From Bagan we had another bumpy 7 hour bus ride to our final stop: Mandalay. This bus was PACKED. It had about 45 people in seats and then in the aisle there were jump seats with another 15 or so people (including 4 monks). The dude next to me alternated between laughing uncontrollably at a Burmese sitcom on the TV and falling asleep on my shoulder. Could have been worse: A few seats up a little kid vomited for the entire ride. Poor little guy seemed really sick and he sat on his dad’s lap the whole time. I tried to find some candy to give him but couldn’t find anything that didn’t seem like it would be a choking hazard. It’s debatable whether this ride or the Inle to Bagan ride was worse. This one was shorter and slightly less twisty-turny but Kat and I both had to pee SO BAD and there was no way to get to the driver to tell him to stop due to all the people in the aisle. I kept sane by looking at the monks and thinking that they also probably have to pee and that they were remembering that the urge to urinate is impermanent and thus so is this suffering. My suspicions were confirmed as when we got to a rest stop one monk bolted to the bathroom.
So, I didn’t know much about Mandalay. The name evokes some kind of oldey-timey romanticism due to Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Road to Mandalay” and due to fancy hotel and resort names like “Mandalay Bay.” Well, let me tell you about Mandalay – this place is a hot, dusty shithole. No way around it. It’s a big city lacking any charm or distinguishing characteristics. Like Indonesia, the sidewalks are deathtraps with random sinkholes that plummet down 10-15 feet into rivers of raw sewage. I also found the people in Mandalay to be a bit different than the people in Yangon. They seemed a bit more cosmopolitan but also less friendly. There were lots of stares and few smiles. Fortunately, we’d be spending minimal time in the city itself.
After some confusion (we had to place a call from the “payphone” at the bus station – meaning, a dude with a 1980’s office phone on a desk) we were met by our driver at the bus station. We were tired but he immediately whisked us away to do some sightseeing around Mandalay itself. It won’t surprise you what we saw: Temples, buddhas and monasteries.
You should know from our previous posts though that the real treasure of Burma is not the sights and the places (and definitely not the food) but its people. Our driver, Ko, (pronounced “Joe) was perhaps our favorite part of our time in Mandalay. He spoke excellent English, was incredibly funny and smart and we had a blast chatting with him for hours in the car. He was about our age and had a wife and a young son and it really seemed that he was as interested in us as we were in him. We told him the places we’d been and the places we were going and he said wistfully that “one day” he hopes to see the world. It was a subtle reminder of how repressed people still are in Burma and it certainly gave us a jolt to remember just how lucky we are to be taking this trip and for having been born in a free and prosperous country. Ko can speak 4 languages but is starved for information about the world outside Burma. It blew his mind to learn that, in America, there are different foods that are typically only eaten at breakfast. He wanted to know when “rainy season” was in America. He was stunned that it would take FIVE HOURS to fly across the country (“I thought New York to Los Angeles, maybe 2 hours!”) All that said, he’s already seen the new James Bond movie, his son spends hours playing Playstation 3 and he is a huge Arsenal fan. Being a driver for tourists is a pretty good job in Burma, but it was clear that he wanted more for his son (he is only seven but he already takes lessons outside of school in English, business, and computers). We didn’t talk explicitly about politics because doing so could get Ko into trouble, but we did dance around the issue a lot. Ko said we couldn’t go to certain places “because of the military. No good. Very bad.” He made references to things being “very very bad a few years ago” but he says “In past few years, things getting better.” You could hear in his voice how hopeful he is for the future but also a wariness that he might not get the country he wants for a long, long time, if ever. Whenever I think of Burma, I will always think of Ko and I’ll forever hope that he and his family are able to live the life that they dream of.
