Burma One: On the road to Mandalay...

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January 19th 2007
Published: January 19th 2007
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Leaning over to check how fast we're going - 150 km/h - I notice for the first time that the taxi driver has fallen asleep at the wheel. Behind us, the road stretches out straight and long, and I wander how long it's been since he nodded off. We nudge him gently, with a cautious hand hovering over the steering wheel in case he wakes with a start. Instead, he wakes slowly, almost lazily, and then grins sheepishly as he winds the windows down and turns the radio up. This proves insufficient stimulation, so he speeds up even more - 175 km/h. "To keep awake", he replies to our raised eyebrows, as if it's perfectly reasonable and should have been obvious. A surprisingly-cold wind shrieks through the cab in close-fought competition with the latest Thai pop sensation, as we hurtle through Bangkok's pre-dawn darkness toward the airport. Assuming I survive the taxi ride, I will soon be in the air, heading toward a South-East Asian country I have always been fascinated by - Burma/Myanmar...

When we do arrive safely - and much earlier than I'd initially expected! - at Suvarnabhumi, (Bangkok's enormous new airport), I suggest to the taxi driver that he should go home and get some sleep. This elicits a hysterical & strangely grateful laugh, as if I've just told him a hilarious joke and paid him a huge compliment in doing so. With a happy wave, looking as if he was deeply touched by what I'd said, he accelerates away into the dawn of the new day. Shouldering our packs with a smile, Brian & I turn and head into the airport. Brian's a fellow exchange student at Rangsit University, born and bred in New York, (with the street smarts to prove it). More importantly, he's a good mate and a fellow founding member of the elite & distinguished Adventure Squad A-Team (copyright Conover 2006). =P Brian loves to travel & is always up for an adventure - he was the first I told about my plan to go to Burma. (And a big thank you to Brian for letting me use his photos for this first Burma blog - my CD of photos covering Yangon & Mandalay was cracked on a long bus ride and I couldn't salvage any. Since this claim can never be verified, I feel confident to assert that they were some of the best shots I've ever taken. =P)

We've both packed as lightly as possible - a half-full daypack each for 12 days away - and pass through Thai immigration quickly to board our plane. Collapsing into my seat wearily, I pass Brian the notes I've photocopied from an LP guide, and then fall asleep immediately. I wake feeling fairly seedy as we land with a bump in Yangon, (formerly known as Rangoon). Striding across the tarmac to the tired-looking immigration & customs building, I count a grand total of three other planes in the entire airport. It's a huge & very obvious contrast to the closely-controlled chaos & chromed curves of Suvarnabhumi. Like stepping back in time; as so many visitors to Burma sum up their experience there.

After the bureaucratic hoops we'd been made to jump through, (and then jump through a few more times for good measure), to get our visas in Bangkok, we expect a few more on entering the country. Instead, a bored official waves us through after a cursory inspection, barely glancing up at our expectant faces. We haven't formed much of a plan beyond this point, but before we can even stop to assess our options, we're accosted at the airport exit by a shady-looking taxi driver in an old leather jacket. Red betel juice (betel-chewing is extremely common in Burma, this was to become a common sight) dribbles through crooked black teeth, which he is attempting to arrange into something resembling a reassuring smile. This succeeds only in giving him a bloodthirsty & strangely battered look. Nevertheless, we agree on a price into town and assure him we'll at least consider his black-market money-changing services. (We never take him up on this - his "special bonus rate" proved even more of a rip-off than we'd expected it would be.) As we pull up near the Garden Guest House - right in the centre of town, near the slightly gaudy but still impressive Sule Pagoda - an old man in a faded blue longyi (the 'skirts' still worn by almost every Burmese man) scuttles eagerly across to us. In a faintly British-coloured accent, ("Hold it right there a moment, chaps!"), he proffers his services as tour guide for our stay in Yangon. Our assurances that we may consider his offer at a later time don't fool him for a minute and he responds with a string of pointed proverbs. "Strike while the iron is hot, my friends!" We smile good-bye and walk toward the guesthouse. As we drag ourselves wearily up the narrow staircase, his final faint admonition pants weakly at our heels - "Procrastination is the perennial enemy of progress!..."

