MANDALAY (640 kilometers miles north of Yangon) is the cultural capital of Myanmar, its second largest city and home of its last kings. Founded in 1857 by King Mindon, one of Myanmar's greatest rulers, it is considered the spiritual center of Myanmar, and has so many religious shrines it has been described as a "forest of temples" (only Pagan has more). For more than two centuries, until World War II, when city was devastated by Allied bombing, Mandalay and the area around it were the home of Myanmar's kings.

Named after Mandalay Hill, the site of an important religious shrine, and modeled after the nearby city of Amarapura, which was the home of the Burmese royal family before 1857, Mandalay has many beautiful spots and stunning religious architecture even though it was ravaged by fires in 1945, 1981 and 1984, when many of it's beautiful wooden buildings were destroyed. The city was founded when it was to fulfill a prophecy that it would be founded on the 2,400th anniversary of Buddha’s birth.

Mandalay lies on flat, dusty and treeless plain on the east side of the Irrawaddy River in an area dotted with other old Burmese capitals. Home to 1.2 million people, it has its share of busy spots, with streets choked with cars, bicycles, scooters and trishaws. Mandalay lies on the Irrawaddy River near the geographic center of Myanmar, and not far from China, giving it a pivotal position in terms of commerce and administration. It is hotter and drier than Yangon. Over the past two decades it has experienced a modest amount of construction fueled by trade with China and government efforts to attract tourists, many of whom arrive in Mandalay bound for somewhere else and don’t spend more than a day looking around.

Mandalay is only about a fifth of the size of Yangon but arguably has much more to see and do. Even though the city was first brought to the attention of Westerners by Rudyard Kipling's poem “The Road to Mandalay”, Kipling never visited the city although George Orwell did. A new $150 million airport in Mandalay opened in 2000 and is an example of the Myanmar regime’s ridiculous infrastructure projects. The airport has a relatively small number of flights. Still, life is relatively low key in Mandalay. Horse carts and wind-up trucks still show up on the streets.

Steven Martin wrote in Time magazine, “Despite its Kipling-haunted name, Mandalay is no dusty bell jar of British colonial memory. If anything, the bustling town evokes New China, Burma's most enthusiastic trading partner, whose border is barely 320 kilometers away. If New York is the city that never sleeps, Mandalay is a town that can sleep through anything. The sound of unmuffled engines hurls past with roaring Doppler effects, and motorbikes tear through the town like chainsaws run amuck. To amplify matters, the Burmese drive by the horn, and the sound of their honking — more a stutter of warning than a bellow of outrage — fills the air. At busy intersections, a screeching whistle accompanies the Hitleresque waves and salutes of white-jacketed traffic cops. [Source: Steven Martin, Time magazine, 2002]

“In the evenings, just as the sound of traffic begins to die down, Mandalay settles in for its traditional entertainment. Bamboo poles lashed together and draped with painted canvas backdrops form impromptu stages that seem to appear out of nowhere, temporarily blocking off side streets. The stages are venues for anyeint pwe, a vaudevillian variety show of singing, dancing and comedy skits. Orwell described one such performance in Burmese Days:

History of Mandalay

Mandalay was founded as a new royal capital (replacing Amarapura) in 1860, and the palace walls and side moat near the heart of the city date to this period. The city was known as Ya-da-na-bon (Cluster of Gems) Nay-pyay-daw (Capital City) in olden days. Also called the golden capital, it officially came into existence on May 3, 1859. Around that the same time, the cities walls, royal moat, Mahalawka Marazain Pagoda, Tripitaka (Sacred Buddhist Teachings) Royal library, ThuDhamma Zayat (Religious resting place for pilgrims or travelers), Maha Athu Lawayan monastery and the Dhamma Myitzu Pathan Zayat or Ordination Hall were also built.

