Breaking Burma Day 98: The Young and the Reckless

After fueling up to keep my engine churning, I got a very short lesson on how to use the manual bike and from there on out the bike was mine for the day through thick and thin and hopefully my own survival. I had been running low on space on my SD cards and Seb needed a USB stick so we ventured out in search of an electronic store. My first impression to Seb as a driver was not the best as I struggled mightily with the gears before we had even gotten anywhere. In my attempt to transition from first to second with a touchy accelerator, I managed a wheelie that kicked off Seb (landing it) while I rode that bucking bronco before settling her down. For some odd reason, he still decided to trust me but after a rode a hundred meters or so to get the hang of whatever contraption I had gotten ahold of. Since the motorbike started with a near empty tank of gas, some petrol fuel was in order but no gas stations stood in sight. Instead, Mandalay has many people lining the streets like they do with food stalls and whatever else they seem to come up with in an attempt for a profit. They sold me old used plastic water bottles filled with petrol. For the most part, I stuck to the far right side of the road with the cyclists since the traffic is mental in Mandalay; it is two parts crazy and the other brilliant in how they manage to avoid wrecks on a continual basis. Some major intersections have traffic lights, which still sometimes seem like a suggestion more than a law abiding requirement, but also have many others that involve a wild weave pattern that actually has no pattern at all. To save face and life itself, I stuck myself to the largest vehicle that I could find which was driving in the same direction as me so that it cover me as my mobile bodyguard. I returned Seb without a scratch but now it was Vim’s turn to ride with me but this time for the whole day. We hit the pavement once more distancing ourselves further and further away from the city and the traffic guillotines that they call intersections. My plan all along was to visit four cities that sit outside Mandalay’s populated metropolis. These four cities are now known more for their distant past as the cities have since shrunk beyond their glorious imperial days. Inwa is a former Burmese capital for four centuries, Sagaing has its foreboding hill topped monasteries and temples there and all around, Amarapura has the world’s longest teak bridge at 1300 yards long called U Bein’s Bridge, and Mingun further north on the other side of the river has the world’s largest uncracked bell. Before such a feat could be accomplished I had to stop several times on the side of the road due to the otherworldly images of these Burmese people living their lives that were going unnoticed and needed their light of day. I pulled off the road when I noticed a ship that reminded me much of the dragon shaped building that stood on the edge of the lake in Yangon. My chance notice ended up being worthwhile besides the ship and luxurious reddish brown wooden teak cabins. The river was host to a lot of morning activity. Bamboo raft practically the size of an aircraft carrier floated down the river. Considering its size and command of the water, I am surprised it did not have more on it whether people or cargo. Besides several men and a couple hut-like homes towards the rear, the raft was a ghost ship to the extreme. Beyond that, life was occurring right below our noses on the shore as women and children washed their clothes as well as themselves in the decidedly unsanitary water but to them who would be the wiser. Washing oneself in a river or a creek is a very local way to ‘freshen up’; the women especially take advantage of the longyi by wrapping themselves to above the breast when they bathe in public. We continued our delayed start to the ancient cities circuit scanning our surroundings high and low as we followed the river, since it was the only safe landmark to stand by and rely on. Gladly some simple sights continue to surprise as I have slipped at times in my appreciation for the smaller moments when traveling for awhile. I noticed a series of homes built literally just off the main road, a road that can be considered a highway in Myanmar. No one bothers to explore these types of things. Maybe it ends up being pointless and a waste of time or it could very well bring out a gem; either way my curiosity will get to the bottom of it. The people welcomed us ‘into’ their homes as they rarely ever would get a foreigner to visit. Their yards were muddy mess with pigs rustling off to the side but I didn’t mind. In the fields beyond these homes, women were working the fields with some of their children. These people work so hard through dire situations and circumstances for little reward as far as money. Observing locals in states like this you can get caught up seeing them like you would animals at a zoo: linger from afar and leave. But if you stick around for awhile, it just doesn’t sit right. For one, what can I do to fix such a thing especially when you know these people have such heart and warmth to foreigners that they could easily be jealous of for our first world lives? Secondly, what can they do? If I was born into their situation even with the gifts I have been given, I would still be struggling, working in those fields plying away at the earth and mud for the rest of my life. I don’t have an answer for such a conundrum but at least these experiences get me and hopefully others thinking more deeply about the world we live in. This world doesn’t stay within the white picket fences of back home. Real life is out there barking and growling from afar. Can we ignore the sounds much longer? Three kids were taken by our appearance and began waving wildly and smiling their still bright teeth. I tried to encourage them to come over since I would have loved to interact with them. I only got a chance to meet with the one boy and get a picture with him as the two young girls were a bit shy. Behind these busy bees of workers stood homes (a relative word) that looked akin to huts with long dried banana leaves acting as a roof and hopefully insulating these families like a dome. I may have walked away from this place but the memory certainly won’t leave me. The last stop of the foreword for our epic tale happened to be the pagoda-capped hills of Sagaing just across the river but felt so distant with the polluted haze that swallowed the morning light yet offered a mystical touch. We continued on to Inwa, stopping several to check the map. Locals offered help by pointing in the direction of the city and trying to explain themselves further without luck despite the impeding barrier. I can safely say that I was the only westerner/white person with the cahones and possibly stupidity to ride such a contraption let alone through full on / all out Mandalay traffic (you can decide for yourselves where I fall into all of that). You simply cannot beat the freedom of a motorbike and the wind that ripples across your face and through your hair (I guess the thrill of the risk may factor into the adrenaline rush). Inwa had some tourists driven by buggy or tuk tuk but otherwise it was relatively deserted, providing us with a city full of ancient temples to explore. Some of these temples even held true to us with the exception of people selling their goods and wares. Until we road down the main street (that stood just wide enough for one lane traffic), I didn’t realize what miraculous and historic sight we had stumbled across. Inwa is home to many crumbling temples, not to the amount of Bagan but, as Vim confirmed to me, the hottest spot in Myanmar does not have its temples intertwined with banana leaf trees and other tropical greenery. One temple stood out to me more than any other possibly due to being hidden off to the side. It had a small courtyard walled off from the main stupa with a yin-yang discolored buddha seated amongst overgrown grass and tilting columns and a background of the tropical habitat that is so prevalent in Inwa (for some reason the image reminded me of how I expect Angkor Wat to appear). We avoided the main temples due to our shared frugalness (both of us on long trips) and the suffocation of other tourists as well as the infestation of locals selling junk persistently. For a break, I introduced Vim to tea leaf salad, an old reliable and had a tasty, refreshing concoction of lime juice. At times I went off the path to the surprise of vim and myself and more shockingly avoided crashing into a ditch. Dirt was far too loose to control and my handle of the bike has yet to spur on burgeoning confidence so Vim had to get off when my swerving reached its peak. Out of pure chance, we found some young kids running around wildly with their yellow painted facing and playing a game similar to rounders or cricket. For the second time in the day, we ran across Vim’s bandana clad biker gang, which were really a group of friendly Asians wearing that as protection from the ridiculous smog that Mandalay produces. One dirt soccer pitch had one heck of bleacher and ambience as an especially reddish brown temple due to the falling sun reveled in the background. This temple was devoid of tourists and felt unloved as it had not been maintained to the glory it deserved. It felt like a former home or palace with a wide staircase that led up the center and continued on wrapping around its perimeter with an assortment of buddha images etched into its sides. Since we didn’t expect to spend so much time exploring Inwa, we had to skip Mingun due to time constraints so Sagaing stood next up to bat. Sagaing lay across the bridge and up into hills with its many stupas. Not putting two and two together, I failed to realize I needed to shift gears up the hills to the stupas. The engineer revved and struggled coughing up a combustion of smoke. I had to kick off Vim for the moment until I got my shit together and readjusted. I honestly thought that I had f’ed up the engine, which would have brought on a peachy experience as to how I would transport it back to Mandalay.

