The Road to Mandalay

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Thursday, February 10, 2005

Kipling paid it homage in a famous poem, Maugham waxed poetic over its many splendors and Orwell was stationed there as a policeman and later wrote his own love letter to the former jewel of the empire. Frank Sinatra even sang about it when Kipling's "Road to Mandalay" was set to music. The British Raj captured it and added it more or less as a subdivision of India to the empire. The Japanese later came to the aide of their Asian cousins many decades later to help the Burmese fight for Independence. Just as they were freed of the shackles of colonization the Japanese put the screws on them and refused to leave. The Burmese turned to their former captors and asked Great Britain for help and they consented. When British forces returned they sent the Japanese scurrying off and finally in earnest the Burmese declared full Independence.

The people of Burma have never had it easy and their political history has been anything but rosy. There are embargoes from many nations including the United States and the United Nations has condemned their human rights records. Recently the government has released over forty political prisoners so there may still be hope yet. Meanwhile however Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi whose party won over 80% of the vote and then was denied victory was placed under house arrest in 1989 where she remains in Rangoon to this day.

The current ruling junta changed the name of the country back to what it was prior to the British conquest and it is now officially called Myanmar or the Union of Myanmar. There has been some trouble with the new name sticking however and even the Lonely Planet guidebook's title lists "Burma" parenthetically after Myanmar on its cover. The current capital Rangoon was changed to Yangon though the former British capital in the north retained the name that stirs in the mind the exotic allures of the Orient, Mandalay.

But first a bit of a caveat. At present I am not even in Mandalay. It is still the 9th of February but I have moved the date forward on this page to the 10th. I will actually fly out of Chiang Mai tomorrow afternoon and should be in downtown Mandalay around cocktail hour.

I will explain the reason for this unprecedented preface. The Union of Myanmar does not take kindly to unpleasant leaks of information about their country and all Internet communication is watched closely and with suspicion. Finding Internet connections and sending and receiving emails will not be as easy as it has been for the first part of this journey. With that said, however all reports from travelers suggest that the situation is very safe for tourists. All the guidebooks concur heartily. Nonetheless this is not a country that enjoys freedom of the press or even freedom to read the press for that matter and one must tread lightly.

Burma is it said is more or less like Thailand was 60 to 80 years ago before the tourists arrived. It has barely been touched by western influence unlike it's neighbor Thailand to the east. It is certainly not on your typical traveler's Southeast Asian circuit either. Many people when asking me about my proposed itinerary would stare blankly when I'd say, "And then I'll fly from Chiang Mai to Mandalay." They'd inevitably ask, "Where's Mandalay? In Myanmar? Where's that?" A traveler in Lao actually asked me, "Why go there?" Keeping in mind that most people don't understand why anyone would want to go Lao you can understand why this querry rendered me speechless. Surely he'd been asked that question a hundred times himself. The main reason I can think of is that I haven't been there and it looks fascinating and I feel certain that it will be.

I did however meet two people who are heading to Burma and they've actually been there before. Jeff and Margaret of New York whom I met in Luang Prabang wrote me an email just a few minutes ago to tell me that they're going to be on my flight tomorrow and we're going to share a tuk-tuk into town on the road to Mandalay.

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