One of the countries often in news nowadays is Myanmar or Burma. George Orwell’s novel,Burmese Days (1934), showcased a society afflicted by racism, exclusivity, nepotism and ignorance. Was his depiction accurate? What has changed from then to now? While the international community looks on, waiting for the country to solve its internal crises, citizens are victimised not only by the pandemic but also by a military coup. Some of them have been stateless for some time now, thrown out altogether for being ‘a threat to Buddhism’. Jessica Mudditt, an author and journalist, who spent four years in Myanmar saw fit to voice her experiences within a country with 135 ethnicities. Her memoir, Our Home in Myanmar – Four Years in Yangon ( 2021), showcases a country where anyone can be displaced at any point like the Rohingyas. With 90% of the populationfollowing Buddhism, how is the religion, born of the compassionate quest of a prince to alleviate human suffering, being interpreted? Recently, in an interview, Muddit said, “Most people outside Myanmar assume that Buddhism is a religion of peace, so they don’t understand why so much violence has taken place, or that Buddhism can turn militant and be infected with extreme nationalism.”
This special showcases Myanmar from various perspectives: from that of an expat journalist, from a travellers’, a local writer’s and it even has a translation of a Tagore poem that reflects on the compassion of a Buddhist sage revered in Myanmar, called Shin Upagutta or Upagupta. Why should Shin Upagutta’s devotees resort to violence? Seeking answers, we present this selection from our treasury.
The Tryst, a story poem about Upagupta’s mercy by Rabindranath Tagore translated from Bengali. Click here to read.
John Herlihy takes us through more of Myanmar with his companion, Peter, in the second part of his travelogue through this land of mystic Buddhas
My friend Peter had slept poorly, the reason being that he had spent much of the night visiting the inner sanctum of the toilet. Alas, the revenge of the spices from last night’s adventure was finally exacting its heavy toll. While I remained free of any stomach trouble, poor Peter had fallen victim to the age-old trials and tribulations of those with no experience with the culinary delights of Asia. We had gone to “the best restaurant in town” according to our Google advisory and indeed, it had turned out to meet our expectations when compared to the mosquito-infested nightmare that Peter had experienced the night before; the swarms of mosquitoes hadn’t condescended to touch, much less bite me. For the cost of about $6 or 9,000 kyat (a tidy sum if you live on the local economy), we were wined and dined with an array of fabulous foods.
The restaurant actually employed a system that I quite liked, namely, that the diner ordered a main course, and an array of side dishes was brought to table, including soups, breads and spicy sauces. I ordered lamb casserole in a creamy, curried dahl (lentils) stew baked in a pewter pot that was utterly delicious and Peter followed my lead in figuring out the best selection from local menus letting me order for both of us. The waiter brought on a dazzling array of sides dishes and a delectable soup that we both wolfed down in various gulps, being hungry after the long day’s trek and the far distance of the hotel breakfast. We tasted everything from curried chickpeas to braised eggplant seasoned with garlic, tomatoes and pine nuts. We need more, I thought to myself as Peter and I fought for the meager remains, but there was no need. The waiter quickly refurbished the little bowls with ample tidbits to last a lifetime, much less the evening meal. Peter, of course, had ordered an extra bowl of rice, two bowls in fact, in addition to the one he had. I had warned Peter about the little sauces served up in small dishes that were intended to be added drop by precious drop to the food to enhance the flavor with a hint of hot chilli. But Peter, in his traditional style, put heaping teaspoons into his food as if he would never taste these things again and needed to remember their flavour. I noted he begrudgingly scooped up the last remaining kernels, the fieriest part of the hot pepper, on his plate at the end of the meal. Indeed, now he was recalling their exotic flavours in unexpected ways.
The next day on our busy tour, we were scheduled to visit the Mahagandayon Monastery, but first we made a quick stop at the local market to find a remedy for the gentle giant’s diarrhea and dehydration problem. “Sticky rice,” Swun immediately said when I mentioned the problem to him. These local remedies can be quite effective; I knew from my own past experience on other trips. I had recommended doses of fresh lemon juice that had worked for me; but Peter wasn’t having it. When Swun suggested the sticky rice by saying, “I know just the place where we can get it,” I thought, yes, the perfect solution. Peter trudged along behind at a reduced pace through the hectic market until we found Swan’s contact standing before a large vat of sticky rice, nearly empty at that hour of the morning. The woman dolloped out several heaping spoonfuls of the steaming mass of rice in a plastic bag sealed with an elastic band. Not exactly pharmaceutical splendour, but it promised to do the job. Swun’s smile concurred as I laughed myself content. We returned to the car and insisted that Peter swallow the heaping brew which he gulped down quickly making grimacing faces that would scare the hand-carved gargoyles we saw earlier in some of the temples.
