Well. I survived the bus ride. It was as cold and long as expected. Thankfully I had my blanket and no one was in the seat next to me so I could stretch out. We arrived at 5 am, which turned out to be a good thing because I managed to get the only room in the best guesthouse in town.
I spent the next 4 days hanging around Mandalay taking in the sights, and there’s alot of them. Four ancient cities are within 30 km’s of the city, and they’re all unique for one reason or another. One has a rickety old 1.2 km long teak bridge over the river/swamp, and the sunset was amazing. At least a hundred monks pass over the bridge on their way back to the monastery for the evening. I sure hope my photos give it justice. I split a boat ride with a French NGO and spent an hour in awe, madly snapping pictures trying to get the perfect one. I love digital.
A group of us got together one night and went to see the Moustache Brothers. It’s actually 2 brothers, a cousin, and their wives, and they do the unthinkable. They publicly slam the government. The one brother has been jailed 3 times, spending a good chunk of his life behind bars, and still the show goes on. It’s a slapstick comedy of sorts, and actually a bit tiring. We were all expecting a bit more slamming, and less “humor”. The best part of the evening was the dancing displays that the wives put on, as I’m not much of a fan of slapstick, but I wasn’t the only one of that opinion. It seemed like a general consensus. I like to support anyone who has the balls to speak out against the authorities though, so I still figure it was money well spent.
One afternoon I hired a trishaw driver to tour me around town. For four dollars he pedaled me around the city, showing me how to get into all the sights without having to pay the government entrance fees and telling me about the corruption and greed of the government officials. Even the school teachers demand “black money” from their students. Five hundred chat from each student one day because she wanted to buy a cake and celebrate an important day. 500 chat x 40 students = 16 000 chat = 16 dollars. It doesn’t sound like much to us, but it’s three weeks wages to some, and they demand it on a regular basis. If the students don’t pay up, they’re pretty much ignored, or worse. They even use citizens to find land mines! BOOM there’s another one. It’s sick.
In September, the monks held a demonstration. Seven of them were shot and killed, by a government that claims to be Buddhist. Many more are still missing, along with then civilians that were showing support. Since then tourism has taken a serious dive. It’s only a fraction of what it used to be, and the people are feeling it. We’re gold to them, treated like royalty, by both the citizens and the government. I wish there was a way to put all my money into local hands, but the government has their fingers in everything. If it’s not official “taxes” of some sort, it’s under the table. The people that have money can’t use the banks because every time the government is feeling broke, they help themselves.
I read in a newspaper that there’s elections scheduled for 2010. The government says than they’ve established an excellent system, and they feel the people may be ready for democracy. A similar election was held a few years ago. Democracy took 85% of the votes, but the government ignored it and maintained power. I’m sure they’ve just scheduled these “elections” to try and ease the pressure from the international community. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.
Every citizen you speak to has their own sad story, or ten. They’re all looking for a way out of the country. I’m sure one guy even offered me his two year old child. He couldn’t speak English, but I caught the jist of it. Family is very important here, but foreigners are their only hope for a future. Stuck in despair, and no end in sight. I ask them about the elections and they just laugh. It’s amazing, such a life, and try are the happiest, friendliest people I’ve met, always smiling and singing. I feel safer here than any other place I’ve been. But enough of my depressing banter, on the flip side, it’s my favorite country yet. I wish I could stay longer, and I’ll definitely be back.
Back on topic. Back to Mandalay. The guest house I stayed at in Mandalay was the best I’ve seen. Five dollars a night for a private room with a hot shower (whenever the electricity is on), and the room sparkled. The staff was incredibly helpful and happy, and it was chock full of other tourists. Surprisingly, at least 60% of the tourists I’ve seen are over the age of 40, and a good number of them over 60. Not usually my ideal traveling companions, but I joined up with an Italian lady, Giovanna, and a lady from Ireland, Aisling. We’de all been in Mandalay for long enough so we packed up and headed out to Pyin OO Lwin.