On the River Road to Mandalay "Pa-go-da," I said as slowly as a baby uttering its first word as if that would help in the

least anyone understand what I was saying. shouted, Where's the pagoda ?" The old man seemed amused at He seemed to get my drift my rantings. I then waved my hands over my head frantically and

"The BIG, BIG pagoda."

since he said something that sounded like an "Aha" and pointed down the street. I had gone jogging just before dawn through the wide deserted streets of Yangon, Myanmar (formerly called Rangoon, Burma) and got hopelessly lost in a myriad of backstreets. The best hope I had in finding my way back to the hotel was to find some directions to the Shwedagon Pagoda, which was just down the street from the hotel. Unfortunately, asking directions to the "pagoda" in Burma is like asking someone for the MacDonalds in America. (Yangon is probably the only city in the world with more pagodas than MacDonalds - pagodas, a zillion -- MacDonalds, zip. Only later did I learn that the old man had sent me to another pagoda miles away from the hotel. An hour and a dozen pagodas later, I met a Buddhist monk, who after giving him my animated description of the Shwedagon Pagoda, pointed through some trees. I looked and there it was. The morning sun glistening off its 326-foot high gold-plated stupa.

2 My wife and I recently visited Burma, often called the Land of 10,000 Pagodas, and the land about which Rudyard Kipling once mused, "This is Burma and it will be quite unlike any land you know about." Oh how correct he was.

Kipling's words seemed to hang in the late afternoon air a few days later when my wife and I lounged on the observation deck of the luxurious Road to Mandalay river cruiser, sipping iced tea and watching a fairy-tale landscape along the Ayeyarwady (air - a wad' - e) River unfold before us. of The Ayeyarwady is the lifeblood the land, where, starting in the melting snows of the vast

Himalayas, it plunges south off the Kachin Hills, where at Bhamo it becomes navigable by steamer. It then enters the Shan Plateau and further on cuts through the hot dry plains of central Burma and the center of ancient Burmese civilization past Mandalay. And finally the river enters the wetter southern part of the country where it opens up into endless rice paddies before finding its way into the Andaman Sea. My wife and I were going upstream from the ancient temple city Pagan (now called Bagan) to mythical Mandalay. Along the Ayeyarwady's sandy bank we see woven bamboo huts and women wearing the traditional longyi (sarong), beating their laundry clean with wooden paddles. Oxen pull carts stacked with teak logs as they might have 1,000 years ago for ancient Burmese Kings with names like Anawrahta and Kyanzittha.. some an acre in size, float downstream. cargo. Immense bamboo rafts, I thought it was strange

the rafts had no cargo until someone told me the bamboo was the

3 "I'm going to get my picture taken in a tonga (horse drawn cart) when we get to Mandalay," I told my wife. "I'll caption it 'On the Road to Mandalay.' Our ship gingerly picked its way among a myriad of sandbars and shoals that pepper the slow-moving river. Fishermen throw up straw shanties on the sandbars that will be washed away in a few weeks when the melting snows from the Himalayas causes the river to rise up to 40 feet. A packed river ferry, fifty years old if it is a day, chugs up the river; the tired sound of its engine floating over the water. The vessel was probably in service when the British controlled the river during the days of the Raj, a time when Burma was the eastern part of India and the British Empire. The river is so calm and the air so still we can hear children yelling to each other as they run along the riverbank waving to us. A young girl washing her hair at the river edge looks up and smiles. Across the austere plain the setting sun catching the tops of white stupas, lighting them like candles. We see a woman cooking the And, of evening meal over a fire while nearby an old man leads a bullock into the river to fill a large wooden barrel with water. course, more pagodas. since the time of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. just walked into someone's living room. "This tea is really good," my wife says. And as the Road to Mandalay continued to navigate the capricious bends of the Ayeyarwady, we couldn't help but think of the words of Kipling's poem, Mandalay: It is a scene that has enthralled the visitor We felt like we had

4 Come ye back to Mandalay, Where the flyin' fishes play. Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin', From Rangoon to Mandalay. "I think you've found a friend," my wife said the next

morning when the Road to Mandalay docked at a tiny river village. We were walking down a dusty path when a little girl, maybe seven years old, ran out from a woven bamboo hut, grabbed my finger and skipped along beside us. sunscreen. Her face was covered with thanaka, a sandalwood paste young women use as both an adornment and Every time I looked down at her, she would grin from ear to ear and squeeze my finger a little harder. She would then yank my finger and point out items of interest, such as ox carts, temples, and stray dogs. Of course, we didn't know a word of Burmese, but she never stopped talking and grinning. When we arrived back at the ship we gave her presents of paper, pencils and some lipstick for her mother. She took them in a flash and tore off on a dead run. A few minutes later my wife are relaxing on the observation deck waiting for the ship to shove off when we see the little girl come running pell-mell down the riverbank towards the ship. This time she had a friend with her, and both girls were wearing bright red lipstick. and blew us kisses until the ship left. Kipling's Mandalay: By the old Moulmein Pagoda, A lookin' eastward to the sea. When they saw us they waved with all their might and then sat under a shade tree As the ship pulled away from the bank I couldn't help but think of another verse from

