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June 24, 2017

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Mystery, magic and murder in Mandalay

Behind the gorgeous facade of Mandalay Palace lies a horrifying massacre.

Perhaps I'd been stupid mentally reciting Rudyard Kipling's "Mandalay" on the flight from Bangkok. Images of a virgin territory full of exotic tradition, legend and mysteries are quickly dispelled as we arrive at Mandalay International Airport in the middle of the morning to find the staff turning on the lights, officers shouting at each other and two confused ladies hurriedly unlocking the toilets. Of the two rooms reserved for the ladies, only one is in working order and most of us decide we can wait.

The custom officers check our passports carefully before stamping them. Sweat is running down my face, not from fear but from the heat — the air-conditioners have yet to be switched on. After almost 20 minutes in line, we eventually reach the arrivals hall and find our way to the waiting bus.

Mandalay is considered the center of Myanmar culture and was last royal capital of the independent Myanmar kingdom before its final annexation by the British.

Like most former capitals of Myanmar, Mandalay was founded on the wishes of the ruler of the time. King Mindon of Konbaung Dynasty moved the capital from Amarapura and founded his new royal capital at the foot of Mandalay Hill, fulfilling the Buddha's prophecy that a great city would be founded at the foot of Mandalay Hill in the 2400th year of his faith.

"On Mandalay Hill, you will find a contemporary statue depicting the ogress San Dha Mukhi offering her severed breasts to Buddha. It is said her self-mutilation so impressed Buddha that he ensured her reincarnation 2,400 years later as King Mindon," says Paothong Thongchua, a well-known historian, who is our unofficial guide in Mandalay.

King Mindon was one of the most popular and revered kings of Myanmar. He created the world's largest book in 1868, the Tripitaka.

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