Saturday, May 25, 2019

On the Road to Mandalay

Credit: Steve Gillick
Water Buffalo cooling down in the Irrawaddy River

With the recent news of the political landscape in Myanmar changing, albeit slowly, and Aung San Suu Kyi winning a voice in Parliament, I think back to my travels in Myanmar.

With the recent news of the political landscape in Myanmar changing, albeit slowly, and Aung San Suu Kyi winning a voice in Parliament, I think back to my travels in Myanmar in 1993. This was in my Nike-inspired-‘Just-do-it’ years when, if no one could travel with me, I just went off on my own adventure. In this case, I flew from Bangkok to Yangon, spent two days exploring the city, then flew north to Pagan to see the ruined temples and Mt. Popa, and then flew to Mandalay. While I would not hesitate to revisit Yangon and Pagan, it was the day in Mandalay that impressed me the most.

The early morning flight from Pagan resulted in an early check-in to the Inwa Hotel, a government mandated tourist hotel that my airline seat-mate assured me was much better than the hotel I had booked on my own from Toronto. And I was looking for hotel relief. In Pagan, I flipped a coin over the two government hotels available, and chose the wrong one. When I checked in after dark, and the clerk gave me the key and pointed to a room block, I encountered a badly lit room with a dripping, broken toilet, dirty and hairy towels and sheets and by now, a closed hotel office with not a soul in sight. Going into hotel survival mode, I slept on top of the bedspread fully clothed, with my jeans tucked into my socks. I checked out as soon as the sun rose. So understandably, I was anxious not to repeat this in Mandalay. As it was, the Inwa hotel was fine.

After checking in I grabbed my camera for a day of discovery. Outside the hotel, a trishaw driver (really a 3-wheeled bicycle-cum-rickshaw) called to me. This is something I usually waive off but for some reason I went over. The middle-age driver, Win-Tin spoke English and I thought this would be one way to see as much as possible with the limited time I had. In fact we struck up a friendship that lasted beyond my stay in Mandalay.

Win-Tin’s first question was whether I had already had breakfast and when I said ‘no’, we were off to the Red Dragon. Resembling a garage with plastic tables and chairs, we sat and enjoyed delicious banana pancakes and tea, as well as some captivating banter with the restaurant owners.

My instructions to Win-Tin were to show me everything he could so I could take tons of photos, learn about the city and the local culture and maybe even buy a few masks and wood statues along the way. We pedaled off to studios and workshops that simply don’t exist in guide books and I quickly purchased some items for my collection.

Being a great tour guide, now with the client (me) fed and happy with my purchases, Win-Tin headed to the banks of the Irrawaddy River. What greeted us was a very rural scene in the heart of the city: Women washing clothes in the river, kids swimming and playing tag on the shore, water buffalo snoozing in the cooling waters; men carrying lumber to make house frames; fishing boats either resting after the early morning catch or waiting to transport people across the river.

While I was the only foreigner, no one seemed to take notice, except the kids who clamoured about—and even more so when I started handing out finger puppets. It was one of those serendipitous happenstances and I could have stayed there for hours, just watching the activities by the river.

But soon it was lunch time and break time for Win-Tin. I suggested he take me to one of the Zagyo indoor market and I would meet him in about ninety minutes so he could have his lunch and a snooze. The market was not very crowded, as it was after all, siesta time, but I saw some activity down the street. I wandered over to discover a bar filled with talkative men quaffing beer and when I entered, it was like the proverbial bar scene in a western movie where everyone stops talking and looks at the stranger. As I bravely sat down, one of the men pulled up a chair at my table—said something to me in Burmese—I mimed the action of drinking a beer—and the whole place broke out in laughter. Men ordered beers for me, I ordered for them; I gave them some insight into the summer weather in Canada (no ice or snow), handed out a whole slew of Canadian flag pins and, well, the time just flew by. Pretty soon I bade my farewells and found Win-Tin so we could resume our tour.

We visited the Shwenandaw Kyaung—a mid-19th century monastery with elaborate teak carvings of Buddhist myths, and lots of locals selling good luck horoscopes on the grounds. And then it was on to Mandalay Hill. I didn’t quite understand the meeting instructions. Something about “I’ll drop you off and half way up and I’ll meet you there”. So I started the very long climb to the top, which affords a great view of the city and the moat around the Royal Palace. I had a Sprite at one of the shops and waited for the sunset before starting down. Win-Tin was waiting and without too dining options available, we returned to the Red Dragon for a dinner of chicken curry with rice, and then back to the hotel.

By this time I had learned about Win-Tin’s family and he spoke about his dreams and aspirations. Even though my flight to Yangon was early the next morning, he insisted on taking me to the airport with the help of a friend’s taxi. On the way, he gave me an orange and embroidery of the Buddha to safeguard my travels. We said our good-byes at the airport. I wrote to Win-Tin afterward to thank him again and ask about his family and he replied and we had one more round of postcards after that.

In a sense, Win-Tin was typical of the people I met throughout my stay in Myanmar: warm, accommodating people with a genuine interest in learning about their guests and other countries, sharing a laugh (and a beer) and communicating pride in their home, their families and their neighbourhood. But in a more personal way, Win-Tin was a unique individual who had worked hard all his life to raise his family. He was dependent on tourism for the bulk of his income but the perception of the government, coupled by the travel advisories at the time, meant that tourists were few and far between and only those dedicated to adventure and education and culture seemed to want to put the myths aside and ‘brave’ a visit. For me, it was incredible to be able to share in these and other experiences in Myanmar and take home some of the country in my heart and mind…but then again, that’s what travel and discovery are all about.

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