Our first stop was the Mahagandayon Monastery where more than a thousand monks live and study. A large group of tourists had gathered under the morning sun to see hundreds of monks return from their morning trek through the village with their begging bowls seeking food for the main meal of the day. Security police and a few senior monks, curiously chubby looking, created order of the disarray of Chinese tourists of every size, shape and colour behind police barriers, clear of the roadway where the returning monks would be walking. A hush and then a rumble of whispers announced that the monks were approaching down the street from the distance of the nearby village, walking briskly in a single file, holding their begging bowls, now filled or filling up fast with the charity offered to them. People from the sidelines approached with fruits, packages of biscuits, and the like, and even money, a thousand khat here and there which actually represents less than a dollar, but in local terms meant something; and given the size of the crowd could add up to a reasonable hoard. I took note of the soft, youthful faces of the young monks, their heads shaved clear and wearing the traditional orange wrap-around robes that we have become familiar with in Thailand. Some of the monks were very young indeed, children, eyeing the onlookers impishly and seemingly ready for flight. My friend Peter had a clear advantage as his giant stature afforded him the luxury of towering over everyone in sight to have an unimpeded view of the procession of the monks into the monastic enclosure. The monks soon disappeared into the surrounding buildings where they would have their one and only late morning meal of the day.
A short, pleasant drive down lush tree-lined streets soon brought Swan, Peter and I to our next destination, the more than 100-year-old U Bein teak bridge, built in 1850, the oldest and longest teak-wood bridge in the world. The 1.2 km bridge spans the Taungthamam Lake near the ancient royal capital not far from Mandalay to an island nearby that could service the local villagers who wanted to get to the mainland across the broad lake to sell their crops. It features 1,086 pillars that stretch out of the water. Though the bridge largely remains intact, there are fears that an increasing number of pillars are becoming dangerously decayed. Damage to these supports have been caused by flooding as well as a fish breeding program introduced into the lake which has caused the water to become stagnant.
Of course, the old kilometer long bridge represented a challenge to Peter who was anxious to “make tracks” across the waters in his traditional swaggering style, leaving nothing behind in the wake of his hurried footsteps but a gentle wind. I also valiantly followed in his footsteps; but soon lost him as he made his way ahead into the thickening crowd. The local Burmese, many of them villagers and many of them in groups of families who were tourists, were making their way across the bridge as they have done for hundreds of years. I was prepared to put up a brave front and make my way across without complaint under the cool winter sun, but as I tripped my way forward across the creaking wooden planks, I became increasingly more uncomfortable. A kind of phobia took hold, as one might experience in confined spaces or riding shaky elevators. The truth was the bridge looked none too stable. The wooden planks were aged, chipped and broken throughout; gaping holes yawned where planks had broken through.
I took note of the fact that the bridge itself was fairly narrow, wide enough for three or four people, but there were no guard rails, just a gaping chasm on either side and a sizeable drop several hundred meters down to the murky waters below. I made my way forward nearly to the halfway point, where I saw Peter up ahead towering over the crowds of people, waiting for me under a make-shift wooden structure with the traditional pointed roof that marked the halfway point. Other elderly people had the same idea as I had; time to rest and take stock. “You go on ahead and make it to the other side,” I told Peter. “You can tell me about it when you come back. I’ll wait for you here.” And my valiant companion was off without further coaxing.
I tucked myself into a shady corner of the narrow bridge, which at that point was extended a little to accommodate the wooden structure marked there as a resting point in the river crossing. It was time to rest, to be alone for a few minutes, to gather myself into my own space and reconstruct the blessings of solitude as the crowds of people made their determined way back and forth across the age-old bridge. It was a cool mid-morning with a gentle breeze under the warming light of the winter sun. At my feet sat a local Burmese woman, with her jet-black hair collected into a wooden hair clip and adorned with a cluster of wildflowers. Her pudgy face held an eternal smile that matched the smile she held in her eyes. At her feet were the goods she was selling to the tourists and other local travelers crossing the bridge, as women have probably done for the last several centuries since the bridge was built. She had a good business for all that, seasoned sticky rice, spicy noodles, and a variety of fruits, all sold for pennies and packed into a little plastic sack and tied with an elastic band for safe keeping. I wished I could understand her chatter; but contended myself with the bird sounds that the Burmese language sounded to me as I listened.
A little boy, probably about one-and-a-half years old, sat at her sandaled feet. He sucked contentedly on a tangerine rind and half dozed with heavy eyelids as if he sat on the fringes of heaven and not on the fold of the wrap-around longyi (the Malays call it sarong famed for its batik cloth) of his young mother. I watched the child as he sat in dreamy splendour without a care in the world as if woken up by the breeze, or perhaps the chatter of the passers-by sounding like river stones. He now looked around as if interested in everything. It wasn’t long before his infant gaze fell upon me, an old man on a journey, lost in his own trance. Children are like cats; one doesn’t like to intrude on their space without alarming them; but leave them to their own devices and they will make their own way. I sat there contentedly; it was enough to rest my weary bones and take in the colour of the local life. I do love children, especially infants, and can sit and watch them for hours, their antics, their inventiveness, their curiosity, their sweet, angelic innocence remind me of another time and another place. I also wonder from where they have come and where they might be going.