We get a cheap room and crash immediately; I'm even more tired than I'd thought. Sleeping longer than we'd intended, we suddenly wake to find it's late afternoon already. Intending to set off for Mandalay early the next day, we hurry out to see what is surely Yangon's main attraction - the amazing Shwedagon Paya. The central golden stupa of this temple complex reaches almost 100m up into the sky, surrounded by an almost organic cluster of smaller, darker stupas which strain longingly up after it, and then an outer ring of slightly bizarre, neon-lit shrines. At some time in the 15th century, a queen by the name of Shinsawbu gilded the central stupa with her own weight in gold leaf, as a demonstration of her generosity & devotion. Her son-in-law, unwilling to appear stingy in comparison, later offered four times his own weight and that of his wife's. Needless to say, future generations felt obliged to continue to match or better this, and by 1995 there was approximately 53 metric tonnes' worth of gold leaf covering the increasingly-impressive (and weighty!) stupa. Legend also has it that the top of the spire is encrusted with more than 5,000 diamonds and 2,000 other precious stones. It is little wonder it is so venerated by the Burmese - the foremost of the three most important Buddhist temples in the country. While we are there, hundreds of people (only a handful of them tourists) throng the courtyard around the stupas and kneel serenely before the lurid glow of the neon-lit shrines.

Later that night, we decide to check out a curious-sounding establishment we'd read about in the LP guide. The 'Silver Oak Cafe & Restaurant' innovatively combines a pub, rock club, icecream shop & beauty-parlour - all in one convenient location! So if one were so inclined, you could get a haircut, while licking an icecream and occasionally taking a swig of your big Mandalay Beer, all set to the soundtrack of the surprisingly-good covers performed by the club's house band! We amused ourselves there for a couple of hours, providing the bar-girls with plenty of laughs as well, as we tried to get our tongues around the Burmese language.

Not expecting Yangon to have much in the way of nightlife, we weren't all that surprised when the Silver Oak closed at 9.30pm, and we were ushered gently into the street. Rats the size of rabbits skittered over our feet, as we picked our way through piles of rubbish & broken pavements in the direction of home. Happening to stumble upon the ABC Country Pub on the way - still open at the ungodly hour of 10pm! - we decided to celebrate this daring licentiousness with one final drink before bed. =P However, we were then invited by 'Jonny' (we weren't able to pronounce his Burmese name to his satisfaction) - one of the ABC waiters - to join him at a nearby club once he'd knocked off. Suspecting something fishy, but unable to resist the unlikely opportunity of partying the night away in Myanmar, we agreed. It ended up being a great night. After a few half-hearted attempts to foist prostitutes upon us, Jonny gave up on making any money and ended up being a really decent & interesting guy, (we caught up with him again on our return to Yangon).

Getting back to the Garden at 4.30am, I set my alarm - optimistically believing we could still go through with our plan to return to the Shwedagon in time for sunrise. Apparently, (so Brian told me the next day), I did wake at 5.30am, sit up immediately and say with a great amount of gusto, "Brian, it's time to get up mate - we're going to see the Shwedagon again!" To which he replied, equally enthusiastically, "Awesome, let's get going then!" At which point we both - evidently satisfied with the token effort we'd made - lay back down and fell asleep... I still think it's the thought that counts.

