“Hot water,” repeated the young traveller sitting with his female companion a couple of tables away from me in Mandalay’s Mann Restaurant. The strong emphasis on the first word rang loud and clear and would not have been missed by the server it was directed toward. Overhearing this earnest injunction I smiled. Approximately ten days into a fifteen day visit to Myanmar I too had noticed a propensity for good old tea to be served in the pot, or the mug, at a less than stellar temperature. As if at the first faint sign of burbling the jug was disconnected from the socket. Imbibing tea in these parts one ran no risk of a burnt lip.
An energy saving exercise in a nation that was no stranger to power outages? Or a not so subtle dig, many years after their departure, at the former lords and masters the British? By the same token one could just as well ask why anyone would want to subject himself to piping hot tea in a summer clime so relentlessly hot.
Walking, or riding a bicycle, around the multitude of pagodas on the dry, dusty Bagan plain I had struck temperatures in the low forties. Here in storied Mandalay the situation was much the same. Well, perhaps the liking for a hot brew regardless of the daytime temperature was simply one form of quaint Britishness bound never to surrender, not even in the totally dissimilar climates of certain of the colonies.
In any case I was in old Burma at long last, Kipling’s Golden Land. Several years before, I had laid eyes on an aerial photo of the stupa studded plain at Bagan. Inspired by the thought that the site might be a Myanmar version of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, I decided that I would have to see it for myself one day.
Thanks to Kipling or, rather, the myriad popular culture references he would indirectly spawn in another age when he penned his poem, Mandalay lived long in the personal memory. George Orwell too had been stationed in the city for a time at one stage of his adventurous life, committing the country as a whole to posterity in his first novel.
To some extent at least, the ruling military junta had relaxed its grip in recent years. Needless to say an outsider might visit a not entirely ‘free’ nation and fail to notice any overt signs of that absence. There were few pointers here too though strolling by the east entrance (the only gate through which foreigners may enter) to Mandalay’s Royal Palace it was impossible to miss the huge lettering of the slogan ‘Only When The Tatmadaw (Myanmar Army) Is Strong Is The Country Strong’.
Strong military or not, I had yet to pick up any sign of a tail. Researching Myanmar in the weeks before beginning the trip, the most eyebrow cocking assertion I read was that tourists were tailed during their visits. Furthermore, the watchers were evidently so adept that few if any ever became cognisant of their shadow play. How interesting, I thought to myself. I wondered how ‘they’ would fare with one as ad hoc in his sightseeing as me, even more so on the mornings when I stepped out early for a run – a lifelong habit I sought to maintain on the road.
A number of Mandalay’s pagodas and old monasteries were clustered in the vicinity of the foot of Mandalay Hill. Yet from my perspective the one whose bright burnished gold out-shimmered and trumped the competition lay a good walk west of the palace. The four metre high sitting Buddha statue known as the Maha Muni Sacred Living Image was reputed to have been cast in the lifetime of the Gautama Buddha. The Buddha embraced it seven times and in so doing brought it to life. Decorated with precious jewels, it was the second holiest pilgrimage site in the country.
As in the other predominantly Buddhist countries of the region, frequent were the sightings of monks, especially in Mandalay. The women and girls wore pink robes, the men and boys were most often seen clad in brown or rust red. On one of my aforementioned early morning runs in Bagan, I passed a group of males striding along in perfect formation, begging bowls in hand. The tallest and probably the most senior led the way. The respective heights diminished down the line. From the brief distance the youngster bringing up the rear looked no more than about three or four years old.
An elderly freelance guide at Yangon’s jewel in the crown, the Shwedagon Pagoda remarked to me that he had been a monk no less than three times during the course of his life. I presumed that one of those stints, at least, was mandatory. There are grades to such things, of course, but many of the youths wearing the robes came across as no different to your average ‘boy next door’ in their freewheeling, knockabout ways.
A couple of English girls with whom I toured Inle Lake’s floating gardens, markets and monasteries said they had run into a group of young monks who insisted on posing for photos with them. The liberties taken for the camera by the boldest of the holy lads extended to kisses on the cheeks of the somewhat taken aback London lasses.
Myanmar has seen a good influx of visitors for some years now though it remains far from overrun in that sense. One would hope the likely further increase does nothing to dent the natural warmth of the people. Jaded they are not, a fact made clear in the warm smiles met at every turn. The touts can take a no with good grace and even the taxi-drivers play a relaxed, straight bat. Any visitor to such a land will inevitably hear much about spirits, or nats, as they are called in these parts. Such nats as there are, they must be good ones!
Incredibly slow internet connections – when the networks were not entirely dormant – mean this nation would be an ideal place to send an internet junkie for a recovery course; he / she would have no choice but to cold turkey. Be that as it may, those suffering withdrawal might grow accustomed to the change after a few days and even begin to rest smilingly content in their temporary ‘disconnectedness’. The great peddler of trifling human interest stories will still be there when they leave the Golden Land .