Myanmar: On the road to Mandalay

By Rosemary Cooper

It's not hard to see why Rudyard Kipling felt moved to employ a little license in his famous poem, writes Rosemary Cooper.

Mandalay boasts numerous ancient temples, such as those in Bagan. Photo / Thinkstock
Mandalay boasts numerous ancient temples, such as those in Bagan. Photo / Thinkstock

On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin' fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China'crost the Bay!

It's not hard to see why Rudyard Kipling felt moved to employ a little license in his famous poem. Even though the "road" refers to the Irrawaddy River, which flows through Myanmar, linking Mandalay with former capital Yangon, there are no flying fish, but you can be easily overwhelmed by the dramatic landscapes, ancient temples, cultivated fields and rice paddies; a beautiful backdrop to the country's brutal history of wars and sieges.

We did find a dirt road to Mandalay, which looked like it had been neglected since being built by the British in the 1950s. Sections of one kilometre or so are now being proudly restored by the people who live in villages along its length; men, women and children work together to remove the larger rocks and reseal the surface.

Occasionally we saw new bulldozers resting indolently on the side of the road, although no sign of anyone planning to use them.

Kalaymyo airport had been closed for "extensions" for five days shortly after we arrived, so we were forced to take a taxi for the 12-hour drive to Mandalay. The locals took full advantage of our "misfortune" and charged us US$250 ($304) for the road trip. The 45-minute flight would have cost US$45.

Despite of the cost and the road's shortcomings, it was a unique experience. The scenery was magnificent. We journeyed through a dozen forest-covered escarpments, the trees gradually decreasing in size and density as we came closer to Mandalay, ranging from glorious fir-like specimens on the heights to low, sparsely spaced palms on the plains.

Some of the escarpments were so sheer that the trees appeared like delicate lace edging as they stood atop the hills, the midday sun behind them enhancing their silhouettes.

Cows roamed freely and we came across the occasional herd of water buffalo. Piles of dried mud suggested how treacherous the road would be in the rainy season.

We passed four buses that had become wedged in deep ruts and been abandoned. Our driver would have made a good rally driver. He careered along the sides of the road to avoid the larger ruts and potholes. He seemed to know the road well - a blessing considering annual monsoons had caused sheer erosion in some places. Here, the road was worn away and replaced by perpendicular drops into an abyss.

We were told to take 12 photocopies of our passports in case we were asked to surrender them at checkpoints. Perhaps it was a sign of Myanmar's thawing political system that we were asked to do this only once.

We were immensely relieved to arrive in Mandalay at twilight - hot, tired and covered from top to toe with a thick layer of fine dust. We were thankful to have made it at all.

Mandalay is a fast-growing modern city, with ever-increasing layers of busy-ness entwining themselves around the remnants of its British colonial past, but that's another story.

Rosemary Cooper paid her own way to Mandalay.

- Herald on Sunday

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