A couple of hours from Monywa in the Sagaing District, north west of Mandalay, the bus surges through surface flood water that seems to have made a bed out of the road. With few words and glazed eyes we stare out at a liquid world. We cross the great Irrawaddy now a wide sea, at its swelled edges lines of wooden boats stacked high with oil barrels, achieve an unlikely buoyancy, they are waiting to sail the sacred maroon waters. The river is the lifeblood of Burma, a great and prominent series of veins coursing through the country from the north.
In the early morning under a pregnant slate grey sky and looking out at the bulging river it seems inevitable all in its path will succumb so mighty is its girth. The apex of inundated trees breaking the water surface under the watchful gaze of high mountains that resemble volcanic islands, act as dotted buffers to the blended horizon of river and sky. As the bus turns towards Mandalay another vista emerges. Cast on surrounding hillside hundreds of pagodas sit above the waterline sprouting out of the moss green foliage like a huge field of white and golden flowers.
Villages span the entirety of the line of road leading towards Mandalay from the west. Bamboo houses no bigger than garden sheds hold both family and enterprise be they tea houses or provision stores.
Pulling in to the bus station we look out at young women and girls whom circle half filled buses with silver trays balancing on their heads, the trays parade gum and cotton buds, pens and betel nut, fruits and sweets. Scooters whizz through this mobile market with passengers holding umbrellas. Water now restricted to random puddles and moist air.
Mandalay, we find, is a grid of numbered streets (a British construction) that allows for easy navigation. Leaving the dusty interior in sticky afternoon heat we walk the moat promenade that surrounds the City’s island palace, a reconstructed attempt at recreating a bygone age. The palace, enclosed by high perimeter walls sits amid a forest in a two kilometre squared plot. The original teak temples commissioned by successive Kings in the 19th century were all but destroyed during heavy Japanese bombing in the second world war.
The promenade offers the children ample and safe space to run, hop, skip and jump thus freeing their limbs from the tight spaces of bus and guesthouse bedroom. Although our privileged position has allowed us to remove ourselves from flooded areas the floods are not far from the people of Mandalay’s minds. The entirety of the roadside squaring the moat is interspersed by mobile collection points stacked high with clothes, blankets, food and water bottles. Money donations are deposited in to buckets by passers by and from rolled down windows of cars. Those we speak with tacitly acknowledge the inertia of the government and the glaring absence of state aid in the worst affected areas and so take it upon themselves to organise and help. These are a people who remember too well the devastation of Cyclone Nagris in 2008. In the aftermath of Burma’s worst natural disaster the dispiteous ruling junta stopped counting the dead when that figure reached 138,000 so as to ‘minimise political fallout’. Some estimates put the final death toll at 1 million people. Assistance simply did not reach hundreds of thousands of people. Many say it was Nagris (the urdu word for ‘daffodil’) that acted as the catalyst for societal and governance change in Burma.
We decide to use what would have been the entrance fee to the palace (money that directs itself in to government coffers) on donations. A group of artists from the ‘Mandalay watercolour society’ fundraise by sketching portraits of willing models for 5000 kyat (5 euro). M and G must sit perfectly still for 15 minutes or so (no mean feat I tell you!) as a handsome grey haired man periodically scans them over the inverted v of easel top and nose sliding glasses. We are told that such portraits would usually sell for between 50,000 and 80,000 kyat.
The sun’s reflection in the water parallels and follows us as we walk the west side of the moat and head for Mandalay Hill. No spectacular sunset this evening but quite a view nevertheless over the largely and surprisingly leafy panorama. A thin wedge of concrete and high rise to the north of the palace is downtown Mandalay, squeezed between the palace forest and the burgeoning Irrawaddy. The three hundred or so steps we have scaled to view this vista are punctuated by ornate Buddhist temples and shrines, stray dogs seeking food, flower sellers and impressive termite hill like mounds of bird shit. M and G skip up (and down) and are rewarded for their efforts with a pink rose each, gifted to them by a flower vendor with a big smile and a hearty chuckle.
The A1 guesthouse in Mandalay is squeezed between a huge food market area troubled by a rubbish tip stream, too ill from plastic to be defined as such and a huge pagoda with a striking golden and white temple. Outside the temple wall a mirror hangs over a wooden table with scissors and combs neatly placed on it, a street barber sits at its side awaiting customers. Facing him there is a small paved laneway leading to the guesthouse, the rest is unpaved ochre scree. The smell here is of sewerage and is strong enough to disturb our sleep on the third floor of the A1.
