Mandalay Part One – The Goon Squad Cometh – Mandalay, Myanmar

Mandalay Part One - The Goon Squad Cometh
Mandalay, Myanmar

Despite having paid extra for what the notorious Mr. China described as the “nicer bus,” there was a conspicuous lack of improvement on the Inle to Mandalay bus over the bus that had delivered me from Yangon. There were in fact five buses leaving from Shwenyaung Junction for Mandalay that evening, mine being the last one. Each of the four buses that came and went before mine looked to be of the same substandard quality, but, encouragingly, they were all half empty. I briefly entertained an inane fantasy where I would have two whole seats to myself, giving me space to relax, put my feet up and having the freedom to maneuver into a variety of less harsh sitting positions, thus increasing the possibility of slumber, but then my bus arrived stuffed like my ex-wife’s bra. I had been duped into paying 800 additional kyat to sit in yet another rattling back-breaker on wheels. The interior was just as cramped, the seats were equally unforgiving and instead of a bony kid invading my personal space, I had a raging drunk who commandeered my shoulder as a his pillow as soon as I sat down. I sat there pathetically wishing I’d had the brains to get on the bus in a drunken stupor too. The only improvement was that through the wonders of higher, cooler altitudes, I didn’t spend the entire night sweating.

Monks at work
Monks at work
True to form, despite it only being 7:00 p.m., each and every Myanmar on the bus was sleeping like, well like only Myanmars can, and they stayed that way for the entire nine hours. How the hell do they do it??? And it’s not just at night on dark buses where there’s nothing else to do, this goes on at all hours of the day. It’s got to be something in their rearing. By now I had seen Myanmars sleeping deeply in such unlikely places as sharp-edged, hardwood chairs in the middle of bustling hotel lobbies, outdoors on tables in the baking sun, inches from frenzied, smog filled streets, the bone chiseling floors of zayats and once even on top of a towering pile of cargo on a moving semi. The bus seats were like instruments of slow ass-smashing torture, yet these people couldn’t have possibly been more comatose. As usual, I wriggled in my seat, testing every possible posture within my tiny allotment of space and through sheer exhaustion and a sleep-aid, I managed to sleep about 23 minutes.

We rolled into Mandalay at 4:00 a.m., or rather we rolled into the Mandalay bus station, four kilometers out of the center of town. I had no choice but to accept an offer from one of the lurking Taxi Pimps for a 2,000 kyat ride to my hotel. My taxi ended up being a mini-pickup truck, not much larger than a golf cart, with two wooden benches in the back where passenger were meant to sit. With my ass recently pulpified by nine hours of bus seat pummeling, the thought of even 10 minutes on a wooden bench made me visibly cower. I wanted to complain and demand a genuine taxi, you know with an enclosed back seat filled with actual cushioning and maybe even a seatbelt, but then I looked around and saw that these Flintstone’s era conveyances were the only show going. Not a single vehicle resembling a regular car was in sight. At the last second my taxi guy found a few more customers and loaded them into the back, urging me into the passenger seat in the cab, which was only slightly more padded than the plank bench and half occupied by a filthy spare tire that had already seen plenty of action.

I arrived at the Royal Guesthouse at 4:30 a.m. without a reservation and uncertain about my chances of finding an upright clerk, but the taxi driver resolutely leaned on the door chime and a few moments later a heroically accommodating, shirtless clerk materialized and went through every courteous facet of checking me in, despite the heinous hour. I just wanted to grab the first room key and get out of his hair, but he insisted on showing me three rooms so I could choose the one that appealed to me most. I selected a scrubbed down double that he offered me for the price of a single, US$7 a night. The man was a saint, or whatever the Buddhist equivalent is. I showered and passed out until 10:00 a.m.

