But that’s all shove be’ind me — long ago an’ fur away,
An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;
An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.”
No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay . . .
From Rudyard Kipling’s Poem, the Road to Mandalay
After spending time at Pauak Monastery, I decided to do some exploring.
Visas are a complicated matter in Burma, also known there as Myanmar. Opinions differ on the meaning of the word. Some say it is the authentic pronunciation of the overall land mass that was a grouping of separate entities until the British left in 1948. One woman I met the first time I was there in April said the name was purely made up and didn’t mean anything. But of course, no one really knows for sure how the word California came into being, or at least opinions also vary.
I had intended to stay for two months at Pauak Monastery, but since a tourist visa runs for just 28 days, and there is a legal “overstay Period” of just 30 days, I felt it was best to just get out before the 30 days were up.
And getting a flight out of Burma is not guaranteed. I learned only at the airport that my airline, Air Mandalay, has only two planes. So I needed to leave Pauak in time to ensure there was room on my flight.
Once that was taken care of, what to do?
The Capital, Rangoon, or as it is now called, Yangon has suddenly and without warning, moved to a newly built interior city, presumably to make it harder for invaders to occupy.
And who needs to see government offices anyway? The most dominant feature of Rangoon is the Shwedagon Pagoda, a huge complex of temple buildings of such magnificence that it is often considered one of the great wonders of the world. It is definitely worth seeing.
But Mandalay and Bagan, were what drew me. Mandalay has an almost mythical appeal as a city in the mysterious East. Likewise, Bagan is noted for the literally hundreds of Pagodas and shrines dotting many many acres of land, relics of a kingdom that rose and fell centuries ago.
While the Pagodas and shrines are undoubtedly beautiful and really awe inspiring, my journey into the interior of Myanmar was really a journey about people and travel in a country which is apparently extremely poor, yet has much potential.
Rather than spend $150 on a round trip ticket to Mandalay from Yangon, I opted for an $8 overnight bus ride. I’d done an overnight bus ride from Pauak a few days earlier, but felt strong enough to do another. But I wasn’t quite prepared for the bus being packed so tightly that there was hardly any leg room. One fellow right next to me was chewing betel nut, a stimulant used like chewing tobacco that leaves the teeth deeply and to my mind, disgustingly stained. And like chewing tobacco, it is to be spit out. So this guy had a little plastic bag that he used. Whatever.
We stopped every two hours or so, because stretching was really important. One of the cool improbable things about Burmese culture is that on the one hand it has a tradition side untouched by Western culture. And on the other hand, it has the urge to modernity and love of American culture as seen in its movies and music. One movie marquee I saw showed a Burmese man with a cowboy hat, stars and stripes bandanna, a beautiful Myanmar woman, and a Buddha all mixed together. What the heck was that all about?
But the bus had hours of music videos, the most memorable was an all girl band wearing western style leather clothes like Roy Rogers or Dale Evans would wear from the 1950’s. They were singing songs in Burmese , but the tunes were from “Rolling down the River” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, and “There Ain’t No Cure for the Summer Time Blues” What a kick. I had to laugh out loud.
They also had Burmese Blues, Burmese Country Western, Burmese Hip Hip and Burmese Rap styles.
Now you might think that the road to Mandalay, the second largest city and Rangoon, a city of over a million if not more might be a major thoroughfare. But in fact, it is pretty much a one lane road not much wider than a driveway, sometimes even unpaved and rutted, with busses and 5 ton trucks passing each other by going onto the unpaved dusty shoulder at full speed–which is probably not more than 40 MPH, but who can tell at 2:00 AM.
Anyway, I left the bus station at 6:00 PM, and finally arrived in Mandalay at about 10:00 AM the next day, a trip of 16 hours. With the help of a tout, that is, a guy with a bike who arranged my hotel since he gets a commission, I decided on a small hotel that had a decent bed, hot shower, private bath and egg, toast fruit and coffee breakfast all for the princely sum of about $5. He had intended to drive me to the hotel on his bicycle, but it broke and he got someone else to drive me. The next day he saw me and offered his services again, but again, his bike broke, so I never did do any business with him.
As it is, bikes are probably the most common form of transport, and horse carts are fairly common too. The bikes are generally about 30+ year old models. I saw one Robin Hood brand bike that I rode as a kid.
I wanted to check my emails, which is no easy task in Myanmar since Yahoo, Hotmail, Google mail and other free providers are blocked. But there are some smart and plucky Burmese who have figured out a way to get past the block, and internet cafes will often–though not always–show you how.
One internet cafe charged about $1.50 an hour. Whereas in Chiang Mai, you can usually pay only 35 cents or so. So I tried to hunt down the main internet cafe in the city of about 300,000 people.
My grandmother, Nana Goldforb, used to tell me, “You can ask your way to Kiev (in the Ukraine)”.
As a kid if I got lost I was to embarrassed to take her advice, but now, I always stop people to ask directions. Often times I get 5 different answers, but it eventually works out. And sure enough in Mandalay, I got to the cafe, where it cost $1.20 an hour. When I protested that in Rangoon I could get access for 50 cents, they gave me a break but I only stayed on about an hour and ten minutes.
Then I started wandering back to my hotel about two miles or so away. I got stopped a few times, sometimes by touts offering a day tour of Mandalay on their bicycle cab. I negotiated an all day trip for about $3, but then the young fellow said, “OK, $2.” And I said, “$2 plus lunch”.
Since much of the time I had only a vague idea where I was, based on a map of Mandalay, I stopped at a little shop–not sure what they sold. but apparently a whole family lived there. I was looking for a particular meditation center, so they let me use their telephone. There are no phone booths in Myanmar and private phones are expensive if available at all. We never did locate the center I wanted to find, but the people were exceptionally kind, trying to be as helpful as possible.
