Posted in mandalay, myanmar by moonwire on November 24, 2009

After four days in Yangon, I got myself an overnight-bus ticket to Mandalay. The trip takes anywhere from 12 to 15 hours and I wasn’t looking forward to it however, you don’t really have a choice. Yes, you can take one of the domestic flights. Dodgy track record thrown in for free. Or you can take the train, which actually takes longer than the bus, but you’ll be able to book a sleeper (foreigners aren’t allowed to book regular train tickets). However, the problem with the train is that it’s 100% government run, and I believe the planes are either government or joint ventures. I know that by visiting Myanmar I am already putting money in the pocket of  the ruling military junta by paying money for the visa, the airport exit fee and 12% on bus tickets and guesthouse expenses however, you can still make your choices wisely to ensure as little as possible disappears into the pockets of those bastards. Having said that, the money made off of tourism doesn’t amount to that much. I read somewhere that Myanmar receives less than 200,000 tourists a year.

So the bus it was. I was actually surprised the bus wasn’t totally falling apart. It was an old Japanese tour bus with decent, yet very small seats. There was aircon as well as a TV blaring cheesy Burmese pop videos at maximum volume for hours at end. I can’t really sleep on those buses but I had my iPod which also blocked out the puking sounds from the lady next to me, who threw up during the whole duration of the 12 hour ride. Little bags of puke everywhere. Oh, it was an adventure.

After a few hours we stopped for a bathroom and food break in the middle of nowhere. Just looking at the food made me want to join my barfing seat mate, but I had to go to the bathroom. I opened the door and the bathroom,  basically a hole in the ground with a bucket and a scoop (I can deal with that after all those months) was filled with what I believe to be black widow spiders. There were hundreds of them. I never peed so fast in my life and basically got out still pulling up my pants.

The ride was surreal as there is no such thing as street lighting, the only time you see something lit up it’s most likely a prison. Everything else is dark. Some parts of the road were actually quite good, other parts were extremely bumpy.

We made one more of those stops and we had to get out of the bus for 2 ID checks. I was the only foreigner on the bus and I’m sure I held everybody up because they needed to meticulously browse through my passport and record a bunch of details with pen and paper. Luckily, no ‘tea money’ was required to get the go ahead and finally after 12 hours on that bus, we arrived at a dusty parking lot just outside of Mandalay at 5 AM. It was very dark, because there was no electricity. It was kind of eerie, too. Lots of buses were coming and going and I had no idea where to go as I did not have a hotel booked. I looked at my Lonely Planet guide and a taxi driver approached me. I told him I wanted to be dropped off at a certain guesthouse. He took me to his taxi, which was one of those tiny little blue Mazda pick up trucks you’d expect to see in Cuba. I climbed into the back and off we went. The funny thing is, that guy knew how to speak a little Dutch. It was just bizarre. When we got to the guesthouse it turned out to be full, so he suggested another one, just a block away. Sure, what was I gonna do at 5.30 AM…. He took me to E.T. guesthouse and it looked pretty decent so I got a room there. I took a quick nap and went for a walk around ‘downtown’.

My first impression of Mandalay was that it wasn’t very pretty. Whereas in Yangon, there’s a lot of old quite interesting (yet crumbling) architecture… no such thing in Mandalay. I honestly felt a bit lost there add exhaustion and 37C to the mix and there’s a recipe for misery. I then decided that I was not going to do Bagan, which meant another 8 hours on a bus to get there, and another 16 hours to get back to Yangon.

I got some half decent Chinese food, walked around town a bit to see if there was anything going on. There wasn’t. At night there was absolutely nothing to do so I decided to make it an early night and I ended up going to bed at 8 PM.

The next day I woke up early and I went for a walk around the Mandalay palace. There were some pretty sights but nothing that really blew me away apart from the huge propaganda posters with statements like “The Tatmadaw (the military) will never betray the cause of our nation.” Pretty eerie.

Went back to the hotel for brekkie and decided I might as well check out some of the temples as there wasn’t much else to do. So when I was walking down the street, a tri-shaw driver approached me. His English was very good and he talked about a few places where he could take me. I decided to give it a go and hopped into the tri-shaw.