Because Mandalay sucks so hard, we instead visited some of the smaller towns outside of Mandalay, which each used to be a capital of Burma years ago. We saw the famous U Bein bridge (the longest teakwood bridge in the world at 1.2 km). We also went to a working monastery to see hundreds of monks (some as young as five years old) line up with their alms bowls to receive their one meal of the day. This was our absolute least favorite part of Burma. I hated it more than the crap food, more than the 10 hour ass-bruising bus rides. There were hundreds of monks lined up and to get their ONE MEAL of the day, they had to parade through a gauntlet of hundreds of old, white, package tourists shoving cameras in their faces, flashes popping off. These tourists (mostly French and German) had NO regard for the monks and showed them no respect and I was ashamed and horrified to be there. Many of the monks were novice monks as well, meaning that little kids had to go through this crowd of insane foreigners – it must have been really scary for them. One woman was even taking pictures of the monks bathing. If you are going to go to Burma PLEASE show the monks respect. During an uprising several years ago, several monks were killed by the government trying to protect fellow protestors. They deserve to be treated like more than window dressing for a cool photo.
For dinner, our driver pointed us to a really awesome barbecue restaurant somewhat similar to other places we’ve been. You go pick your sticks of stuff (Pork, tofu, pig ears, etc) and they grill up the sticks and bring them to you. It was a bit far from our hotel, so before he left, Ko arranged for us to get a ride on the back of the motorcycle of a waiter there. We needed two motos, so the waiter enlisted a buddy of his to help. I got on the back of the bike with the waiter and Kat with his friend and we zipped off. 10 minutes later we arrived at the hotel – or, rather, I arrived. Kat was nowhere to be seen. So we waited. The longer we waited, the more agitated my moto driver became. After 10 minutes, he motioned for me to wait and he zipped off. He returned five minutes later and asked me “Still no?” “Still no.” He was getting very upset. I have a feeling if you lose a white tourist entrusted to your care really bad things happen to you. I don’t want to know what was running through this guy’s mind, but this was not a good situation for him. He (and, really, I as well) were on the verge of panicking when Kat’s moto showed up. I never was worried about Kat being kidnapped or in any real danger (Burmese just don’t do that) but I was worried that they had been in an accident. Turns out that they’d just gotten lost (HOW they got lost I can’t figure out since Mandalay is on a numbered grid system). They drove around until a kind lady selling gasoline out of plastic water bottles on the side of the road had given them directions and even rode on her bike along with them until they got on the right path. Burmese people, man. They ALWAYS WANT TO HELP. When they arrived, Kat was laughing hysterically about how lost they had gotten. My motodriver and I did failed to see the humor. In fact, the my motodriver had some pretty harsh words for his friend (I imagine along the lines of “THIS ISN’T FUNNY, ASSHOLE!”) and zipped off.
We went back to the barbecue restaurant the next night and saw him again. The look on his face was priceless. “Oh LORD I thought I was free of you meatbags and you came BACK?!” He hid from us the whole time we were there. This presented a problem as we had no way to get home. There are NO taxis on the streets of Mandalay for reasons I cannot understand. There are, allegedly, mototaxis but unlike Thailand, they don’t wear uniforms so you have no way of knowing who is a mototaxi and who’s just a dude out for the night. So we stood on the corner awkwardly for about 15 minutes. Our hotel was about 2.5 miles away. We COULD walk but it would be rough going – along a highway at night, dodging the random sinkholes. Eventually, a trishaw driver stopped and offered us a ride. A trishaw is just a dude on the bike with a jumpseat on the side. The passengers sit back to back while the poor trishaw driver huffs and puffs (there’s only ONE gear on this bike) and eventually gets you home. We told him where we wanted to go and he hemmed and hawed a bit as it is a bit far, particularly for him to haul our two fat white asses. Kat offered him 3000 kyat (nearly $4), a preposterous sum of money as that would have gotten us a cab home. The driver, stunned by this offer, readily agreed and off we went. People stared and laughed at us as we slowly rolled through the dark, dusty streets of Mandalay. Kat and I laughed and laughed the whole way. When we finally got to our hotel, Kat snapped at me “You give this man A TIP!” So I gave him an extra 500 kyat on top of the already ridiculous 3000 kyat fare. The man smiled SO brightly and thanked us profusely. That guy earned it. I hope he was able to knock off work early for the night because of us and our fat white asses.
