Friday, January 8, 2010

It Happened in Mandalay

The road to Manadaly. Another night bus. Another crap film. Another pit stop in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night improbably crowded with about seven busloads of bleary-eyed passengers wondering whether to eat the chicken curry or just have a quick coffee and a fag. It ain't like Kipling wrote it. We arrive at Mandalay's Highway Bus Station at about 5 a.m. Like Yangon, this bus station is just several blocks of bus offices and teashops. Plenty of locals are watching English football live on TV in the teashops. We hop into a shared pick-up that takes the long road into town. Apparently when the British swanned into Mandalay in 1885 they came by boat up the Ayeyarwady because it got them nearer to the city than the bus station.

It's not a beautiful city. It had only been the nation's capital for thirty years when the British arrived and made Yangon the new capital. The reconstructed palace stands in large grounds surrounded by a moat and overlooked by Mandalay Hill. We head up here for an overview and to catch the sun setting through the smog (nice, red sun). To the south lies a tidy grid of low-level buildings, to the north are just fields and to the west is the fat Ayeyarwady snaking past. We're trying to be selective about our sight-seeing but there are payas everywhere. In one old monastery the buildings are made of carved teak. There are only a few monks and in the room next to the temple lives a family sat around a telly. Laundry is strung up across the room. In the 'monk's district' we amble into a large monastery complex which really just looks like student accomodation. There are hundreds of monks all probably discussing the match results. They might be discussing the government's election announcement - but we can't really ask them.

My favourite past time is sitting in a teashop watching the life on the streets. Coffee is always a 3-in-1 affair. You get to know the best brands and usually a cup of hot water is brought with the unopened sachet, so that you know what you're getting. Milk tea is an alternative, and there's always a flask of free green tea. The better teashops offer snacks - something fried. It's quite Indian, but a bit better than a chai stall. A small bucket can sometimes be found at your feet, for expectorating paan-chewers to use. When it's hot and dusty and your nose is running from the traffic fumes, and you're just a bit sight-weary, there's nothing like a dame, nothing in the world. Or a child's seat at a child's table and a cup of 'Premier' instant coffee.

We wander the streets, shops selling all the same things - flat screen TVs, motorbike parts, onions. The women everywhere have faces painted with thanakha paste - a face powder made from something like sandalwood that's part suncream and part make-up. Sometimes it's a discreet smudge on the cheeks and the nose, in some cases it's a big white-out. It seems every woman and girl in Burma uses the stuff. The traffic is not heavy around town but there is always chaos at the junctions as there are no signals. Usually the bigger vehicle wins the right of way, but sometimes a herd of scooters prevails.

One afternoon we catch a pick-up heading out to Amarapura to visit the U Bein bridge - an old teak bridge that spans across a lake. Is it the longest teak bridge in the world? Who cares. The setting is lovely, and the locals seem unfazed by the presence of every tourist in Mandalay present to catch a good sunset shot (perhaps half the tourists - the other half being on Mandaly Hill). So many tripods, but only one view. Across the bridge is a small village and monastery. We spy a large westerner walking past with no shirt. Must think he's in Thailand..........

Evenings are quiet in the city, especially when the electricity's off, which is a lot of the time. Suddenly I remember a dreamlike place we passed through on our bus ride north from Yangon. It was nighttime but a city of light appeared out of the blackness. Roads, hotels, housing blocks all had lights. Large houses and gardens were covered in fairy lights. Brigadoon? We realised we had arrived in Nay Pyi Taw, Burma's latest capital city. The junta relocated here in 2005 but it had the look of a very empty place. 24 hour electricity though.

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