Having slept through the hotel’s complimentary breakfast, I headed down the street to a café that they recommended where I ordered a western breakfast of eggs, toast and coffee. I cancelled the coffee seconds later when I spied Red Bull on the menu. As I was shoveling all of this down, two trishaw drivers on a break sat down across from me and asked if they could practice their English with me. This all-purpose opening line is almost always a precursor to some kind of offer of goods, services or a recommendation for their brother’s jewelry shop where I could buy and ship home a giant cargo container of precious gems to sell for a massive profit in my home country and sure enough, the conversation was quickly steered to what my plans were for the day. I explained my firm intentions to rent a bicycle and zoom around the city at high speed, noting that I had limited time in Mandalay. They both passionately argued that it was in my best interest to take a trishaw - surprise surprise - and as luck would have it they were both free for the entire day. I dismissed this option quickly, informing them that I was low on kyat and I didn’t have the money to pay for both a trishaw and the entry fees for the sights, but the not-enough-money-defense has never worked on a tout before and it certainly failed now. I also added matter-of-factly, that a trishaw would be about three times slower than a regular bike, particularly the way I ride. Ignoring these points entirely, they briefly tried to convince me that I wouldn’t have to pay the entry fees for the sights if I was with them, a claim that was so ridiculous that I couldn’t resist laughing out loud. By now I was finished with my food and since these guys were offering nothing more than irritation, I paid and abruptly left.

The bike rental turned out to be pure genius. Not only is biking by far the quickest way to cover the great distances between sights in Mandalay, the mobility allowing me to jockey through the dense, every-man-for-himself traffic conditions faster than any other vehicle including motorcycles, but at a mere 1,000 kyat (US$1.10) for a full day rental, it was also delightfully easy on the budget. Moreover, cycling in Mandalay provided the most intense adrenaline rush I’d had since I’d jumped out of a plane in New Zealand, screaming like a little girl all the way down. The traffic in Mandalay is particularly lawless in a country where, as previously mentioned, most driving conventions are improvised. Certain death is faced and somehow magically avoided every few seconds while plunging through traffic that would make a New York cabbie weep. The accompanying clouds of floating dust and debris that coat your body, while you suck down the hot, foul, fume choked air makes it look like you really did something at the end of the day. Not like those pansy Rube Tourists in the vans with tinted windows, stereos, air conditioning, cold beverages and genuine seats with seatbelts! Ha ha! Suckers!!! If they only knew what they were missing! OK, it sounds horrific and it kinda was, but it wasn’t beyond endurance, even for my delicate constitution, and it was liberating to be in charge of a vehicle (of sorts) for the first time in months and I loved it.

Although I have to assume that tourists must be seen on rented bikes on a regular basis, each local nevertheless stared at me like I was riding a yellow, winged hippo, reacting like I was a once-in-a-lifetime peculiarity. Every few meters people were yelling and waving at me from the sidewalk or passing vehicles like I was Aung San Suu Kyi. A slow moving pickup truck being utilized as a bus full of rambunctious guys encouraged me to speed up and catch them, which I did, at which point one guy hung out the back to take my hand and they towed me along for about two blocks before the bus took a turn I didn’t want and I had to let go.

My first stop was the train station. Although I desperately wanted to take the boat from Mandalay to Bagan, my next stop, as Toe had enthusiastically encouraged me to do back in Yangon, my tightening schedule had left me with no time to piss away nine hours of daylight on this journey. I was going to have to take yet another form of night transport and the train was my best option. The main misgiving I had with being relegated to the train was that it was government owned and by this point I had developed a healthy loathing of giving one single penny more than necessary to those people. They already had my hefty visa fee, the obligatory arrival fees for the “archeological sight” at Inle Lake (and later in Bagan) and the US$10 departure tax they would collect as I left the country. Moreover, I had almost certainly inadvertently given them more money along the way through a second or third party at some point as they seemed to have their sticky fingers in just about everything. So, I was loath to drop more in the bucket, but it was either that or piss away a whole day on the boat, leaving me only a half day to tour the incomprehensible hundreds of temples scattered over several square kilometers in Bagan. Plus, deep down, I was hoping that the rumors were true and that train travel was a bit more comfortable than being on the bus. At that point I was willing to give up a lot of money and set aside many morals for a little less physical discomfort.

Mandalay’s train station doesn’t have a single word of English printed anywhere on the premises, which seemed odd as virtually every restaurant, shop and soft drink street vendor in the city went through the trouble of providing bi-lingual information. There were about 20 ticket windows, about 12 of which were open, each seemingly for a different region and class of ticket with lines of people 30 deep at each one. I spent several minutes trying to determine where to go before finally walking up to a closed window, knocking on it to get someone’s attention and simply saying “Bagan?” in a pleading voice. The man directed me around to the side of the windows and actually pulled me into the office to take care of me with much appreciated VIP priority. With that out of the way, I got down to the business of repeatedly cheating death on the streets of Mandalay.