When suddenly, the infant’s random glances fell upon me as I sat on the bridge resting. I pretended not to notice, not wishing to interrupt the rhythm or the intensity of his gaze. Indeed, children can come to us uninvited, as if they have known or are wanting to know. They do not bring with them all the excess baggage that we carry around as adults, who seldom look into the eyes of another, and if or when we do, we feel uncomfortable. The child looked at me with intense interest, as if he were remembering something and was still lost in thought. I smiled at him, and he immediately smiled back. I scowled backed him and he immediately scowled back. We seemed to be on the same wavelength. Some inner harmony had struck its chord. The years dissolved and the miles between disappeared as he threw the tangerine rind aside and began to crawl on all fours. His mother was distracted by a sale and was stuffing mango cubes and their sweet juice into a plastic container, selling the pulp for pennies to the taste.
The determined little fellow made his way over as I sat on a low stool. When he reached my legs, he extended his arms as if reaching for the open sky. No doubt, I looked to him like a grand patriarch with my thick mustache and bone-white beard. He soon found his way onto my lap, where he again sat content as if lost in reverie to the surrounding lake and countryside just as I was lost in sweet reverie, so unfamiliar to me, so familiar to him. “Found a friend, did you,” my companion Peter asked with a broad smile. “Children sometimes like me,” I mumbled embarrassed. The mood was broken, the happy child returned to his mother with a longing, backward glance and this is my backward glance to him in the only way a writer knows how, in the love and beauty of words written down on the page in sweet remembrance that will never die.
We met our guide Swan after breakfast the next morning. Oh yes, a word (or two) should be written about our delightful buffet breakfasts that both Peter and I had come to look forward to. We had established a routine of a solid breakfast, followed by a full day of activity and touring the countryside, but no lunch or snacks of any kind, until evening time, when we took pains to find a nice place for dinner. By now, Peter was well over his stomach trouble, the sticky rice acting effectively as a sealant that put him to rights. We knew he was feeling much better at breakfast the next day. We would rise early, to get the jump on the waves of Chinese tourists that seemed to appear, especially in the breakfast room to lay waste the buffet table like hungry locusts.
I usually went to the egg station as soon as possible to get my order in. “Two eggs,” I whispered timidly, “Over easy,” I said, showing with an upside-down wave of the hand what I wanted, and then sliced down dramatically, “and cut the yoke.” The last thing I wanted were runny, undercooked eggs. The eggs were made in buttered splendor – they actually tasted like real eggs – and not the tasteless fare that we usually get in most modern metropolises. I skipped over with my plate of eggs to another table to pick up my freshly made toasted brown bread awash in melted cheese and butter.
“That should take care of me for the day,” I thought happily, when suddenly I heard a booming voice from the egg station. “Six eggs, please,” Peter cried, holding up a handful of fingers, plus one, to make sure the cook knew how many he meant. He returned to our table with a stack of untoasted bread to wash down the eggs in great gulps. Not to be outdone, I tiptoed back to the cooking station and asked for a crepe. I had seen the cook making a feather-light and thin pancake served up with Burmese honey and fresh cream that was cooked to perfection; but Peter had the final word with his stack of six pancakes dripping in honey and assorted jellies.
After breakfast, we met up with our beloved guide Swan again in the hotel lobby. “Not another pagoda,” I cried out in mock dismay, but Swan was now attuned to my humour and took up the slack by affirming that indeed we would be visiting another remarkable pagoda surrounded by 845 small stupas as though in deferent tribute to the richly decorated central pagoda. Work began on the pagoda in 1939 at the start of the Second World War and was finally completed in the March of 1952. There are many buddha statues row upon row in niches along the walls, all coloured gold, a truly sublime sight filled with religious nostalgia. The entrance is protected, not by the traditional mythical lions, but by the statues of the magnificent white elephants that are sacred and auspicious in Buddhist symbolism. Thereafter, we took a short walk through the nearby banyan tree grove Boddhitataung, where a thousand Buddha images lie at rest among the sprouting banyan trees. Ah, walking through the aged banyan trees is like walking through an ancient grove associated with the mythic gods of Greece. One half expects a centaur or unicorn to come trolling through the corridors of trees in this mystical setting. The banyan trees is considered sacred in places like India and Burma and is well known for the mercy of its abundant shade. In fact, in India, the leaf of the banyan is said to be the resting place of the Lord Krishna.
