The smooth bus journey through the night from Rangoon sees us to Mandalay’s main bus station just before dawn. A gentle yet gregarious bus company owner has time to vignette his life to us before a mini van breezes us through a waking Mandalay. The streets seem wider, dustier and the sight of road sweepers is a novelty that strangely comforts. For the moment we are merely passing through, our destination is Monywa, one of the last remaining stepping stones in our path out of Burma and in to India.
Whilst crossing the huge bridge that allows for panoramic vistas over a sea of golden and white pagodas cast across the verdurous Irrawaddy valley we alarm at both the rivers speed and girth. An hour from Mandalay water now is omnipresent. Only tree tops and the inverted v’s of bamboo roofs can be seen in adjacent fields. A section of the road we pass has a kilometre wide river buckling over it, earth worm coloured waters pushing out in to deep pools where rice paddy’s once were. Houses half submerged seem hollowed out by the deluge, wooden and concrete ghosts. People straddle the edges of the roads going about their business. On bicycles laden down with sacks of rice or vegetables, on foot through the waters with pots and pans on heads. There is a woman selling bananas at a wooden table beside a bus stop, water covering her ankles. We later learn in Monywa that there is much worse beyond our alleged pit stop.
The road that circles the interior of the ‘bus station’ in Monywa resembles an inverted obstacle course, crater puddles are flanked by patted mud and slippery scree. We zig zag ourselves to the different bus company kiosks; our enquiries are met with a synchronised eye brow raising perplexity. Kalay 3 days, we are told, 7 days we are told, 2 weeks we are told! A burly handsome man in a white vest and blue longyi flicks out his phone and scrolls down his Facebook page to show us pictures of Kalaye and indeed pictures of utter devastation. In our diminishing Western travellers cocoon we inexplicably veer between our own trivialities and the plight of the now thousands homeless that lay between us and the border in Saigon district. We book in to the ‘Golden Arrow’ suspicious that the hotel is Government run given the tedious and lengthy check in (there are no Aung San Suy Chi picture lampshades!) and then we wander out in to the mud caked streets where foothpaths are but oxymorons. We head through the grid of streets to a colonial quarter bordering a long river promenade that is elevated by about one and a half metres above street level. From the damp darkened porches of royal blue houses people peer out seemingly fascinated at M and G, broad smiles shape mouths that almost coo as we exchange pleasantries.
Monywa holds but just about. A wall of sandbags in warlike defiance keep the rising river at bay. Old wooden ferry boats bob with accompanying groans and splashes at the height of semi submerged Tamarind trees, the imbued current attempting to snatch them from their anchors. Beyond the far bank a deluged plain looks vulnerable under a heavy grey sky. The air seems painted by the same hue and everything feels ominous. Further on in the distance mountains that are surgically cut at their sides resemble defeated defences and we later learn that the Chinese mining company responsible for such fissures will become the subject of much disquiet amongst locals who have, in their lifetimes, not witnessed such unforgiving flooding. I read that a small SUV convoy of the mines managers drove to a local village with bags of rice and blankets and were aghast as the villagers set upon the vehicles with angry protest. The impacts of climate change and mining, big business and broken promises a sorry tale that is caught on a vicious loop.
We stay in Monywa for a few days waiting in unrealistic hope, the rains continue unabated. Our days are spent in charcoal coloured tea houses or exploring a city that is so far off the tourist trail that most of the few guesthouses don’t even permit foreigners. But the city reveals its charms and the vegetable and spices markets glow like kaleidoscopes of colour as does the huge Buddhist temple complex in the heart of the city. A night food market aligns both sides of the street that borders our guesthouse and we sit on a low plastic stools eating soup noodles and cups of milk tea.
People are very welcoming of us, all the while smiling, all the while making a fuss over M and G who by now can be excused growing ego’s. For M, his eight birthday will be celebrated here. After spending most meal times in dimly lit dusk shaded walled dens and on the street at food stalls we locate a bakery that serves cakes and ice cream and indulge in a western style celebration. We purchased a book for M in Rangoon and we bestow this upon him as well as ten american dollars (one of the rejected ones from the Indian Embassy!). He makes the most of the day and seems genuinely happy with a rather uneventful celebration, precious ice cream has the habit of doing that!
L and I consult and realise that if we are to continue our plans to overland it to India we must wait and bide our time in Burma. We also agree unanimously that this will entail leaving Monywa. Next morning and prompting checkout at the Golden Arrow I head on the back of a motorbike taxi for the ATM but it doesn’t work, in fact every ATM in Monywa does not work, monsoon rains and storms have made it that way and we have not enough to pay for our stay. Frantically we rip open every pocket in our backpacks, search hidden pockets in money belts and wallets. We produce dollars and euro and sterling and allowing for enough for the bus to Mandalay we are 10 dollars short! Both our hearts sink under the realisation that we have to take back M’s birthday present so as we can depart Monywa. M allows this with a degree of equanimity and, although there is some humming and hawing from the powers that be at the Hotel Reception over the less than pristine state of the dollars, we settle our bill and head for the hills!