My first stop was a neighborhood just out of central Mandalay that Toe had directed me to where gold leaf is made. Impossibly thin, tabs of gold leaf are a fixture at all pagodas. People buy these gold tabs in packets of 10, 50 or 100, with each tab being about one inch square. Worshipers take these delicate pieces of gold and apply them by hand to Buddha figures and other religious relics as a spiritual offering. The gold leaf supply for the entire country is produced out of several shops in this one Mandalay neighborhood.

Tooling down the bumpy dirt street, I stopped at the first place that I could find, a place called “Gold Rose” at Number 108 on 36th street, between 77th and 78th streets - this is how all addresses in Mandalay are rendered, the between street reference is apparently necessary because the house numbers are totally arbitrary and thus have little bearing on actual location. With there being no mention of this attraction in LP, I was a little surprised to learn that these businesses are indeed a respectably strong tourist draw. I was greeted the instant I dismounted the bike by a “tour guide,” a young woman named Moh Moh.

Moh Moh fed me cold water as I recovered from the kamikaze ride from the train station and gave me some tissues to stem the sweat gushing off of me. This was a slow process and Moh Moh’s English was excellent by Myanmar standards, so I took the opportunity quiz her a bit about general Myanmar topics. I learned that she was a law student who was somehow managing to pay for school through the meager wages she earned leading people through the Gold Rose. Despite being only 20 years old, she reported that she had already had five men visit her home and ask her parents for her hand in marriage. One of them even offered the family a substantial portion of his respectable fortune as an incentive. Though Moh Moh admitted that her family was quite poor, her parents had firmly refused all of these offers, knowing that their daughter had ambitions to work her way up to being one of Myanmar’s few female judges and marrying a man who would no doubt expect her to drop everything to make babies and tend to his every whim was not in line with that objective. While I was probing into her personal life, a very unsteady man swaggered into the shop. Though it wasn’t even noon, he had the look, gait and smell of someone who had been boozing it up for a good eight to ten hours. He made a beeline for me, asked me several questions in Myanmar that were so incoherent that even Moh Moh was at a loss and then disappeared, only to return a minute later with a guitar which he shoved at me, indicating that I should play something. Moh Moh gently brushed him off and leaned into me, confiding “He is one of the owners,” adding with tremendous understatement “I think he is a little bit drunk.”

Hearing in-depth and well-spoken accounts of a typical Myanmar life was fascinating, and like most Myanmar girls, Moh Moh would probably have been perfectly content to sit and chat with me for the entire day - I was getting dangerously full of my elevated social status by this point - but eventually, perhaps in response to feeling the eyes of one of the sober owners in attendance burning a hole in the back of her head, she suggested that we start the tour. First I was led to the hammering area where four men - two hammering and two resting at any given time - spend their days beating hair-width gold leaf down to microbe-width gold leaf. It looked to be a grueling process. The tabs of gold are first packed into bundles of 400, each separated by a layer of special bamboo paper, which is beaten with a six pound sledgehammer for 30 minutes. Each expanded leaf is then sliced into four pieces, re-bundled into packages of 1,200 and beaten for another 30 minutes. Then the tabs are cut and divided again, re-bundled into stacks of 750 pieces and smashed for an astounding five hours. Despite what seems like pure grunt work, the hammering is actually a meticulous process that is carefully monitored, with adjustments being made depending on subtle variants such as air temperature. Rather then relying on a regular clock, the timing and the hammer strokes are instead tracked by a rudimentary water timing mechanism. A small cup with a hole in the bottom is placed in a bucket of water, where slowly fills until it sinks. The guy hammering must complete 120 strokes for each cup filling interval (a little over three minutes). After the cup has filled 18 times, about an hour, the men rotate between hammering to resting.

Just as I was commenting on how back-breaking this type of work must be, I was led into the sealed cutting room where a team of very young girls work 10 hour days sitting on a concrete floor covered in thin bamboo mats alternately dividing the gold leaf for the hammering process and packaging the final product into painstaking piles of perfect square tabs. The girls here were even younger than at the cigar shop in Inle, the youngest being 11 years old. I was astounded to learn that before these girls were put to the precise task of cutting and shaping the gold tabs, they had to go through three years of training, meaning they were starting work as young as seven or eight years old. Moh Moh explained that virtually the entire workforce in the Gold Rose was from the same extended family, so there was no fear of people pocketing a little gold for themselves, as they would only be stealing from the family. The girls have to work in a stifling hot, sealed room with no air conditioning or even a fan as any significant air flow would cause the feather-light gold leaf to blow around in an expensive hurricane. A pencil length, flat edged tool made from buffalo horn and some talc to keep their fingers from getting sticky is all the girls use to do the remarkable cutting and shaping of the gold leaf.