But even the shade of the banyan tree faded into darkness, and it was time for us to move on, even if we did feel most welcome in the the banyan tree’s embrace. We were scheduled to go down to the river and bid goodbye to our guide Swan, as we would be making our way by riverboat down to a town further south called Bagan. We were to meet the new guide on the boat who would escort us there. It was a little sad to bid goodbye to Swan. He was such a charming little fellow, a student who would complete his university studies soon. He worked on the side as a guide and had done this for the last few years. It doesn’t take long under these circumstances to get to know and like the guide, so it was with a heavy heart that both Peter and I bid him farewell.
However, Swan was to help me through one last challenge. After bidding me goodbye, he helped me down the side of the dusty hill to a steep embankment at the edge of which lay the river boat that would take us south to Bagan. When I saw the wooden plank that I had to walk across to get onto the boat, I stopped dead in my tracks. I can’t do this, I immediately said to myself. At my age, I now know what I can and cannot do, and crossing that narrow, wooden plank sagging perilously in the middle and crossing a no-man’s-land muddy cliffs and water about 50 meters seemed an impossible task.
Swan took me by the hand and coaxed me on, not wishing perhaps to have his charge stranded along the way without any option of moving forward. Peter, of course, was already up ahead on the plank himself with his usual bravado, but he also almost slipped and was standing on one leg before balancing himself once again, preventing himself from falling unceremoniously down in the muddy waters below. I took a deep breath and mounted the plank. Mercifully, two people stood nearby, a woman on the riverbank’s edge and her husband perhaps on the boat itself holding a lengthy bamboo pole that I was able to hold onto as a kind of makeshift handrail as I perilously crossed the narrow wooden plank like an infant learning how to walk in his new toddler shoes. Once on the boat and tucked into the lounge chair, I breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn’t made a fool of myself.
On August 8th 2021, the chief of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, pointed out during the closing ceremony that these games were “unprecedented” and brought messages of “hope, solidarity and peace” into a world torn with the desolation generated by the pandemic. It was a victory of the human spirit again, a precursor of what is to come. That the Japanese could get over their pandemic wrought hurdles, just as they did post the nuclear disasters wrought by the Second World War and by the 2011 earthquake-tsunami at Fukushimaya, to host something as spectacular and inspiring as these international games reflects, as the commentators contended, a spirit of ‘harmony and humility’. The last song performed by many youngsters seemed to dwell on stars in the sky — not only were the athletes and organisers the stars but this also reminded of unexplored frontiers that beckon mankind, the space.What a wonderful thing it was to see people give their best and unite under the banner of sports to bring messages of survival and glimpses of a future we can all share as human beings! Our way of doing things might have to evolve but we will always move forward as a species to thrive and expand beyond the known frontiers.
One such explorer of yet unknown frontiers who mingles the historic with the contemporary, Goutam Ghose, an award-winning filmmaker and writer, has honoured our pages with an extensive interview showing us how art and harmony can weave lores that can help mankind survive. This is reinforced by the other interview with Singaporean academic, Dr Kirpal Singh, whose poetry reflects his convictions of a better world. With our intelligence, we can redefine processes that hold us back and grind our spirits to dust — be it the conventional ‘isms’ or norms that restrict our movement forward – just as Tagore says in the poem, we have translated this time, ‘Deliverance’.
…On this auspicious dawn,
Let us hold our heads high in the infinite sky
Amidst the light of bounteousness and the heady breeze of freedom.
As the Kobiguru mentioned earlier in the poem, the factors that oppress could be societal, political, or economic. Could they perhaps even be the fetters put on us by the prescribed preconceived definition of manmade concepts like ‘freedom’ itself? Freedom can be interpreted differently by multiple voices.
This month, on our pages, ‘freedom’ has found multiple interpretations in myriad of ways — each voice visualising a different dream; each dream adding value to the idea of human progress. We have discussions and stories on freedom from Nigeria, Argentina, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Malaysia and more. Strangely enough, August holds multiple independence/ national days that are always for some reason seen as days of being ‘freed’ by many — at least from oppression. But is that true?
Indo-Pak independence, celebrated now on 14th (Pakistan) and 15th August (India), reflects not only the violence of the Partition which dislocated and killed millions historically but also the trauma caused by the event. Capturing this trauma is a short story based on memories of Partition by Nadir Ali, translated from Punjabi by his daughter, Amna Ali. Ratnottama Sengupta translates from the diary of Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), a woman’s voice from the past that empathises with the subjugated who were subdued yet again after an upsurge of violence during the Quit India Movement (1942) against the colonials. Sinha contends that though the movement frittered away, the colonials were left with an after-taste of people hankering for self-rule. A thought-provoking short story by Sunil Sharma explores the results of self-rule in independent India.
Alluding to Jinnah’s vision for women, Aysha Baqir muses emotionally about the goals that remain yet to be fulfilled 74 years after independence. Moazzam Sheikh’s story of immigrants explores dementia, giving us a glimpse of the lives of Asian immigrants in America, immigrants who had to find a new home despite independence. Was this the freedom they dreamt of — all those who fought against various oppressive regimes or colonialism?
