Mandalay and the ancient capital cities of Burma
02.07.2010 - 04.07.2010 35 °C
Mandalay sucks! It reminded me of the worst bits of India but without the colourful saris, the cows and the street theatre but thankfully without the pissing in the streets.. The traffic here is MENTAL, its noisy, fumes are terrible, really not much charm. Motorbikes everywhere, apparently introduced by immigrants from China. Hassle all the time from trishaw drivers offering to whisk you off somewhere or other ‘hey where you go? How about later? You want to go up Mandalay hill?’ I actually lost my temper a couple of times AGAIN, it is so difficult to be polite all of the time. It rained a lot and I kept falling down cracks in the pavement. Thought I would cheer myself up and find an internet cafe as it had been nearly a week since I had been online. BIG MISTAKE!
Before i get onto talking about internet though I need to firstly describe electricity in Myanmar, or lack of it. Apparently the government carefully control whether or not a particular town gets power at any given time. If they need more power for something or other, best not to ask, it gets switched off. The streets of all the major cities are pretty much pitch black at night. During the day you never know when there is going to be a powercut, it is not something you can predict. Guesthouses tend to have their own generators but the switch between mains power and generator causes many problems with surges and damage to equipment, ie. NOTHING BLOODY WORKS! In the hotel I stayed in Mandalay, if someone was to use the elevator all the aircon and fans would automatically go off... Oh what fun eh!
So the power issues of course causes problems when you try and use the internet. I thought i would log on to Facebook and upload a picture, tell everyone I am still alive. Firstly, i encountered a ‘roadblock’ trying to log on and had to authenticate my account by identifying friends that are tagged in photos! Thought i was doing quite well, 3/3 so far, enjoying seeing some funny pics I hadn’t seen before hehe then...... PFOOOM POWER CUT! Generator kicks in but my account is locked. I need to wait 1 hour before i can try again, and then i encounter another problem. The internet is heavily censored in Myanmar, again an initiative by the dear government. Apparently, after the peaceful monks protest against cost of fuel being raised 500% in 2007, the whole of Myanmar was completely offline for a period. This was following events such as monks being beaten to death and mysterious disappearances of protestors being tweeted and blogged for the whole world to read about. The government didn’t take too kindly to these atrocities being broadcast over the internet so pulled the plug, and still to this day censor certain sites and insist on screen shots periodically being taken from every screen in internet cafes. So even when there is power, going through proxy servers and censorship sloooooooooooowwws everything riiiiiiiiiiight dooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwwn. It took me over an hour to upload one pic!!! Internet fix? It just made me more grumpy...
Nothing seemed to be open in Mandalay either, no restaurants nothing. I ended up eating in a bloody European restaurant out of desperation, completely ruining my resolve not to eat western food during my travels... Aside from this little whinge though, actually i still encountered much warm greetings from the people of Mandalay but it wasn’t quite enough to endear me to the city. I walk back from the restaurant and there’s a group of lads playing football in the rain, monks strolling elegantly with umbrellas, shirtless elderly Burmese gentlemen tying up straw to make baskets. Like India, it is life on display in the streets. A certain kind of peace but at the same time vitality amongst chaotic craziness...
To think I risked my life getting here on yangon airways. ‘You’re safe with us’ my ass. The same plane is used on a circuit tour of Myanmar once a day. Starting at Yangon, the first flight of the day is probably the safest. By the time you get back to Yangon, that same aircraft has landed and taken off no less than 4 times, with just 10 minutes on the ground between flights. No safety checks nothing, just time to bundle the passengers off with their luggage and load new ones on. Its best not to think about it but i couldn’t help it when, about 10 minutes into the flight to Mandalay, the plane engine started ‘spitting’ and the whole craft swaying. One of those moments where complete strangers look at each other and wonder whether to panic or not. And guess who were on my flight? Yesss Mr and Mrs grumpy Russian couple i encountered in Yangon, then in the temple I chose (out of 4,400) in bagan to watch the sunset! Yes still in those same longyis with the white socks and sandals!
Anyway, my second day here I was hoping would be better as I was to be getting out and about to visit some of the ancient capital cities. I had hired a ‘blue taxi’ and a driver for the day to take me round. I renamed the blue taxi the ‘Del Boy Mobile’. Anyone who is a fan of only fools and horses, check out my pics and you will see what I mean. My carriage for the day was a tiny tiny little cramped jeep, the driver told me proudly was over 40 years old and still going strong. It was bloody uncomfortable, the windows didn’t wind down properly, it cost me 15 USD for the day, including Maung Aye, my friendly driver. I asked him about the blue taxi business and whether he owned the jeep. He told me that he spent most of his life as a trishaw driver in Mandalay desperately trying to make ends meet. Apparently the past few years has seen an even greater decline in number of tourists visiting Myanmar. Much of his money he made from transporting goods for shops and businesses. Then, he got talking to a French visitor one day and struck lucky. This kind soul was obviously looking for ways he can help the people of this city as he bought the blue taxi as a gift! This means he can now support himself and his family directly from the profits and not to be part of a money-making franchaise and renting the car. Awesome huh? I enjoyed talking to Maung Aye throughout the day.
