Mandalay – one of the most evocative names on the globe. Kipling immortalized it (though he never visited) and Sinatra sang the tune.
The capital of Burma (now Myanmar) prior to British rule (which lasted from the mid-19th century until 1948), and known as the Golden City, Mandalay was built in the 19th century by the last of the royal leaders and is still redolent of its royal past as the heartland of Burmese culture and religion. Its huge market is a thriving phantasmagoria of earthy smells and a polyglot mixture of cultures.
Mandalay is the starting point for a cruise down the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River, the country’s great natural highway and the focal point of Burmese life. The urban centers of its 2,500-year-old civilization line the banks, including the city of Bagan (formerly Pagan), where, along 8 miles of riverbank, some 2,200 Buddhist pagodas nestle so close together that they resemble a forest of spires and pinnacles.
Founded by a Burmese king in A.D. 849, Bagan reached its apogee about 1000 and was abandoned in 1283 when Kublai Khan, in control of northern India, swept south with his soldiers. It was believed that building religious structures gained merit for a king and his people, so an army of skilled artisans embellished this spiritual center with what may originally have been more than 10,000 religious monuments. Much has disappeared – perishable teak burned by fires, all else eroded or destroyed by earthquakes and the passage of time.
Nevertheless, what remains is one of the world’s great archaeological sites, which some believe surpasses those of Indonesia’s Borobudur and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. Shwezigon Pagoda, the most important of those you can see today, is said to house the collarbone and a tooth of the Buddha. For an almost sacred experience, watch the sunset from the crumbling terraces of the Gawdawpalin Pagoda.
Your deluxe floating hotel, the Road to Mandalay (owned and operated by Orient-Express), is a microcosm of Burmese hospitality and European efficiency. In an enchanting country emerging after forty years of self-imposed isolation, where hotels, transport, and infrastructure are only now being developed and the people couldn’t be more gracious, it’s the only way to visit many of the special sites, which are often accessible only by water.