5 There's a Burma girl a-settin, And I know she thinks of me. "I think they could use a few less monks in this country and a few more civil engineers," an old woman from Fresno groused from the back of the bus the next day as we bumped along a hot dusty road in Pagan. Although we were being thrown about like pancakes, we were all engrossed in an orgy of temple watching at what some say is the most remarkable site in all Southeast Asia, surpassing even Borobudur in Indonesia and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We were passing through a ghost city of thousands upon thousands of 11th century Buddhist stupas and temples that ran as far as the eye could see in all directions. Cream colored, orche and blinding white; some in ruins, some in excellent condition, some small, others immense like the Ananda Temple that soars over 300 feet. Pagan was the first capital of a united Burma and was founded by King Anawrahta in 1044, who along with successors, built no less than 10,000 stupas and temples in a 200-year building frenzy. Although, time, earthquakes, and pillage have taken their toll, over 2,000 temples still remain to provide the visitor with an awesome spectacle. "I think they had some engineers at one time," another passenger said wryly to the woman from Fresno. About 25 little girls ages from 8 to 12 were waving their hands frantically and yelling "hullo" and "welcome" the next day in

6 Mingun, a quaint little village just upstream from Mandalay. We

had taken a half-day side trip from Mandalay to see the world's largest bell (qualifier, largest working bell), and the largest pile of bricks in the world (no qualifier needed), or more appropriately known as the Mingun Pagoda. The girls were there to see that we didn't miss the sites, and the moment we stepped ashore they made a bee line for us and before we knew it, four little hands had my wife and myself in tow. They obviously were not new at the "guide" business since they knew several phrases in English like, "Where you from ?" and "Do you like peanuts ?" We had gone only a short distance when we hear someone shouting behind us. We turn and see some kind of official running down the road towards us. the wind. Well, our four little guides scatter like The government tries to curb what it considers

harassment of tourists by little street waifs and continually chases them off. After the policemen left, it took about a second for our guides to re-materialize and take us in tow once more. makes a spanking gesture. "Bell," one of the little girls says later as we all stand before the Mingun Bell. A few minutes later another little girl is saying, "Mingun Pagoda." I was thinking how nice it would be if all tour guides in the world were this succinct and left the facts to the guidebooks. "Burma has the best Cokes in the world," a man on our ship said at a refreshment stand near the Mingun Pagoda. It was probably the 90 degree heat that made it so refreshing, but it did seem the ultimate irony that a country like Myanmar, which for 40 My wife asked them if the policeman was a nice man and one of the girls

7 years has succeeded in keeping out all things foreign, was now bottling the best Coca Cola in the world. open.) I knew we were getting close to Mandalay since the density of pagodas was starting to pick up. My wife and I were chatting with Ma San, a young Burmese woman, who worked on the observation deck of the ship, making sure the passengers were kept adequately filled with cake and cookies. She was a wealth of information about her country, and we learned more from her than all the official guides put together. When she wasn't busy waiting on passengers she would tell us what we were seeing along river; what was that oxen pulling in that cart (peanuts), what are all those monks doing (collecting their daily alms), what was the wood in that boat (teak), what are those boats doing (one boat is stuck on a sandbar, the other is pulling it out), how much does it cost to take the local ferry from Yangon to Mandalay ($3). We didn't ask her anything of a political nature since it's a sensitive issue. Myanmar is a difficult country to govern in the best of times due to the many diverse ethnic groups of the region. At present the country is run without popular decree by what might best be called, the Myanmar Army. Brigadier General.) (You know you have a military-run government when the Director of Bovine Breeding is a One can only hope that the military will One suspects that with eventually give in to the 'greater good' and allow a more broadbased civilian government to take over. prosper once again. such an intelligent and hard working citizenry the country will (Actually, the Coke was bottled in Singapore, but, the cracks in Myanmar are starting to

8 “At last,” I tell my wife the last day in Mandalay after tonga ride through the “We're on on the road to Mandalay."

plunking down 100 kyats (dollar) for a streets of Mandalay,.

Actually, it was more of a sea than a road; a river of bicycles, ox carts, monks, pony carts, over packed buses, and more monks. There are 16,000 monks in Mandalay, a city of 1 million people. We saw very few Westerners in Mandalay and the Burmese are legendary for their politeness and hospitality. “Thank you for coming.” Our tonga was literally swept along on this fabled "road" past bustling street markets, teashops, craftsmen sculpting marble Buddhas, a huge stupa surrounded by 729 marble slabs on which is engraved the entire Buddhist canon, or Tripitaka. It is sometimes dubbed the 'world's biggest book.' It would take a person reading eight hours a day two years to read the entire book. Mandalay was the capital of Burma when the British took it over in 1885, after which it became just another outpost in the British Empire. Nowadays, however, with trade restrictions being eased by the government, commerce along the fabled Burma Road with South China has given rise to a sort of "boom town" atmosphere with many new hotels, office buildings, and department stores being constructed. Our tonga now takes us by the imposing Mandalay Fort, built in 1857 by King Mindon, and the scene of a bloody battle in W.W.II between the British/Indian forces and Japanese army which destroyed the royal palace. pancake plain of central Burma. In the distance we can see Mandalay Hill, which offers a vantage of the We were asked or told, questions like, “What do you think of our country?”

9 Arriving back at the ship I excitedly tell my Burmese mentor, Ma San, of our adventure on the "Road to Mandalay." Mandalay." "We've been on it for the past week,," surprised. Ma San said That's I asked her if there was one street that was considered the official "Road to

"The Ayeyarwady is the 'Road to Mandalay.'

what the British called the river when they ran steamships between Rangoon and Mandalay." She laughed and said I was watching too many Hollywood movies. But I learned more than discovering the real road to Mandalay on this trip. I learned that although Myanmar is one of the poorest countries in the world, it is a land of hard working, intelligent people and that once its political problems are solved, one suspects it will recover its past glory. And as our plane rose above Mandalay the next day on the way back to Yangon, I couldn't help but be reminded of the lines ... Come ye back to Mandalay, Where the old Flotilla lay. Can't you hear 'ear them paddles chunkin, From Rangoon to Mandalay.

-the end-

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