Archive: Dirt roads around Mandalay


The real reason to stay in Mandalay is not the city itself, but the surrounding area. Here I was faced with a dilemma – what to do? A whistlestop tour of everything by taxi? A share taxi up to Pyin U Lwin, the former British hill station? A stay in Sagaing and a leisurely stroll around its faded but not forgotten glory? Or – and here I had a flash of trademark Caroline brand genius – hire a rickety bicycle with two shopping baskets and no suspension, and do a 20-mile round-trip to Amarapura, a former royal capital comprising temples and an evocative teak bridge. Consider that boneshaker hired.

Elephants near Mandalay

Ah. Hence the traffic jam.

So clatter-clatter off I go southwards on 84th street, after a few false starts and an impromptu visit to a family’s backyard (very friendly chickens). The traffic is easy to deal with, although complicated slightly by the need to reply to everyone shouting “Hello!”, and sometimes also “Good morning!” I pootle happily along for some distance, stopping only to buy more water from a very polite man in a turban, when suddenly I hit mayhem – we’re mired in hazy beeping pick-ups as far as the eye can see. Using my narrow bicycularity to my advantage, I edge forward, and diagnose the cause of the problem: elephants. Donkeys too, and a large procession of people in sparkly clothes and tinsly head-pieces, but there’s no doubt: we’re caught in an elephant jam.

As I’ve very little idea where I am, I decide to follow the elephants as they turn off down a loopy-signposted side road (guy who romanised Vietnamese, thank you, I never realised how much easier you make my life). I double-check directions with a man standing by the side of the road, who confirms that I’m going in the right direction, and tells me that he’s an Arsenal fan for good measure. 

A paya pwe, or pagoda festival

Turns out I’d arrived in the middle of a paya pwe, or pagoda festival. Everyone was very excited.

Shortly, the elephants and I arrive at the temple complex of Somewhere, and I sit in the shade eating banana chips and watching the human participants fussing and faffing, posing for pictures and reapplying makeup in readiness for whatever important thing it is that they’ll be doing. Rested (and trying not to stare too hard), I head inside. It’s a massive complex, and clearly of some importance as there are bus-loads of foreign monks visiting (and me). The devotion is palpable – no snoozing in the pew here – but I do wish I had more idea what everything meant. 

After a suitable wander, I explore the other wonders of the region. I clatter my way down narrow alleys and stumble upon the world’s most languid train station, its sign all askew and showing no signs of life apart from three lads playing with a plastic bag. Then I set off for U-Bein’s bridge, and proceed to get hopelessly lost, ending up halfway towards Sagaing and meeting a fair number of chickens en route. There seems to be absolute consensus that the bridge can be reached by going in all of seventeen different directions. I do catch a glimpse of it, but only from behind a big scary no entry sign. It’s getting dark, and my bottom hurts. Dejected, but pleased to have found what I did find, and to have experienced such warm and friendly misdirection, I creak off home.

A railway station near Mandalay

Turns out I could have gone by train.

From here on June 8th 2011.


Archive: Mandalay, moral dilemmas and mosquitos


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.

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

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