15/5/15 - 22/5/15 32 °C
"On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin' fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the bay."
The road that Kipling took may well have been filled with romance but sadly there is little left in Mandalay itself. The town is an urban sprawl with little of note to attract the visitor. All the best sights are on the edges of the city and a prohibitively expensive taxi ride away for a single traveller. And so I confined my sightseeing to the busy streets near my hotel. One of them was called Onion Street, possibly because little else but onions was sold there.
Wandering these streets it was not difficult to see why Myanmar is the poorest of the south east Asian countries. Many people in this country live on less than US$2 a day and the injustice of this becomes even more apparent when you discover that 29% of Myanmar's annual budget is spent on the military; more than on health and education combined. The delightful people of this fascinating country have suffered under the military dictatorship for over 50 years and though things are improving the pace of change is slow. Whether the elections later this year will bring real democracy is doubtful as the constitution is such so weighted that the military will always maintain a controlling influence.
While researching Kipling's poem I discovered that he also had a very high regard for Burmese women, praising their openness and extolling their virtues. I guess I'm not the first to notice.
I left Mandalay by the 4:00 am train after a pillion ride through dark and deserted streets. I've observed the local women riding pillion side saddle, perching there, hands free, with not a care in the world, while I hang on to anything I can, every muscle in my body tensed, waiting for disaster to strike. I am becoming a little more confident but it's an experience I'd much prefer to go without. The train set off on time, which seems to be the norm in my experience at least, but had only been going for about ten minutes when we came to a halt. It was still dark and from the open windows came the sound of raised voices and the bleating of goats. On looking out of the windows I saw a group of men trying to load a herd of 200 plus goats into the wagon behind my carriage. The goats were not at all happy with this situation and had to be dragged up a ramp by their ears or back legs or hit with a stick to force them to comply. Perhaps they had some foreboding of what awaited them at journey's end. What had at first sight seemed to be just a colourful part of Burmese life was in fact a little unsettling.
Some eight hours later, after a slightly more comfortable train ride than my last experience, we arrived Pyin U Lwin where I parted company with the goats, climbed onto the back of yet another motorbike, and headed off to find a room.
Pyin U Lwin is the former summer capital of British Burma and at about 1000 feet above sea level is a relief from the stifling heat of the plains. In fact on my first night there I slept beneath a blanket. During my three days there the rain fell in torrents for several hours at a time with just enough breaks for me to be able to escape my hotel and do a little sight-seeing and find restaurants. There are a few remaining colonial style houses on the edges of town but I doubt any returning imperialists would recognise much of what is there now, other than, perhaps, the immaculately tended and extensive botanical gardens. They may also remember the charming miniature "stage coaches" which serve as taxis.
Train journeys in Burma are slow at the best of times but are usually filled with incident. The trip from Pyin U Lwin to Hsipaw was no exception. At each station the train was greeted by vendors selling a variety of snacks and fruit. There are also platform food stalls offering delicious curries and rice which they serve up in polystyrene containers for hungry passengers to consume on board.
Three to four hours out of Pyin Oo Lwin the train slowed to walking pace as it crossed the spectacular Gokteik Viaduct and heads and cameras protruded from the open windows to take in and record the grandeur of the setting.
Everything seemed to be going well and the journey had been very enjoyable but with about 20 miles to go there was a loud bang and the guard came rushing into my carriage and stuck his head out of the window. I quickly followed suit and discovered that the last wagon on the train had derailed. On closer inspection, having climbed down from my carriage and walked back along the track, I saw that it had ripped up the sleepers and buckled the track for over 100 metres behind us. Fortunately, this was the only wagon to derail and the goats in the wagon ahead (not the same herd as my previous journey, I hope) were unharmed though judging by the look on their faces a little more bemused than usual.
From somewhere three or four policeman appeared. They must have been travelling in ordinary class, as we were now in the middle of nowhere, and one of them suggested that the backpackers on the train, about ten of us, might want to cross a field to the road and hitchhike as the train might be stuck there for some time. Seeing little alternative we shouldered our packs and set off across a ploughed field towards the road some 300 metres away only to discover that we would have to cross a stream to reach our objective. Luckily, there were quite a few bamboo poles lying nearby and it was suggested we build a bridge. I struggled out of my backpack in order to lend a hand only to discover that the younger members of our group thought three poles would be quite sufficient and with the help of one of the policeman who stood knee deep in the muddy water offering a hand for support had already started to cross. Seeing no alternative and unwilling to play the wimp I took off my shoes, threw them to the other side of the stream and with my heart in my mouth crossed tentatively to the other side and scrambled up the bank. Five of us had crossed when for some reason, which remains unclear, it was suggested that it might be a better course of action to return to the train and await rescue. This didn't seem a very good idea to those of us who had already crossed the stream and so we decided to hitch while those who had yet to cross returned across the field. Within a few minutes our friendly police officer, who insisted it was his duty to get wet and muddy in order to help the foreigners, had flagged down a pickup truck and we had chambered aboard and were on our way. How I wish all policemen were as public spirited as the man who came to our rescue.
There wasn't a great deal to see in Hsipaw. It's really known as a centre for trekking to outlying villages and much as I'd have liked to have seen them I decided that trekking in the heat was just too much for my aged body and so, reluctantly, I decided to give it a miss.
Hsipaw is a pleasant and lively town with a riverside, a large and interesting market and, like everywhere I've been in Burma, a friendly atmosphere.
I did manage a walk to the outskirts of town and the Bamboo Monastery which had very little bamboo but lots of corrugated iron but, nevertheless, with it's ruined stupas (they call it Little Bagan) was a very pleasant spot.
On the way back down a dirt track I unexpectedly stumbled on Mrs Popcorn ' s garden. She's an elderly Burmese who speaks excellent English and serves up the most delicious fruit salads and juices using many ingredients she grows herself. Her fried beans with pickled leaves were worth the journey to Hsipaw by themselves!