When we finally did get up & make our way to the bus station, it was to find that the buses to Mandalay that day were all sold out. Finally, one operator located a couple of "middle seats" for us, at a slightly reduced price. These are small seats that fold down into the aisle, (or, on some buses, just plastic stools you can move around), and are not particularly conducive to getting a good night's sleep. We were near the front of the bus, so every time someone got on or off we had to stand, fold our seats up, wait for them to shuffle apologetically past, and then fold our seats back down and collapse onto them. Even when we had enough time between stops, it was still difficult to get a good night's sleep, (the bus left Yangon at 5pm and took roughly 18 hours). The backs of the "middle seats" aren't high enough to rest your head on, so you bounce around a lot, head lolling, (or jerking - it seems to depend largely on the driver's mood), from side to side.

Just when I had finally nodded off into a decent sleep - dreaming, no doubt, of soft & stable beds - I was awakened by a loud thump that sent a shudder through the whole bus, and the screams of other passengers jerked abruptly awake. Dreading what we'd see, (another traveller had just told us about the time his bus struck & killed a young child on this very route), we climbed down to investigate with everyone else. Luckily it was just a flat tyre, and we were on our way an hour or so later. Not able to get back to sleep, (dawn had just broken, flooding the cabin with a cold clear light), I watched the beautiful jade-green scenery flowing by, and read from my book of "Quotable Quotations", (the only English-language book I'd been able to find in the bus station). Produced by the military junta government, (which goes by the Orwellian name of the 'State Peace & Development Council'), it contained quite a collection of quotes - some that were very interesting, some amusing, many contradictory and a few that were just downright bizarre. I'll close each of the Burma entries, (judging by the length of this one, it's set to be a trilogy!), with a few examples I copied down.

We both really enjoyed Mandalay - a smaller, sleepier city than Yangon, a place of messy, tree-shaded streets, bustling road-side markets, and red-robed monks hurrying around on mysterious errands. (Almost 60% of Burma's monks live in the Mandalay area!) We spent our days there wandering around the temples & markets, and also took a full-day trip around the "ancient cities" that surround Mandalay - Amarapura, Sagaing and Inwa. As for the nights, it seems that not much has changed since 1882, when colonial commentator Shwe Yoe observed that "going about at night in Mandalay was not much practised." We did go to see a very impressive display of yok-thei pwe, (Burmese marionnette theatre), as well as attending a performance by the Moustache Brothers. The oldest of the brothers has spent 7 years in prison for telling a joke about the regime, and they are now prohibited from performing in public. Instead, they hold nightly shows, (some stand-up comedy, some music & dancing), in their own home and have become a firm fixture on Mandalay's tourism itinerary.

Riding back to our hostel on the morning of our last day in Mandalay, totally lost in my thoughts as the tri-shaw bumped along the pot-holed road, I suddenly came back to myself, realising afresh just where I was and what I'd been doing... I love experiencing those moments in travel! Blinking, as one awakening from a trivial dream, you're suddenly able to take a step back from those mundane, day-to-day considerations that occupy so much time on the road, (where to stay, where to travel to next, how you'll get there, how much money you have left, and so on and on...) and appreciate anew just how far out of your normal environment & routine you are! We'd just visited a Buddhist monastical school, at the invitation of two novice monks we'd met the day before on Mandalay Hill. They showed us around and then introduced us to the abbot, (a kindly old man with more than a passing resemblance to the Dalai Lama), who invited us into his office to share his small breakfast. As we returned home, in companionable silence, the sun was just rising, illuminating the mist that still shrouded the quiet streets & temples. At this early hour, no cars yet rattled along the roads, and the mist obscured all but the outlines of the buildings that surrounded us. Somehow, it even seemed to have swept the rubbish temporarily out of sight. It could have been a hundred years in the past. Gradually, as if sinking into a dream of shifting wraiths moving through shadowed smoke, we began to make out the vague shapes of monks in the mist, (solemnly treading the streets to collect food in their shiny black alms bowls). As our tri-shaws trundled on, the sun rose further, pulling
Wa Aik Nyi (Mandalay)Wa Aik Nyi (Mandalay)Wa Aik Nyi (Mandalay)

The novice monk who showed us around the Phaung Daw Oo monastic school one morning.
the curtain of mist gently away with it, warming the streets and edging the red robes of the monks in gold. It was a scene of surpassing beauty & serenity; an otherworldly image I can't fully describe but will never forget.