I am struck by the conditions that many people live under, all the while an awareness builds within me of the oppressively controlled decay of the human state. On a number of occasions I notice thin grey haired women sifting through sizeable piles of street-side rubbish assembled at the ends of market stalls. Other women sell bananas on filthy pavements, open sewerage at their sides. The vicious smell submerging their space as an olfactory statement of societal neglect. At the arse end of 83rd street where the road turns to meet the river I watch bare chested teenage boys dig pits like graves as they scavenge for plastic and glass. Their bodies gradually inching lower and lower as spadefuls of trash and mud are shovelled. Across the river a monastery parades burgundy robes hanging out to dry from multi story balconies. A huge tubular temple in the background, resplendent with red and golden hues. Dead eyed dogs roam the grassy verge in packs, sniffing the old as they lay stretched out, dependent family members of the ‘miners’ perhaps. A plethora of rickety stalls line the road leading to our destination, an old teak monastery. The stalls are set side by side as if holding each other up and sell packaged crap from China and Malaysia, sugar and salt saturated snacks with preservatives and fats that have been banned in western countries for decades. They are sold to the poor by the poor.
We retreat to the Schwenandaw teak monastery and allow the peace of the site to wash over us like cooling water. Everything here is maintained, tidy, pathways swept. Birdsong is audible, young and old monks move slowly and purposefully past us as we sit under the shade of an old mango tree. M and G find fallen sticks of branches and pepper the sandy soil with designs of imaginary towns. In the distance an elderly woman approaches. I cannot take my gaze from her, there is a magnetic grace and beauty in her step. She directs herself towards M and G and without words hands them a mango, smiles and glides away. Earlier that morning Em had given a young mother and her children fruit at the bus station. We reflect that everything given in Burma seems to be returned.
While the children continue their play L and I spend time marvelling at the intricate wood carvings of the monastery, the dark beauty of teak prompting many second glances to reveal some hidden curiosity of design, a mythical creature here, dancers or flowers there. There are scenes from the ‘Jataka’ the story of the Buddha’s previous life’s. The monastery, originally the living quarters of King Mindon was, in 1857, dismantled and transported from Amarapura (the old capital) to Mandalay (the new capital) and completely rebuilt. On the King’s death his son shifted the building again from the palace moat to its present location where it became a monastery. As a result of this move Schwenandaw is the only teak building from the original palace that survived the second world war bombing of Mandalay.
We eventually rouse ourselves from this urban enclave of peace and head back towards the city centre. In the cities business district thousands of ‘middle men’ trading companies exist out of garage like spaces filled to the rafters with cardboard boxes, they align each other, strengthened as a 24 hour hustle and bustle ensues. It is here that the great ‘outsourced’ reside, along the same supply chain line that links a child worker in Dhakka to a pre teen buying cheap clothes in Galway’s ‘Pennys’ or Manchester’s ‘Primark’. The triumphalism of the sentence ‘it was only a fiver’ rings menacingly in my ear. But those few words must be music to the captains of industry’s ears.
I wonder about M and G. What message the images they see send to their developing brains. Everywhere they go they are greeted by a huge enthusiasm and affection by people we meet, be it in a guesthouse or street stall or a stranger bearing gifts but they also perceive destitution and degradation. Do they feel safe I wonder? M asks questions as to why things are they way they are, why are old women sifting through rubbish and young boys breaking their backs with shovel work ? We try our best to answer or direct him towards an understanding but all sounds so illogical, so crude, so useless.
Truth be told much of the world we have witnessed is most certainly a very unhealthy one, if not a dying one. In the pursuit of financial profit and endless comforts we have created a huge rubbish pile of living beings, either killing them outright, denigrating them to positions of utter hopelessness or compelling them to live in inhumane conditions while selling them a sordid illusion of progress and development in the sinister guise of a slim smiling white face (these faces smile down from billboard advertising all across Burma).
The conditions described where people, through great ingenuity and struggle try to eek out a living are the same conditions wherein they eat and sleep and relate to each other, where they love and where they dream. Their burden is constant and the scene is replicated in thousands of similar cities bulging at the seams with both shanty towns and luxurious condo’s and villas, both in contra spirals spirited by exponential ‘growth’.
Mandalay, like any other city has both it charms and truths, its chaos and refuges, its rich and poor but I will forever marvel at the resilience and dignity of those born to its streets and wonder what it is that keeps them alive.