought earthquakes and neglect, 2,217 pagodas, architectural masterpieces made of brick and stucco, still stand. The ruins of even more stand among them.

Bagan is also today famous for its fine lacquerware items. Lacquerware is the best thing to shop for in Myanmar, particularly since so much of the jade and other gems being sold throughout the country are fakes.

To fully savor Bagan one should allow time for both a sunset visit and a sunrise visit.

The fun way to travel among the pagodas of Bagan is by pony-drawn cart. Few things can make you feel that you have stepped back in time like riding in one of these pony-drawn carts and looking out at the ghostly vista of nothing but ancient pagodas and lines of pilgrims traveling to them in this peculiar way.

To stand atop a pagoda at sunset or sunrise and look out over Bagan is eerie. Everywhere you look, 360 degrees around, is a vast vista of seemingly endless pagodas. There is a sensation that you really are looking at a different world. It is, paradoxically, both a soothing and exhilarating experience.

The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon is covered in gold leaf. (Shutterstock)

Everything That He Imagined It to Be

Back aboard my cruise boat, as we sail up the wide Irrawaddy to explore still more, I stand at the rail of the observation deck and watch this very different world slowly glide by. The chorus of that famed song runs through my mind:

“On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!”

I am glad Kipling wrote those words that helped stir within me a desire to someday visit this fascinating land.

And I wish that he could have stayed as long and seen as much of it as I now have. It’s everything he imagined it to be.

Fred J. Eckert is a retired U.S. ambassador and former member of Congress. His writings have appeared in many leading publications, including Reader’s Digest and The Wall Street Journal. He is also an award-winning photographer whose collection of images includes all seven continents.

It seems almost as if everywhere you look in Myanmar you see a pagoda. (Fred J. Eckert)

If You Go

Information: Because a package tour makes more sense than independent travel in Myanmar, it’s wise to check to see what a few highly regarded tour operators offer.

When to Go: The best time to visit Myanmar is during the cooler dry season from late October through early March.

Safety: Areas of the country visited on tours are quite safe—as safe as many European destinations.

Language: Myanmar is a former British colony and English is the country’s second language.

Health: Unless you are entering from Africa, no shots are required. But travelers would be wise to consult a doctor about preventive measures. Malaria medication and Hepatitis A and B vaccinations are generally recommended.

Entry Documents: U.S. citizens need both a passport and a visa to visit Myanmar. The tour operator will make arrangements for your visa.

Guidebook: The “DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Myanmar (Burma)” is a good choice.

Fred J. Eckert
Fred J. Eckert