Non-stop Mandalay

Trip Start May 30, 2005
Trip End Sep 30, 2006

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Friday, August 19, 2005

I'd arranged to meet up with Rachel to travel Mandalay together. This meant getting up at about 5AM stumbling out into the dark and getting a trishaw driver to take me to the port. This wasn't helped by the fact that my stomach was bloated and I seriously suspected I was heading my way back to illness again, oh yes! Indeed, before we'd even left the port I was hanging off the starboard bow feeding the fishes the contents of my stomach. I had already put my contact lenses in to try and avoid the possibility of loosing my glasses overboard which would really have just capped off the day, and since it hadn't even passed 6am I'd have just wrapped myself in cotton wool and hidden somewhere till midnight. Fortunatly due to the fact that I was on a rather large comfortable boat I was able to get through the experiance, I couldn't have done it on a bus. By 3pm I'd slept it off and was able to hold water in my stomach, rather a relief I can tell you. When I eventually ate in the evening it was my plain rice with salt, and coke made flat by me blowing bubbles through it, cue more stares from the locals.

Mandalay is fantastic, for 3 days I ran around like a madman and barely stopped. Rachel could only manage 2 and just ran out of steam in the end, but more of that later. We saw most of the 'sights' that you're supposed to see on the first day, including the "world's biggest book" which is actually just a lot of stuppas in a temple area where the Burmese make you take your shoes off again. One of the Trishaw drivers that took us around was called Lamu, and for once in my life I'm convinced that my Gaydar was working properly, I reckon he's a popular lad round here.

The Burmese are a funny lot believing in a collection of ghosts, ghouls and spirits. One of their most important spirit genre is the 'Nat', I don't know exactly what these are but the 'Mother Nat' lives at Mount Popa near Bagan while the two 'Son Nats' had a festival held in their honour about 20K north of Mandalay. Rachael and I read in our guide books that there would be a risk of being possesed by a bad Nat during the festivities but we were reassured by the fact that a monk would be able to perform a cleansing ceremony if required, we decided to risk it and head to the festival. We headed up mid afternoon with Lamu "I'm scared for you, I take you" The Trishaw Driver. It was fantastic, the people were out in force and enjoying the fun of the fair, such as the Ferris wheel. This ferris wheel didn't have a motor, it relied on people power... not from ground level, but these guys would climb up into the frame and swing around with the wheel moving, leaning and climbing, everything to get this wheel spinning around with a great force. They didn't exactly have state of the art safety equipment either, in fact they did this in flip-flops and longyi(which is a sarong type attire that 95% of the men wear here). I need to get the video footage onto this site.

We fought our way through the crowds to the central temple area where the Nats were being appeased. This involved a man dressing up in some fine robes applying lots of makeup and donning earrings. They'd then mince up and down an encolsed area before throwing all the money up into the air like confetti. Hoards of people in this area would be seated in rows and then grab at any of the money that came their way. Of course others would be outside this area trying to grab the 'lucky' money. Lamu managed to grab himself 5 Kyats of lucky money, nice one, that's about 0.3 UK pence. Needless to say, Lamu really appeared to enjoy this whole section of the fair. We did see a number of people being 'possessed', they were all men and they'd dance up and down to the fantastically loud music that was being played. I'm sure that the spirits lead them to love each other and then go arm in arm to get a Burmese Kebab before being cured in the morning by a monk brandishing a glass of water and a fizzy tablet. I loved the whole festival environment and managed to spend a number of hours up there.

We also visited one of the four ancient capitals that surround Mandalay, Mingun. We'd talked to a number of other people that had already been that described it as "Nothing Special". This became a bit of a joke between Rachael and I as so many people said this about a place, we'd go there and then have a ball. I think that some people would be far better off never leaving home! So needless to say Mingun was fantastic. One of the big distractions here is the number of peddlers trying to sell you crap that you don't want. We got lucky and managed to go at the same time as a large group of Spanish Package Tour holiday makers. Their inexperience in these matters caused them lots of problems and they were unable to shake off a vendor with my standard smile with a quick "No Thanks", all without breaking stride. Anyway, Rachael and I were grateful for the distraction that these amatures provided. The world's largest unfinished pagoda is situated here, it was one third completed when the king died and they downed tools before moving capitals again, but wow, what a one third. It stands 170 feet tall and is accessible by a stairway that was built up a corner that crumbled during an earthquake in the 1800's. And..... you have to leave your shoes at the bottom. It was pretty hairy at times up the top and although it was completely safe you still felt a little shakey whenever you looked down some massive crack in the structure of the pagoda.

