Day 7 – The Road to Mandalay

18 Mar

More papaya, pancake and toast for breakfast at a leisurely pace allowed us all to depart Kalaw for our long road trip to Mandalay.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Road to Mandalay” was read out by Graham in his best Welsh / London vernacular, to much applause.  His additional adlibs helped relate it to our experiences so far.

George was then able to launch into a bit of history of the Anglo-Burmese wars – once again all about control of the sea routes!  The Japanese briefly overran the country in 1942, helped by Burmese Major General Aung San, who was promised that Burman would become an independent country. The British retreated to India.  Unfortunately, they discovered that the Japanese weren’t any better than the British.  Aung San described the Japanese treatment of the Burmese as “like dogs”.  With the help of Aung San the British were back in control in 1945.  Aung San met Clement Attlee (British PM) in London – but had to borrow a coat from India, as he didn’t own one – and negotiated a union of the states making up Myanmar. Full independence was granted in 1948.    But in July 1947, Aung San was assassinated along with 8 or 9 others.

Buddhism was announced as the state religion, which wasn’t popular in the mostly Christian hill states.  Influence from China’s Communists was also unwelcome.  In 1962, the military took control.  At this time, the Shan people, who had also enjoyed autonomy under the British, also had to give up their power.  All the missionaries left the country, which included the running of the schools.  Everything was nationalised.  It started a period of decline.  By 1964, a socialist constitution had been introduced – very similar to communism.

George described the conditions in the 1970’s and 80’s are very similar to now, except for the freedom to talk politics.  The army and police were not noticeable on the street.  In 1988 the people took to the streets, started by the students, caused by the lack of a decent standard of living.  Lots of students were arrested, fled to other countries or hid in the forests.

1990 saw the government change name (but with the same people) and started to open up as a market economy.  Hotels were built, with the help of Russia.  Phones became available – if you had $4000. Cars had a mark-up of 500%.  Foreign travel was permitted, if you had the money.  Deforestation and natural resource extraction started in earnest e.g. Teak to China.

2007 saw the Saffron Revolution, started by the monks, which lasted a few months, again because of the cost of living.  Monks were beaten and imprisoned. This led to multi party elections in 2010, in which “The Lady” (Aung San Suu Kyi) party didn’t take part.  A “civilian” government was formed, consisting of members who used to be in the military!  At the next election of 2015, there was a landslide victory for “The Lady”, but 25% of the members of parliament are assigned by the army.  This led to more investment from foreign countries.

Nowadays, the army is becoming more flexible and discussions are taking place to bring peace to the whole country.  Freedom of expression is much easier, and the tourist industry is booming.

Over 120,000 Rohinga people are in IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps.  The muslim Rohinga have been in the country for several generations, but they don’t have citizenship.  Most have immigrated from Bangladesh. Conflict erupted and the killing started – stoked due to the political situation.  “The Lady” kept quiet on the topic, because she was in a lose-lose situation.  Long term, it’s likely that they will be given citizenship, but not be recognised as an ethnic grouping from Myanmar – more as a foreign minority.

We had passed a truck crash on the side of the road – the cab was completely crushed.  Worrying. After many downhill bends, we stopped briefly at a service station – to cool the brakes with a water hose.  Everyone was doing it.  Another one added to the list of possible ways to die in Myanmar!  During this stop, we witnessed a young novice monk with a gun.  Sometimes pointing it, but mostly trying to hide it from our cameras.  We’re not sure if it was really or imitation.  Looked real enough to us!  Another one on the list!

Although yesterday’s blog was entitled 20 ways to die in Myanmar, I didn’t actually name them … so far we have :

  1. Too many chillies
  2. Any other food
  3. Attacked by dogs
  4. Mosquitos / Malaria
  5. Snakes
  6. Toilets
  7. Domestic plane crash
  8. Train rocking off the rails
  9. Drowning
  10. Engine fume poisoning
  11. Germs from ice
  12. Germs from glasses
  13. Burnt by the sun
  14. Upsetting the Army
  15. Talking politics in public
  16. Road traffic accident as a pedestrian
  17. Road traffic accident in a vehicle
  18. Bus brake failure & cliffs
  19. Monks with guns
  20. Faulty lifts

Back on the bus, the diatribe continued with more information on “The Lady” and her house arrest and rise to power.  Also the former UN Secretary General, U Thant who helped in the Cuban Bay of Pigs crisis.  In 1974, U Than’s body and coffin were taken by students because he wasn’t granted a state funeral.  The army blew up the Student Union when they didn’t return the body.  Not the best way to make friends and influence people!

