Burma (aka Myanmar) - the Cities
We arrived in Yangon, which used to be the capital until the evil and paranoid government built an opulent brand new capital in the middle of the jungle. I liked Yangon although for some unexplicable reason it’s less recommended for a visit than Mandalay. The streets are wide and there are some interesting crumbling old colonial buildings and bustling markets in the Indian and Chinese quarters, people drinking tea on the streets, bookstores selling old English-language textbooks…
Although there are a lot of cars (mostly falling apart, circa 1970s or 1980s) and it’s the richest city (except for that capital which tourists aren’t allowed to visit) it’s obvious at once how poor the country is. Everything is shoddy and in a state of disrepair. Except the temples, that is: the main sight, and pride of the country, is a pagoda with an enormous golden stupa. When I say golden, I mean made of gold, with a decorative little umbrella on top dripping with thousands of diamonds and rubies and topped with a 72-carat diamond that glints in the sunset.
In fact, throughout the country there is a stark contrast between the pervasive poverty and the opulence of countless golden, bejewelled temples. It was even more evident in Mandalay. The name Mandalay sounds orientally exotic but the city is something of a let-down. It’s modern, unattractive, noisy and dusty, with less to show off than Yangon. There’s the large complex in the middle that shelters the ancient palace, which offers a peaceful respite and a fun area for the kids to run around. The wooden palace buildings look almost Japanese in the style of their roofs. Marco missed that outing because he was sick with what may have been Burma Belly (as the old British colonists used to call it) or the water that we all foolishly drank from the “water fountain” in the airport in HCM City. Speaking of Burma Belly, the local cuisine is fairly gross: very oily, fatty and not-so-flavorful curries with strange condiments that include salty little fish. But fortunately there is also the cuisine from the Shan state near Thailand that features spicy salads with lime and cilantro. We ate at a Shan restaurant one night and met a table full of Indian businessmen who work in the ruby industry based in the mining areas where tourists are not allowed. (I wonder if it has to do with the working conditions for the miners or just the usual government paranoia). We were stuck in that restaurant for a while because we couldn’t find a ride back to the hotel, so in the meantime Maia helped the kitchen workers shell little quail eggs and the waiters played with Francesco.
More interesting than Mandalay itself are the areas surrounding it. We hired a very kind and knowledgable guide who took us by car (which is much preferable to the open-air little trucks that they use as taxis, which are not that safe and leave you exposed to the terrible black exhaust) on a day-long excursion. We visited the area where people carve Buddha statues out of marble for all of the regional Buddhist countries, visited a workshop where they pounded gold leaf and then went on to a sacred area where Buddha passed through. I think he was supposed to have raised chickens there. In any case, there are low hills on the riverside FULL of golden stupas an
d temples – very beautiful.
A highlight of our stay in Mandalay was going to see the Moustache Brothers’ show. They are three guys who put on a kind of vaudeville/cabaret in the living room of their humble home for an small audience of about 8 people. They used to perform for a Burmese audience but now they do a show in English for the tourists, probably because it’s safer for them. They are famous for bravely making fun of the government. One of them has been in and out of jail three times and is probably only alive because famous international people, including American actors, took up his cause. Besides the daring jokes about the government, the Brother who speaks English told silly jokes about his wife, who is a traditional dancer She came out and did some dances along with other members of the troupe. It wasn’t spectacular, but the intimacy of the setting and the bravery and commitment of the actors made it really special.