Despite what I assumed to be arduous, eye-straining work, ripe for an early case of arthritis - which might explain why no one in the room was over the age of 18 - the girls seemed very good natured while they labored away, chatting happily and monitoring Moh Moh and I. In theory, the girls earn up to 2,000 kyat (US$2.17) per day for their work, but they never see this money as it is dumped directly back into the family pot to support the household and keep the shop going. I took several pictures before one of the owners came in and offered to demonstrate the making of a true, golden leaf. Doing the work herself, she started by cleaning a small, standard tree leaf and then covering it with a thin layer of adhesive. From there she went to work carving up several of the fragile gold squares to flawlessly wallpaper both sides of the leaf all the way to the bottom of the stem. Finally the leaf was soaked in water to keep it moist. Moh Moh explained that these are short-lived gifts, like flowers, as the aging of the leaf and the delicacy of the gold coating eventually results in the gold cracking and flaking away. The leaves have a lifespan of about 10 days at best and cost 3,000 kyat (US$3.25) each.

Finally Moh Moh gave me a short lecture on the myriad of supplementary uses for their gold leaf. In addition to the French using the leaf to cover opulent chocolate products and the German’s sprinkling gold leaf shards into products like Goldschlager, Moh Moh told me that some people, Myanmars included, consume gold for heath and medicinal purposes. Her own mother took pills covered in gold for her heart disease (don’t let the US pharmaceutical companies hear about this, our drugs are already outrageously expensive without throwing gold into the mix). Not having the first clue about the pros or cons of consuming excessive amounts of gold, I tried to keep an open mind as I took notes and quizzed her mercilessly for details.

Though I was sorry to leave the company of a decent English speaker who wasn’t trying to coerce me into giving them money, I finally excused myself to get on with my day. I had only been there for about an hour and I hadn’t spent any kyat, but everyone made a point off seeing me off. Even the girls stuck in the cutting room waved through the windows.

Hammering gold leaf
Hammering gold leaf
I pedaled furious around my next objective, the gigantic Mandalay Fort and Palace. The compound is about one square mile, surrounded by an imposing wall and a colossal moat filled with water from the Mandalay city irrigation canal. The Fort has been around since 1861, but during fighting in WWII, the palace burned to the ground and was eventually rebuilt in concrete and aluminum using the first of many contemporary, brutal forced labor endeavors that Myanmar continues to utilize to this day. Details are vague, but apparently the palace rebuilding project was so dangerous and grueling for the workers that the west gate came to be known as the Gate of Ill Omen and to this day the mere thought of crossing it makes locals uneasy. I had no choice in the matter, Pinkies are only allowed to enter through the east entrance. While I made the long loop around the Fort, I had a sudden attack of conscious, specifically targeting the morals that I had been forced to selectively suspend in order to make the trip into Myanmar, knowing that a portion of the money I spent while I was there would go to support an abominable regime. The looming issue at hand was the US$10 flat fee I was going to be presented with at the Fort gate. This would buy me a universal attraction pass for the all-star tourist sights in Mandalay, including the Fort/Palace, two of the largest pagodas (Kuthodaw and Shwenandaw) and the ancient Shwe Ta Bin Kyaung monastery, all of which were inexplicably controlled by the government. Having just recently handed over US$9 for a ticket on the government-run train wasn’t helping matters. By the time I swerved onto the moat bridge leading to the Fort’s main gate, I had resolved to not buy the attraction pass. I couldn’t bear to give yet more money to these awful people. Instead, I would try my best to “accidentally” blunder/sneak/sweet talk my way into these sites and if all else failed, just be content with exterior pictures and observation. Fuck their $10 fee.

