I and my new archenemy, the sun, are now in Mandalay, Myanmar. I will try to make this quick because if the electrical scene at the “Unity Hotel” is any indication, Mandalay apparently loses power approximately once every four minutes.
After my last post on Sunday, I went on a very long walk around Yangon. I took a lot of photos – in fact, as of right now I’ve taken 381 photos. That’s a lot for four days, but I’ve seen some pretty cool stuff. Also, I’ve gotten where if I think a shot might be good, I double-shoot it. Sometimes if I just take a single shot, once I get it uploaded I wish I had changed the zoom or the angle slightly, etc. So a lot of times now I’ll go ahead and take two shots of the same thing just in case one is better than the other. Anyway, I’ve taken a lot of photos.
I had a bit of a freak out on Sunday afternoon. Well, it wasn’t really that bad, but I had one of those periods where I just felt completely overwhelmed by Asia and how much there is to take in. I was walking down a street that was one long outdoor market on both sides of the street. And I mean literally for a couple of miles, just one long market with thousands of people buying and selling everything you could think of. From cigarette lighters with flashlights built into them to clothes to about every kind of dead animal you could ever think about eating, etc. It was like Noah’s Ark in reverse – I think the Burmese on that street had killed at least two of every living thing on the planet.
Anyway, just taking it all in – the thousands of people all interacting frenetically, the life, the death, the smells – some good like the Indians cooking dosas and samosas on little portable frying surfaces, some not so good like the aforementioned overabundance of meat. It just gets kind of overwhelming. I can’t think of any experience I’ve ever had in America that I can compare it to – our shopping experiences are obviously must more tame and sanitized. Also, just the sheer number of people. One would think that after living in HCMC with nine million people for ten months, I would be kind of numb to it, but here we have Yangon – another seven million people. The mind boggles.
Whenever I travel, I always have this feeling like “Even if I had never come here, these people would all be right here doing exactly what they’re doing right now.” They’re not there pretending to be Burmese and living how Burmese live because you’re there – as a tourist – to observe. That’s really how they live and whether you had ever even been born, those people would be there on that street doing exactly what they were doing right then. I don’t think I’m explaining this very well, but it’s a very humbling thought to have. To look around you and see all of this life, and all of this living going on – and to realize that right at that moment the same thing is going on back in HCMC and also in places you’ve never even been – it just makes you feel so insignificant. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.
I think I read something like this somewhere, but I can’t remember where: Either everything means everything or nothing means anything. When I have more time and a better connection, I will try to Google it up, but that’s about as close as I have ever been able to come to a philosophy about living. Either everything – every single thing, not matter how big or how small – is just as important as every other thing (because, it’s all perspective, if you pull back far enought everthing is really just one, universal “thing” anyway) – so everything literally means everything. Or nothing means anything at all. I suspect that the real “answer” is that both are true. Everything is equally important, but none of it really means anything because in the long run it’s all transitory.
Okay, I’m hurting my own brain. I’m sure some of you are like “Enough with the armchair philosophizing – get back to going on rants about nasty tourists!”
Anyway, back to Sunday, I didn’t go back to the Shwedagon Paya Sunday night because the afternoon and early evening were very overcast and I didn’t think I would see much. Of course, right before sunset, the clouds broke open and there was this bright golden, orange, pink light everywhere. I am sure that the pagoda was incredible and I wish I would have been there. But I did see something pretty cool. I found the public jetties along the river and as the sun set – which was beautiful over the river – I watched tons of people getting on their ferries or sampans or whatever, heading across the river. There were a lot of people just sitting out on the docks, watching, and I sat there with them until the sun went down. The little sampans all had these flashing lights on them – they would flash in varying patterns of red, green, and blue, and when they got far out on the water in the dark all you could see were the flashing lights – they looked like fireflies.
Monday morning, I got up at 4:45am and caught my train to Mandalay. It was a little scary because I couldn’t find the train platforms – I found the ticket office, which is where my travel agent had taken me to buy my ticket, but no one told me that the actual train platforms were several blocks away in a completely different location. By the time I found a guard who hooked me up with some dude – he wasn’t dressed like a guard and appeared to be just some guy hanging out at the train station at 5:00am – that guy basically looked at my ticket, looked at his watch, and said (in Burmese but I am 99% sure this is what he said): “Run!” We literally ran to the platforms, figured out which train and which car were mine, and I got on board with only about five minutes to spare before the train’s horn sounded and the train rolled out. (I gave the guy 1,000 kyat – which is about $1 USD. He didn’t even want that, but I stuck it in his front pocket as I stepped up on the train. People are really nice here. You don’t get the impression that every single person you meet is out to make a buck off you.)
I can describe the train ride very quickly: Hot. Long (10 minutes shy of 16 hours). Uncomfortable (my seat was broken and the seatback was permanently reclined about 50% – my back is sore today). Rough (I don’t know what combination of technology and maintenance is required to make for a smooth train ride, but they apparently have not stumbled upon it in Myanmar yet).
It wasn’t that bad – and it was actually a good way to see a lot of the country from my window and to peoplewatch the locals, but I could have done with, oh, about 14 hours less of it.
I got to Mandalay about 10:00pm, went straight to my hotel, the Unity Hotel (which isn’t as nice as the hotel in Yangon but is fine – oh, the elevator is broken and my room is on the 6th floor!), and crashed. Hard.
Today I got up around 7:00am and went out and walked around Mandalay for awhile (one word? two words? I don’t know). By 8:00 or 8:30am, it was hot enough that I was literally in full sweat mode. I came back to the hotel and had a nice breakfast at the hotel restaurant. Then the manager of the hotel, Mr. Aung Aung, took me on the back of his motorbike to the train station and I bought my ticket from Mandalay to Pyin Oo Lwin for tomorrow morning – at 4:30am!!! What is it with these train times?!?
After that, Mr. Aung Aung (I just like writing that) hooked me up with a friend of his who works a the hotel at night but drives a taxi during the day, and he agreed to drive me all around Mandalay to check it out. His “taxi” was this tiny little pickup truck – and when I say tiny I mean it. I had to bend over because my head bumped the top of the ceiling inside all day. Anyway, he took me to get my bus ticket to Bagan (I come back from Pyin Oo Lwin to Mandalay on either Thursday or Friday (depending on how long I decide to stay there), then head to Bagan on Friday by bus.
After getting the bus ticket, he took me around to some of the tourist attractions around Mandalay. Lots of monasteries, pagodas, “ancient cities,” etc. I’ll write about them in more detail when I post my photos. The last thing we did – and the best thing we did – was to go to a hill outside Mandalay called Sagaing Hill. There are a ton of pagodas and monasteries on and around that hill, and from the top of the hill (after a long climb with a ton of steps), you look out at a beautiful view of the river, the bridges over the river, and literally hundreds of stupas. It really was gorgeous.
But it was so hot today that by the end of the day I literally felt like I was having a heat stroke or something – I felt dizzy and all I wanted to do was drink some cold water and sleep under some air conditioning.
So after all of that running around, I ate lunch then went back to my hotel and slept for a few hours, and here I am. I am going to go have dinner in a few minutes, and then I will have to crash early for my 3:30am wakeup call. (!)
I’ll post again when I can. Great trip so far!