Mandalay was the last seat of the Myanmar King. The King who built this city from empty land was Mindon. who reigned from 1853 to 1878. In 1856 he was residing in the capital of Amarapura which he deemed no longer fortuitous. The full official name of this old capital was Amarapura Mandalar, and the King decided to take the last word and named the new capital Mandalay. Starting from scratch, the King was able to design the city to his liking, with wide streets set in a grid pattern. His palace was enclosed within walls which stretched one mile long on each of its four sides, surrounded by a moat. Inside these walls, the center area was enclosed again for the king's own palaces. Due to air strikes during 1945 in World War II, the golden palace built by King Mindon has burnt to the grounds. Mya Nan San Kyaw golden palace has now been rebuilt in original form according to the record of the history.

Mandalay did not last long as a royal capital as it was taken over by the British when they annexed all of Upper Myanmar in 1886 but it remains a major center of cultural and religious life in Myanmar. Shelling during World War II destroyed the royal palace and several pagodas. Monks in Mandalay played an important role during the Saffron Revolution protests in 2007 and are heavily involved in anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya nationalism. SAFFRON REVOLUTION: SEPTEMBER 2007 PROTESTS IN MYANMAR ; SEPTEMBER 2007 PROTESTS TURN VIOLENT ;

Mandalay in the 1970s

Paul Theroux wrote in “The Great Railway Bazaar”: “We were standing at the foot of Mandalay Hill, before two towering stone lions and a sign FOOT WEARING IS FORBIDDEN. I took off my shoes—"Stockings too," said the Burman apologetically—and socks, and began climbing the holy stairs. He kicked off his rubber sandals and followed me, muttering, "Omega, Omega." [Source: Paul Theroux, The Atlantic, November 1, 1971]

“And spitting. "Foot wearing" is forbidden, but bicycles are not—provided they are pushed and not ridden—and neither is spitting. Dodging great gouts of betel juice, I climbed, and soon others joined us. A troop of boys quickly took up the Omega chant. On every landing there is a temple, a soft-drink stall ("Dagon Pure Orange—Bottled in Yangon With Distilled Water"), and a sugar-water machine which squeezes split canes in a contraption that resembles an old laundry wringer. Halfway up the hill I stopped, had a Super Soda, and examined some statuary in wire cages, life-sized plaster figures, brightly painted and horrific as a Tiger Balm ointment tableau: a supine figure sticking his tongue out at a crow perched on his chest and tearing bright blue intestinal coils, yards of shiny hose, from a gaping hole in the man's belly; another satisfied man with a cutlass, squatting next to a disemboweled deer. I slipped a coin into a cast-iron machine, and three figures in a window were set into motion: a clockwork man swept a path with a wire broom, a clockwork saffron-robed monk shuffled on the path, and a clockwork devotee raised and lowered his clasped hands to the monk.

“We set off again, stopping once for a boy to piss on the sacred hill (according to legend, Buddha climbed the hill and pointed down at what was to become the Center of the Universe, later Fort Dufferin, and now Burmese Army Headquarters for the Northwest Command). In the temple at the top of the hill, where there is a massive gold Buddha pointing toward the army barracks, I collapsed onto a bench in the 106-degree heat. I was surrounded by Burmese quoting ridiculously high prices for my watch. Very clearly I said, "My mother gave me this watch," and in a moment they were gone. “

Tourism in Mandalay

Mandalay Tourism Office: Myanmar Tourism Services Mandalay Office: Ka-411, Myin Sai Street, Yankintharyar Quarter, Paheingyi Township, Mandalay, Myanmar., Tel: (+952) 572 65, 576 50, Fax: (+952) 576 50

Orientation: Mandalay consists of five main townships: 1) Aung Myay Thar Zan, 2) Chan Aye Thar Zan, 3) Mahar Aung Myay, 4) Chan Mya Tharzi and 5) Pyigyi Tagun. Mandalay Hill is a popular destination. A beautiful view of the whole city can be had from the top of the hill. At the top of it and around it are many of Mandalay’s most famous pagodas and monasteries. Central Mandalay is reasonably compact but some of the main tourist destination are located in different parts of the city. The Royal Palace and Mandalay Hill areas have enough to keep one busy for a couple hours. Otherwise take a taxi or rent a motorbike or bicycle to visit more out of the way places.

