Mandalay seems to have a habit of capturing the heart of all those who visit.
Before British annexation ended the Konbaung Dynasty in 1885 it was the last royal capital of Burma, and many Burmese still see it as a place that symbolises sovereignty, especially with its strong Buddhist tradition.
Many colonial tales of Burma also describe the region with an air of romance. The most famous of these is Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Mandalay’, which was adapted into a song popularised by Peter Dawson and later Frank Sinatra.
Robbie Williams released a track ‘Road to Mandalay’ on his 2000 album Sing When Your Winning. But, after giving it a listen, just what connection it has to Burma, Kipling or anything really is beyond me.
Other literature from colonial times often references the Irrawaddy River, the beauty of Burmese women and consistently links Mandalay to the exotocism of the east. It even has a Las Vegas casino named after it – although I would challenge most of its patrons to locate Mandalay on a map.
Under British rule the city was always a centre of commerce and that status has only increased over the last 20 years with the influx of as many as 400,000 Chinese immigrants.
It’s an intense place – everyone is busy doing something – and I think this is one of the reasons I found it so captivating.
I constantly felt like I was looking through a window to the life of a Burman. Watching massive barges being loaded by hand along the Irrawaddy, an engraver complete his intricate work on a headstone or workers in the narrow alleyways of the jade market polish stones for presentation on the stalls.
Everything we were witnessing was genuine and raw – not put on or manufactured for tourists.
We didn’t see another Westerner as we zig-zagged through the industrial backblocks of the city, but we drew some curious looks from the locals as we cruised by on our motorbikes.
We hired them in a rather unofficial fashion from parking attendants at the city’s railway station. Motorbikes are banned down south in Yangon, and out of bounds for tourists in other parts of Burma, but largely through Gaz’s arguments we were able to procure these two for the day.
It was uncertain just who they belonged to, but it was by far the best way to get off the tourist trail and gain a real insight into the city.
Our last stop before returning to Yangon was Bagan, which is only 200km down the Irrawaddy from Mandalay, but equated to a 15-hour overnight train journey in Burma’s strange parallel public transport universe.
We found train travel quite a social affair and there was much banter, showing of pictures and sharing of enormous apples in the first few hours after departure.
The train moved slowly, and while the conservative pace and massive open windows are great for sightseeing, I was more than once whacked around the ear in my sleep by a stray branch that had grown out over the track.
The temples of Bagan are a truly captivating sight, dotted in their hundreds around the seemingly endless plain in haphazard fashion, each with its own unique architectural features and history.
It is one of the most significant archaeological sites of Southeast Asia. The ancient kings of Bagan filled the plain with as many as 4,400 temples to earn religious merit between the 11th and 14th centuries – but many have been rebuilt (with modern adornments) in the 1990s.
With its own airport and luxury hotels, Bagan is an international tourist destination, which took some of the gloss off the experience for me.
Unless you’re with an organised tour group, visitors are also restricted to negotiating the maze of structures by bicycle or horse-drawn cart. The second of these two options is more expensive but preferable, as the former is often unroadworthy and makes you a sitting duck for incredibly determined locals trying to sell their wares.
We tended to head out in the morning and evening to the temples, and take advantage of the hotel pool during the afternoon heat. We were on holiday, after all.
Faced with at least a 16-hour bus or train journey back to Yangon, we took the soft Western option of a domestic flight.
This gave us extra time to explore the night life of Yangon – which consists mainly of bars with transgender or all-female ‘fashion’ shows – followed up by some trashy Asian pop or house music.
Dunkley spent the first half of 2011 under house arrest on vague charges that had more to do with his dealings with Yangon’s female population than running foul of the government media censors.
There’s no doubt he’s a ratbag, and didn’t even try to deny any claims of illegal womanising, but it was fascinating to speak with him about the rate of change in Burma.
His newspaper is part of a slowly emerging free press which is, for the first time in decades, actually being permitted to criticise the policies of the new ‘civilian’ government.
He and an accompanying journalist spoke openly of enjoying the ‘lifestyle’, which I interpreted as ‘the women and cheap booze’, but he is passionate about his adopted nation and said (in jest I think) that he may have some openings for photographers.
I asked what I might be paid and his reply was about one fifth of my wage in Australia, ‘but look at the lifestyle’, he added with a conspiratory smile.
Just like us, he was heading to Cambodia the next day, and meeting a notorious member of the Southeast Asian press corps was yet another surreal moment on a phenomenal trip.
It started out as a holiday, but it was also an education. Many Australians, myself included, tend to head to Europe before exploring the continent on our doorstep and now I wonder why.
I loved living in Scotland, was fascinated by the Eastern Bloc and would go back to continental Europe in a second.
But Burma – well – Burma blew my mind.
See the Facebook gallery of images from part V by clicking here.
Check back in the next few days for a picture show from Cambodia.