On the Road to Mandalay

 BAGAN:  Here, scattered across the plain on a bend in the Irrawaddy are the ruins of some 2,000 temples, shrines and stupas - remnants of an imperial capital which reached its peak between the 11th and 12th centuries.

A charming
friendly land   
full of

THE U BEIN BRIDGE is the longest teak bridge
in the world, stretching over a kilometre in length.
It is especially impressive at sunset.

Richard and Pat  Field are just back from a visit to Myanmar, formerly Burma, where they travelled up the Irrawaddy river on their way to Mandalay. Here Richard gives his impressions of a country now at the crossroads.

Our latest adventure is taking us up the Irrawaddy on the to Road to Mandalay in a way that Rudyard Kipling could never have dreamt up.

We are aboard the RV river vessel Kalaw Pandaw, a 1920s style colonial boat made of teak with brass fans and and fittings and staffed wholly by Burmese from captain down to lowliest 'happy room' wallah.

The vessel  glides slowly and  majestically up the gleaming waters of the half mile wide river passing an ever changing scene  on either bank - stilted houses with women washing clothes in the river, children waving at those funny looking foreigners on the boat and workers in paddy fields stacking stooks in the way that disappeared from England 50 years ago.

Every few hours we will pull over to the shore. There are very few proper jetties, and often the crew will have to go ahead to cut rough steps in the sand, mud or the clay so that passengers can disembark safely to explore a nearby vIllage or visit a pagoda. The steps are often slippery, but the crew bang in wooden posts and string ropes between them to ensure a safe disembarkation.

The shoreline is punctuated with pagodas many lined with gold, dazzling in the strong sunshine. Ox carts trundle slowly along mud roads and women carry water pots on their heads. Few places on earth offer such a range of photographic opportunities. The problem is which pictures not to take!

About  half way up the river, we land at Bagan where we spend a couple of days marvelling at an awesome array of temples and pagodas, numbering over 2,000, many dating back to the 11th  and 12th centuries. I climb up an almost vertical ladder to a vantage point  high up on one of the highest temples. My effort is well rewarded. In front of  me is an amazing panorama of hundreds of temples and pagodas, some huge and imposing,  some smaller ones in tight groups.stretching off across the valley. It is doubtful if there is anywhere on earth offering such an amazing  spectacle.

Another day we venture ashore to marvel at another of  Myanmar's  wonders - the  spectacular U Bein teak bridge stretching over a kilometre across a shallow lake and made up of over 1,000 teak timbers laid over 200 years ago. This is the longest teak bridge in the world.

To get the best view we are taken on in a small boat just in time to see a fiery sunset projecting silhouettes of peasants, monks and tourists processing slowly across the bridge, some on old bicycles, mostly on foot. Our thoughtul guide arranges for glasses of champagne to be ferried out to us by boat to enjoy just as the sun begins to sink  beneath the horizon.  Another memorable moment which will stay with us!  

At the end of the road is Mandalay, now a thriving town in central Myanmar, and bearing little resemblance to the place immortalised in Kipling's verse

In the Kipling Bar of the hotel we sip a Singapore sling and recall the lines of Kipling's famous verse: 

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' lazy at the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' 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,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay ?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay! 

Next door is  a smoking room retained from colonial days, with cartoons on the wall of cigar smoking  people (including Winston, of course), other notables and even a few cigar smoking animals.

Behind the elegant Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel is Mandalay Hill, now peaceful and serene with its golden temples glinting in the evening sun  But the scene was very different 70 years ago when a later British  army was dug in here with the Japs holding the Royal Palace less than a mile  away. But that, of course, is another story,

But back today it is a more placid scene although Burma (renamed Myanmar in 1989) has suffered its trials and tribulations. For 50 years the country was under the iron rule of the generals with gross corruption and an  appalling record on human rights. For a long time tourists were warned to stay away.

Now, happily, and particularly since the release of house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and a move towards more democracy, the position is becoming less draconian, although people we met were loathe to talk about the position and would only say they hoped that  'change' was on the way. 

The process was given a boost with the recent landslide win at the elections for Aung San Suu Kye's National League for Democracy, although the generals have engineered a position where Aung San Suu Kyi can never be President, and they retain 25% of the seats in parliament whatever the outcome at the ballot box.

The truth is that the period of military dictatorship has left the country lagging way behind its powerful neighbours, India and China. Myanmar is the poorest in South East Asia with much of the wealth in the hand of 20 fabulously wealthy dynastic families

|It appears to the outsider that change will come, but it will come slowly.

Politics aside, Myanmar (and people prefer you to call it by that name) is a wonderfully friendly and serene country, with huge courtesy and kindliness extended to visitors.  This view was only re-enforced by this, our second visit to the country in less than a year.

However, in many ways, away from the big cities, the country is still struck in the Middle Ages, with people living in very basic houses made of bamboo and thatch, often without electricity or clean running water with most of the population engaged in small time jobs on the land, using primitive tools and methods. with water buffalo and oxen widely used. A few very noisy old tractors, belching black fumes, appear just here and there.

The one significant move to modernity is the growth of motor-cycle (these are brought in from China and sell at $500 each). They  have taken over from the bicycle as the mode of transport for the majority. Next time we come probably everyone will be in cars!

For us it was a pleasant break to be without radio, TV, internet connection or newspapers  So for a couple of weeks the world just passed us by.

This is a good time to see this emerging country because all too soon it will begin to change and in time probably become more or less indistinguishable from the booming giants of the East with their skyscapers, super highways, mass migration to towns, mass tourism and burgeoning 5-star hotels, ending the simpler and more gentle way of living which went before.

Basil and Barbara Birchall have also  been visiting Burma, and we may have crossed somewhere on the Irrawaddy but did  not actually make contact. We hope Basil will provide us with a selection of his pictures  when he returns home.

 OUR BOAT: The RV Kalaw Pandaw, a 1920's
style vessel made of teak  with brass fitments.
   A SUNDOWNER; Time for a Singapore Sling
seated on rattan chairs on deck.

NEW FRIENDS:: Pat meets a couple of monks at a monastery. There are 500,000 monks in Myanmar.    THE SWEDAGON PAGODA, the biggest and most
impressive Buddhist complex in the country. 
RURAL LIFE: Ox carts are used to haul giant 50 gallon handmade water pots to a local market.   HARVEST TIME: Peasants harvest the rice crop
using methods which disappeared in England
50 years ago. 
FISHERMEN on Lake Inle propel their boats using an oar held with one hand and wrapped round a leg. This leaves the other hand free to spread the nets.   ANOTHER fisherman sits perched on the front of his boat using using a traditional rowing method, with a large cone-shaped net ready to drop into the water. 
A PEASANT FARMER steers her boat through the water with a load of hand picked tomatoes
(delicious!) picked from one of the floating gardens.  Chillis, melons and other fruit and
vegetables are also grown in this way.


ABOVE:  Pat with Hhin, our personal guide in Mandalay.

RIGHT; May Thazin Aye, our guide in Yangon, who joined us for a farewell dinner at the famous              Le Planteur Restaurant. Both she and Pat are wearing traditional longyis.

  THE UMRELLA is not to stop the rain but to shield Pat from
the relentless sunshine. The boat steers its way along
one of the myriad of tiny waterways which criss-cross the
floating gardens. 

BUDDHAS line a crescent-shaped colonnade at Umin Thounzeh in Sagaing. Thousands of pagodas and monasteries dot the hillside of this ancient riverside town.

Photos: Richard Field