I have a tough time sleeping on buses at the best of times, and the ride from Bago to Mandalay was not the best of times. The luggage stuffed into the seat behind me prevented my seat from reclining and the poor monk sitting next to me began vomiting into a plastic bag about a third of the way into the 9-hour trip. I was grateful for the one comfort I did have though – I was inside the bus. All night long we zoomed past lumbering “economy” coaches on the Yangon-Mandalay expressway. Perched atop these old buses were bedraggled looking men clinging to the luggage racks. Seeing them made it hard to feel sorry for myself.
We arrived in Mandalay shortly after the sun came up. Foregoing the ritual of haggling over cab fare, I hopped into the nearest taxi I could find. After a long shower and a short nap at my downtown hotel, I set out into the city. Despite the impression most people (including me) have, Mandalay is actually a relatively young city built on a grid of hot, dusty, traffic-choked streets.
As I was walking past a language school a group of teens asked me into their classroom. Not having anything planned for the afternoon, I was happy to join them for a few minutes…which quickly turned into two hours. It was hard to leave when they were so excited to practice their English with a native speaker. They had lots of questions about life in American, but like teens everywhere, they were most interested in the dating scene.
Later in the afternoon I arranged a ticket for the boat ride to Bagan and then I visited the Mustache Brothers. The Mustache Brothers are perhaps the only comedy act in Burma. During a performance for Aung San Suu Kyi in 1996 the trio made a few political jokes (mundane ones by western standards) and were promptly sentenced to 7 years hard labor. The brothers have since been released and now are only allowed to perform for tourists. Shows are held in their garage while a friend sits in the driveway keeping an eye out for government officials. Their act shifts between bitter satire and slapstick, but I wouldn’t exactly call it funny. All the same, it was interesting to hear such open criticism of the government and I was happy to support people who have sacrificed so much in the fight for freedom of expression.
The next morning I headed to the jetty at 4:30 AM to catch the twice-weekly slow boat to Bagan. The ferry makes the 120-mile trip down the lazy Irrawaddy in 15 hours (when it doesn’t get beached on the shifting sandbars). All passengers ride deck class, which is exactly what it sounds like: everyone stakes out a small piece of real estate on the uneven wooden floor and tries to settle in for the long ride.
The first few hours were pleasant enough. The sun was low in the sky and the handful of tourists instinctively coalesced in a corner to watch life drift by. By 10 AM though, it was heating up and I was feeling ill. I’d like to blame it on the sheep brain curry I had for dinner the night before, but my breakfast of fruit is a more likely suspect.
The rest of the trip was pretty uncomfortable. I struggled to keep water and bananas down while the temperature soared above 100° F on the crowed ferry. I spent most of the day camped out in a dark corner waiting for the nausea to pass. Later I discovered the other tourists had begun calling me the quiet American. I slept 12 hours that night but woke up feeling human again.
The next morning I looked over a map of Bagan while eating an extra large breakfast. Between 1000 and 1200 CE the kings of Bagan built over 4000 Buddhist Temples in the center of present day Burma. These structures and a few crumbling city walls are all that remain of the ancient kingdom.
The most common way to get around Bagan is by horse cart. My guesthouse introduced me to Chechin, a local guide, and his horse Pipin. Chechin has a big smile and teeth stained dark red from chewing too much betel nut. His grandparents immigrated to Burma from India when the country was still an administrative providence of Great Britain. Together we spent the day bouncing down the rutted dirt tracks that connect the ruins. There are so many sites and so few tourists that we regularly had whole temple complexes to ourselves. At one point a cobra spooked our horse and Chechin yelled out “Oh my Buddha!” By the end of the day he was telling me of his brother’s romantic exploits with international tourists. I liked him a lot.
After a few days exploring the temples, I moved on to Inle Lake. The journey from Bagan to Inle isn’t terribly far, but after a few hours on the East-West highway traffic slows to a crawl as the road climbs into the hills of Shan State. Shan is smack in the middle of the golden triangle and is the 2nd largest producer of poppy (after Afghanistan), accounting for ~22% of worldwide production. All the cultivation occurs in areas restricted to tourists and populated by minority groups living in extreme poverty.
A month prior to my visit, Ban Ki-moon traveled to the area to “highlight the importance of addressing the relationship between food insecurity, poverty, poppy cultivation and armed conflict.” He indicated that he would be requesting UN Member States to increase funding for alternative development assistance for poppy farmers in Shan. For more info on his visit, click here.
Well above the valley floor, Inle stays reasonably cool. The lake itself is 13 miles long, surrounded by marshland and dotted with stilt-house villages. Each morning fishermen in small skiffs cast their nets into the shallow lake while farmers in canoes bring their harvest to market. On my first day in town, I rented a clunky Chinese bicycle and rode partway around the lake through marshes and rice paddies. On the second day, three other tourists and I hired a boat driver to show us around the lake. We visited the market and a number of craft producing villages where I bought too many scarves and cheroot cigars.
I puttered around the villages surrounding Inle for another day or two and then returned to Yangon for my flight back to Malaysia. After two weeks in Burma I know I only began to scratch the surface of an incredibly complex and isolated society. While the countryside and Buddhist monuments are definitely the big tourist draws, it is the Burmese people who leave the most lasting impression. Despite living in significant poverty under a repressive regime, I was constantly amazed at how often they smiled and how easily they laughed.