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THE ROAD TO MANDALAY

You Buddha Believe It

"Welcome to Myanmar". In what would become characteristically friendly greeting, the taxi driver let out a broad smile revealing his blood red beetlenut stained teeth. I had stepped out of Yangon Airport and straight into a gleaming white AC taxi. An unusual touch of luxury but taxis are very cheap in Myanmar.

But yes indeed welcome to Myanmar or Burma as it was and indeed should be called. Welcome to the land of pagodas, stupas and monasteries. Welcome to the giant white, brick, teracotta, multi coloured, slilver, gold, or candyfloss stupas towering over the trees; welcome to the land of giant Buddha statues: some standing, some sitting, some reclining, some hopping, some hopping mad. Welcome to the many monasteries liberally dotted around the landscape; some disneyesquely garish, some exquisitely carved and teak (dating 200 + years). Welcome to the thousands of chanting orange robed monks, an integral part of the everyday human landscape. Yes indeed welcome to Burma, Buddhism on acid.

Just to recap, I arrived at Burma (God damn it as I will call it now) after I left the land mosques (ie Bangladesh) and after I left the land of Hindu temples (India) for the final time on the trip. Incidentally Kolkata seemed positively western after I returned from Bangladesh for 4 days. Any buildings that prior to my trip appeared to be dilapidated and crumbling seemed, in Estate Agents speak anyway, to be merely possessing charm and character. The traffic seemed orderly (comparatively of course). The parks seemed greener and cleaner. Even the odd cow standing in the middle of a side street seemed to know where it was going. I still missed the Bangladesh people however. Kolkatarians seemed cold, abrupt and even surly by comparison. I missed the level of friendliness which was prevalent all over Bangladesh (even Dhaka). Anyway it was nice to get back to see my family again in Kolkata. They were not rude. As I only had 4 days it was also a chance to say my goodbyes. As usual my uncle took me shopping for clothes to take back to family members back home. So many that they were shipped back via the post. It could take 4 weeks but things should get home in one piece. Here's hoping anyway.

Of course I had to say goodbye to the adorable rottweiler puppy. [Adorable rottweiler, that's like saying cuddly dictator]. Mojo had got noticeably bigger in the intervening 3 weeks. He was clearly getting more and more demanding. It was if he was giving me an option. Will you play with me or do you want to be eaten? I was not in the mood for playing or being eaten, alas playing proved to preserve my digits.

The dog clearly needed a walk and so did I. I met up with a chap Sam and I encountered on the Darjeeling trek and 2 of his friends. We walked around the Victoria monument museum for a second time. They seemed to by quite historically clued up so they seemed to take turns in giving me a commentry.

Sad to leave everyone as I embarked on my next adventure. After being seen off at the airport I took a flight from Kolkata to to KLI2 airport at the lovely hour of 12.40 (ie after midnight). I arrived at Kuala Lumpur at 7.30 am approx. A further flight to Yangon was at 5.30 pm that day, so a long time to wait. Fortunately this airport s equipped with the broadest choice of tantalising Asian cuisine that you will find anywhere. It is also pleasantly laid out and very cheap. I almost didn't want to leave. bit time for the next flight.

A bit of a background. Mayanmar or Burma, as it was called, is a place I had boycotted for so long due to the brutal military regime. It is slowly but surely making steps towards democracy. Quite often however it is 2 steps forwards and on step backwards. In 2010 a democratic election the most banana republic sense was held and the same old hard line party got in. Many of the MPs of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party are still military cronies of the old regime unfortunately. Next year is a deciding time as another general election will be taking place. The National League for democracy, the current opposition headed by Aung San Suu Kyi will be standing. The ruling government however are constantly putting obstacles in the way. Aung San Suu Kyi is fighting for reform of the current system or she may never win. She cannot officially become leader as she once married a foreigner apparently. Only the the most cynical nevertheless could concede that Burma is not moving towards democracy. Posters of Aung San Suu Kyi and her even more revered father (assassinated after being elected leader) openly adorn many shops and houses.

Bangladesh is by no means a model democracy, however people regularly openly discuss politics. In Burma however I gave many people the opportunity to air their views although they remained tight lipped over politics (I did not attempt to persuade them apeak). They are still so used to the Government control which below the surface is probably still there. Positively though, even human rights organisations are suggesting that people visit the country as an independent tourist. I felt completely free to go wherever I wanted which surely is a good sign. There is still a big step to becoming a true democracy. Only when the West puts pressure on the ruling elite to stage a fair election will the people be truly free.

I did expect a fairly mixed political scenario. Everything else about Burma was a surprise. Poverty was certainly less evident then I had expected. Well in the towns and tourist destinations at least. It was only after exploring the villages on the outskirts that I saw people living in tiny wooden 'sheds'. Still they did not resemble the kind of shanty towns I had seen elsewhere in Asia. The streets were cleaner than I would have anticipated though far removed from say Kuala Lumpur levels. The accommodation standards were much better than I had expected even though I had generally booked budget rooms. The restaurants were cleaner than could be expected. Apart from accommodation everything seemed much cheaper than expected. There was no need to dine as the locals did on low plastic chairs on the pavement eating deep fried entrails. Even after upgrading my dining habits it cost only about 2 pounds 50 for a good meal. Most noticeably, and this is the double edged sword, the country was more tourist friendly than I would ever had expected. It was simply very easy to get around and to organise excursions etc. Communication was seldom an issue. Taxis were cheap and certainly the overnight long distance buses were of Western standard. Of course this cannot be said of local buses however.

There is a bit of a guilt factor with all this "easy backpacking'. I had read horror stories of locals (20 years ago) being forcibly evicted with a days notice to make way for tourist developments. There compensation, a measly 2 pounds. Am I benefiting from this Government ruthlessness? I kept asking myself. Whatever the case now the locals seem to be exploiting this tourist explosion for all its worth. Outside every temple the hawkers are at it trying to sell you drinks, snacks, souvenirs, pecks on the cheek. OK I lied about the last point. Some of the handicrafts are admittedly of good quality, especially the lacquerware although haggling fatigue affected my desire to purchase anything.

My first port of call in Burma was Yangon, formerly the capital and formerly Rangoon. Much of the historical part of the city can be explored on foot. As asian cities go, despite the appalling traffic it was actually pleasant to walk around. It was an interesting mixture of pristinely intact and crumbling architecture. There's also a couple of really good parks, including one with a massive 2km boardwalk through a lake,

A short walk from the guest house is a 200 year old golden temple literally on an oversized traffic island, Sule pagoda. Even more impressive is the Shwadagon Paya, one of the most sacred sites in the country. It is a gilded pagoda and stupa 99 metres that seems to tower over the skyline at many points. Legend has it that it is even over 2500 years old. To give it more contemporary significance Aung San Suu Kyi addressed a mass rally of half a million people in 1988 in during some of the darkest days of the military regime.

More recently (February this year), in fortunately more open times, Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the Literary Festival in Mandalay. I bet you there was no book entitled The Road to Mandalay is f*c*i*n*g cold. Well it is, if like me you traveled to the second largest city on a luxury overnight bus. OK there was plenty of legroom; it reclined almost right back and generally it was akin to a first class flight. The AC however was stoked up to the max. I am sure I could hear the chattering of 25 pairs of teeth throughout this 10 + hour journey. We arrived at 5.30 in the morning and immediately I did an inventory on my frost bitten fingers. "Welcome to Mandalay" said the motorbike taxi driver as I jumped on the back. |"Th th th thankyou was my shivering response.

Posted by gavinbose 03:09 Archived in Myanmar

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