The Fort/Palace was a wash. Several dedicated guards were standing at the ready and derailed my hastily conceived plan to just pump by on the bike without slowing down, a clueless tourist lost in eagerness to see the palace. After parking my bike, I had a go at the innocent-meandering-through-the-gate-accompanied-by-distracted-whistling approach, but that was axed as well. I was kindly directed to the ticket/information booth where surly women with no information whatsoever simply pointed at a sign demanding the $10. As a last ditch effort, I tried to point at my guidebook and mimed writing and picture taking, as if I were someone on assignment to cover the sight (hey, even without an assignment letter or business cards, I am still for all intents and purposes a professional travel writer), but they weren’t having it. I shrugged turned around and left, pausing briefly to photograph the ominous “Tatmadaw and the People, Cooperate and Crush All Those Harming the Union” sign next to the entrance. Yikes! From what little I could glimpse through the gate, not a heck of a lot was going on within the fort anyway so I didn’t feel particularly bad about blowing it off.

I jumped back on the bike and headed for the cluster of pagodas at the base of Mandalay Hill. I don’t know if it was in deference to the heat or due to the fact that most Myanmars are riding half busted bikes, but the locals were riding their bikes at a pace only slightly faster than my typical walking speed. I was blowing the doors off my fellow bikers. My shiny, streaking bald head and blinding speed were turning heads in all directions. With the rate that I was moving, people usually only caught a glimpse of my blurred Pinkie ass before I was gone and were probably left to wonder if the government was being forced to cut corners and mount their missiles on purple three-speeds with flowery baskets on the front.

I screeched to a halt in a cloud of dust in front of Sandamani Paya, a fairly prominent pagoda and not one of the places with government goons shaking people down at the entrance. I recovered from my frenzied two kilometer sprint with a lemon soft drink at a beverage stand near the entrance and then headed in for a closer look. Despite being prominently listed both on my Mandalay map and in LP, I was the only person there and therefore the center of attention. A little boy with postcards came racing out from his hiding place and stuck to me for the duration. It turned out he wasn’t selling postcards at all, but simple yet pleasing art pieces that I hadn’t seen before, composed of colored paper and bamboo glued onto 3X5 pieces of cardboard, creating various typical Myanmar scenes. Even though the kid prematurely resorted to the maddening “Please, I am sooo unhappy and hungry” soliloquy, I dug the pictures if only because they were the first original souvenirs I had seen in days and bought a few to give to some friends back in Bangkok. After that, the boy dropped the hard sell and was content to show me around, pointing out things that I should photograph and making sure I saw the highlights. He begged me to follow him out the rear entrance to his sister’s drink stand and as much as I want to meet his sister, it was in the opposite direction of where I needed to go and I had just downed a lemon drink anyway. I declined, returned to my bike and headed for Kuthodaw Paya.

Perhaps all that exertion and sweating had left my blood sugar a little too low, because it completely slipped my mind that Kuthodaw Paya was one of the sights that the government had hijacked until I was strolling into the place and one of the ornery ticket checkers appeared out of nowhere, jabbering at me and grabbing at my arm. I instantly realized what the issue was and ceased my advance, but the woman was still going a little overboard with her duties of restraining me, keeping an iron grip on my arm with undue pressure. I would have just turned around and left but this gruff display and my dislike of unnecessary physical contact, particularly from rough strangers, tweaked a minor fury in me. Using my free hand I wrenched her hand from my arm with a conviction that gave her pause and sternly informed her that I would not be paying her f*cking fee and furthermore if she touched me again, I would be taking her right hand back to Thailand with me to be marinated in pepper sauce and served as a delicacy to Japanese tourists. Clearly she didn’t understand enough English for the crux of this message to get through, but I think my tone conveyed the point quite well. Keeping her distance, she indicated that I was to leave immediately, but of course I wasn’t going anywhere until I’d gotten a few passive-aggressive jabs of retribution. I took my time, casually poking around the entrance with her hovering over me, grumbling in Myanmar what I assumed to be vile things not fit to be uttered in the presence of a Buddha figure and poised to hog-pile me if I tried to make a run for the pahto. I snapped a few decent exterior photos and even carefully zoomed all the way in for a shot of the giant gold Buddha statue deep inside the pahto. It was a fairly entertaining test of wills in retrospect, which I shamelessly milked as this beeotch had easily been the most outwardly rude person I had met in all of Myanmar and I intended to give her a good dose of her own attitude. Finally, I’d had my fill and returned to the bike with her grumblings following me out the door. “Tua-doh-may (goodbye) bitch face” I called back.

