Editor’s note: This is the sixth article in a series of seven. To read the other installments, visit www.vaildaily.com.
Mandalay: A name that conjures iconic images of the exotic. The reality, though, is anything but.
The streets of Myanmar’s second largest city, royal capitol of Burma’s last king until exiled by the British in 1885, are a teeming mass of unregulated traffic. A couple of main boulevards sport traffic lights. The grid of streets beyond are a free-for-all of motorbikes, bicycles, trucks and taxis. Mandalay is decidedly pedestrian unfriendly.
Other than the wide, tree-shaded sidewalks surrounding the moat and 2 square miles of the old palace/now military base, what sidewalks exist are broken, overflowing with parked motorbikes or overflowing with restaurants and vendors. Yolanda and I are often forced into traffic as we walk the mile to Super 81, a restaurant recommended by friends.
After the most delicious meal we have in Myanmar — shrimp in spicy coconut gravy — we feel it prudent to hire the restaurant’s car to return us through the dark streets to our hotel.
The Hotel Yadanarbon is a modern affair with an excellent solicitous staff typical of Burmese hospitality. The ninth floor terrace offers a sumptuous breakfast and a commanding view of the city. Street life surrounding the hotel — filled with morning markets and evening restaurants — is vibrant.
We happen upon an English-speaking cabbie who, for $30, spends the day showing us the sights. He is an island of calm amidst the chaos of Mandalay traffic.
Patiently he waits as we experience: U Bein’s bridge, longest teak foot bridge in the world; the morning alms rounds of the hundreds of young monks at the Maha Ganayon Monastery; the almost undecipherable visage of the ancient Mahamuni Buddha — undecipherable due to the application over the centuries of vast amounts of merit-gaining gold leaf and where women, not allowed to apply it themselves, must worship via video. Finally, he waits as we watch the sun set over the city from the fabulously decorated temple atop Mandalay Hill.
Blossoms, buffaloes and brutality
The next morning we head east ascending the hills to Pyin Oo Lwin where at 3,500 feet, the Brits built a piece of England to escape the summer heat of the plains. The lakes, forests and flowered expanses of the stunning National Botanical Garden occupies us for a rewarding day. Never have I seen displays of such luxuriant orchids with sprays so smothered with dense blossoms.
Back on the bucking bronco of a train, we proceed slowly into the eastern reaches of the Shan Plateau, a mountainous region of ethnic tribes off the main tourist circuit. Our destination is the small town of Hsipaw, home of the last Shan Prince.
For $12, the guesthouse provides the most basic accommodations of our trip. Up before dawn, I walk to the morning market where tribal people gather. It is a colorful blend of life, food, flowers and clothing that disappears with the sun. Afterward, it’s breakfast on the second floor balcony where street life below provides entertainment.
Barefoot boy monks collecting alms follow behind the stern visage of their master trying to contain their hijinks. Pretty novice nuns in immaculate pink robes and conical bamboo hats smile, suppressing giggles when my camera is pointed their way. Girl laborers heft heavy bags of sand on their heads to the construction site up the block.
I arrange a boat to take us up river to a Shan hamlet. Villagers, water buffaloes in tow, bathe and wash clothes in the river, waving as we pass. At the community, we find a small monastery empty but for an old monk hidden among the cushions napping in the mid-day heat. We visit a single-room primary school full of beautiful, happy children, disrupting their lessons and causing a minor sensation.
Finally, I visit the palace of the last Shan Prince where a descendant explains the family history. While attending the Colorado School of Mines the heir met and married a lovely Austrian woman, returning with her in 1953 to assume the throne. She fell in love with the people and worked tirelessly side-by-side with her husband for the benefit of the people of Shan State.
During the 1962 violent military takeover, the prince was arrested, disappearing into the prisons of the dictators. After innumerable futile attempts to learn her husbands’ fate, the princess, Inge Sargent, moved to Boulder. Her book, “Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess,” tells of her life, her love for the Shan people and the brutality of the military leaders.