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Footloose in Mandalay

Best and Worst of Kipling's Burma--'Somewhere East of Suez'

December 20, 1987|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

MANDALAY, Burma — Whatever Rudyard Kipling had to say on the subject in his poem, he never made it to this city and probably never even got very far on the road. His Burma girl was a-settin' by a pagoda in Moulmein, almost 500 miles south, and by all accounts he came only as far as Rangoon.

No matter, many have shared his romantic notion to be shipped "somewhere east of Suez, where the best is like the worst." And you'll find a bit of both here, a fact of life in a country that has been on its own narrow road toward "the Burmese way to socialism" for 25 years and somehow finds bizarre ways of impeding progress.

Mandalay is practically a new city by Asian standards, founded as Burma's last capital in 1857 and taken by the British in 1885. In 1980 a fire leveled more than 6,000 of the city's buildings; reconstruction has given the town an even more contemporary look.

Still, northern Burma is considered the "real" Burma and Mandalay its most Burmese city. The people are friendly and cheerful, anxious to give you a good impression of their beautiful and storied land.

So set your mind to putting up with rather primitive circumstances, take a plane or train from Rangoon, and come to the city that Kipling dreamed and wrote about, but never saw.

Here to there: United Airlines and Japan Air Lines will get you to Bangkok from Los Angeles. Or take Thai Airways from Seattle to Bangkok, then Thai or Burma Airways on to Rangoon. Burma Airways is the only Rangoon-Mandalay carrier, the "express" train taking 12 hours for the 425 miles.

How long/how much? Burma will give you a visa for seven days only, usually two for Rangoon, two for Mandalay, two for Pagan and one for Heho. Due to the difficulty of independent travelers getting tickets for Burma Airways, the only domestic carrier, you'll probably be with Tourist Burma all the way, including hotels and meals. They work with stateside companies such as Odyssey Tours in Santa Monica, or Thai Airways. Plan on about $1,050 per person for all air tickets, hotels, meals, transfers and guides for the week in Burma.

A few fast facts: Official rate for the Burmese kyat (pronounced chat ) was recently seven per dollar, about 14 cents each. Mid-October to February is the "cool" season. It's plenty hot from March to mid-May, and rains heavily from mid-May through October. You will need a visa (ask the tour operator or travel agent). Also bring a pair of thongs, because your shoes and often socks must come off at the entrance to every temple. Inter-city transportation is a gigantic headache for the independent visitor.

Getting settled in: Selecting a hotel is a moot exercise if you're with Tourist Burma, as it is done for you. Hotel Mandalay, 26th Road and 3rd Street (about $25 double), is the town's best, albeit not too central. It has a motel appearance inside and out, open and pleasant lobby and a stark, gym-like dining room where you'll probably take most of your meals. Rooms are less than Spartan, but the place is blessedly air-conditioned.

Mya Mandalar Hotel, formerly the Tun Hla at 27th Road and 3rd Street (about half the price of the Mandarin), has more of a Burmese feel to it but is still nothing to shout about. All meals, but again, no hurrahs for the dining room.

Regional food and drink: Rice is the Burmese staple and, as there are many ethnic Chinese up north, you'll find noodles as well. Rice is usually served with curried chicken, beef and, less often, fish. All are quite good, but the sameness begins to get to you after the first day or two.

Cooked vegetables are a part of every meal, but we steered clear of raw salads. And bring along a plastic bottle for carrying mineral water on your sightseeing jaunts.

Dessert is almost always bananas, huge mounds of them. The country's beer, Mandalay, is made here. It has a malty taste.

Moderate-cost dining: If you become tired of hotel food you might go looking for Chinese and Indian restaurants. About the only one we can recommend, after checking several, is the Manthurein on the grounds of the Mandalay Hotel. It's a pagoda-like affair, tables inside or on a terrace, and the Chinese food has to be several cuts above anything else in town.

As for finding "real" Burmese food at street stalls, we would exercise caution. Burma is no place to tangle with a bug, any bug.

On your own: To pick up the flavor and color of Mandalay as quickly as possible, head for Zegyo Market at mid-city, one of the largest we've ever seen. It has a marvelous melange of Burmese ware in its endless stalls. Mandalay is Burma's handicraft center, also noted for its gaily painted carts and tri-shaws used as taxis.

Silk is a big industry here, so try to visit one of the small factories where beautiful and complex patterns are loomed by a bevy of young women working looms and bobbins by hand. Wood and stone carvings are almost as large, with workshops along just about every road, some of the work magnificent. Silverware is also a craft of renown here.

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