A shadow of the former palace
Published/Last edited or updated: 24th September, 2016
Built by King Mindon between 1857 and 1859 and inherited by King Thibaw before colonial times, Mandalay Palace was the last Burmese royal citadel to be built in Burma.
The palace follows a traditional model, sitting within a square moated fort. Each of the four walls is two kilometres in length with a wide moat running around the outside. Each wall has a gate, but tourists are only permitted to enter via the eastern gate on 76th Street, where you can also buy your 10,000 Mandalay combo ticket, entitling you to enter.
Previously, the royal palace was located at Amarapura, and with the help of elephants was dismantled and moved to Mandalay in 1857. Some 25 years later, during the third Anglo-Burmese war, the Brits arrived, captured the royal family, and, mirroring their approach to the entire country, looted the palace—burning parts of it down in the process.
They renamed it Fort Dufferin and transformed it into a barracks for the British military—complete with a royal-hall gentlemen’s club, though no golf course. The palace took an even greater beating during the occupation by the Japanese during World War II. The Japanese unleashed an incendiary bombing raid in 1942, which burned much of the mostly wooden city that surrounded the palace to the ground. Later, when Allied aircraft bombed the Japanese-occupied palace, they razed much of what remained.mandalay old and new
Under the tutelage of the SLORC junta, a reconstruction commenced in 1989 that saw vast amounts of concrete and corrugated iron used to rebuild what had once been in teak and tile. During the reconstruction, all male residents of Mandalay were forced to work one day a month on the palace without pay. The results of this forced labour are less than magnificent.
Despite extensive records left behind by the British, the replica palace of today does little to honour the past grandeur. Several teak buildings have been recreated in concrete, and jewel encrusted decor has been replaced by gold paint that barely adorns the empty structures, which house a scattering of uninteresting artefacts.
Some noteworthy replicas within the complex however include the throne or audience room where the king held council, the glass palace that was the sleeping quarters of King Thibaw, and a cultural museum on the west side of the grounds. The museum displays elaborate costumes of old, as well as Thibaw’s old four-poster bed, complete with the four posts made of glass, which is the origin of the name “the glass palace”.
You can still appreciate the impressive scale of the former palace and its grounds, much of which is now taken up with an army base, from the top of a watchtower in the southeast corner of the complex. Do keep in mind that the spiral stairway, along with the landscaping, are poorly maintained and need to be climbed with care.
Visitors can be disappointed with the palace, which originally gives off a mysterious feel to those outside thanks to its two-by-two-kilometre wall. Much of the grounds are off-limits and it is strictly forbidden to wander off the main road. Follow the road past the gate for one kilometre to reach the centre of the citadel. Taxis, rickshaws and bikes are permitted and are best used to save on some dull walking time. Guides are not available on site, but can be booked by your hotel; a good one would improve the experience.
The scale of the palace is evident merely from the exterior, and views of the moat and walls are impressive. If you don’t have time to visit the interior, you won’t have missed too much.
The main entrance on 66th Street is within walking distance of all our Mandalay accommodation suggestions but since you will have to cover quite a distance once inside, bicycle’s the best. Combo tickets are always checked and always on sale at this point.
Based in Chiang Mai, Mark Ord has been travelling Southeast Asia for over two decades and first crossed paths with Travelfish on Ko Lipe in the early 1990s.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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