18 April 2016
…And I’m learning here in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
“If you’ve heard the East a-calling, you won’t never need naught else.”
No! you won’t need nothing else but them spicy garlic smells,
And the sunshine and the palm trees and the tinkly temple bells;
On the road to Mandalay…”
– Rudyard Kipling
I woke up with a smile on my face, I remember that. I felt snug as a bug in bed, having slept for some 10 hours after a cool shower and can of refreshing cola. Dany popped out in the evening, but discovered that night life ends at 10 pm on the dot, perhaps some sort of curfew. In any case, he was unable to get a nightcap outdoors, and resorted to a drop of the rum he’d brought in his hipflask from Prague (I haven’t touched my gin).
Breakfast was very generous compared to our previous lodging, but given my unstable tummy, fried egg, fried potato, fried sausage, fried beef kebab, fried French fries and fried vegetables really didn’t appeal to me. But as a proper former British colony, they do have ample supplies of excellent black tea everywhere in Myanmar (and plenty of tea houses, which we have yet to visit), so I served myself a large pot and two pieces of dry toast (soft square white bread, most likely also from the British. In Vietnam they have French-style baguettes). Breakfast was followed by an expedition to the train station to buy a ticket for the train to Kyaukme (read “chow-may”) on Wednesday, but we were told to come back tomorrow, as they only sell them a day ahead. We also looked into the option of taking a ferry from Mandalay to Bagan. Both of these long and extremely local excursions are likely to offer a profound glimpse of real rural life. By 11 am the temperature started rising and we started debating how to spend the day. It seemed a pity to be in until it cooled off, which is about an hour before sunset, but how to avoid walking around in the sun? The hotel solved this problem, as they offer free bicycle rentals.
The city is flat as a pancake, so cycling requires very little effort, while moving you quickly from one place to another and creating a breeze while doing so. We headed out into the relatively moderate traffic. Destination: Shwe In Bin, a perfectly preserved teak wood monastery set on the banks of a canal to the west of town. It looked pretty straightforward on the map, but it was not. Once beyond the rectangle of gridded streets, things get quite confusing with lanes and roads going this way and that, and zero signs to indicate where you are. After about 30 minutes we stopped at a shady beer station. The Myanmar brew is so much better on tap than from a bottle, and perfectly chilled! We rested there for about an hour, playing with a tiny scrawny but very friendly tomcat and watching life go by on the street.
After asking for directions a few times, we finally reached an unpaved road running alongside the canal. It was a completely different scene from downtown – wooden shacks that served as shops, pubs, houses, workshops, restaurants, sheds, surrounded by copious amounts of garbage. People sat or went about their business in the shade of the large trees, eating meals, drinking beer, bathing by the water, doing chores or other work.
To the eyes of a westerner, it must seem like the height of poverty and squalor. Yet all the children and most of the adults smiled and waved, and most of them seemed perfectly content. After all, they spend the entire day outdoors in the warm sunny climate under a tree, while we have the privilege of sitting in a glass and concrete office for 9 hours a day with artificial air, artificial light and artificial intelligence. Lucky us.
Every now and again, a golden shining stupa rose among the shabby dwellings, with people relaxing in the shade of the terraces and red-robed monks praying in the temple. With all the differences between Catholicism and Buddhism, there is one striking similarity – the house of the deity is always almost ostentatiously grand and rich compared to the vast majority of believers. Having never been in Asia before, this never struck me until seeing the temples with my own eyes.
Finally, we reached the famous monastery, built of teak wood that had previously been part of an old royal palace. It was a beautiful structure, covered with ornate carvings and surrounded by trees that were covered with large, plump mangoes (apparently not ripe yet).
In addition to being a marvel of craftsmanship, the building had the remarkable advantage of being very cool on the inside, providing the ideal place to take a siesta.
The whole area was very peaceful, surrounded by small neat houses in which the monks live, with their freshly laundered robes hanging out to dry.
As ascetic as they might be, however, I spotted a few lying under a tree checking their email on smart phones 😉
After resting for a while, we continued to head north along the canal with the aim of crossing a bridge into “real rural countryside” at some point. However, the map proved misleading and the distances are quite larger than we originally thought. It is after all a city of 1.2 million people. As I was starting to get rather hot again, we gave up on that idea and stopped instead on the bank of the immense Irrawaddy River at a swanky hotel to cool off in the air conditioned lobby. It was a bit absurd, because despite our being filthy and sweaty, a porter ran out as soon as he saw us approaching, “valeted” our bicycles for us, opened the door and deposited us into the elevator to the top floor, which is supposed to be an excellent location for sunset cocktails. Sadly, it was only 4 pm and the terrace would have been more suitable for frying eggs than cooling off. Doubtless, it is very lovely at the right time and the guidebook claims they hand out the cocktails for free during the sunset hours (odd, in Europe they would charge double the price), but we were in need of a bit to eat and a cold drink, so we returned downstairs, had a polite beer in the lobby and then headed back towards our hotel, stopping for dinner at “Rainbow”. This was a completely unassuming local place on the lively 84th street, but the greatest source of entertainment was their menu, which consisted of some truly remarkable items:
Consistency of spelling seems to be a problem here, and pork is distorted particularly often. We kept it simple and had a huge plate of fried rice with vegetables and chicken, perfect for my (now improving) tummy. Arriving at our A1 hotel is always a pleasure, with smiles and friendly welcomes, the temperature is just right, the shower washes away the heat of the day and the bed is freshly made and ready to jump in to. We might head out for a walk still, before curfew sends everybody to sleep.