Accommodation and Restaurants: Luxury hotels, moderate hotels and economy hotels are available in Mandalay. Restaurants offering, Myanmar, Chinese, Indian, and European food are available. Coffee shops and snacks bar are mostly in Mandalay. Beer pubs and bars are also available.

Getting to Mandalay from Yangon: Mandalay is reached by a 55 minute flight from Yangon. Air schedule reliability varies. Travel by car from Yangon Mandalay takes 12-14 hours over poor roads. It is a 14-hour trip by overnight train.

Boat Trip Between Mandalay and Bagan is, for many tourists, the highlight of their trip to Myanmar. Memorable scenes along the way include naked children swimming in the river, women pounding their laundry on the rocks, ox carts transporting goods, paddle boats plying the river and quiet villages. The 16-hour trip from Mandalay to Bagan on a regular ferry costs US$15.

Entertainment and Shopping in Mandalay

Mandalay is the main city of cultural heritage. Marionette shows and traditional theatre are performed. Zegyo Bazaar is a good place to buy silk and enjoy Mandalay's nightlife. For who like oriental kiche the Lonely Planet guides describe several pagodas that contain amusing clockwork coin-in-the-slot displays. Many tour operators can arrange customized show programs with tourists. Handicrafts, lacquerware and other souvenirs shops are widely available. Art Galleries and Gems shops also offer reasonable prices for different items.

Mandalay Pwe: Anyeint pwe is a vaudevillian variety show of singing, dancing and comedy skits. George Orwell described one such performance in Burmese Days: “The music struck up and the pwe-girl began dancing again. Her face was powdered so thickly that it gleamed in the lamplight like a chalk mask with live eyes behind it ... The music changed its tempo, and the girl began to sing in a brassy voice ... [she] turned round and danced with her buttocks protruding towards the audience. Her silk longyi [sarong] gleamed like metal. With hands and elbows still rotating she wagged her posterior from side to side. Then — astonishing feat, quite visible through the longyi — she began to wriggle her buttocks independently in time with the music.” [B. D. Chapter 8, par. 32]

Steven Martin wrote in Time magazine, “The pwe lasts all night, with the final curtain descending at dawn, but in Orwell's day there was no mountain of speakers on either side of the stage blasting music and voices over a wide radius of neighborhood. From my hotel in Mandalay, I could hear the cacophony of no less than three of these shows reverberating through the walls. At first I found the amplified strains and alien tongues pleasing to my sense of the exotic, but after two nights of fitful sleep, I began to loathe Mandalay's taste in entertainment. Actually, a third category of noise can be added to this list, though it falls far behind the other two in terms of pervasiveness: noise associated with religion. Steeples and minarets compete with stupas for the skyline of Mandalay, the result of Indian immigration and Christian missionizing, and from these houses of worship pour the noises of faith: gongs, hymns, bells and the call of the muezzin. [Source: Steven Martin, Time magazine, 2002]

Moustache Brothers

The Mustache Brothers are arguably Myanmar’s most famous practioners of a-nyeint pwe, Myanmar’s traditional vaudeville, featuring puppets, music and slapstick comedy tinged, often colored by direct but dangerous political satire. Par Par Lay is the 60-year-old leader (2007) of the Mustache Brothers. He is a third-generation practitioner of a-nyeint pwe. He learned comedy from his father, who picked it up from his own father. Par Par Lay started out professionally in the mid-1960s and soon headed a traveling road show of three comedians, 10 female dancers, eight musicians and five roadies.