Tagore’s lyrics might procure a few ideas on freedom, especially in the song that India calls its National Anthem. Anasuya Bhar assays around the history that surrounds the National Anthem of India, composed by Tagore in Bengali and translated to English by the poet himself and more recently, only by Aruna Chakravarti. We also carry Dr Chakravarti’s translation of the National Anthem in the essay. Reflecting on the politics of Partition and romance is a lighter piece by Devraj Singh Kalsi which says much. ‘Dinos in France’ by Rhys Hughes and Neil Reddick’s ‘The Coupon’ have tongue-in-cheek humour from two sides of the Atlantic.
A coming-of-age story has been translated from Nepali by Mahesh Paudyal – a story by a popular author, Dev Kumari Thapa – our first Nepali prose piece. We start a four-part travelogue by John Herlihy, a travel writer, on Myanmar, a country which has recently been much in the news with its fight for surviving with democracy taking ascendency over the pandemic and leaving the people bereft of what we take for granted.
Candice Louisa Daquin discusses a life well-lived in a thought provoking essay, in which she draws lessons from her mother as do Korean poet, Ihlwha Choi, and Argentinian writer, Marcelo Medone. Maybe, mothers and freedom draw similar emotions, of blind love and adulation. They seem to be connected in some strange way with terms like motherland and mother tongue used in common parlance.
We have two book excerpts this time: one from Beyond the Himalayas by the multi-faceted, feted and awarded filmmaker we have interviewed, Goutam Ghose, reflecting on how much effort went in to make a trip beyond boundaries drawn by what Tagore called “narrow domestic walls”. We carry a second book excerpt this time, from Jessica Muddit’s Our Home in Myanmar – Four years in Yangon. Keith Lyons has reviewed this book too. If you are interested in freedom and democracy, this sounds like a must read.
Maithreyi Karnoor’sSylvia: Distant Avuncular Ends,is a fiction that seems to redefine norms by what Rakhi Dalal suggests in her review. Bhaskar Parichha has picked a book that many of us have been curious about, Arundhathi Subramaniam’s Women Who Wear Only Themselves. Parichha is of the opinion, “Elevated or chastised, exonerated or condemned, the perturbation unworldly women in India face is that they have never been treated as equal to men as spiritual leaders. This lack of equality finds its roots not only in sociological and cultural systems, but more particularly at the levels of consciousness upon which spirituality and attitudes are finally based.”One wonders if this is conclusive for all ‘unworldly women’ in India only or is it a worldwide phenomenon or is it true only for those who are tied to a particular ethos within the geographical concept of India? The book reviewed by Meenakshi Malhotra, Somdatta Mandal’s The Last Days of Rabindranath Tagore in Memoirs, dwells on the fierce independence of the early twentieth century women caregivers of the maestro from Bengal. These women did not look for approval or acceptance but made their own rules as did Jnadanandini, Tagore’s sister-in-law. Bhaskar Parichha has also added to our Tagore lore with his essay on Tagore in Odisha.
As usual, we have given you a peek into some of our content. There is more, which we leave for our wonderful readers to uncover. We thank all the readers, our fantastic contributors and the outstanding Borderless team that helps the journal thrive drawing in the best of writers.
I wish you all a happy August as many of the countries try to move towards a new normal.
John Herlihy explores the magnificent sites of Mandalay in company of a Slovenian friend in the first episode of his quartet on his Myanmar
Exotic journeys to far distant climes begin to take shape in the realm of the imagination. We roam verdant savannas, cut our way through savage jungles, climb into eagle’s nests on mountain crags, cross parched Mongolian deserts, and ply on ancient vessels across vast oceans, all in search of new sights and sounds, new pathways into the unknown, new visions into the future, anything that will take us far from our humdrum lives. Ah, how the imagination works overtime and takes us there, takes us where we want to go, offers up an experience we would not have savoured otherwise. The imagination opens doors for travelers to pack their bags and see other worlds not of their making, worlds that become a reality with the first step taken along the road of a fresh journey into the realm of the unknown.
A recent trip to Myanmar, formerly the much beloved and written about country of Burma of the 19th century, ended up fulfilling my wayward dreams of an adventure and experience that would take me out of myself and into another time and place. Indeed, the title of this adventure says it all, once upon a time in Burma, a country that once entered, will not leave us alone and will wrap the traveler up in its loving embrace. With all geo-political interests and concerns put aside for a moment, it is the people, the culture, the craftsmanship, the ancient land that we wish to know and experience, the lapping of lazy rivers, the sky-mirrored brilliance of expansive lakes, the shadowy curves of rugged mountains, the lush and verdant plains and paddy fields that fill the soul of the traveler to such exotic lands with the peace and serenity of its ancient way of life. Regimes, corruption, injustice, indeed political leaders come and go; it is the land that endures and the spirit of a people that will never die.
