On The Road To Mandalay, Part III
Richard W. Wise, G.G.
"Oh the road to Mandalay where the flying-fishes play,
An the dawn comes up like thuner outer China 'crost the bay"
It is the beginning of the summer season. The days are hot but the nights turn cool in the hours past midnight. I fall asleep early and wake up in the predawn darkness. I am sitting on my verandah typing away, enjoying the cool morning breeze blowing off the river. My little cottage overlooks the Irrawady. An early rising cock crows nearby. Ghostly lights far off on the opposite bank of the river flicker through the mist and the thumping sound of a one lung diesel powered fishing boat echoes off the river.
Today we go to Mandalay. There is no hurry and we leave late morning. I take a swim while Lwin locates more fuel then we are off. My guide is in top form. Houses, cars, buses, bicycles
and trishaws whiz by like the chase scene in a silent movie. Charlie Chaplin on wheels!
Here and there we stop, I shoot a few frames and off we go. Actually Lwin is quite willing to stop but it is often difficult to see an interesting shot as it is usually behind us by the time I make a decision to shoot it. Just the same I am seeing the real Burma.
Five hundred thirty miles in three days! Traveling six hours a day that means our average speed works out to just twenty-nine miles per hour. To me it feels like doing eighty in a fifty mile per hour zone. The average speed of automobile travel in the U. S. is perhaps forty five miles per hour. The average here in Burma is closer to fifteen. In a world that moves at one third the speed I am used to,
doing thirty seems like flying. Still, six hours spent jouncing along old dirt roads, sometimes with sand just clearing the hubcaps in an automobile with fourteen-year-old springs, takes
its toll. We revisit the idea leaving the car in Mandalay and taking the Sunday night flight back to Rangoon. This is an idea whose time has definitely come.
The sky is dark blue and cloudless. Not a hint of rain in the air. The landscape continues to be arid. We pass a series of irrigated fields. They are growing tobacco. The peasants use bullocks to plow up the dark mud. In one field the tobacco leaves are spread out drying in the tropical sun. The road alternates between tarmac and long stretches of dirt road. “This is the good road” Lwin
tells me. Good?, I’d hate to see the bad but just then we reach it. The road will lead us to the main artery that runs between Rangoon and Mandalay. Finally we reach it. It is indeed nicely paved and would you believe, four lanes. Traffic is sparse. “This is more like it”, says Lwin, “now we can do one hundred forty km.” We pass an American style toll both with about eight lanes, a gate and a little metal booth at each one but the toll booths are empty, the little booths sit lonely in the sun. No doubt built with foreign aid. We just maneuver around it and continue on our way.
Life Along the side of the highway is little different from that along the secondary roads we have been traveling . No mega gas stations, no fast food malls. The closer we get to larger population centers the more trucks and motorbikes we see. Along the country roads, the people were almost always on bicycles and trishaws. Goods and people move by human muscle power.
We arrive in Mandalay at about One o’clock. Mandalay is a large city with broad streets and avenues. The streets are well kept and have names like "66th".
We stop at Lwin’s favorite restaurant. I know the drill: pick and pick out my dishes at a glass walled counter. They are brought to our table along with a steaming mound of fluffy white rice. We order fresh squeezed lemonade from a stall just outside. I decide on mutton balls, Lwin orders fish. Each is served with several dishes of condiments, tomato, chili, bean dip and a plate of raw vegetables. I pick up a long green pealed vegtable that . looks like a kind of squash and tastes like it too. Lwin offers me a slice of peeled green mango; the taste is very much like lemon.
Mango is a favorite of mine. The rich creamy fruit was just coming into season in Thailand when I arrived. I enjoyed several during my stay in Bangkok. Unfortunately mango is out of season in Burma.
Soup is always part of the meal. It bubbles away in a huge iron cauldron. I am not sure what the soup base is but kale is a major ingrediant.
Cheap nourishing soups are a staple in Asia. Bowls of hot, tasty soup can be purchased at tiny wooden wagons in Thailand, Soba houses in Japan, and funky open fronted restaurants in rural Burmese towns. The smell of boiling stock fills the air on early morning walks along the klongs and back alleys of Bangkok. A version of it has been on our table at each meal. It is hot and tangy and is slurped along as part of the main meal. If you can’t afford anything else you can always live on soup.
Tomorrow, Lwin promises, several of his miner friends will make the trip down from Mogok to show us stones. Stay tuned...