A Time Warp in Myanmar
By Terry Braverman
The indigenous music that greeted my arrival at Mandalay airport was, strangely enough, not indigenous to the country I was entering, now called Myanmar. It was the sound of bluegrass music twanging over the airport loudspeakers, which was bewildering and amusing, given this is one of the world’s least Western influenced countries.
The long taxi ride into the city corrected that bizarre aberration — ancient villages with oxen or horses dragging rickety wooden carts on bumpy dirt roads, bicycles with large straw baskets fastened on eachside, funky open air cafes with bright blue tables and chairs planted in the dust, and beaming Burmese people with remarkably warm, non-obligatory smiles.
I was happily in a time warp. They do keep tabs on everyone here. The country has teetered under the weight of military rule for over 30 years.
Myanmar had been off limits to tourism for many years, which made it all the more appealing to visit. Only in the last few years have they granted 28 day tourist visas, so I was eager to explore this relatively untrodden land on my own.
Renting a Bike
After checking into the hotel I rented a bicycle and pedaled to the Royal Palace. At the gates, soldiers had me sign a list with my name, passport #, where I’m staying, and time of arrival. I anticipated heavily armed police with pit bull demeanors, yet these soldiers were surprisingly amiable. Passing through the gates, I expected to see a huge glittering palace with complementary conical-shaped shrines, known as payas.
Amazingly, I entered what was essentially a rustic Burmese village, a strange, unforeseen contrast to the bustling city I left behind the gates and the glittering palace just down the road. As I biked in, people smiled, giggled, and waved, with enthusiastic hellos.
I responded with the standard Burmese greeting, “min gala-ba” (lit. “it’s a blessing”). I stopped to entertain a few kids with my mimicry, sound effects, and harmonica playing. Quickly the crowd swelled to thirty intensely curious, shining faces, their parents leisurely tagging behind, and then came a group photo op.
They followed me around like I was the Buddha reincarnated, and some could not resist touching the hairs on my arms, something the people there do not possess. Unlike Thailand, foreigners are still a novelty act to them. The Burmese people never met a foreigner they didn’t like, or so it seemed.
The appearance of some Burmese required visual adaptation. Many women and children smear a pasty yellow cream on their cheeks called talaka. It almost gives them the look of Parisian street mimes who didn’t quite finish applying their makeup. Made from tree bark, it serves as sun protection and maintains youthful, elastic skin. A large number of men and even some women are habitual chewers of beetle nut, a mild hallucinogen that can leave a reddish stain on their teeth. The women who don’t chew beetle nut can be heavenly beautiful, but most are quite shy.
Pedaling to Mandalay Hill
After posing at the palace in colorful 19 th century minister’s attire borrowed from a budding entrepreneur (only US$3), I pedaled to Mandalay Hill. Two imposing, sculpted lions guard one entrance, while another gate is watched over by the Bobokyi Nat. (Originally animistic, nats evolved into spirits that may command dominion over a place, person or range of experience. Nat worship pre-dates Buddhism, and often accompanies Buddhist shrines.)
The ascension to the hilltop takes about ½ hour, or over 1,400 steps. You may wish there was an oxygen tent awaiting you unless you’re fit, but the view of the city and surrounding villages at sunset is requisite viewing.
During my stay in hot, dusty Mandalay, I became a born-again beer drinker, and discovered Spirulina Beer (yes, an actual brand name with real spirulina, which is a highly nutritious food from algae only found in our health food stores). On the label it said, “Keeps you forever young.” It had an agreeable taste that would keep me forever drunk if I wasn’t mindful.
The city’s infrastructure is an adventure— traffic can be chaotic, coming at you from all angles with little regulation. It’s apparent that tourism is in its infancy here, with only a few Westerners spotted, learning how to crawl with no tourist info booths. What more than made up for the discomforts are the people, perhaps the world’s warmest and most playful. One day I took a day trip to one of the ancient royal cities around Mandalay called Amarapura, the “City of Immortality.”
I crossed a long (1.2 km.), wooden, pedestrian bridge into a village, escorted by an eager 14 year old kid who adopted me along the way. He shared his knowledge of the area in exchange for a “gift” (Burmese euphemism for a tip).
On the bridge the scent of curry wafted from the food stalls serving htamin (rice) and hin (curry dishes). At another stall a woman was preparing leaves with lime juice and beetle nut. I sampled it, and it was unbearably bitter. Spitting it out drew a huge guffaw from the locals in the vicinity, which triggered more spontaneous interaction. The joy of interacting with Burmese people was indescribable. Center of Burmese Culture Mandalay is the center of traditional Burmese culture, featuring Pwe (dance, song and puppetry).
One night I was entertained by the Moustache Brothers Comedy Troupe. Pa Pa Lay, the elder brother, was arrested in 1996 for “subversive humor” and sentenced to seven years in prison. They freed him after five years, with the condition that they only perform at one venue.
That doesn’t stop them from needling the government’s persistent voyeurism. At the start of their performance, they held up a sign that read, “Moustache Brothers are Under Surveillance.” The wife of the younger brother performed traditional dances, along with some of their sisters.
The last night in Mandalay I attended a marionette show that featured really gifted artists who imbue each puppet with more personality than most contemporary celebrities. After the show was an opportunity to purchase one of the 100s of marionettes draping from the walls, and I was drawn to the one of a Burmese king, attired in a royal red gown.
“My grandson will love it!” I concluded. At the airport departure the following morning, I reflected on the astonishing marvels of this city, and wondered, what happened to the bluegrass music?
Myanma Airways International, Thai Airways, Malaysia Airlines, Indian Airlines (from Calcutta ), Silk Air (from Singapore ), and Air China (from Yunnan province) fly to Yangon, the capital city. But the best deal by far is on Biman Bangladesh Airlines (from Bangkok or Dhaka ), almost half fare compared to the others when I went.
From Yangon to Mandalay, fly either Yangon Airways or Air Mandalay, not Myanma Airways (reportedly unreliable). Air Mandalay also has direct flights from Chiang Mai to Mandalay on Thursdays, and Chiang Mai to Yangon three days a week. There are overnight “sleeper” trains Yangon-Mandalay, but usually necessary to get tickets a few days ahead.
Best land crossing to Mandalay is at Mae Sai in Thailand, but is periodically closed due to border skirmishes (check with Thai immigration beforehand).
Visitors are issued 28 day visas at most Myanmar embassies or travel agencies abroad. In Bangkok it will take usually 3-5 business days, at a cost of around US$20.
Between November and February is the best time to visit (dry and relatively cooler)
Royal Guest House, 41 25 th Street, PH: 22905. Clean singles and doubles, US$10 with toilet and hot-water shower in room, Two rooms w/air con, bath and small fridge for US$14.
A bicycle is a good way to get around if you can handle the frenetic traffic situation, for under US$1 a day. Trishaws are the best mode at night, and cheap. Buses are usually overcrowded. A taxi from the airport will run from US$10-15, depending on your negotiating prowess.
Terry Braverman travels internationally as a professional speaker, seminar leader and writer. His primary topic is based on his bestselling book, When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Lighten Up! For more information, go to this link.
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