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The golden glow of old Asia
The golden glow of old Asia

Mandalay wakes to a pink-sky cacophony of chanting and cockerels. At the Buddhist pagodas stippling this riverside town and in the dusty backyards, the day stirs and seems to rise before the sun. The rhythmical chants from each pagoda are amplified, different - mainly a man's voice, but to my left a woman's - and overlap, merging into a disjointed but soothing chorus.

And by the time the first rays are cutting through drifting mist on the Irrawaddy River, the town is cacophonous with sparrow chatter and tractor-trucks starting - the Htaw lar gyi - that this still largely agricultural community use to shift just about everything. Engine exposed out the front, tiny cab, big wooden tray and frame. Produce, livestock, people.

Mandalay is central to Burma - physically, economically, philosophically, religiously. Glistening with pagodas, veined by the Irrawaddy, renowned for its carvers and gold-leaf makers. Political, thoughtful, devoutly Buddhist.

And, of course, the subject of Rudyard Kipling's poem Mandalay, written in 1890, in which we first hear the phrase "the road to Mandalay".

Dreaming of being on the road to Mandalay perhaps conjures up the romantic essence of travelling in the old Asia.

And here it is. Intoxicating, thoughtful, stimulating, spiritual. Mandalay is the dusty-track Asia of horse-cart drivers, work in the sesame and sunflower fields, children on oversized, rod-braked Hero and Atlas bicycles. The Asia of manners and humility; the polite Asia of modest women in ankle-length longyi; the Asia where thongs are still called flip-flops.

Where the new main road on which, like elsewhere in Burma, the right-hand-drive cars must be driven on the right side of the road (making overtaking the domain of the optimistic), has concrete mile markers every 100 yards - 354.7, 354.6, 354.5 …

But it takes us to Mahagandayon Monastery, where I stand to one side as the 1000 Buddhist monks come in a well-practised line to collect lunch. Vast vats of rice are hefted to tables at the head of the silent queue, and the monks stream past, each to be given a substantial serve into the empty bowls they carry and handed a dessert bar. Not allowed to beg, but allowed to accept patronage, each owns one maroon cloth robe, which they continuously repair and may eventually be replaced by a benefactor. They hang endlessly along the monastery's washing lines, monotone, like the musical notes of a chant.

This meal time has become a popular stop for tourists, who jostle for a spot with their cameras.

But I am happier wandering the quiet laneways of the monastery. Repeated mantras from the cool insides. A joke and laughter. A stack of books, their pages with red edges, behind the white bars of a window. A young monk stops, takes the lid off his bowl and divides its rice among the children before him, each holding out a plastic bag.

Monks walk, too, along the 1.2km of the wooden U Bein Bridge. On teak legs over Taungthman Lake, it is 250 years old, its designers curved the bridge to withstand wind and waves, but the lake is shallow and, in the dry months, it crosses only land.

I watch a monk, too, walking the long lines of the 729 shrines, each containing one marble "page" from the entire Buddhist canon, at Kuthodaw Pagoda. With an enormous central gold dome, work on the pagoda was started in 1865, and it also commemorates the fifth Buddhist World Council.

And there are more monks at Shwe Nanda Golden Monastery, which brings together some of my lasting impressions of Mandalay in one haunting moment. Belief, teak, carving, gold leaf - as I stand barefoot on marble before a wall of niches, each with a statue of Buddha.

In a backstreet I watch wood carvers at work, with only hand tools, using their feet as vices. In another street, which is white with marble dust, carvers work at Buddhas, some still faceless marble Buddhas, their visages to be completed.

And in a workshop, men with specialist sledgehammers powerfully and precisely beat gold into squares of paper that have been specifically made from bamboo mash. After this long hammering, the two are merged into gold leaf. Thirty-two grams of gold will make 100,000 sheets of gold leaf.

The day has passed in a golden blur, and so it is fitting that it should end in one.

From the fifth-floor roof bar of the Irrawaddy View Hotel, the sun finishes its arc by scoring a silver streak across the Irrawaddy River. But not before it has sprayed gold over everything I see.

·Stephen Scourfield travelled as a guest of Integrated Tourism Services.

  • fact file *

·Integrated Tourism Services has two tours of Burma: There is the 11 days, 10 nights Classical Myanmar (departing October 17) which includes one night in Kuala Lumpur, one in Rangoon, two in Inle Lake (Phaun Daw Oo Festival), two in Mandalay, two in Bagan, another in Rangoon and one night Kuala Lumpur. Twin-share is from $3570 per person. Single supplement is from $850. This includes daily breakfasts, two lunches and five dinners.

·Then there is the 11-day Road to Mandalay tour (departing October 29), including one night in Kuala Lumpur, two nights in the Governor's Residence Rangoon and a seven-night Road to Mandalay cruise. The package costs from $6960 per person, twin-share with single supplements from $770. It includes daily breakfasts and all meals on board the Road to Mandalay cruise.

·Prices include return international airfares, internal flights in Burma, transfers, transportation, accommodation, breakfasts, dinners in Burma, extensive sightseeing, entrance fees and an English-speaking guide.

·Visit intour.com.au and phone 9381 7933.