Before cycling away, I stopped at a public restroom outside the paya to attend to the small amount of liquid in my body that wasn’t already making a streaming exit in the form of a river of sweat down my back and, upon completion of this task I was met outside by yet another women, demanding money for the pleasure of peeing into a hole in the ground. It appeared as though she had been sent after me by the lady at the gate, who was observing from a distance, determined to get something, anything out of me. Ultimately she only wanted 50 kyat (about a nickel), but the notion of being targeted and harassed by government stooges for money out of pure mean spirited principle sent me into an unattractive tizzy. I threw a beat-up, wadded up 50 kyat note at her and told her next time I would just go around the corner and piss on the wall of the paya. A trishaw guy that was eavesdropping nearby burst into laughter and, I believe, translated my sentiments to the toilet police, but I was already on my bike and pedaling away.

Just around the corner from Kuthodaw was Shwenandaw Kyaung an impressive all-wood monastery that was formerly a wing of King Mindon Min’s (second to last king of Burma, circa mid- 19th century) palace. It is one of the few examples of this style of Burmese wood architecture to survive WWII and a no-go for seething, penny-pinching, anti-government tourists. I was detained here for a long time by some of the souvenir girls who entertained me with a nice balance of flirting and questions about life in the U.S. while trying to lure me into buying the usual crappy keepsakes that I had already seen 17 times that day. I eventually excused myself and walked next door to Atumashi Kyaung (Incomparable Monastery) which LP describes at “disastrously restored,” but it didn’t seem too bad to me, at least from the outside. Although it wasn’t on the list of gummet controlled sights, it too had a ticket checking booth out front, so I couldn’t get inside to see what had gotten that LP writer’s knickers in such a twist.

At this point a vague memory kernel from a candid paragraph in LP poked itself into my higher consciousness about how these hated government ticket checkers, like all dedicated government employees, promptly abandon their posts at the exact stroke of 4:30 p.m., leaving the door wide open for freeloading tourists to walk in and make themselves at home. Checking my watch I discovered that it was already 3:30, so I decided to hang around and test the theory. I went across the road for a minute to check out the largely unimpressive, and therefore free, Kyauktawgyi Paya and then settled down and lingered over a toddler-sized bowl of noodles with another lemon drink and a bottle of water in a café housed in a sagging shack that was blasting horrific Myanmar music videos on a TV in the corner.

At 4:45 I returned to Shwenandaw Kyaung only to find that the entrance was still manned by sharp-eyed heavies who were taking increasing interest in my presence now that I’d slowly cycled past their post about four times in 90 minutes. It was the same story at Atumashi Kyaung. They must have gotten wise to that comment in LP, because they were still ensconced at 5:00 p.m. and showing no signs of packing up for the day, so I gave up and headed for the base of Mandalay Hill.

Though I hadn’t seen the inside of several of the large-draw attractions in Mandalay, I was certain that none of them could compete with Mandalay Hill in overall allure. There are hundreds of griddle-hot, foot scorching steps to be negotiated (barefoot all the way) to the lofty summit, but it’s all worth it. The climb takes you through several pleasing plateaus with ornate gold, white washed and mirror shard encrusted pathos and stupas, though some of these were hard to appreciate while you danced around the intrusive food, drink and souvenir stands. You almost had to stand on your head to frame these guys out of photos in some places. Worse were the people who were camped out with their wares, chairs, tables, mats and tarps actually being displayed on or covering statues and relics. Some of the more bold vendors had install themselves as permanent residents on Mandalay Hill, building shelters off to the side of the stairway on the slope of the hill. Where’s that heavy handed military regime when you need them?