Whose heart will not be stirred by the name of Mandalay, immortalized by the British poet, Rudyard Kipling, whose poem, “Mandalay” still echoes resoundingly down through the corridors of time with its lush verses of charm and enchantment. It is this memory that leads me bravely onward as I plan my well-earned winter holiday in a brief respite from my duties as a writing professor at a new university on the outskirts of Kuwait, a city of sky-scraping towers wishing to be iconic and smoky oil fields wishing to be productive. I am now, in the world of Rudyard Kipling, “on the road to Mandalay // where the flyin’-fishes play // an’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘cross the bay.”
I never tire of flying into a new country that is totally unknown to me and yet soon to be less of a mystery, soon to be known. As I gaze down upon the scene below my comfortable perch on the plane, I see that we are entering a land seemingly lost to time. The blackened highlands turn to rugged mountains with nary a tree to see. The mountains themselves seem to cradle the surrounding land like a mother cradles her child, and a sense of balance and harmony prevails as I gaze upon this landscape of primordial nature, as if lifted from some remote paradise from another planet, captured out of time for the 21st century traveler such as myself to see. Already my expectant heart begins to stir as I eagerly await our arrival.
I am once again travelling with my Slovenian friend, Peter, and a better traveling companion one could never hope for. They say that if you want to really get to know people, you have only to take a trip with them to find out what they are really like. No truer words were ever spoken. My smart, brave, thoughtful, selfless friend would never let me down, brought his own unique approach to travelling with him, took delight in planning and doing background research about a place, and was able to monitor the number of steps (my three to his two giant strides) on our daily trails with his fashionable Garnett geo-watch (when it worked!).
We entered the subdued arrivals hall in Mandalay only to realise a half-hour time difference from Bangkok where we had met up from our different locations the night before.
“That can’t be right,” Peter knowingly quipped. “But it is,” I quickly responded, knowing how he liked to impose his will on things.
“Goa, on the west coast of the Indian Subcontinent is an hour and a half ahead of Dubai.” I added as supporting evidence of what I said.
We had easily arranged e-visas done online beforehand and quickly passed through customs control without a hitch. “Let’s change money,” I suggested. “But you get a better rate in town,” Peter countered. “We won’t get into town without local money,” I murmured, knowing he couldn’t counter-argue that. Indeed, at roughly 1,500 kyat to the dollar, after changing a mere $100, we walked away with 150,000 kyat. Hmm, that should get us into town, I thought to myself.
I won’t belabour the point, but the exchange rate of the currency turned out to be an interesting element in our economic calculations. When you are dealing in the thousands of any currency, it can be confusing. We all know what a dollar or euro values at, but what about 150,000 kyat and how much would it buy locally. Seems like a lot, yet it is only ten dollars in value, about the price of a sandwich and a zero coke on the streets of Manhattan. Now through immigration and customs and with local money in hand, the ever-intrepid researcher, Peter, marched over to the information booth to inform himself about getting into the town center where we had booked our hotel. While there were traditional taxis available for about 15,000 kyat (roughly $10), we learned that we could take a local bus outside the airport terminal that would take us directly to our hotel for about 3,000 kyat for the two of us (roughly a dollar each!). That won’t break the bank, I chirped to Peter. He agreed with a toothy grin and off we went on our great adventure.
The ride into town was uneventful, but long, leisurely and fascinating. I was beginning to experience the sense of laid-back calm and serenity that would follow me throughout my days of travel through this exotic, ancient land. In the distance, through the myriad lush and wind-blown trees that lined the side of the make-shift highway into town, a rough patch of roadway if there ever was one, we could glimpse the golden spires of pagodas upon hilltops extended clear to the horizon, a vision that would become the iconic characteristic to mark the bucolic setting of this rural landscape with its timely sense of spirituality.
“The trees,” I kept remarking to my friend Peter, “look at the variety and lushness of the grand, old trees. Have you ever seen the like of them?” Over an hour later in a place where time really had no meaning but that it could be filled with miracle and wonder, we were deposited at our more than adequate three-star hotel where we were greeted with timid smiles, folded hands and a humble bow.
Once unpacked and his geo-watch turned on, Peter exulted, “Let’s explore the town, the old palace isn’t far off.” I have traveled before with Peter and have come to realise that “not far off” doesn’t mean the same to him as it does to most other people. Nevertheless, I was game and still do my own 8-km run three times a week to keep fit and, in the running, as it were. Once outside, Peter tends to walk ahead in great strides, and I follow three steps to his two; but I didn’t mind. He faced the brunt of the chaotic traffic that came up, down and toward him in every which way, including the ever-present motorbikes that never follow the rules and seem to have license to come and go as they please. “Remember Peter,” I shouted to him over the din of dust and horns, “they drive British-style here, on the other side of the road, so take care where you look to cross.” Yet Peter strode confidently onward, like a giant amid pygmies, ready to brush aside any vehicle or motorbike that may dare to come his way. Indeed, the traffic seemed to have a rhythm of its own, despite the noise, and flowed like a river around his colossal bulk.