We continued through the rural countryside at a sedate pace.  Small children sat idly by the roadside or entertaining themselves in the dirt, and we saw all manner of bamboo and brick shacks, carts, produce, bamboo fences, motorcycles and colour passing by.

The bus stopped briefly at a shrine to a previous governor of the province, and the assistant driver jumped out to pay respects and came back with some leaves – “Eugena”?  “Nats” are the (non buddhist) spirits that are also still worshipped in this area.  People will have two shrines – one to the Nats and one to Buddha “just in case”!

There was much evidence of road construction and we passed through a toll booth to help finance this.

We stopped off at a pot seller and two young kids were watching cartoons on their tablet.  They were good at English (even at the age of about 7 or 8) and we found out all about Iron Man, Spiderman and Batman from them.  Pokémon and Power Rangers toys were scattered about, but they seemed most concerned at the lack of light (electricity).  They were very keen to use the phrase “See you later” and we eventually got the hint and left.  At that age, they learn English from their parents.  Currently it’s the 3 months of the summer holiday (March – June) which is why they weren’t in school.

More from George – this time on funerals.  Gambling is banned, but they are allowed to play cards at funerals!  Catholics are now allowed to be cremated.   In related news, healthcare is available privately or relatively cheaply from the government, but traditional medicine is still widely used.

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We drove on, past some man made lakes to the junction town of Meiktila, where we stopped for lunch.  Almost everyone took the chips option.  Mostly on their owns.  I added prawns in a lemon sauce.  Not all of the prawns were edible, in that they had a few too many hard bits included, however the lemon sauce was fantastic.

Back in the bus, we drove on to the highway to Mandalay.  This was dual carriageway i.e. two lanes, which the driver managed to straddle most of the way to our destination.  Every so often he had to pick a lane to filter through the toll booths.  The road wasn’t exactly busy, and he was able to reach speeds of up to 60mph.  I think this was more limited by the brakes than the law.

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On the approach to Mandalay, I could see that every hillock was covered in a Golden Stupa.  Mandalay is the religious centre of the country and there are more monks and monasteries here that anywhere else in the country.  However, driving through the second biggest city in Myanmar to our hotel, we noticed that it was mostly a very modern place with large shopping centres and a buzz of neon and moving LEDs.

The Hotel Marvel was on the 4th floor, above the train station – probably in the same manner that the Dundee Train Station will look when it’s eventually finished.  I hope it’s as posh.  Once we all squeezed into the lifts, we were offered orange and papaya juice and a refreshing towel before the bell boys fought to take our bags to our rooms, show us there, turned on the air con and then came back later to offer a turn down service.  The hotel foyer also featured a spa, restaurant and enormous snooker/billiard table.  The famed karaoke bar was thankfully far away.  I could see the trains arriving from my balcony though.  Hopefully the noise won’t be too bad.

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Managed a quick snooze and then the chicken and fried rice on the hotel terrace.

We’d booked a trip to see the marionette puppets, so we jumped in a couple of taxis to take the 7 of us across night time Mandalay to the tiniest of theatres.  The lights dimmed, the band paused from tuning their instruments incessantly, and continued playing the same thing.  The curtain rose – just a little, and a harpist started the show.  Followed by a dancer.  Eventually the puppets appeared, each time preceded by some sort of story in English, but it was quite hard to follow.  I do remember that there was a horse, a monkey, an alchemist and a snake appear at several points.  Occasionally, the curtain would rise higher revealing the puppet masters themselves.  Some of the puppets had a violent fight on stage, and the masters had a few words as well.  It was unclear who was doing the singing – there might have been a cat being strangled out the back.  It was entertaining, if not necessarily repeatable.  I really should learn.  The seats were the most uncomfortable wooden slat type.  The redeeming features were that it finished bang on time and when the 85 year old puppet master’s master was introduced.  I even got to shake his hand afterwards.  He wisnae bad a’ a’.

After a slight detour via a closed bar, we end up back at the hotel bar, trying hard not to hear the karaoke from the 7th floor every time someone opened a door up there.

It’s a busy day tomorrow.  Here’s hoping it will be as enjoyable as the rest …

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