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: “The Mustache Brothers are a family troupe of 13 comedians, dancers and musicians. Mr. Par Par Lay and his brother U Lu Maw, 58, favor handlebar mustaches, the source of their group’s name. They used to travel from village to village, performing at weddings, funerals and festivals. In former days, Burmese kings would watch a-nyeint pwe (pronounced ah-NYAY pway) to gauge public sentiment couched in the comedy. [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, October 29, 2007]

Nick Meo wrote in the Times: “Brothers Par Par Lay and Lu Maw and their rubber-faced cousin Lu Zaw are officially banned and blacklisted. They cannot perform at the weddings and village festivals where they once made a living. Two of them have already done nearly five years' hard labour, breaking rocks on the Chinese border. Their crime? Holding the regime up to ridicule at a performance before democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The years of punishment took their toll but failed to silence Burma's only dissident comedians...Their show is a bizarre but entertaining mix of slapstick comedy, graceful dance, and traditional music. The three started off in the tradition of bawdy peasant humour and temple dancing.[Source: Nick Meo, the Times, August 27, 2005]

Felipe Villamor of AFP wrote: “With nothing more than their sharp wit, the sexagenarian members of one of the long-isolated country's most famous comedy troupes are perhaps among the bravest dissidents to have stood up to the generals. Officially banned and blacklisted, the act counts pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi among its fans. The trio used to lead one of Myanmar's most popular traditional comedy acts.[Source: Felipe Villamor, AFP, February 29, 2012] In August 2013, Par Par Lay died from kidney disease, allegedly caused by the lead paint on the walls of a water tank that he drank from in prison. Lu Maw and Lu Zaw continue to perform as the Moustache Brothers as a duo. Their first public performance without Par Par Lay was held four days after his funeral. [Source: Wikipedia]

Moustache Brothers Comedy Show on Mandalay's 39th Street

Felipe Villamor of AFP wrote: “These days they perform in English to growing numbers of foreign tourists at their nightly show in their home city Mandalay. Lu Maw, a wiry 62-year-old whose broken English is peppered with mismatched idioms, elicited nervous laughter by admonishing the crowd at a recent show to be quiet because government agents were nearby. "We are blacklisted, jail birds, and illegals you know, so you are also here illegally," he told a young American woman in the front row before breaking into a grin. "But don't worry, the government loves tourists because they want your dollars." [Source: Felipe Villamor, AFP, February 29, 2012 ^]

“At another point in the show Par Par Lay asked the crowd if they wanted to see an authentic Burmese act. Within seconds, he was wearing a balaclava helmet over his moustachioed face and sporting a hand gun as he gingerly mimicked a thief breaking into a home. "That's how they are, like Jesse James, Ali Baba, like bandits," Lu Maw said on the microphone, alluding to the military to scattered laughter from the crowd. The regime is not the only butt of their humour — their jokes also target the West, and in particular the United States. ^

“Feigning seriousness, Lu Maw wondered aloud why US-led coalition forces had not sent unmanned drones to Myanmar, whose military he said had been involved in some of the world's most atrocious rights abuses. "Burma is the same as Libya, Egypt, Somalia or Syria. But they all have oil," Lu Maw said with a naughty wink. "Ah, but they (the West) don't know what we have — we have opium and heroin too." After the one-hour show, the brothers personally thanked every visitor and sold them souvenirs. They said the money would go to helping those political prisoners still languishing in jail. ^

At another show four years earlier, Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Lu Maw is the middle brother, and since his fractured English is the closest to fluent, he warms up the small groups of tourists who fill the plastic lawn chairs in the brothers' living room each night. He cracks jokes rapid-fire, like a comic machine gun, under the harsh white light of six bare fluorescent tubes. Often he riffs on expressions he's picked up from the folks who buy tickets or while listening to foreign broadcasts on shortwave radio, like "Bite the dust," "New bottle, same wine," and "My brothers and I, we're skating on thin ice!" [Source: Paul Watson. Los Angeles Times, March 4, 2008 **]

