Burmese Days on the Road to Mandalay
|Burmese Days on the Road to Mandalay|
|Two Roads to Mandalay|
|Eyes Speak for a Muted People|
Yangon – a City Halted
by Elizabeth Willoughby
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.
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 yellow blotches of powder on their cheeks (thanakha), 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.
Next day, I begin my journey to the cruise ship.