On The Road to Mandalay

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March 12th 2007
Published: March 17th 2007
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Moored River Boats...Moored River Boats...Moored River Boats...

Lie at rest on the banks of the Irrawaddy River in Nyaung-Ou, Myanmar. © L. Birch 2007
For us, the 'road' to Mandalay took many forms, carrying us through the Burmese landscape in a variety of vehicles, from local buses and pick up taxis to horse carts and finally, a boat that took us up the mighty Irrawaddy River to Mandalay. We joined the good ship "Shwe Kiennery II" at the Nyaung Ou jetty at the ungodly hour of 4.45am one Monday morning. No clapped out old fishing boat this one, the "Shwe Kiennery" was a modern, purpose built passenger vessel equipped with two V8 engines, an air conditioning system and a bar. She was capable of a top speed of 13 knots and could carry up to 130 passengers. But on this particular day in February, there were just 18 of us.

It was so luxurious that we felt like characters from an Agatha Christie novel. All that was missing was a mysterious death and the presence of a Belgium dectective with a little black moustache. Why did we have it all to ourselves? For some obscure reason, most visitors chose to make the journey from the opposite direction. True, it was quicker going downriver at only 9 hours rather than the 13 hours it took
Sunrise over the IrrawaddySunrise over the IrrawaddySunrise over the Irrawaddy

Boarding a vessel that left port at 5am did have some advantages. © L. Birch 2007
us, but it was also a lot more expensive - a whopping $25 US. In an effort to encourage more people to use the boat on its return journey to Mandalay, the ferry company had slashed its prices by more than half of the downriver cost. We paid in the local currency and our journey cost us 14,700 Kyat (about $11.75). Although it still represented a substantial outlay to us, it was worth every cent. As the sun rose above the Irrawaddy, we were on deck to savour the moment - hats and scarves pulled down over ears and wrapped about necks to fend off the desert chill of early morning. Flocks of wildfowl were our constant companions as the boat forged its way up river; ruddy goose, pintail ducks, Indian pochard and broad billed shoveller.

It soon warmed up and by mid-day, the temperature on the aft deck was almost unbearable, driving us into the shade of the lounge. What a contrast to our boat trip down the Mekong in November (see our previous entry "Slowly Down the Mekong") when we had worried about the boat capsizing and had sat on narrow wooden plank benches. The "Shwe Kiennery" was equipped with
Scenes of Rural LifeScenes of Rural LifeScenes of Rural Life

The Irrawaddy provided glimpses of a way of life unchanged for centuries. © L. Birch 2007
soft reclining seats that - coupled with the gentle throb of the engines - encouraged you to drift off to sleep.

During late afternoon, the golden spires of Sagaing and the span of a new suspension bridge crossing the Irrawaddy - heralded our approach to Mandalay. The river was so low at this point that - despite the Shwe Kiennery's shallow draft - the boat had to proceed with extreme caution, inching its way into the chaotic port with less than 2 metres of water below its keel.

Lodging ourselves near the city's busy centre, we ventured out for a look at our new surroundings. Mandalay itself is not an attractive city and does not live up to the spell its exotic name weaves upon travellers. Mandalay: it was one of those places you felt compelled to visit simply for the allure of its name alone, like Timbuktu or Zanzibar. Unfortunately, reality frequently fails to live up to our romantic expectations. It could be a wonderful place and the approach by boat leads you to believe it will be, but Mandalay is a disappointment; a dirty, polluted and impoverished city where nothing seems to work properly and people's
Onboard the Mandalay FerryOnboard the Mandalay FerryOnboard the Mandalay Ferry

Watching the activity on the Irrawaddy River from the deck of the "Shwe Kiennery". © V. Birch 2007
motives for talking with you may not be what they seem.

In a poor country, you must expect the hassles and frequent demands for money but in Mandalay, they were draining and never ending. Step outside your hotel and a mob of beggars and rickshaw drivers form an unruly scrum in their efforts to get to you first and relieve you of your money. No seemingly innocent approach on the street can ever be taken as such for frequently, the opening line "Hello, where are you from" is often a prelude to a sales pitch and yet another effort to empty your wallet a little more. Even monks - who you would think would be above reproach - cannot be trusted. I found it amusing that the only English words many monks spoke were "Hello" and "Money?" One monk we met, collared us near the Palace, telling us that he simply wished to practice his English. Delighted to accept what we thought was the hand of friendship, we soon found ourselves hustled off to a temple complex where - half an hour later - we were being pressured to jump into a taxi and take a $15 tour of
Mandalay MorningMandalay MorningMandalay Morning

The daily round of commerce begins early on the streets of Mandalay. © L. Birch 2007
the city's sights (we suspect that this man may have been an imposter, a con-man dressed up as a monk in order to beguile unsuspecting tourists).

Slapstick and Politics

The most wonderful things about Mandalay however, are not its tourist sights but its bewildering clutter, its glorious confusion of ethnic cultures and the diversity of life on its streets. Reflecting this diversity, is the variety of food available at street stalls - everything in fact, from spicey curries to Italian pizza and ice cream.