His name was Mr. Htoo and he turned out to be an excellent guide and also companion. He pedaled me around town for the entire afternoon and showed me a bunch of temples, which were okay but not breath taking. However, the most interesting part of our afternoon was making stops at the tea shops where you sit on tiny stools and just sip tea and eat snacks (those are very good btw. I ended up living on those things for the last few days because they were very tasty, yet not very healthy as they’re all deep fried.). I much enjoyed talking to him. He then told me that he was mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide and yes, indeed he was there. The guide stated that he rents out bicycles but unfortunately he no longer does. He told me that after the 2007 anti-government protests that were lead by the monks (the government actually started shooting at the protesters and about 30 people ended up dead and more than 1000 people were arrested) tourism came to a halt and he was forced to sell his bicycles so his 4 children could go to school. He’s hoping to open his bicycle rental business again in the new future but a bicycle costs anywhere from 40 to 70 USD and on an income of about 30 USD a month, it takes a long time to save up.

Htoo picked me up later that night to take me to ‘The Moustache Brothers’, one of the few evening entertainment options out there. The Moustache Brothers are Par Par Lay, Lu Maw and Lu Zaw and their show is a mix of stand up comedy, Burmese dance and pretty harsh criticism of the Burmese government. The theatre is actually in their garage and it’s pretty neat to be there. Locals are not allowed to attend, but it’s safe for foreigners. I honestly couldn’t believe some of the things that were said about the generals and their ‘government’. As it happens, Lay and Zaw both served 6 years in prison doing hard labour for criticizing the government and yet they continue. Pretty courageous.

The next morning Htoo picked me up again to go to Mandalay Hill and see yet a few more temples. The cutest thing was when I got out of the temples, I saw him polishing up his bicycle. He had just put on new tires and was very proud of his possession. Once again, we ended up in a tea shop and drank Star cola (Burmese version of Pepsi), tea and ate snacks. We also invited a little girl who was selling newspapers. She didn’t speak English, but she told Htoo that she has to work to add to the income of her family so she can’t go to school. Pretty heart breaking. It was also very cute to see her drink the Star cola. She wasn’t used to drinking carbonated drinks so she sipped very very slowly however, she wolfed down the snacks in no time.

That night, it was time to go back on the bus. It wasn’t great, but it wasn’t as bad as the ride to Mandalay even though it was an hour longer. I arrived at the Okinawa Guesthouse once again and all was well.

I kind of regret not biting the bullet and make the trek to Bagan. Even though Myanmar was a bit boring in some regards, I did find it the most interesting country out of the bunch. The people are very friendly and curious. Other than the moneychangers, there are no blatant rip offs like you can expect in Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. Talking to the locals is quite easy, even their English is sometimes limited. I’ve had conversations with quite a few people there and it surprised me they were quite willing to talk about the political situation in their country even though it was mostly done in a roundabout way. After all, openly opposing the government could land them in prison for many years.

And even though I hate the thought of the military junta getting any of my money, I am glad I did go. There are lots of ways of minimizing the money that goes to the government. Don’t take domestic flights, don’t stay in government owned hotels and don’t take the train, which is government run as well. All the people I’ve talked to were glad to see foreigners visiting. After the anti-government protests tourism virtually came to a halt and it was devastating for a lot of people, like Htoo. Also, from what I gathered the Burmese feel that as long as there’s at least some tourists, they are not completely isolated and a few hundred Kyat tips here and there go a long way. However, despite the friendly people and their optimism and openness, I couldn’t help but feel sad for them. Whereas in Cambodia, I feel that despite the rampant poverty, they’re on their way to something, whereas in Myanmar…. I couldn’t help but feel hopeless most of the time. Maybe next year’s elections will bring a change of scenery. Maybe not…

I didn’t take many photos in Myanmar, but here’s a few more shots:

There aren’t any public phones in Myanmar. When you need to make a phone call, you go to one of these: just a table with a regular phone.

Tagged with: , ,

Comments Off on mandalay