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Burmese days on the Road To Mandalay
by Elizabeth Willoughby

Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi's stand against her country's military junta might be what first comes to mind when thinking of Burma, now called Myanmar, but the former British colony's controversial politics have a much longer history. It was the subject of George Orwell's 1934 novel "Burmese Days", and before that Rudyard Kipling wrote about it in his 1892 poem "Mandalay". In this century, Myanmar's government has been gradually opening its doors to tourism; here's what it was like to visit in September 2010.

 

Road to Mandaly cruise ship, Burma, Souteast Asia

Part I: Yangon — a city halted

Standing on the muddy shores of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) River at Shwe Kyet Yet in Myanmar, I watch passengers, one at a time, wobble up the long, rickety planks to board the boat that will take us to the Road to Mandalay cruise ship. There are no ballerinas in this bunch. The last, steepest plank has a makeshift banister – a long branch held at each end by longshoreboys who are balancing on the sawhorses that support the unsteady gangplank. I go last and demonstrate an equal lack of grace.

It's nearly an hour's tranquil ride over still waters – past shacks and cottages built high on stilts, past long, canoe-like boats of families, children naked, pulling in fishing lines and nets as twilight approaches – until we reach the Road to Mandalay. It's making this late-afternoon pick-up on its journey down from Bhamo near the border to China. As we board, Sammy, the ship's manager, tells us to get ready – a cocktail party will soon begin on the upper deck. My luggage arrives at my cabin shortly after I do. It's dry. I am happy.

This is my third day in Myanmar, a country well-known for its military junta debacles, not so much for tourism. So far, I have found the country curious and friendly. I started in Yangon, a former capital, formerly called Rangoon, still a busy commercial centre.

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Yangon is a city under ongoing construction and halted construction. Uptown, banyans and palms line roads and sidewalks, and grand, stately trees provide shade, their roots upheaving the sidewalks that they transgress. Downtown is filled with rundown British colonial buildings, ramshackle buses, weary bicycles and derelict cars, some right-hand drive and others left. It is a city where men wear long skirts (longi), women smear blotches of yellow powder (thanakha) on their cheeks for sun protection and for beauty, and smiley people think they are keeping their teeth strong and healthy by chewing betel nut, which stains them red. Produce is sold along dilapidated sidewalks and side streets, and consumed from low plastic stools gathered around low plastic tables sheltered under faded plastic awnings. Although it is the rainy season, pedestrians need umbrellas for relief from the sweltering sun, and that was the first thing I bought.

With no dearth of stupas and pagodas in Myanmar, Yangon has its share visited regularly by the mainly-Buddhist population. The laying-down-on-his-side-resting-his-head-on-one-hand Buddha at Chaukhtatgyi Pagoda is enormous, its eyelashes as long as a man's torso, and the five-storey, seated Buddha at Ngahtatgyi Pagoda is, I presume, five stories high, but it's the Shwedagon Pagoda – the sacred "Mecca" of Yangon that the Burmese must visit at least once – that leaves a lasting impression. According to legend it was built to enshrine eight Buddha hairs. Today it is a complex of temples, shrines and stupas, sparkling gold, wedding-cake white, nuns in pink, monks in crimson, couples praying, Buddhas large and small, gold and green, incense, blinking coloured lights, a pandemonium clustered around the original golden shrine that towers above all, gleaming under the oppressive sun. But it is rainy season. The sky turns dark grey making the steeples glow even more golden, and a drenching rain pours down. The marble floor becomes sleek and slippery – and deserted as bare feet scurry into pagodas to wait out the downpour.

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Next day, I begin my journey to the cruise ship. (Scroll down for Part II.)

Part II: Two roads to Mandalay

To reach the Road to Mandalay ship, I must take a road from Mandalay's airport. The split "highway" is separated by saplings, yellow and white flowering shrubs and pink bougainvillea, and bordered by thicket. Cars and trucks appear sporadically. Mini pickups operate as taxis; small motorcycles are heaped high with banana bunches or sacks of charcoal; some bicycles carry bundles of sugarcane or bamboo strapped across the back, while others balance large baskets of produce at each side. As the road continues, the bush gives way to orchards of mango, banana and coconut, and fields of watermelons, peanuts and beans. Annual rains have flooded rice paddies and forced families out of their shacks into slapdash shelters along the treed shoulder of the road. A woman carries a tray of watermelon slices on her head. Another carries a huge basket.

