YANGON AND ON THE ROAD
I was going to Burma to spend a week teaching English at a college for youngsters from deprived backgrounds in Lashio. This was going to be followed by travels around the country with Mirek who was to join me in Mandalay.
Yangon, ex-Rangoon, the capital until 2005, arouses mixed feelings. Most visitors stay less than a day or two before departing for more alluring sights. It i a city where you can walk around with a camera and click away in every direction and come up with a patchwork of colourful images; but more of the rotting fruit and vegetable variety than of the vegetable stalls at Harrods Food Hall type. This aura is present in both side streets and on the main thoroughfares as you amble past colonial buildings whose grandeur can still be sensed.
I enjoyed the dilapidated appearance while occasionally wondering if a piece of colonial cement might drop on my head as I walked past crumbling balconies with family life buzzing on them. Another problem with clicking away through your viewfinder is, of course, the risk that you will fall into one of the innuberable holes congesting the pavement. The fact that I was there in the wet season, August, added to the aura of putrescence and sultriness that lingered.
I stayed in Yangon overnight and caught the bus out the following day to Mandalay.
Mandalay, to someone like me, brought up in England, evokes the exotic sounds of Rudyard Kipling’s poetry (though he never actually visited the town) and tales about the last King of Burma, King Thibaw and his ignoble wife Queen Supayalat, who the British dethroned in 1885 and sent to permanent exile in India in the predictable boorish manner prevalent among colonialists.
Mandalay was the last Royal capital of Burma and is surrounded by ancient royal cities which are the destination of most tourists’ visits. The newest capital of Burma is no longer Yangon/Rangoon but a town called Naypyidaw, purpotedly founded for political reasons, a new town on the road from Yangon to Mandalay, which the governmnent is busy trying to make more inhabitable by constraining government employees to settle there with their families.
After leaving Yangon in torrential monsoon rain which soaked me through in the time it took me to get from the taxi into the bus, I sat back in my warm fleece jumper for this overnight journey in a local bus with the sound of karayoke music blaring in my ears from the large lcd screen at the front and near freezing air emiting from the uncontrolable air conditioning system, until I managed eventually to relax enough to dose off. Only to be woken up by the various stops for appetizing snacks at roadside restaurants. Arriving in Mandalay at 6am, crowds of motorbike and rickshaw riders jostled for my kyat (local currency) to take me to my hotel.
One major difference I noticed between this and my previous visit to Burma, in 2005, was the proliferation of motorbikes, mainly from China, and the ensuing decrease in the number of bicycles and rickshaws clustering the city streets. Less picturesque for us tourists perhaps, but more practical for the people living here.
At this stage of the journey I didn’t have time to stopover in Mandalay and stayed just one night so as to get my bearings before moving on. After checking into my hotel and being shown to the last available room they had, a small cubbyhole with fan and small window opening onto the backyard where the sounds of men expectorating pervaded, I hit the torrid streets of the city for a taste of local life and a search for an internet cafe. These have appeared close to all hotels where foreigners stay and getting online took a matter of minutes, compared to my previous trip when you would consider yourself lucky if any email got through.
I was going to be visiting Mandalay in more depth when Mirek arrived so I didn’t hang around on this occasion. The following day I caught the bus eastwards, away from the dusty central plains into the hilly cooler climes of Shan state.