One week ago today I went from Mantua to Venice in preparation for flying to Mandalay via Helsinki and Bangkok. Since then it’s all been pretty hectic. I got to my new home on Monday, then on Tuesday visited my new school to get my schedule, and started teaching on Wednesday. Then I had to battle the school to get my needs met, and finally got everything sorted yesterday along with 7 hours of teaching. Phew. Today I could finally settle down and settle in. I’ve done a bit of walking around for the past 4 days in the late afternoons, but after today I really feel oriented. When you land in a new city on a new continent it can be daunting at first, but I’m so used to moving continents by now that I know how to get my feet under me in short order. This morning I walked up north of my hotel for 5 hours with a view to ending up at the royal palace. I had little idea of what I was doing, but that’s the general point; just mooch around long enough to get my bearings properly.
First I struck west, then cut north along a main road. Right off the bat I stumbled across a newly planted garden that was attractive and secluded, yet right on a major intersection. It wasn’t quite finished and there was no one in it. Good start though. The main road was mostly new stores punctuated with squalid tenements. That’s par for the course for Mandalay. There are some very rich sections, some very poor ones, and a lot that are a mixture. There was a modern mall, slick hotels, the main railway station, and a variety of specialty stores giving a clear suggestion of what’s to come. Mandalay is the commercial hub of northern Myanmar, but also the focal point of traditional Myanmar culture centered on a very old Buddhist tradition.
What’s odd about Mandalay is that the culture and some of the religious sites are ancient, but the buildings are not. Mandalay was founded as the last royal capital of Myanmar by king Mindon in 1857. Soon thereafter Myanmar was taken over as an extension of the British raj, and went through many changes up to and after World War II. New buildings were gutted by fires in the late 19th century, and important sites, including the royal palace were bombed mercilessly by both Japanese and British forces in the world war. So, what you see around you that has an antique feeling is mostly brand new or reconstructions of formerly destroyed edifices.
There’s no missing the palace when you reach it. It’s an exact square about 1 km on each side, surrounded by a wide moat with a brick defensive wall dotted with turrets. Each wall has an entrance gate in the center. I came on the palace at the SW corner and struck for the south gate. By now I’m used to being pestered by taxis and motorbikes asking where I am going and offering me their services. I usually just wave them away without speaking, but at the palace there were many more and they were much more persistent. After a few brief chats I learnt that business is very slack right now, hence their persistence. I gather it won’t pick up until September.
At the south gate a taxi driver asked me if I wanted a ride, but I declined and asked if I could get in at this gate. Nope. Only gate with access to the palace was the east gate, so I trudged around for 1 km. It was a pleasant walk but a bit wearing because by this point I’d been walking about 2 hours. In fact I stopped and sat down a couple of times because it was feeling like a slog with no end in sight.
The east gate lets you know that the military still has a stern presence in Myanmar. You don’t see soldiers and police on the streets much, but they were thick on the ground at the gate, and there were personnel carriers filled with troops coming and going, and guards with whistles directing traffic. One soldier pointed me in the direction of a ticket booth with no one waiting. I bought a ticket from the kiosk for 10,000 kyat (, then a soldier at a desk asked for various bits of information which he entered by hand in a ledger, and then asked for my passport. As it happens I didn’t have it with me so he settled for my hotel room key, and gave me a laminated visitor pass to hang around my neck. Then I entered the palace complex. The palace (which is reconstructed because it was firebombed flat by the RAF when the Japanese were using it as a munitions dump) is in the center, and all around it are army barracks and whatnot that are marked RESTRICTED AREA and are off limits – even for photography. I walked the half kilometer to the palace and mooched around. An album is here:
After the palace I walked straight back to my hotel – taking photos along the way – had a quick lunch and crashed.
Later in the day I took advantage of the cool of the evening to look around the district to the south and west of me called Chanmyathazi ချမ်းမြသာစည်; album here:
After all of that slogging around today, and on previous days (noted in other earlier posts) I feel that I am well settled and have a good sense of the city in general. Tomorrow I’ll walk some more and muse here about the dilemmas I feel about teaching Western science (in English) to Burmese kids.
And so to bed . . .