Detouring to some key sights, I enter a small village where one end of the old, teak U Bein Bridge begins. Seen from the water that it traverses, it is picturesque. Over a kilometre long, the wooden causeway hovers above the monsoon lake, held up by telephone post-like stilts. Seen from ground level, it's a sturdy, broad avenue used by locals on foot and on bicycle, fishermen, food sellers and beggars, and horded by persistent child souvenir vendors who can ask for your name and where you're from in several languages. Seeking something less intrusive, I leave this circus behind.

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The resident monks at the Mahagandaryon Monastery spend their waking hours studying and meditating. In this hamlet, there are also paid labourers and volunteers to do the work that monks may not, such as preparing food. Each day, when a bell begins clanging to announce lunch time, hundreds of novices and monks in deep red robes, bare feet and shaved heads, descend from simple, tidy houses and dorms to the street. The austere procession ignores rapacious tourists snapping pictures as it continues in single file into a courtyard where women dish out sticky rice, chicken, fruit and bread. Calmly, quietly, sitting cross legged on the floor, men and boys eat their meals at long, squat tables and leave as new arrivals take their places. I move on as well.

The Mandalay countryside is flecked with white-washed and gold tipped pagodas and domes. Within, they are brightly coloured and glittery, and the cool ceramic columns, arches and tiles provide relief from the sultry air and scorching sun. Relief on the boat "taxi" to the cruise ship comes in the form of a light breeze and dusk.

(Scroll down for Part III.)

Part III: Eyes speak for a muted people

On the 1,900-ton Road to Mandalay ship, the cocktail party has begun. I strike up a conversation with a woman who raves about the voyage thus far, each town they visited having been specifically chosen for its unique characteristics or customs.

She also mentions the doctor on board, who uses the stops the ship makes to provide medical care to villagers in the vicinity. I track him down to find out more. Dr Hla Tun tells me that in the two years since the devastating cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, he's made 47 trips into the Delta and treated almost 22,000 patients.

He shows me pictures of the destruction the cyclone caused and tells me about the surgeries he has performed and of tragedies suffered – like the husband and wife clinging to a tree during the storm, floating in water, clutching their three children. When exhaustion overcame the parents, one son floated away, then another, and then the wife. He tells me hopeful stories too, about the grassroots fundraising he is doing to provide education to village children through the building of schools and through the contribution of salaries to teachers and supplies to students. Keeping people in their local villages allows for continued education and fewer drownings during monsoon season.

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The next day, I go ashore to see local artisans at work. The front of a multigenerational family dwelling is used as a production area. I watch men clobber small gold sheets into gold leaf using long-handled mallets, and young girls in glassed-in rooms cut and stack the pieces for further pounding. Then I see the gold leaf put to use on the Buddha statue at the Great Sage Pagoda, a place of pilgrimage. Buddhist men pray and apply the thin metal to the image, possibly cast in the 1st century, its shimmering new skin now over 15 centimetres thick. Buddhist women, forbidden to approach it, pray from the floor in front of the statue.

On the "stone mason" street are statues of elephants and Buddhas at various stages of completion, white marble, some shiny, some painted, set out on the cemented front yards of shops. A young man is working on the mouth of a Buddha, measuring, pencilling, carving, kneeling on the ground. His brown face and black hair are coated with fine, white dust that makes his red-toothed smile striking. On the "wood carver street", men sit on the ground under the shade of a wooden lean-to chiselling Buddha images and marionettes; women, shy and giggly, sit around a low work table inside the dark shop, stitching carpets and puppet costumes that will fill the shelves, walls and racks. It's 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit). Time for a rinse.

Back on the boat a Burmese guest speaker has come to educate us on the role of women in Myanmar. She reads straight off her power point slides to the audience: women comprise almost half of the mid to top-level positions in government; women are doctors, lawyers, engineers, journalists; women have equal rights, if not more authority in the family than men. Amidst rumours of spies on board, the presentation smacks of propaganda, although it could be true – on paper. The Burmese, as gentle and friendly as their Indochina neighbours, seem eager to catch up with the world, yet subdued, held back by lack of opportunity and things they may not say aloud.

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Tomorrow, on my last day here, we're going to stop at Bagan where thousands of ancient stupas and temples are spattered across the central plains; red, gold, bronze and white peaks jut out above the treetops. Others lay in ruins in the dirt, sacked by Kublai Khan probably. There, the child vendors around the temples try to sell trinkets to tourists, and the girls often ask for donations. Interestingly, they don't ask for money. They want lipstick, perfume and shampoo.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2010

This article was published at ©WorldGuide.eu 2010

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