My waning patience for money grubbers was worked into an even thicker lather during the climb. Though this is a mild constant in all of Myanmar, people in Mandalay in particular are all equipped with three English sayings; “Hello!,” “Come from?” (as in “where do you come from?”), and of course the infuriating “Money!” which is usually delivered in a rude, demanding tone with hand outstretched as if it were a foregone conclusion that you would be giving them something. This practice exceeded all reasonable tolerance on Mandalay Hill. I peeked into one of the pahtos along the way and was eagerly invited in by a few guys and a monk that were hanging out inside. They led me to an unimpressive Disco Buddha at the back and indicated that I should photograph it. Although I already had about 100 megabytes of Buddha photos on my camera’s memory card, I respectfully complied and then the ugliness began. All four of them, even the fricking monk, simultaneously started in on me, saying “Money, money, money!” some with their hands out and others pointing that I put money directly into a bowl on the Buddha’s lap. What did it for me was the goddamn monk, his hand out, pumping it as he repeated the word “money,” with earnest eyes, while tactlessly invading what little personal space I’d been able to maintain while in Myanmar. This was the most aggressive, startling and overwhelmingly shameless display I had seen in all of Southeast Asia and I promptly lost it. I turned it around on them, yelling “MONEY, MONEY MONEY!!” flailing my arms and advancing on them. This bought me a little personal space, but they didn’t miss a beat on the money refrain. As I ripped out a pathetically small note, 100 kyat I think, I looked directly at the monk and said “Ask just once! Not 10 times! Not ‘money, money, money!’ Understand?” He nodded as I tossed the note to one of the other guys, who looked at it incredulously like I’d just robbed him, but I was already storming out of the pahto muttering curse words in three languages.

I was not a happy tourist after this. As I stomped up the stairs, which is not soothing when you’re barefoot on searing hot brick, when I came upon people/vendors/loiterers instead of singing “Min-gla-bah” (hello) with my usual big smile, I just stared at them frostily, teeth audibly grinding, balls of fire for eyes, daring them to accost and hassle me. No one took the chance and I got to the top without further incident.

Shwenandaw Kyaung
Shwenandaw Kyaung
The topmost stupa, though only being fractionally more elaborate than all the others leading up to it had a photo fee which I passed up and later quietly defied at sunset. The height and vantage point of Mandalay Hill provided many nice photo opportunities which ended up looking like absolute shit as my camera tended to read way too much of the smog in the air and less of the landscape detail beyond and I couldn’t figure out the correct combination of settings to dampen the effect. As I was struggling with this conundrum, I was approached by a young man who either didn’t read social signals very well or was supremely bold (I was still seething with palpable fury). He started with the usual “where are you from?” and “how long you in Myanmar?” jazz which was the standard perfunctory lead to “I am an official tour guide [cue flashing of cheap laminated ID] and you need me or else you will not see good things.” Needless to say I was not in the mood for this and replied to his questions with one word, curt answers or flat out ignored him. But he persisted and after a very long time, without him mentioning anything about products or services that he was offering, I realized that he truly was just a kid out to practice some English. Unfortunately, these kids use the same opening line as the touts which can be a huge liability when approaching a fresh-faced, Ugly Tourist like myself. I also noticed that the kid had a friend that was obediently trailing us, who didn’t speak a word of English and was just along for, I don’t know, yucks or something. I drew this guy out with my now well practiced Myanmar phrases as we made our way back down the hill to the city where we cordially parted ways.

After a furious, death defying ride through rush hour traffic, I returned my bike five minutes before the shop closed. I dined at a traditional Shan restaurant just four blocks from the Royal Guesthouse, ignoring the lurking trishaw drivers out front who were adamant that the nearest decent Shan restaurant was 30 minutes away and would I like a ride? Through yet more miscommunication, I unintentionally ordered a lavish feast which my newly gumball sized appetite would have never been able to accommodate if it weren’t for the fact that I hadn’t eaten anything substantial since breakfast. The total bill for two plates of meat/vegetable combos, potatoes, rice, an orange soda and a giant bottle of water was US$3. While gorging on my spread, which was embarrassingly larger than some of the meals at tables with four people, I monitored the Myanmar evening news, which was muted on a TV directly above my head. Teleprompting technology hasn’t reached the Myanmar news industry yet, so the newscasters have to read stories off paper in their hands, never looking directly into the camera. The stories and footage were almost exclusively comprised of regal looking military guys sitting around in comfortable chairs, being briefed on ambitious public works projects and then touring the related sights and factories. Perhaps I misinterpreted this because the volume was off, and I don’t speak Myanmar anyway, but one telling shot appeared to show someone explaining the workings of a complex machine to a high ranking military guy who then turned to the camera and appeared to explain the exact same thing again, like he was some kind of authority on the subject. I bet that particular video editor is now cooling his heels in a palace dungeon somewhere. This footage seemed to confirm that not only were the military guys running Myanmar over-confident, power-drunk, pompous twits, but they were also not too bright. That’s a bad combination in any social circle.

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