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Published: November 9th 2017
Our alarm clocks were set for 5.25am ahead of an early departure for the airport. But we were woken at 4,00am by an alarm in the next door room, which went off every two minutes thereafter. No more sleep for us! Once at the airport, we joined the one and only queue for the Mandalay flight. After 15 minutes we had made no progress whatsoever. A sign at the desk told us that last check-in was 40 minutes before the flight ie in 2 minutes. We took comfort from the act that the adjacent queue was for a 7.00am flight and was still being allowed to check in. We finally made it to the departure lounge, only to be told our flight was now delayed! Mercifully it was not for long, and we were soon on our way. It comes to something when Air Mandalay can manage to offer you a free cup of coffee and a croissant when BA charge you.
We were met by our new guide, a 23 year old English graduate working as a guide while saving to do her masters degree. She was chatty and informative, and we soon knew most of her life history.
We had asked to visit Pyin Oo Lwin, a British Raj era hill station that sits 3500 feet above the Mandalay plain. The road there is part of the road that runs north to China, the legendary Burma Road, used by the Allies to supply the Chinese Nationalists battling the Japanese in WW2, and that Japan invaded Burma to cut – and did cut until driven back as the war turned. The road was being substantially enlarged and improved by “The Oriental Highway Company Limited” – clearly a Chinese funded project. Across the valley we could see heavy equipment – all of it Chinese – being used to drill away the hillside (literally) to make way for a much wider new road. We managed to avoid a huge queue where the road had become one way controlled by lights, and slowly would our way up the enormously dusty road. The pace was slow, as overtaking a heavy lorry on a hairpin bend is not to be recommended, but eventually we reached Pyin Oo Lwin. It’s a dusty little town that grew up in colonial days when the British moved to the hills in the summer to avoid the stifling heat
of the plains. Scottish planters developed the coffee plantations that thrive to this day, and the suburbs are dotted with colonial mansions that would not look wholly out of place in modern day Esher. Our first stop was the Governor’s Mansion, a pair of half timbered houses that have now been turned into a hotel by government cronies. It costs $1800 US to stay the night, and a dollar even to walk round and look at the outside.
Far more interesting was the Shan market, full of locally grown produce of every variety, and largely staffed by Shan people judging by their different appearance – onions and garlic (much smaller than they grow in China, our guide told us), baby aubergines, monster aubergines the size of small pumpkins and an array of fish, meat and chicken in all stages of dismemberment. Plus various fruit such as apples that had come from China, and lots of the ubiquitous Chinese blankets, multi coloured and made of nasty synthetic materials. Apparently the Burma Road is also big on smuggling, and lots of cheap motorbikes come over from China that way. And lots of other stuff too no doubt. It was pleasantly hot
here, not stiflingly hot as down on the plain, but for some of the locals it is clearly a bit cool at 28C and sunny. So many are wearing wool coats, cardigans, puffa jackets, woolly hats....you wouldn't want to catch a chill would you?
As we walked around the market looking at the local scene, David executed a fine one foot skid but kept his balance. Looking down in horror, he sees what looks like chicken viscera trailing behind his boot. Ewww! Frantic scraping on the ground will not loosen it from between the boot treads. Two local hags look on and cackle in amusement. So the only resort is then to drag the foot sideways in the dirt, desperately trying to work the mess loose. It works, at last.
As we drove to the Botanical Gardens, passing the 1936 British built clock tower, David amused and terrified the guide and driver by asking to stop every few hundred yards to get out and take a photo of yet another colonial house. ‘Look out for the motorbikes’ they screeched anxiously each time he clambered out of the car. The gardens were peaceful and – just like those in
Ooty in southern India, very British, with an array of bedding plants laid out in neatly manicured beds that you could see in any municipal garden in England. But you wouldn’t get the orchid garden or, probably, the hugely disappointing butterfly house. We assumed this would be full of living butterflies, but turned out to be a room full of cases of dead ones.
Back to Mandalay, and a very pleasant hotel outside the town proper, which offered a cool and peaceful retreat at the end of the day.
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