Well forward at the end of the main street of the town, again lined amid the grand cacophony of shops and workshops with multiple trees blocking the pathway along the side of the road and forcing us time and again out onto the perilous danger of the streets, we beheld the inner sanctum of a walled palace surrounded by an extensive, medieval moat. Up close, when we finally arrived at the historic premises, we gazed across the extensive mote nearly a half kilometer in width at the heightened red brick wall, periodically adorned with brick latticework and towers featuring ferocious fang-filled mouths of animals out of which lotuses hung out like tongues. On the Google map, the palace walls that now house the military Myanmar government formed a perfect square. From where we stood, we could hardly see to the end of the first line of wall that we stood before. Undaunted, Peter started to walk the outside of the moat for about a kilometer until we found a little embellished wooden 19th century bridge that led across the extensive moat up to the face of the outer wall of the former palace that now up close towered over us, even over Peter.
The Mandalay Palace itself was constructed between the years 1857 and 1859 and housed the last Burmese monarchy, in honor of King Mindon’s founding of the new royal capital city of Mandalay. The palace itself was the center of the citadel and faced East. Built of teak wood in the traditional Burmese design, it rested inside a walled fort surrounded by a moat. The complex ceased to be a royal residence and seat of government in 1885 when, during the third Anglo-Burmese War, the British entered the palace and captured the royal family. To this day, the Mandalay Palace stands as the primary symbol of the once enchanted city of Mandalay, in another time and in another place now gone by.
As we perilously neared the gate to the military enclosure, a guard slumped on a metal chair in the shade of an awning looked up at Peter towering over him as he pointed his finger in the opposite direction and shook his fist to make his point. “Oh hello, my little friend,” Peter said ingratiatingly in a sugar-sweet ironic tone that the poor fellow would never pick up, even if Peter thought he might. I cringed and headed in the direction where the soldier was pointing, so as not to offend. The guy was smiling and trying to be friendly. “But I want to go there,” Peter asserted glancing in the opposite direction, as if looking at a tidbit. “We need to go this way,” I shouted back to Peter over my shoulder, “Where the restaurants were indicated on the map.” That did the trick and at the thought of food, Peter was soon striding far in front of me, like a giant panda intent on his destination, his money (and mobile) belt tightly secured around his waist. No one was going to come near that!
Peter finally found a young, presentable fellow who looked like he knew something, especially English, to ask about a restaurant. “Yes, yes,” the fellow obliged. It turned out he was actually from India but had lived in Myanmar many years. “Restaurant very good,” he affirmed. “I will be going there later with my family.”
Indeed, I thought. What a strange coincidence. Peter soon tracked the restaurant down on the map on his mobile (I still don’t have one, I am waiting for the hand-held technology to give way to something more sophisticated), a small place open to the street with tables spilling invitingly out onto the sidewalk. This promised to be our first meal in Mandalay and Peter was not taking any changes on eating unhealthy and/or getting sick with stomach trouble.
“We will eat here,” he announced although I wasn’t especially impressed and it was a little early, just around sunset, to be eating to my taste. When one travels alone, one may feel lonely, but if travelling with a companion, one has to make compromises. I did the menu test and with a quick scrutiny found little that inspired me. Also, the stools at the tables had no backs. Not exactly the leisurely environment I was anticipating for evening dinner, our one main meal of the day when travelling.
I grumbled and mumbled to no avail. Peter had already ensconced himself on the tiny stool with a big grin on his face, looking forward to eating. He expected me to extract the best of the savoury delights from the menu, and after some time was able to come up with various curry and vegetables dishes that seemed promising from the little photos that accompanied the text. The prices were also note-worthy, 2,000 to 3,000 kyat for the main courses (let me remind my readers that 1,500 kyat equals one dollar at the time of our visit!). We can afford that I chuckled to myself. As we waited in the open-air restaurant in the dust and heat sipping our cool fruit drinks, the cars and motorcycles made their mad dashes to God knows where in such a hurry, and the mosquitoes suddenly came alive in the twilight hush!
I sat there feeling tired and dreamy after the long day and the long walk around the palace walls, but Peter suddenly seemed uncomfortable and agitated. “What’s the matter, Peter,” I asked, as he swatted his hands in front of his face and slapped his naked legs. “Mosquitoes,” he cried, “they are biting me.” Welcome to the tropics, I thought, but kept quiet until I couldn’t help but launch into the story of dengue fever that some mosquitoes can transmit. Admittedly, it’s a long shot, but I couldn’t help but make fun of my friend who had been so insistent about eating in this restaurant at this time. From then on, we took much more care in planning our evening meals as we travelled throughout the country heading south from Mandalay to Yangon (formerly Rangoon).