“The living room theater is on Mandalay's 39th Street, the Broadway of a-nyient. The stage, covered in red all-weather carpet, is half a step up from a brick floor. The wall behind it is strung with marionettes, and two rattling fans hang from the low ceiling. Audience members come by rickshaw, cab or tour bus, and pay by donation. On a recent night, about a dozen people, mostly young backpackers and a few journalists who had posed as tourists to get into the country, helped out when Lu Maw's English failed him. A few gladly got into the act when the comedians needed more hands to hold up painted wooden signs naming the world's biggest spy agencies, and declaring, "Moustache Brothers are under surveillance." **

“After warming up with safe jokes about wives and backdoor men, Par Par Lay changed out of his fan dance costume, white robe and glittering gold pillbox hat, and leaped on stage in a black robber's mask, wielding a toy pistol, while his brother declared that civil servants behaved like Jesse James. "So much corruption," Lu Maw explained through an old-fashioned microphone to the audience. "That's why this guy has been three times in the clink, up the river — in the big house!" **

Masoeyein Monastery: the Home of Myanmar’s Anti-Muslim Movement

Masoeyein Monastery is a center of extremist anti-Muslim and anti-Rohinya nationalism. The Economist reported: Inside five teenagers are looking at a poster, bemused. A graphic collage of photos depicts children’s corpses, monks covered in blood and enraged jihadists brandishing weapons. A monk in a maroon robe approaches. “This is a reminder of what Muslims are like,” he says. [Source: The Economist, August 10, 2017]

“Ashin Wirathu, the most famous resident of the Masoeyein monastery, expands on the theme during a break between meditation sessions. Buddhism, he explains, is in danger. Centuries ago, he points out, Indonesia was principally a Hindu and Buddhist country, but it has since “fallen” to Islam. The Philippines, meanwhile, is struggling with “hordes” of jihadists. Myanmar, he warns, is next. As the leader of the most extreme fringe of the Organisation for the Protection of Race and Religion, a Buddhist charity best known by its Burmese acronym, Ma Ba Tha, he is mounting a fierce campaign to rouse Burmese Buddhists to confront this danger.”

Hannah Beech wrote in Time magazine: “Sitting cross-legged on a raised platform at the New Masoeyein monastery in Mandalay, next to a wall covered by life-size portraits of himself, the Burmese bin Laden expounds on his worldview. U.S. President Barack Obama has “been tainted by black Muslim blood.” Arabs have hijacked the U.N., he believes, although he sees no irony in linking his name to that of an Arab terrorist. About 90 percent of Muslims in Burma are “radical, bad people,” says Wirathu, who was jailed for seven years for his role in inciting anti-Muslim pogroms in 2003. He now leads a movement called 969–the figure represents various attributes of the Buddha–which calls on Buddhists to fraternize only among themselves and shun people of other faiths. “Taking care of our own religion and race is more important than democracy,” says Wirathu. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time magazine, July 1, 2013 =*=]

“It would be easy to dismiss Wirathu as an outlier with little doctrinal basis for his bigotry. But he is charismatic and powerful, and his message resonates. Among the country’s majority Bamar ethnic group, as well as across Buddhist parts of Asia, there’s a vague sense that their religion is under siege–that Islam, having centuries ago conquered the Buddhist lands of Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Afghanistan, now seeks new territory. Even without proof, Buddhist nationalists stoke fears that local Muslim populations are increasing faster than their own, and they worry about Middle Eastern money pouring in to build new mosques. =*=

“I ask Wirathu how he reconciles the peaceful sutras of his faith with the anti-Muslim violence spreading across his Bamar-majority homeland. “In Buddhism, we are not allowed to go on the offensive,” he tells me, as if he is lecturing a child. “But we have every right to protect and defend our community.” Later, as he preaches to an evening crowd, I listen to him compel smiling housewives, students, teachers, grandmothers and others to repeat after him, “I will sacrifice myself for the Bamar race.” It’s hard to imagine that the Buddha would have approved.” =*=

Image Sources:

Text Sources: Myanmar Travel Information, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP,,, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2020

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