Whenever I think of Burma now, I see in my mind's eye a long line of young monks, their red robes set alight by the first touch of dawn, moving serenely along a mist-cloaked dirt road. The elegant trees of Mandalay line their way, swaying sympathetically in the breeze, and even seeming to bow a little lower as the monks pass slowly by.

Immortal wisdom from the SPDC's "Book of Quotable Quotes"

Interesting: "Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that is the stuff it is made of."

Just a little strange: "Love is a grave mental disease."

Bizarre: "You may be poor, but don't get your fangs broken."

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25


A girl sells sparrows & a bewildered-looking owl, while her little sister enjoys some water-melon.A girl sells sparrows & a bewildered-looking owl, while her little sister enjoys some water-melon.
A girl sells sparrows & a bewildered-looking owl, while her little sister enjoys some water-melon.

Releasing birds outside temples earns merit for the buyer, and a tidy profit for the seller, (often, the birds are trained to return to their cages soon afterwards).
Soe Soe (my "Myanmar brother") outside a teakwood monastery in InwaSoe Soe (my "Myanmar brother") outside a teakwood monastery in Inwa
Soe Soe (my "Myanmar brother") outside a teakwood monastery in Inwa

A forthright sign in Burmese at the entrance reads "No footwear; if you are afraid of the heat on the floor, stay in your own house."
Without question, the visitor the brothers are most proud of is Aung San Suu Kyi.Without question, the visitor the brothers are most proud of is Aung San Suu Kyi.
Without question, the visitor the brothers are most proud of is Aung San Suu Kyi.

(Inspirational leader of the National League for Democracy & a Nobel Peace laureate, currently under house arrest.)

19th January 2007

Dreamy Trip
Another most enjoyed blog Michael. So well described and vivid. I can also envision so well in my mind the facial expressions of you and Brian as you both make an attemp to visit the Shwedagon. Your blog insprires me to travel again. Can't wait for the next trilogy. Cheers.
20th January 2007

dude, cool stories man.
20th January 2007

I felt like I was along for the ride!
Myanmar sounds like a wonderful place to visit; off the beaten tourist track and the home of a gentle and compassionate people. I don't think I will probably ever get there but felt like I had a glimpse into life there through your blog. Thanks Michael! Looking forward to the next installment.
21st January 2007

what happened....
Michael! What happened to my favorite picture?????? The world needs to see that picture!! :-)
22nd January 2007

Nice dude
Once again, i was amused by your impressive travel blog. It brings a lot of fun and laugh to me during my boring working time(read your blog during office hours). All encounters you have met are unbeknown to me. Everthing is so interesting and amazing. (Although Burma is not a huge distance from Malaysia, but i have never been there and never ever thought to be there before.) I wish to be like you travel in many contries, leaving my footprints all over ther world. Wish you good luck and all the best to you... Looking forward to your next trip
27th January 2007

Awesome blog!
Really good blog bro with lots of interesting stories and funny encounters. Looking forward to meeting up with you in Bucharest and travelling together. I just hope that we will have as many wacky and fun experiences as you have been having in SEA. Cya in a week...
27th January 2007

Asleep at the wheel!
Michael, what fascinating experiences you continue to have. No chance of you being asleep at the wheel of life! Blessings Botsalano
3rd March 2007

Aung San Suu Kyi
I know that you had a fantastic, life changing trip in Burma. However, I believe it's important to mention that Aung San Suu Kyi,the imprisoned, Nobel Peace Prize Winner, fighter for democracy, heart of Burma who has sacrificed her life for a free and democratic Burma has continued and continues to ask that people do not visit Burma as this is supportive of the military dictatorship of Burma. I'd strongly suggest that you and all of your readers add their names in support of Aung San Suu Kyi--www.actionburma.com

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