The Road to Mandalay

The ‘Road to Mandalay’ is a poem written by Rudyard KIPLING and it probably shaped the world’s image of Burma more than anything else. The title, of course, refers to the Ayeyarwaddy River, which was the fastest way to travel from Rangoon to Mandalay in those days. The poem describes the recollections of a British soldier who served in Burma, where he was in love with a local girl. Now he’s back in London dating English girls (‘… beefy face and grubby hand…’). Then the memories overcome him:

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking eastward to the sea

There’s a Burma girl a-settin and I know she thinks of me.

For the wind is in the palm trees and the temple bells they say:

Come you back to British soldier, come you back to Mandalay (etc.)

Kyaik Tha Lan pagoda, Moulmein
Young Rudyard Kipling
Kipling's study in Bateman (England)
Timber Yard in Rangoon

However, something needs to be corrected here: the members of the Kipling Society, which keeps the memories of the poet’s work, had long wondered whether the otherwise meticulous man had lost his mind while writing this poem. And they were not the only ones. Moulmein’s Kyaik Than Lan pagoda has wrongly been identified as the one he was writing about (… looking eastward to the sea …). However, when you look eastward from this pagoda, you see a mountain range – not the sea. This led to the poem being altered: ‘eastward’ became ‘lazy’. However, even that could not solve the contradiction of the line ‘… when the dawn comes up like thunder, outta China ‘crost the bay …’: The dawn in Moulmein, in turn, appears behind the mountains to the east and not over the ‘Bay’, i. e. the Bay of Bengal. Some smart people finally solved the riddle: near the Irrawaddy flotilla’s anchorage in Rangoon, where timber was also handled (with the help of elephants, of course), there was (or is?) a stupa which was called ‘Old Moulmein Pagoda’ by the locals. Apparently, the poem refers to this pagoda and even the riddle of the flying fishes, which cannot be found in this 

area, was explained plausibly. KIPLING was probably alluding to the long pennants that fluttered from the boats’ mast … The immense popularity of the poem led to it being set to music several times: none other than Frank Sinatra had it in his repertoire!

KIPLING admitted that he had no eyes for the pagoda at all because he was fascinated by the beauty of a girl sitting on the stairs. He said the following about Burmese women: I love the Burman with the blind favouritism born of first impression. When I die I will be a Burman … and I will always walk about with a pretty almond-coloured girl who shall laugh and jest too, as a young maiden ought. She shall put no sari over her head when a man looks at her and glare suggestively from behind it, nor shall she tramp behind me when I walk: for these are the customs of India. She shall look all the world between the eyes, in honesty and good fellowship, and I will teach her not to defile her pretty mouth with chopped tobacco in a cabbage leaf, but to inhale good cigarettes of Egypt’s best brand.