The next morning we went to the Mandalay airport for fly back to Bangkok. The Mandalay airport is a gleaming monument to what awful idiots the Burmese government are. The airport is an hour drive outside of the city, in the middle of NOWHERE. It was built about 12 years ago and is bright and shiny and new. The idea, apparently, was to use it to welcome all kinds of international visitors to Burma. This plan seems not to have worked and the airport is eerily quiet and empty. There are about 30 gates, but our flight was the ONLY flight due to depart. There are electronic screens that WOULD show arrivals and departures, but as there’s only ONE flight, the screens are dark. There are numerous corridors that in a normal airport would have shops and restaurants that are either totally empty or entirely closed off. The government spent millions of dollars on this thing and, meanwhile, people in their own country starve. The whole building is a monument to corruption, callousness and ineptitude.
We were hungry so we thought we’d try to get some food. An airport directory pointed us towards a “Restaurant and Café Zone” but when we go there, there were just empty storefronts save for one tiny room that had little tables and tiny plastic stools. In the back of the room were a bunch of pots on the floor holding curry and rice. A woman was washing dishes in a basin in the corner. This is a pretty standard scene for a Burmese streetside restaurant, but I was shocked and appalled to see it as the ONLY “restaurant” in the Mandalay International Airport. Still, I was hungry so we sat and ordered food. It wasn’t good (of course) AND I was feeling the effects of it for a few days afterwards – only the second time in 3 months that I’ve become ill from eating. We met up with a friend of ours who was on the same flight. I had some Kyat leftover that needed spending (the food was less than $1 per person) so we bought some beers (It was 11 AM in Burma but five o’clock somewhere in the world). The first round was something extortionate like 1500 kyat per can (about $2). After that we were running low on kyat but wanted more beer. Our friend Martin said, “Well, this is sort of a bullshit operation, so let’s see what we can do.” He got 3 more beers and told them that all we had left was $3 and we wanted all of them for that. The Burmese ladies sort of shrugged and took the money and that was that. I challenge you to find me another international airport where you can haggle down the price of your beer!
With that, we were set to depart. I buckled into my Air Asia seat. The guy next to me was Burmese. He had a new iphone and I just assumed that since he was actually able to leave Burma and because he had an expensive phone that he was a bad guy connected to the government. He was reading a tiny book that had a picture of Barack Obama on it. So I asked him what the book was about. He said it was about the President’s speech in Yangon a few months earlier and about US-Myanmar relations. I told him “That’s my President. We are so proud that he came to Myanmar.” He said “Oh! You’re American!” Then he pulled out his phone and, to my shock, showed me a ton of photos of him and his family in America – at Niagara Falls, on a trolley in San Francisco, in front of the White House. Then he showed me a photo of him with Aung San Suu Kyi and he was SO proud. I told him it must have been a great honor to meet her. He said he had hosted her recently when she came to Mandalay. I was pleased to know that he was a good guy! He then insisted on showing me a video on his phone. He had recorded Obama’s speech in Yangon with his phone by recording his TV with his iphone and he wanted me to watch it. I have to say, I was really, really proud to be American when he showed me the video and it made me feel so good to see my country and my president being a force for good in the world. I asked why he was going to Bangkok and he said something about going to hospitals for pharmaceutical something or other. I didn’t really understand, nor do I really understand how he is able to travel around the world and have money and somehow not be connected to the regime, but it was a really nice way to end our time in Burma.
NOTE — unfortunately, not too many photos of Mandalay because we (and by “we” I mean Kat) dropped our camera. Sad corollary to this: For a week the camera refused to turn on, so we bought an expensive new camera. Not TWO HOURS after we bought the new camera, the old camera miraculously came back to life. *SHAKES TINY FIST OF RAGE*