The next morning, we were promptly met by out little guide whose name was Swan. We would later come to know that Burmese names were different and unique. Peter in particular always got a kick out of asking Swan questions, but always addressing him by name. “Swan, why do the women wear powder on their faces (a natural product to protect against the sun)? Swan, how many motorbikes are there in this town (far too many to my reckoning)? Swan do you have brothers and sisters (he had a younger brother that he spoke fondly of)?” True enough, when you travel with a guide, the guide, if you are lucky, becomes a kind of father, brother, son. They are there as a font of knowledge, the shipmaster on a voyage into the unknown, a protector and a stranger turned friend in a stranger than strange land. Swan was all of those things and much more. When we came to learn that as we moved south, he would be replaced by another guide. Both Peter and I felt disappointed and when eventually we did say goodbye to him, knowing we would never see him again, we felt sad and at a loss. When I shook his hand, the thousands of kyat I left behind didn’t seem enough.
For the time being, Swan was with us at every temple, stupa and pagoda. “What’s the difference?” Peter wondered aloud, giving voice to my own question.
“You can enter a temple,” Swan patiently replied, as if he had never been asked that question before. Indeed, the trick of a new guide leads the tourists in his charge to believe that everything is fresh and new, questions, statements, explanations that had never been uttered before and may never be uttered again. “The pagoda is there in commemoration and as a gift or charity that could bring merit and blessing. But you cannot enter inside as it is a solid structure pointing heavenward. A stupa is a domed or bell-shaped monument traditionally used to store religious relics of the Buddha.” Whether temple of worship, stupa or pagoda, to enter its confines, we were required to take off our shoes and socks. In the land of a thousand pagodas/stupas, tourists end up taking off their shoes perhaps more than they would like. I kept silent, but Peter grumbled and complained as we wandered in and around these sacred places during our 10-day tour, Peter meticulously cleaning off his sizable feet with the moist wipes provided every time by the guide. I simply brushed off the sand and grit and re-socked my feet until it was time to enter the next temple, thinking that traveler dust is well earned.
After ambling through the chaotic fruit and vegetables markets of Mandalay, we made our way with our guide, Swan, to our first memorable site, the Shwenandaw Monastery, located at the foot of the Mandalay Hill overlooking the city and countryside. The monastery was speckled with trees, golden domes and bell-shaped towers gleaming in the winter sunlight. The intrepid guide explained everything in great detail, and perfect English I might add. I remember asking Swan how he had learned English, but never got a satisfactory answer to account for the ease with which he spoke.
The monastery was built in 1878 by King Thibaw Min, who dismantled and rebuilt the inner apartments formerly occupied by his father, King Mindon Min, believing the premises to be haunted by the spirit of his dead father. The entire structure was made of teak wood in the traditional style and heavily gilded with gold and glass mosaic work. The monastery is also known for its teak carvings of Buddhist myths, which adorn the walls and roofs in all their intricate, exquisite detail. As we roamed around the eerie premises, we came to see the commemorative preservation of a former royal way of life, particularly the colossal inner room where the king was known to have performed ritual meditation. We were even able to observe the meditation couch upon which he sat, creating in my mind dreamy reflections of a world I would never know, but had come to learn about in my travels.
The time of sunset was not far off. We made our way in the car midway up the Mandalay Hills into a parking lot and from there were able to take a series of escalators to the top of the hillside that provided fabulous views in every direction of the once enchanted city of Mandalay below, now a bustling metropolis that from the distance still held its mystical lure although up close, the 21st century left its mark of noise and pollution. The rolling hills and flattened plain leading to the city below provided the perfect backdrop for the flaming sunset that soon followed, bestowing upon the fabled city below the streaming golden light of twilight.
John Herlihy, travel writer and poet, has published two collections of travel essays, Journeys with Soul and his more recent Distant Islands and Sealight, available at online booksellers and Amazon.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL
A Field Most Rare
Beyond the rim of the horizon lies a field,
We can enter thru a back door: thru prayer.
On certain days of our lives, we need a shield,
A safe place to go, no one else to meet there.
Beyond the relativity of the world, a paradise,
With differences, hardship, strife put to rest.
Released finally from the scourge of life’s vice,
An unknown land made available as blessed.
Beyond all the confusion of right and wrong,
Beyond all the differences that keep us apart.
A place where bird melodies become our song,
Two persons now bound together as one heart.
Beyond the rim of the world a field most rare,
A place to settle differences, I’ll meet you there.
John Herlihy has published 20 collections of essays and poetry, including a book of sonnets entitled Simply Sonnets. Retired now, he lives and continues to write poetry in Miami, Florida.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL