Fly Smiling to Mandalay, the Golden City

Mandalay (Myanmar) - January 9, 2016 (travelindex) - In 1887, when Rudyard Kipling wrote Mandalay, Burma was a province of the great colonial British India, “the jewel in the crown”, and Mandalay was Burma’s second largest city, which had served as the last royal capital of Burma before the British conquest of the city in 1885.

In those days Bangkok, the Kingdom of Siam, was a week’s travel by steamer, riverboat and horse and carriage: a long, hot and dusty journey. First one went to Rangoon and then up the muddy, meandering Irrawaddy River; 740km to Mandalay. Today Burma is called the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (pronounced: Mee-an-mar!), and Mandalay is only a 1.5-hour flight from Bangkok. The lifting of the tight lid of military rule in 2011 paved the way for direct flights from the Thai capital to the capital of Upper Burma. No more boring Rangoon airport transit stops needed.

The latest airline to ply the Bangkok-Mandalay route is the sister airline of Thai Airways, Thai Smile. This new carrier, established in 2013, shares the IATA reservation code – “TG” – with its big sister. A new domestic and international airline with 12 destinations is not a budget airline or LCC (low-cost carrier), but a fully-serviced premium light airline with two classes of service: Smile Plus and Smile Class. Smile Plus occupies the first five rows of the passenger cabin, with a seat pitch of 33 inches. Snack boxes and refreshments are served and luggage allowance is 30 kg. The Smile Class seats have a 28- to 31-inch pitch. Luggage allowance is 20 kg, plus you’re given a Smile “goodie bag”. In my soft snack box there was a tuna sandwich with cherry tomatoes and gherkins, a water bottle and a Kit Kat milk chocolate wafer. Hot coffee and tea are also provided. Smile’s tag line is: “Trendy, Friendly and Worthy”.

The Smile fleet will consist of ten brand new Airbus 320-200 by the end of 2013. While the low-cost carriers depart and land at the old Don Mueang runways, Thai Smile Air uses Suvarnabhumi.

Our inaugural flight, TG 781, departs for Mandalay at 07:25 hrs on the dot. One hour and 30 minutes later the Smile airbus, in bright Thai Airways liveries and with 168 passengers on board, lands on time at Mandalay International Airport, which, by the way, was built in 1999 by Thai construction giant Italian-Thai PCL. We step into a white, functional-looking terminal, which has a line of protruding passenger air bridges ready for the anticipated tourist onslaught.

Mandalay: The Golden City

Immigration and customs: piece of cake. Moments later our Chinese-built tour bus hits the almost deserted, pencil-straight, four-lane motorway to Mandalay. It’s 35 km from our hotel, Mandalay Hill Resort; the best address in town.

Burma’s last royal capital is bestowed with maybe one of the most lyrical names in the world. Man-DAH-lay! How it rolls off the tongue. The name ignites images as old as the languid Irrawaddy River. Founded as a royal capital in 1857, today it’s a bustling hub of commerce and trade. The city–sans skyscrapers–boasting a population of a million souls, is laid out like a flat grid; sprawling between the dry plains of the upper Irrawaddy district and Mandalay Hill, which is dotted with temples and pagodas. The dress here for men and women folk is the longyi, or sarong, and comfortable flip-flops or slip-on footwear. Mandalay is a metropolis where bicycles are fast disappearing and being replaced by light, Chinese-made motorbikes and scooters. In the bustling, fuming streets and intersections we also see small pickups, compact Japanese family cars and some luxury SUVs, too.

Monasteries, the Royal Palace and U Bein bridge

Our Mandalay tour kicks off with Shwenandaw Monastery. This monastery is most famous for its intricate 1850s Burmese teak wood carvings, boasting of dark patina. But the devil is in the detail; the doors and the windows in particular are real masterpieces. This pre-colonial chef-d’Ĺ“uvre is not to be missed by any Mandalay visitor. But respect the etiquette. Gentlemen: No shorts or sleeveless shirts. Ladies: No short skirts or spaghetti straps.

Next stop: The extensive Mandalay Royal Palace: the last royal palace of the last Burmese monarch, built in 1859 as part of King Mindon’s founding of the new royal capital city. It served as the primary residence of King Mindon and his successor, King Thibaw, who ruled over Myanmar until the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885, when he was forced out of his palace by British troops. Burma’s last king died in exile in India on 15 December 1916, aged 57.

Although largely destroyed by British air raids at the height of World War II, the Mandalay Royal Palace has been restored to its former splendour. The impressive, rectangular complex is enclosed by four walls; each of which is 2 km long and punctuated with defence bastions and decorative spires. Surrounding the walls is a sizeable square-shaped moat and 12 gates. An historical attraction de rigour in the heart of old Mandalay.

On the bus again. Next, we stop at the township of Amarapura, meaning “City of Immortality”. We visit one of Myanmar’s most photogenic sights: the U Bein teak bridge, which stretches close to 1.2 km across Taungthaman Lake and is said to be the longest teak bridge on stilts in the world. While the bridge is busy throughout the day, it sees the most activity at dusk: fishermen in the still waters; Theravada Buddhist monks streaming in their burgundy robes from one end to the other; and children and grown-ups walking and biking from shore to shore.

Burmese artisans and Mandalay Hill

The city is also known for its small, white marble sculptures of Buddha. Dozens of stone and wood workshops are still producing these sculptures in the way it has been done since ancient times. Mandalay artisans take pride in working with traditional methods in weaving, carving and casting. The most popular, and photographed, are the marble sculptors, bronze foundries and textile artisans.

To get the lay of the land, the vantage point par excellence is the Mandalay Hill, which towers above the city and the flat plains below. Virtually all visitors and pilgrims to Mandalay climb the 1,729 steps to the covered southern stairway with its magnificent, massive white guardian chinthe (half-lion, half-dragon) sculptures at the entry. From the top, and from several way-stations along the ascent, there’s a jaw dropping 360 vista of the city, the old Royal Palace, the Irrawaddy River and the distant Shan Hills. But… 1,729 steps: barefoot. Yes, there’s also a lift. Climb up and then take the elevator down; that’s my advice. Trust me. After the hot Mandalay Hill expedition a glass of cold Myanmar beer and a bowl of mohingar, the earthy-flavoured fish noodle soup that is Burma’s cherished national dish, hits the spot perfectly. Delicious.

Our Mandalay sojourn has come to an end and we depart on our smart Smile flight back to Bangkok. Au revoir, La Birmanie! Remember: the changes are coming fast–politically and touristically–so now is the right time to visit this enchanting, profoundly Buddhist country and former Imperial British colony which is just a 1.5-hour flight from BKK.

Written by:
John K Lindgren