Kipling’s “Road to Mandalay” was the majestic Irrawaddy river. Her route north to Mandalay, Myanmar’s second city, was rather dustier – think long, poorly constructed roads clinging to the hillsides, with motorbikes weaving erratically between the traffic and the potholes, carrying anything from a family of four to towers of vibrant flowers destined for market.
It felt like the true beginning of their journey, leaving behind intensely populated and oppressively hot Yangon, to start getting under the skin of this fascinating country. She’d never before been on a guided trip like this – two weeks where every minute is carefully itinerated. It would be easy to write about it like a long tick list of places seen … we went there, we did this … but that wasn’t the point. This was all about having the privilege of visiting a country that, after years of military dictatorship and ethnic feuding, was just dipping a tentative toe into tourism, so rare to find in a world where travel to far-flung places can be done at the touch of a button.
So then, it must come down to the memories that stay so vivid with the passing of time, that they are as clear as if they happened yesterday …
… the long line of saffron-clad bare-footed novice monks, dull eyes, heads closely shaven, queueing with empty bowls for their meagre lunchtime ration in front of a crowd of camera-totting tourists. A life of monastic discipline, cut off from their families and the outside world until they are old enough to decide for themselves which path they want to take. For those considered fortunate enough to be here, an escape from poverty and an opportunity of an education – in the eyes of a western tourist, a life without freedom of self-expression, a childhood taken, and a uncomfortable insight into a cloistered life, prostituting itself for the sake of a tourist dollar.
… lying in bed in the early hours, listening to the night calls of unseen animals and deafened by the thunder of monsoon rains on the corrigated iron roof of their chalet deep in the teak plantations at Maymyo, high up in the Shan Highlands. Rains .. and sounds .. like she’d never heard before.
… the best part of a day sweltering on a rattan recliner aboard a paddle-steamer meandering it’s way down the Irrawaddy from Mandalay to the ancient city of Bagan, past under-nourished oxen working barren fields, golden stupa jutting above dense, jungle-clad riverbanks, endless rice paddies, and children splashing in the muddy shallows as their mother rinsed yesterday’s longyi, passing snapshots of rural poverty masked in the beauty of this untouched landscape.
… setting off before dawn for a hot air balloon flight over the temples of Bagan. An eerie silence broken only by the hissing of gas as the balloon serenely rose and drifted over this vast plain, over 2,000 buddhist monuments peeping through the early morning mist. And returning later to climb one of the pagodas to watch in awe the setting of the sun over this most ancient of worlds. … magical times.
… speeding across the vast serene waters of Inle Lake, fringed by marshes and floating gardens, stilt-house villages and buddhist temples, marvelling at the Intha fishermen, famed for fishing on one leg, and the curious Kayan people, whose woman consider their long necks encased in brass coils a thing of beauty. Such strange and foreign lands …
… most of all, the people. It takes a trip like this to know what poverty truly looks like. To know how fortunate are those who have running water, a roof over their heads, and the certainty of another meal. These things so often taken for granted, when so many people in the world cannot. And yet, they found people who were respectful, courteous and generous with their time … of course, just waking up to the potential riches a visiting tourist could bring, but nevertheless, grounded by their faith, and genuine with their smiles.
Myanmar, such a privilege, such a place … memories that would stay with her forever …