There was so much to see in this little town, including another world's best... The Biggest Uncracked Bell in the world. The bell in Moscow that I saw is actually biggest but is of course cracked. This one is still in fine fettle, when we turned up a fantastic young local told us to get into the bell while he 'rang' it from the outside, the poor boy almost pee'd his pants when I pretended to be deaf afterwards. Since Mingun is only accessable by boat we had to leave at 1pm whether we liked it or not. We rushed around seeing everthing there, wishing we had more time. People who don't like Mingun need their head read, as I for one say that it's "Amazingly Special".

I've joined the world of art ownership. The skill of the artists in and around Mandalay is amazing, they produce the most beautiful paintings, they also produce cheap paintings. I saw this great painting for 35 US Dollars, and although they wouldn't shift on price I eventually bought it anywhere. Before I knew it I bought another couple of paintings for 0.5 US Dollars each at the Nat festival (Done by a guy that threw them out in only 5 minutes). And then the next day another 11 bucks brought 4 more paintings into the ownership of Mackenzie plc. I'll be posting them home from Bangers once I get back there, I'll also get piccies of them onto this site as I love them.

On the third day Rachel ran out of steam. She'd been 'Down Sick' during the night and wasn't in any fit state to go on the bike ride to Amararpura that we'd planned. This is another of the ancient capitals that sits 11K south on Mandalay. I managed to find a suitable replacement in the bike hire shop in the form of Ali the Egyptian. We witnessed another world's greatest together.... The World's Longest Teak Bridge, what you think of that? To be fair it's superb, at 1.2K it's massive and has all manner of local life taking place on it, from the vendors selling pictures (let me have a look), to kids doing backward somersaults of it into the river. We got lost on the way back from Amararpura, reaching a bridge that we didn't recognise. We stopped and ask a policeman as my mum always told me to do. Unfortunatly they are all corrupt government officials who exhort bribes from motorists for the least infringement, but at least they tell tourists "The Road To Mandalay". True enough they pointed in the direction we'd just come, we then pointed in the way we were heading with a quizzical look on our faces. "Yangon" they said, we headed back to Mandalay, it's closer.

Ali and I visited to "World Famous" Moustache brothers in the evening. Two out of the three of these comedians spent seven years in a hard labour camp for poking fun at the ruling military junta during a Pro-NLD (National League for Democracy) performance for Aung San Suu Kyi. They weren't arrested for the trades description law as, just like ZZ Top, one of them doesn't have a beard plus... only two of them are brothers, the other is actually a cousin. The third "Brother" was saved as he wasn't at the famouse performance, staying in Mandalay instead. They were only freed after massive international coverage of their plight and help from the likes of Eddie Izzard, Stephen Fry and Mark Thomas. Although they're now free they are no longer to permitted to perform to the Burmese public. They now have a performance every evening in their own home for tourists. This brings them revenue, but it also keeps them in the public eye ensuring that the authoroties are kept at an arms length. Whilst I enjoyed the performance and found their story facinating, I was struck by the lack of real zest in the antics. I get the feeling that they are now going through the motions after repeating the same show everyday for a number of years. They perhaps have to do this and I fear for them should they drop out of the public eye. I wish them luck and recommend others to visit their home for the evening show. If you own "About a Boy" on DVD, go about 33 minutes in to the part where Hugh Grant is helping on an Amnesty International phone line, there is a referance to Par Par Lay in that scene!

My plan is to now head to Hsipaw in the Shan State for a few days. My Burmese Days are now running out and I need to be careful about how long I spend in each place, It's amazing here and I'm really loving Burma. I'm very pleased that I changed my plans to head here.
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