Remember the game we used to play when we were young? We’d see a flash of lightning, count the number of seconds before hearing the sound of thunder, and then multiply that number by the speed of sound to find out how far away that lightning strike was? I tried to play that game today, 230m high on the summit of Mandalay Hill, and the number of seconds I got was 0.


The pagoda burns with foul-smelling yellow smoke after getting struck by lightning

Yes, a ray of lightning struck the tip of a pagoda about 15 feet above my head today. I quickly became temporarily deaf in my right ear and my right foot accidentally stepped on a burning piece part of that pagoda that had broken off from the lightning strike. So my foot had felt like it just stepped in scalding water, I could hear the muffled sound of screaming, and my nostrils was filled with smoke. There was pandemonium everywhere, mostly of tourists freaking out and wondering if they all got struck as well.



What did I do? Naturally, I tended to my foot by dousing it in rainwater and then trying to grab photos of the monsoon rain. Lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, right?

Let’s backtrack a bit though. The reason why I wanted to come to Mandalay was simply for Rudyard Kipling’s eponymous poem. However, Rudyard Kipling never made it to Mandalay. So I wanted to see if he got this place as accurately as he had dreamed it.

My verdict? Except for the lightning strike, it was just like being in any other sleepy Southeast Asian city with a couple of quirks.

MANDALAY by Rudyard Kipling

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay! “
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay ?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,
An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat – jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay…

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,
She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!
With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.
Elephints a-pilin’ teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay…

But that’s all shove be’ind me – long ago an’ fur away
An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;
An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.”
No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay…

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?
Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and –
Law! wot do they understand?
I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay…

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
O the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

— Ruyard Kipling

I started the day by eating a Shan-style feast:



I then explored Shwe In Bin Kyaung monastery, the center of Mandalay’s 200,000-strong monk population. I was the only foreigner at the monastery, and I wandered about its grounds without being noticed once. It’s quite a peaceful place to get away from the hustle of the rest of the city.




What a nice way to enjoy a cup of tea.


I then went to Mahamuni Paya, which is the “must see” of Mandalay. It’s famous for its Buddha image, which has been Myanmar’s most well known. Unfortunately for women, they aren’t allowed to approach the Buddha closely, as they’re relegated to the back of the temple for prayer (sounds like a familiar mosque…).


The Buddha from the women's section

The Buddha from the men's section

Someone needs to pull a Rosa Parks here!


There was also a few Khmer bronze statues at Mahamuni Paya, which have been looted as war booty from Cambodia’s very own Angkor Wat.



Lots of sleeping families and babies here.

Outside, you'll find an open-air stone buddha factory!

I also went to see Kuthodaw Paya, which boasts to be the “world’s biggest book.” What they really mean is that its 729 pagoda-style enclosures each holds a slab/page of the Tripitaka canon.



A single page.



There were other temples around that I glimpsed, but they cost $10 USD to enter, and which money goes to the military junta. So I just stood outside and took pictures.

Finally, I trekked up 230m to the top of Mandalay Hill. Those of you seeking to attempt this climb, be forewarned: although the ascent consists of conveniently paved staircases, you have to do this climb completely barefoot. There also will be many times when you might think you have reached the top, but hedge your bets that there will be another staircase that leads to a higher part of the hill behind a pagoda somewhere. You haven’t reached the summit until someone comes up to you and charges you 1,000 kyats to use your camera. You can stop looking for the next set of stairs at this point.


Nearing the top, you'll see a huge Buddha pointing as if to remind you to pause and appreciate the views of Mandalay.

One very bizarre display.



If I calculated this correctly, Rs. 500 = $11 USD. Does that mean if I donated $12 USD, I get a sign with my photo on it?



Reaching the top of the hill.



So this climb took me about 20 minutes as I was rushing up to catch the sunset. And as you already know, I caught a lightning strike instead. Narrowly dodging death, I was rewarded with stupendous evidence of nature’s might:




I patiently wait for lightning...


I also made the mistake of being the last and only tourist to stay behind after the lightning strike. That meant I also stayed past sunset and had to navigate down the hill in complete darkness. Luckily, I had my iPod Touch acting as a torch; if I didn’t have that, I would’ve never gotten home.




After surviving lightning on the hill, I grabbed a delicious chapati + mutton combo at Mandalay’s famous Chapati Stand and headed to watch the Moustache Brothers.




The Moustache Bros. are a comedy duo that makes no excuses in making fun of their military-run government. They became famous for being arrested and serving served six years of hard labour (they were mentioned in the film About a Boy) for their social and civil disobedience. In other words, their performances were so influential that the government feared their influence. Although they were released in 2002 and briefly jailed again in 2007, they continue to perform at their home in Mandalay, and have been allowed to do so as long as they carry out their performances in any language other than Burmese.

Most unfortunately, however, the monsoonal rains I had witnessed (to great awe) on the top of Mandalay Hill also ended up flooding the home of the Moustache Bros. Thus, the show got cancelled, and I instead hung out with one of the brothers as I ate my chapati.



I highly recommend anyone passing through Mandalay to check out their performances and supporting their satire-laden “demonstrations.” Just ask any taxi or trishaw driver where they are, and they’ll take you there. Their shows run nightly at 8:30pm.

So my one day adventure in Mandalay was pretty enlightening (ha ha no pun intended). Next: the calmness of Lake Inle!



- At time of posting in Inle Lake, it was 35 °C - Humidity: 40% | Wind Speed: 3km/hr | Cloud Cover: cloudy


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August 2011