So firstly, we stopped off at the important buddist site of Mahamuni Paya in Mandalay itself. A very impressive Buddha image shrine dominates the centrepiece of this site that is covered in thousands and thousands of little gold leaves that are placed there daily by devotees. As you walk up to the shrine there are groups of people sat watching the shrine and praying. I notice they are all women and ask why. It turns out that women are not permitted to place a golden leaf on the shrine, weirdly this has nothing atall to do with religion or custom but is a peculiar government policy!!!!! WTF. Anyway, we move on across toll bridges, through little fishing villages to the first of the ancient capital cities, Sagaing. Here I climbed a hill up to a little monastery to get a view of the city and all its rivers, temples and greenery. What a stunning and peaceful place. Next onto Inwa for which i had to catch a boat as this city is cut off from the mainland by rivers and canals. While waiting for the boat i was mobbed, and i really mean physically pushed, prodded and hassled, by a group of girls trying to sell me jewellery. I was trying to pay for my boat ticket but they were standing in front of me and i didn’t feel safe to get my money out. I lost my temper a bit with them, the necklaces were quite pretty and i probably would have bought one if they didn’t hassle me, I really had enough of this.. This continued when i got to Inwa similar to in bagan. I was followed up watch towers, round temples, even chased by motorbike, never alone. Argggghhhhhhh..... Stunning place though, I toured on another horse and cart, which i negotiated the price down to half what the company asked then gave the driver a healthy tip. On a mission to distribute money to the actual workers and not the business owners.
The final showpiece of the day was the ancient royal capital city of Amarapura. Probably the most famous of the trio as is home to the world’s longest teak bridge, the stunning U Bein’s bridge, that links two major monasteries in the city. This place was fascinating. I walked the bridge a few times, stopping to cool down in little shelters along the way and people watched. It was the most incredible people watching possibly on this planet as all kinds of Burmese folk, market traders, locals on big bicycles, commuting monks and nuns, families, fishermen, use the bridge and I was in my element taking snapshots from the lake at sunset. Quite a funny moment too when i was snapping away at a group of monks crossing the bridge, they whipped out a camera and started taking snaps of me! Had a great day, learnt a lot, but it started me thinking....
I actually start not to feel good about myself. I have been quite rude to a few people trying to sell me things. Everywhere I go ‘where you go’ ‘where you from’ ‘you are beautiful’ ‘want to buy a painting/necklace/bell thing/ postcards/George Orwell book. It is out of season, there are hardly any tourists so I am completely bearing the brunt of the hawker army. I don’t like being bombarded and surrounded. Sometimes, well most of the time, I just want to be left in peace and quiet to look around, be inspired and take photos. I find myself haggling with trishaw drivers, they are trying to make a living and it must be hard work doing that job in the heat and pollution here. Must be hard to make a buck and feed their families in the low season. The blue taxi driver told me that trishaw drivers earn on average about 2,500 Kyat a day, less than £2. I guess what was on my mind was the cost of getting around in other countries such as Philippines. In El Nido it was just 20 pesos (about 30p) to go just about anywhere on a motorised trike that takes 2 people plus luggage. Here the trishaws ask for about 1USD for a short trip in a non-motorised trike. Myanmar is much more expensive overall than I had anticipated. I think the 500% government hike in fuel prices in 2007 has screwed this up for the people. No wonder there was such an outrage. Citizens here simply could not afford to get to work. The knock-on effect I guess is that cost of transporting goods, transporting anything, is hiked up so the cost of living dramatically increases on a par! More poverty is created, the system is screwed... This whole thing upset me quite a bit. This country is really taking it out of me.
Something I have discovered about myself while in this country is, however much i value my freedom and the gift of travel, I hate, actually DESPISE to feel privileged. I was brought up to be open minded and inclusive without worrying about hierarchy or perceived social status. A person is a person, everyone is different and interesting doesn’t matter where they are from or what they believe in. Sometimes in the life of a career woman, where there is a lot of hierarchy, this attitude would wind me up. People with fantastic ideas sometimes being ignored because they are perceived as being junior members of the team. In Myanmar I felt that my perceived status, ie a ‘rich traveller’ many times got in the way of a genuine experience. I hate it. I feel I have a greater understanding of my own principles and this country is opening it up for me, making me think where I fit in this world. Burma is becoming an emotional rollercoaster, one that I didn’t expect.....
So my final day in Mandalay I decide to go trishaw joy riding and try and make up some karma! Starting to enjoy myself trundling through the streets, sometimes scarily close to colliding with lanes and lanes of traffic we needed to cross. I suddenly realise that I am running out of Kyat, need to change up some more dollars but it is a Sunday and everything is shut. Yikes!! My hotel saved my life as cue a phonecall to a ‘friend of a friend’ or something and another funny encounter with the dear black market money changers. Twenty minutes after the ‘phoning a friend’ a shifty looking guy turns up in the foyer wearing a motorbike helmet, took me into a corner and handed me a big wad of cash to count. He gave me one rate for my 100 dollar note and a different rate for my 50 dollar note, no idea why!! I just find this whole money changing thing endlessly amusing. Anyway, the rate wasn’t actually that bad so we shook on the deal and we were done..and I wasn’t even ripped off this time. All set, time to head off on an overnight bus to the hills, to the town of Kelaw for cooler temperatures and maybe a bit of hilltribe trekking..