I wake up the next morning with a strange throbbing sensation down the left side of my face. I look in the mirror and an ogre looks back. I’ve been bitten on the lip and the eyelid, which have swelled alarmingly. I spend the next fifteen minutes rearranging my face so as not to scare the children, then hide the eye behind sunglasses. I will have to be a film star for the day.
After breakfast I head out to wander the streets of Mandalay. The Lonely Planet does its best to suggest that the city is disappointing, and while it’s true that it’s a bit less steeped in history than the imagination might suggest, it’s also quiet. Much as this is a wonderful break from the chaos of Hanoi, it’s also a clear sign that there’s not much industry going on. Bicycles outnumber cars, and the cars are cheap and old.
This means that basking in serenity comes with a touch of guilt. Is this peacefulness a choice? Or it it the result of government kleptocracy and economic sanctions? Manic and strained about the edges as life in Hanoi often is, and opaque as government often cough allegedly is, there is a feeling that people are going places and making money, that they are richer and have more opportunities than their parents. Here there is a sense that things are only just about ticking over.
I stroll alongside the palace moat, wondering whether I should go in. Eventually I decide against it – $10 to the junta for a structure allegedly reconstructed using slave labour, using such high quality building materials as corrugated iron for the roofing. There’s plenty to see from ground level, including a giant red sign over the east gate proclaiming “The Tatmadaw (state army) shall never betray the national cause”. Which is pretty reassuring when you consider that a recent government publication announced that 23.6% of the 2011 national budget spending will be on defence, and that the regime has also been harshly criticised by organisations such as Human Rights Watch for the forced drafting of children as young as 11. There are a fair number of these unsettling signs around, and I can’t help wondering what purpose the English translation serves – “Visit Myanmar – it’s just as Orwellian as you’d imagined!”
After lunch I launch an assault on Mandalay Hill. The climb is not too challenging – certainly not the 2 ½ hours it was billed as being. The temple at the top is nice enough; done out in mirrors, it scores double points for being both sparkly and economical. What’s really exciting, though, is that once you’ve taken your shoes off and entered The Holy Place, you’re greeted by a series of escalators. It feels kind of naughty, being barefoot on an escalator. Thesis forthcoming: “The Role of Escalators in South-East Asian Religious Life”.
Sunset’s a bit rubbish, as it often is. I lose my accomplices in the scrum and am somewhat concerned that the light is fading (there are no streetlights. Anywhere.) I accidentally start talking prices with what turns out to be a tour group, so they let me hitch a ride down the hill. The guide tries to talk me into rejoining them the next day but several of the others start to look miffed and I say my farewells. Point-and-pick curry from Shan State, then zzz.
From here on June 5th 2011.