When I got close to my hotel, a young monk approached me and invited me to come back to his Temple. There, I met an older monk mentor, and two laymen, one being his English teacher. So we discussed mostly meditation practice, and I found that my studies at the Zen Center helped a lot, but the pronunciation of words is so different that I often couldn’t understand the terms. For example, they asked me if I knew about “5 kanas”. I thought “kanas????” But finally realized they were saying “Khanda”, or Sanskrit “Skhanda” a term used to describe the total of human experience (physical form, sensation, perceptions, conditioning, consciousness).
It got to be dinner, and I excused myself, but then another young fellow saw me and introduced himself. I invited him to dinner, but all he wanted was a beer. We talked for about two hours.
He wants to start a free private school, but has no money to do so. While there, I met a monk who asked for money so he could buy a Burmese English Dictionary, and there is a need for books in both English and Myanmar.
On my day tour, my driver rode his bike with a side car for me all day without drinking or eating, but did chew betel nut. He refused lunch. The next day, I took another bus ride to Bagan on a similar type road, but the trip lasted for just 8 hours. What a breeze!
One item of interest. I met a German fellow at the hotel, who told me he did work for the US military in Germany. He said that all night long, airplanes are bringing in the war wounded and dead. They don’t want people to know about it, and the soldiers are essentially being warehoused. He said that 80% of the soldiers despise Bush. What a change from the hoopla after his “Mission Accomplished” extravaganza!
Anyway, after arriving at the town serving as an entry way to the Bagan Pagoda area, I found another hotel for about $5. There are pricier ones, but they have televisions and other amenities I don’t need or care to pay for.
One bicycle driver with side cart offered a ride to Bagan for 30 cents–it’s a quick 2 mile trip, but then wanted to be hired the whole day, which I didn’t want. He also wanted to drop me off only half way there. So I finally took him up on his offer, but paid him half what he quoted. There is a tendency to engage in slight frauds, which is quite irritating, but as I learned about the desperation and poverty of the people, I had to let go of my feeling of being ripped off. After all, it’s pennies involved. Even though most tourists have the same experience.
So I walked the last mile to Bagan and saw the landscape stretching for several miles dotted with Pagodas hundreds of years old. It was truly like being in another world, a dream world. I arrived at a major Pagoda, and stopped off at a little road side cafe–basically a bamboo hut with charcoal fire stove–the stove of preference. After talking with the owner, he invited me to have lunch–and dinner–and lunch and dinner–as long as I was in town–no charge.He simply refused to take my money. He then asked me how I was getting around. When I said on foot, he offered me his bicycle to use.
What incredible generosity. So after lunch I started out and noticed that the front tire was totally bald, making riding on the dusty paths difficult and somewhat dangerous. And it had almost no brakes.
And the seat was broken and it would bounce up and down on the bumpy dirt paths causing serious risk to my lower parts. So after carefully riding back to my hotel, narrowly avoiding a couple of accidents and finally just walking it back, I took it into a bike repair shop the next day. New brakes, a new tire, new seat. And now that it was fixed it needed a lock. Total cost: $6.
After lunch, riding around on the bike, the paths were quite rough, and at one point, when I went off “road” I saw a 6 foot long black snake about ten feet from me slithering away. The next day, I asked some people most of whom didn’t know what it was, but one person remarked that that type of snake is “not too poisonous”.
At one Pagoda, I was greeted by an absolutely adorable teenage girl maybe 17 or so. Many Burmese woman wear their hair in tradition full length manner, down to their waist or even their knees.
Again Rudyard Kipling:
I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted Henglish drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?
Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and —
Law wot do they understand?
I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay . . .
She invited me to take a tour of the Pagoda with herself and some friends. We ended up in front of a young man with many small paintings for sale. Minimum price $12, but I was running out of cash, since the money I brought in was not exchangeable. So I finally bought something for $6, and said my good byes.
I then went to another Pagoda, where a beautiful Burmese woman was selling traditional Burmese lacquer ware. She asked me to buy something, but I was quite worried about having enough money to pay my overstay fine, and besides, didn’t really need anything. She said, “I need to feed my babies, the day is almost over, I haven’t made a single sale yet.”
I felt really bad about that but explained that I really didn’t want to land in jail in Burma. So that night, I went through my money and took a chance that I could afford at least something.
So the next day, I went back. I told her I didn’t really have room or need anything, but gave her two dollars. She gave me two Small cups, and invited me back to her house that evening.
Her brother in law and she picked me up on their separate motorcycles, and went to her house.
She is 37 with three children. Her husband died suddenly 20 days after their third child was born, 9 years ago. Now she supports her parents and three children. The Pagoda no longer allows people to climb it, so hardly anyone visits anymore, and her little business is basically ruined. What will she do? Her brother-in- law, a self taught picture painter with a sixth grade education and surprisingly good English skill hope they can come up with something.
The kindness and graciousness of the people is truly heartwarming, and their difficulties are truly heart breaking. Assuming I go back there, I hope to help her start a new business, maybe making solar ovens, made from aluminum foil and simple materials.
Following my stay in Bagan, I took the 15 hour overnight bus ride back to Rangoon–or Yangon.
My friend Daw Mi Mi who is considerably better off than most people, let me stay in a spare apartment usually reserved for monks whom she assists in their travels. She is also raising a 16 year old girl for a poor family herself. An expert in Ayurvedic medicine, she would like to write a book. Perhaps I can help her with that.
But my primary focus is to go back to practice at the U Ba Khin Vipassana Center in Yangon in January.
I hope this gives you a flavor of my trip to Burma, a very special and poignant trip to a country that deserves a better condition than it has now.
First Published at www.cuke.com