With the bike parked, walked around these wildly colorful temples that differentiated themselves from the usual fare (they kind of reminded me of a tamed down Buddhist version Gaudi experiment). Atop one hill, one really cute and shy (as most tend to be) yet sadly taken Burmese girl offered us some of her snacks. We didn’t have much time to spare as we wanted to reach U Bein Bridge for sunset, the expected highlight of the day for me. I went down the hills clutching the brakes with a grip that spoke desperation through the curves and cascading slopes. Everyone time we stopped for directions, we always managed to find someone giving us the right directions (one person randomly speaking practical English). The route was sketchy and unpredictable as we went through side streets with bumpy misshapen and cracked roads past people that wouldn’t expect to see a white guy cruising on a motorbike toting an Indian looking foreigner nonetheless. The bridge was disappointing mostly due to the largest concentration of tourists I had ever seen in Myanmar but luckily I managed to bargain for a pair of elephant pants for my sister. The ride to Mandalay would be one completed in the dark, an added obstacle to the many that were already in place. The route began past a carnival with typical games (knock a pyramid of stacked cans down) before joining the main road. Somehow we got back into Mandalay despite the chaotic traffic but that trying to navigate through such a mess was probably the highlight of my day. Driving through Mandalay traffic involves a bit of stupidity and daring but mostly I find you need to believe outright no matter how much your senses want to tell you otherwise that you will be okay. It is that blind faith that will get you past it and out alive. I guess that same philosophy can be applied to my approach to a journey as seemingly daunting and long as this. Dinner was in order after such a long and jam-packed day as this. For 1300 kyat between the two of us, we were able to eat tea leaf salad, ginger salad, rice, and a few side dishes. When I questioned it believing I misheard her, the waitress got flustered and thought that I figured it was too expensive. All was well and the young Burmese randomly wanted to be Facebook friends. Mandalay is hot and kind of muggy but I am used to be an slobbering mess so I didn’t think twice. Vim on the other hand was uncomfortable and asked to have the fan turn on, which clearly hadn’t been used in this century. People were confused until they understood his hand signals and found a great laugh out of the situation because everyone except my poor British friend knew the joke was on him. After a shower, I went to sleep knowing I would be leaving Mandalay tomorrow after such a quick visit. Yangon and Mandalay may be the two twin giants of Myanmar but Mandalay definitely has the character to hang its hat on.

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