Archive: Mandalay, moral dilemmas and mosquitos

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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.

Quiet streets in Mandalay

In retrospect, perhaps we didn’t need three lanes.

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.

Tatmadaw (national army) sign

All national army signs have kindly been translated into rather chilling English

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.

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Archive: Two planes to nowhere (and a fistful of kyat)

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Air Mandalay check-in desk

The hi-tech Air Mandalay check-in desk, complete with big red weighing scales.

Work backwards from a 7am flight. And the time taken to check in and… and the journey to the airport… Ow.

By the time my brain engages, we’ve flown the 50 minutes to Yangon, at which point we turn around and fly right back to Bangkok, land, hang around for another 2 hours, and then fly to Yangon again. This time we land. And disembark. Baby steps.

I race off to check in for my onward flight to Mandalay, only to discover that a) it’s also been delayed, and b) they have no record of me booking. I rebook, and find a woman to squat behind a pot plant with exchanging money illegally. The official rate of 6.5 kyat to the dollar turns out to be a complete fiction; I get 840. This rate makes Myanmar slightly more expensive than Vietnam, at least as a traveller. Replete with kyat, I eat a long overdue lunch, relieved that it doesn’t, in fact, cost $140.

My flight with Air Mandalay is endearingly low-tech. My bag is weighed on a big red standalone scale, before being taken away for loading by A Man. Flights are announced by – well, you can hear them land. The staff, however, are charm itself, and are quite happy to keep pumping me full of coffee. 


After the plane has flown to all the major tourist destinations that have an airport, we arrive in Mandalay to be met by a scrum of, well, nobody. It’s completely deserted. I get in even more of a lather when I discover that something soapy has exploded in my bag, but fortunately there are about 8 people on hand to help mop up the mess. Afterwards one of them apologises, although I’m not quite sure what for. All very civilised.

Back to the non-existent taxi scrum (of nobody). Normally this would be a relief, but it’s dark and we appear to have landed in a ricefield. Bothering a few people, it turns out that there’s a free bus being laid on, possibly, although nobody knows where and when until it drives past and I have to run after it yelling. Safely on board, we bump off down a dirt road composed mostly of potholes, scattering small children on bicycles into the fields as we go. I’m starting to worry that I’ve nowhere booked and no idea where I’m going, so I bother some random people until I at least have a direction in mind. We share a tuk-tuk there and I succeed in finding myself a place to sleep. All that remains is to have a chicken curry in the only place open this ‘late’ (9pm), a bones-on-the-floor, dog’ll-eat-’em kind of whiskey joint, before crashing. Zzzzz.

From here on June 5th 2011

Archive: An unnamed land

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Bagan; around every corner a temple.

Around every corner a temple.

It’s hard to know where to start when talking about a country that you don’t know what to call. In February 2011, during the Vietnamese Tet holiday, I visited the country known to some as Burma and to others as Myanmar. 

While both names refer to the majority Bamar ethnic group, “Burma” remains associated with the British colonial era, a troubled era and one that I, a thoroughly reconstructed sort of Brit, have no great desire to associate myself with. Burma was something of a sideshow to the British; governed as a province of India, its civil service was largely drawn from India and from other non-Burmese, preventing local people from benefitting from the country’s prosperity. The country never seized the British imagination in the way India did, and there was little attempt to conform to its customs. A particular sticking point was the “Shoe Question”, the refusal of the interlopers to take their shoes off when entering Buddhist temples and other holy sites. Spotless as the colonial socks may have remained, this had the side-effect of focussing nascent Burmese nationalism on Buddhism, a focus that remains today.


So what of Myanmar? The country’s name was officially changed in 1989 by the reassuringly-named
SLORC (State Law and Order Committee), the ruling military junta perhaps best known for keeping opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest and overturning her party’s election victory in 1990. Despite a move from Soviet-style central planning in the ’60s and ’70s to a capitalist model, the junta has been in place since 1962 and shows little sign of going away. It is considered to be one of the world’s most repressive and abusive regimes, and its mismanagement has seen the country become one of the poorest and most corrupt in the region. Despite continued unrest, the junta rolls on, its access to natural resources and the willingness of neighbours to buy them allowing a ‘select’ few to line their pockets as the poor become poorer.


“Perhaps a million dead, millions more displaced, an economy in ruins, and a robust military machine designed to fight the enemy within have been the main stuff of Burma’s postindependence history”
Thant Myint-U, The River of Lost Footsteps


Eating lunch in Bangkok airport before the flight to Yangon, a man asked me where I was flying on to. Hearing the answer, he asked, shocked, “Why on earth would you want to go there?” It is true that there are challenges to travelling in such a place – no ATMs, no official currency exchange, creaking (if any) infrastructure, limited press and internet, and the difficulties of travelling ethically and giving money where it is most needed and most deserved (which is to say, not to the government). But it’s also true that with a people so warm and welcoming, a history so diverse, and a country so breathtakingly beautiful, the current regime is selling its people very, very short indeed.

British surveying pagoda, 1825

The British survey their latest acquisition.

From here on June 2nd 2011.