But perhaps the most interesting thing you could do in Mandalay was to pay a visit to the home of the Moustache Brothers. Formerly a travelling troupe of comic performers specialising in traditional dance, folk music and humourous sketches, the three brothers - Par Par Lay, Lu Maw and Lu Zaw - are now confined to giving performances in their home to small gatherings of foreigners. In 1997, Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw were famously arrested and sentenced to seven years hard labour after making a joke about the government at an independence day celebration outside the home of political activist, Aung San Suu Kyi - herself a prisoner, detained
The Moustache BrothersThe Moustache BrothersThe Moustache Brothers

From left to right; Lu Zaw, Lu Maw and Par Par Lay (who was sentenced to 7 years hard labour for cracking a joke about the government). © L. Birch 2007
under house arrest. The two brothers served five years of their sentence and were released in 2002 following an outcry from the international community (though it remains unclear as to whether pressure from outside Myanmar had anything to do with their release).

Since then, the brothers have been blacklisted and forbidden to perform at public gatherings or to a Burmese audience... which hasn't stopped them performing at home to foreigners of course! The trio's spokesman, Lu Maw, jokes constantly that they are now 'Myanmar's most wanted' and that they are constantly under surveillance from the 'KGB people' - his euphemistic name for the Myanmar secret police. Fond of using English expressions like "Cat Out of the Bag" and "Not My Cup of Tea", Lu Maw delivers a tireless selection of stand-up in between short skits and performances of traditional dance. During one such delivery, and speaking into an antique-looking microphone, Lu Maw describes how his brothers were arrested and how he had to carry on the business on his own. "After these two arrested -," he says, hooking a thumb over his shoulder, "- banged up, put in the slammer, in the nick... I left holding the fort on
The Floating GardensThe Floating GardensThe Floating Gardens

Mountains and blue skies are reflected in the placid surface of Lake Inle's floating gardens. © L. Birch 2007
my own!" There are a few snide jabs at the government thrown in for good measure but the performance was hardly subversive - little wonder perhaps, in view of their past history.

South Again

Beyond Mandalay the road took us south again - into the Shan States, where we spent a few days beside peaceful Lake Inle. Set amongst mountains at an altitude of 2500ft above sea level, Lake Inle stretches for more than 20kms, from Nyaungshwe in the north to Chiang Kham in the south. It's a wonderful place where small boats whisk you across its placid surface to visit monasteries, floating markets and small villages along its shores. I was fascinated by the so-called "Floating Gardens" - literally gardens, suspended on mats of floating reeds above deep stretches of water: permaculture at its best.

It was also from Inle that we attempted to penetrate further into the Shan States. Foreigners were forbidden to travel any further east than Taunggyi - a small market town, high up in the mountains above Inle. The reason for this was unclear but it was possibly due to the fact that the government had been waging war on its
Boats in NyaungshweBoats in NyaungshweBoats in Nyaungshwe

Fill the busy canals on market day. © V. Birch 2007
ethnic minorities for sometime - particularly the Karen - and didn't want foreigners to see what was happening. We could only speculate, but regardless of the reason, it was intriguing to see if we could push beyond the permitted limits imposed by the government. Our plan was simple. We would get to Taunggyi by public transport and then see if we could find someone prepared to take us into the forbidden zone.

A pick-up taxi - known as a "Lang-ga" - loaded with people and goods, took us to the busy market town an hour east of Inle. The vehicle was so full that I had to stand on the tailgate with four grinning Burmese boys, clutching the roof rack for support. A further four people sat precariously amongst bags of goods strapped to the roof as we made our way along roads peppered with crater-sized potholes. Taunggyi's market was a colourful affair where cheroot-smoking tribal woman in bright turbans, haggled at stalls piled high with fresh vegetables. Outside the market, shops along the main street were filled with blackmarket goods - smuggled over the border from neighbouring China.

After a quick look around, we made for a
The Face of AsiaThe Face of AsiaThe Face of Asia

This Shan tribal woman happily posed for a photograph in the market at Taunggyi. Shortly after, all her friends wanted their photo's taken too! © V. Birch 2007
dusty lot on the edge of town where the buses and Lang-ga congregated. There was no shortage of vehicles heading east but, as we soon discovered, none of the drivers were prepared to take us. Every enquiry was met with a polite but firm refusal, even when we offered more than the standard fare. "If I take you"' one man told us, "Police make big trouble for me". Mostly, they were apologetic but it was quite obvious that they were afraid of what might happen to them if they abetted our attempt to enter forbidden territory. Thwarted, we watched from the edge of town as over laden vehicles headed east toward Loilem and Kengtung. Whatever it was that lay out there, it was clear that the government didn't want foreigners to see it.

Backtracking, we made the most of our short time at Inle. In a few days, we would be leaving Myanmar and taking many precious memories with us - of a rich cultural heritage and a smiling, happy people who live in a repressed and poverty stricken country. In the west, we take so much for granted; decent roads, our secure and comfortable lives, our right to free speech and democracy... our freedom. For the people of Myanmar however, such things remain a distant dream.

The Burma Situation

Want to know what's currently going on in Burma and how you can help? Click on the link below to visit the website of Amnesty International. News and video clips provide an update on the current situation following the September '07 demonstrations. See for yourself how the Military Junta dealt with the demonstration and find out how you can help in the wake of its violent crackdown.

Amnesty International in Burma


21st March 2007

Still very much enjoying reading about your exploits really look forward to the next instalment, glad you are both well and enjoying the experience. All our Best wishes go with you xx
22nd March 2007

Hallo Laurie Viv and girls!

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