Monday, September 17, 2012

Mandalay Traffic, Heat, and Mosquitoes

I arrive at the HeHo airport and pay to call, from a local land line, the travel agent who arranged my Myanmar tour. Cell phone SIM cards cost $250 for locals (an average month or two of earnings!), and the government has strict controls in place to help prevent a Facebook style/ mobile phone connected “Burmese Spring.” I am told that departing the country I’d lose my pre-paid hotel bookings, but if I’m not going to be able to exchange my money (which I wrote about here) it’s going to be one sad trip. I take the risk and proceed onto Mandalay where I split a cab with a local executive of a Myanmar wine company who is meeting the next day with a potential Chinese buyer. He speaks better English than the average Myanmar citizen- which puts him in the half intelligible conversation category. I consider sad this state of affairs, especially considering that Burma used to be a British colony.
What happened was the forward thinking military rulers decided to eviscerate all foreign languages from the already sparse education system, wanting no outside influence whatsoever. Today, both the people and the tourist pay the price.
My new friend has been working at the wine company for 15 years, and describes his product as “passable.” His salary, in excess of $1,000 a month, makes him a well above average earner in this impoverished nation. He tells me that people are hoping the new government continues to enact positive change that will create better opportunities for them, and everyone is very excited the U.S. recently lifted economic sanctions. “Pepsi, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Phillip Morris will offer people opportunities and jobs,” he tells me, “they will help us.”
bicycle rickshaw in Mandalay

Of course, McDonald’s will come in here and likely change what was largely sustainable agriculture into a factory farm system described in “Fast Food Nation” (an excellent read by the way,) Phillip Morris will sell poison and add further strain on the world’s worst health care system, and Pepsi and Coke will be selling their acid to a people whose teeth could not get any more rotten without outside help. Way to lend a helping hand corporate America.

Thirty minutes later we’re inside Mandalay, a typical South East Asian city with the ubiquitous motor bikes running to and fro. What cars do exist, leave thick plumes of black smoke in their wake, the free-for-all that is commuting here punctuated by traffic lights being almost non-existent.
light traffic close to the train station
Mandalay sits in the dry belt of Myanmar, but now is the rainy season, and the droplets cascading down from the heavens are a welcome relief from the oppressive heat and humidity which sits on you like a heavy, sweaty blanket much of the day.
Having traveled fairly extensively around SE Asia, and other tropical regions of the world, I completely understand why technology, and civilization as we know it now, developed in the more temperate climates. Firstly, they had to prepare and plan for winter, store food, develop ways of doing so. In the tropics, you merely need reach over head to pick a mango or a coconut. Most of your basic needs are easily met.
Necessity being the mother of invention is literal, the aforementioned heat and humidity makes an individual want to do exactly nothing. It takes great determination to keep moving around in the sweaty, dusty, super-heated atmosphere of Myanmar.
this video contains some clips and scenes you'll find in Mandalay

Most buildings here are old and worn down though some of the hotels catering to tourists have new facades on them. I’m somewhat of a novelty here, several times girls ask if they can take their picture with me. Unlike Thailand, they aren’t trying to sell their bodies, but prostitution, like everywhere, also exists.
There are almost as many mosquitoes here as motor bikes, some as big as birds. Encountering a large one triggers your fight or flight instinct, 50/50 to attack or run away. I’m a largely easy going, peaceful person (except when I play basketball) but I take some perverse pleasure with each mosquito I swat- I feel like I’m doing the world a service. I guess it’s a two way street though. My legs are itchy, red, and raw from being bit. No soldier emerges from war unscathed.
And speaking of two way streets, most of the side streets are one way, but that doesn’t prevent some crazy motorbike riders from heading in the opposite direction, nearly crashing into me on my rented bicycle, we’re talking inches here. He smiles, and peels away, leaving me, adrenaline pumping, taking deep breaths to calm myself down. When you’re in this alternate reality, you have to learn to accept where you are, and not try fight against it, otherwise you won’t enjoy a moment of your travels.  God is it fucking hot. I laugh and continue on my way.

tanaka logs for sale- ground up, and used for beauty purposes


  1. Ha ha.
    The picture "fire wood for sale" is not firewood.
    These are Tanaka logs that are eventually cut into small sections, bark ground up on a grinding stone and used as organic sunscreen that the Burmese women apply on their cheeks :)

    1. Thank you Bijoy, I have updated the caption on the photo to reflect your information! Cheers man

  2., interesting? Not especially comfortable

    1. Yeah, you're right Joanna, not especially comfortable there, but interesting, oh for sure!


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