We are hot and sweaty and happy. After a couple of transition days in Bangkok, we started our Burma journey in Mandalay, located in the flatland middle and close to other places we wanted to see.
Mandalay is actually not very interesting.
Mandalay is at the other end of the spectrum from cities that know what they are about — places like Paris and New Orleans to provide extreme examples. Mandalay is visually depressing — block after block of featureless architecture, people who seem worn down, scabby homeless dogs, few signs of personal expression, or congregations of family and friends. Although we met many kind people in Mandalay, I saw little evidence of history or art, community or politics.
To wit: Mandalay’s most celebrated cultural offering, the Moustache Brothers, is political vaudeville bookended by lifeless Burmese dancing. And the two don’t mesh that well. The good news is that the Moustache Brothers have done much to hold Burma’s dictatorship accountable. One of its members spent 7 years in prison for publicly ridiculing the regime — and for that reason it is a performance all tourists should see. But after more than ten years of nightly performances, the show should have evolved from on-stage t-shirt sales pitches and low brow pokes at government.
I thought at first this lack of cultural richness must be a predictable effect of dictatorship — without democratic freedoms, communities lose their cultural center, right? But then, well, Cuba is wall-to-wall art and music and history. And Cambodians are are eager to share the lessons of their country’s past and in-your-face hopeful about its future. Even North Korea has an exceptionally skilled symphony. Apparently, dictatorship is not one thing with one set of outcomes.
Melissa does not share my negative impressions of Mandalay and I know that not all of Burma is like Mandalay. Two days in a city leaves only impressions, not knowledge.
And we did enjoy our stay. One morning, we climbed barefoot but very fully clothed (both required) to the top of Mandalay Hill, which involved 1,729 tile and cement steps stained with red betel nut spit and pigeon droppings, punctuated by shrines of gold and jeweled Buddhas, souvenir stands, and fantastic views of the green river valley. Worth it.
On our last day in town, we got up early to see the 10,000 Buddhist Monk event outside the old palace. We never really understood what it was but it was amazing — monks from all over Southeast Asia together in one open space listening to the Queen of Thailand and the supreme patriarchs of Theravada Buddhism. Event officials looked the other way when we edged our way to the area in front of the stage where only media were allowed, and they really did have to make an effort to not notice us because we didn’t look like anyone else..
And then we headed west for Bagan.
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.
— Leonard Cohen