Opium has been a big ticket item in Burma, Laos, and northern Thailand since the mid 1800s, and today Mandalay is allegedly home to the millionaire drug kingpins of Myanmar. On two occasions my guide, Han Su, pointed out shiny air conditioned Bentley’s escorted by expensive motorbikes gliding down the wide boulevards surrounding the Royal Palace, saying “Opium.” (… I wondered, how could they possibly get English-made Bentley’s into Myanmar!?) At the same instance you could see dozens of hard laborers, men, women and children, surfacing a side street. There was a truck with a load of watermelon-sized rocks, and one by one they would be carried into the road where hammerers would break them down, little by little, into walnut sized stones. Others would hand mix buckets of hot tar over a fire, and then others would pour and brush the black goo atop and into the aggregate. This shocking division of Bentley’s and hard laborers perfectly symbolized the dominance of a few over the many in modern day Myanmar.
In and around Mandalay are many popular temples, monasteries, and ancient cities. Han Su brought me to many of them, including “feeding time” at the Mahagandayon Monastery where 1,500 red robed monks line up like school children to accept their one daily meal; a bowl of rice. More amazing than this giant display of humble austerity was the crowd of cameras clicking away. Whenever you stick to the so called “Coca-Cola” routes of travel, you’ll inevitably contend with a faceless crowd, burdened with unscarred daypacks loaded with all sorts of unnecessary “travel gear.” They were brought in on flashily painted, air conditioned double decker buses and were elbowing each other, clambering for photos. It was a little upsetting and, in my view, showed disrespect for the culture, but, just like Yellowstone Park, if you get off the main roads and walk a few hundred yards, you’ll escape the RVs and overflowing picnic tables to find the real spot you came looking for.
One such place was the Shadaing Paya, a temple on a hill 20 km outside Mandalay. Most groups won’t climb 1,000 steps to get a glimpse of a hilly countryside covered in gilded stupas. They’d rather buy the postcard than bear the heat and exertion. Not an impressive temple itself, but the solitude overlooking the Irrawaddy river and the surrounding country must have one day been incredible. It was here that I decided to change the name of Mandalay to Sandalay. The skies were hazed over with sand blowing off the dunes of the river and smoke from the farmers clearing the fields. Dirt was so thick the tree branches and buildings were covered in a gray dusting. The skies were so full of dust I could stare straight into the sun, merely a dull red ball in the sky. When I returned home that evening, the lime green stripes on my shirt had become moss green.
At many of the temples in Sandalay the Buddhas had been strangely ornamented with light emitting diodes mounted on the walls behind the head of 600-year-old-Buddha statues. This treatment was supposed to depict enlightenment, but it was odd looking to see this combination of modern technology attached to ancient stone carvings. It would be like rimming the Grand Canyon with Christmas lights to demonstrate its magnificence. I mentioned this curious site to my guide, Han Su, and he laughed saying the locals all thought it was done as a stupid upgrade by the government to enhance the tourist experience.
At Inwa, a truly ancient city outside of Sandalay, a horse and buggy ride took me through dilapidated temples that once represented the capital of a regional kingdom. When riding through this peaceful setting, I felt a million miles and a thousand years away, but each time we trotted up to one of the structures, I was greeted as a plump clover by a swarm of bees, each wanting to suck a little nectar from me. They each had their own delicate, tactful approach to getting their fill. Sometimes I turned out to be a ragweed, at other times I was that juicy clover they’d hoped for. One young man escorted me up some narrow stairways to the top platform where he had a display of his paintings rolled out on the stone floor. I asked him how many paintings he would sell in a week. His practiced reply was, “If you are kind and buy three, I will have sold three this week.” I replied, “The week is just beginning my young friend, I’ll buy one.”
A highlight of any visit to Mandalay is a sunset hike to the top of Mandalay Hill to overlook the Grand Palace and the city. The red ball was beginning to sink, and I looked at Han Su and asked if he had one more sight left in him. He was in his late 20’s and eager to please so he said “Sure, up to you!” I brushed some dust off of my pant-leg and asked “What would you think about a cold beer and a meal instead?” He said, “Tomorrow we can climb the hill, now I’ll take you to a place that’s not in your guidebook… do you like Barbecue?”
In this part of the world, barbecue is popular. The restaurant displays tubs of vegetables, meats, fish, kebabs, fruits, etc. Customers tong out what they want onto a plate and then cook it up on a grill over burning embers. The place was packed with young people and Han Su was happy to show them he had a foreign customer. Introducing me in his local language, they would smile and offer thumbs up. Unlike in Thailand where women far outnumber the men at such places, here there were few women to be seen. I asked why and he told me, “Women should not be out at night unless they are married or with their families.” I asked if there were nightclubs and discotheques for young people, He said, “No, not a good idea.” I wondered how he’d met his wife and he told me they met at school and dated twice before they decided to ask her parents permission to marry. Her father insisted that Han Su work for him at his Golden Mandalay Hotel for one year before he would make a decision about marriage. That was seven years ago, and now they have a son, live on the grounds at the hotel, and he is the designated guide for guests. He is not allowed to handle money matters, but he is in charge of a small pickup truck with which to shuttle guests around.
After a few bites of a rather tasteless meal, Han Su took me to a small shop where every night at 8 o’clock there’s a comedy show, dubbed Moustache Brothers. The three brothers who started the show 15 years ago have been closed down, locked up, released, reopened, and now clandestinely observed by government officials. The slapstick comedy pokes fun at the government and the countries repression, offers costume dancing by the wives and sisters and generally makes the capacity crowd of 14 laugh in an uproar. I couldn’t be certain, but I believe Oliver Stone was in attendance with his wife. Later in the week I read in a paper that Stone had been in Vietnam giving a speech at an ASEAN conference, so maybe he took a side trip to Mandalay. Perhaps he’ll produce a film about this wonderful, but messed up country.
Link to next article in this series: Part 3