Tuesday, 30 April 2013

On the Road to Mandalay

I’ve been wanting to visit Burma (Myanmar as it is now called) for over a decade. For many years I was discouraged from visiting by all and sundry. It was seen as politically incorrect as any money taken into the country would be swallowed up by the ruling Military Junta.

Stupas, Stupas and more Stupas x 2!
After all the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Winner (finally collected in 2012) Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest. On the one hand I agreed and on the other… Well if I had gone even a small amount would have filtered through to the locals who were (and many still are) living in abject poverty. This was a country that 50 years ago was the wealthiest in the region. How can that happen? How can the world let that happen? And yet we did.

A young boy en route to become a novice monk
And so I stayed away until recently but it was always in the back of my mind. It has always been on my ‘places to visit before I die’ list. The Rudyard Kipling song made famous by Australian bass-baritone Peter Dawson of 1929 kept popping into my head. Listen to him singing it here (and the photos are wonderful)
By the old Moulmein Pagoda
Looking eastward to the sea
There’s a Burma girl a settin’
and I know she thinks of me
For the wind is in the palm trees
And the temple bells they say
Come you back you British soldier
Come you back to Mandalay, come you back to Mandalay
Come you back to Mandalay
Where the old flotilla lay
Can’t you hear their paddles chunking
From Rangoon to Mandalay
On the road to Mandalay
Where the flying fishes play
And the Dawn comes up like thunder
out of China ‘cross the bay
Ship me somewhere east of Suez
Where the best is like the worst
Where there ain’t no Ten Commandments
And a man can raise a thirst
For the Temple Bells are calling
And it’s thee that I would be
By the old Moulmein Pagoda
Looking eastward to the sea

Suddenly the country was opened up to tourists and I took my chance – along with hoards of others. I had no specific reason for ‘a calling to Burma’. After all I had no family connection as many of those I met during my trip had – with their (grand)fathers/ (great)uncles/brothers/cousins etc working (and most not surviving) on the dreaded Thai Burma railway during the 2nd World War.

Nuns with their alms bowls
I’m a short and sweet traveller. No real in-depth, living-with-the-locals for me. I’m renowned for reading about a country I’ve visited on my return home! And yet for Myanmar I prepared! Well sort of! I was surprised to discover that George Orwell (he of 1984 fame) had spent time in Burma (his grandmother lived in Moulmein – mentioned in the song above) as a Policeman from 1922-27. His novel Burmese Days is worth reading. But it was the beautifully written book Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin published in 2006 that for me really captured the Burma of today referencing it to Orwell’s 1984.  In my opinion a must-read for all travellers to this country. As are the eloquent writings of the remarkable Aung San Suu Kyi – particularly her Letters from Burma

The Aung San Suu Kyi compound
There was no choice as far as I was concerned about the boat I was to cruise down the Irrawaddy on. The ‘Road to Mandalay‘ – the name says it all – owned by the Orient- Express Company (of Murder on the Orient Express fame!). And so I headed off for my long awaited adventure. And what an adventure it was. 4 nights on the boat, 4 nights on the magnificent and surprising Inle Lake and a couple of nights in the old capital Yangon (Rangoon sounds much more exotic to me – but then I’m an ‘oldie’).

Our boat awaits on the Irrawaddy River
And so in my next Myanmar posts I’ll take you on a Road to Mandalay cruise along the Irrawaddy River, follow this up with my favourite Inle Lake, take a sweep through the Shwegadon Pagoda in Yangon, go on an emergency trip with my guide to an ATM (so rare he had never seen one!) have an English and a Kindle lesson with my guide, stand in awe of 2,000++ Pagodas and Temples in Bagan, visit my 2 favourite monasteries, visit a market or two or three!, meet an American who has interviewed Aung San twice, teach you how to put on Myanmar makeup, see a boys rite of passage to a Buddhist monastery as a novice monk, look at the local handmade artifacts – and probably more! So brace yourself for an onslaught of Myanmar!

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