The Book

Returning to Mandalay

On the fifteenth day of my sojourn in Myanmar, we left Lo Hsin Han's Nadi Ayeyar Hotel before dawn to catch the early train to Mandalay. The streets were deserted, except for a few cyclists, but Lashio station, even at the early hour, was already a busy place. Still-drowsy passengers wearing long-sleeved jackets and coats were having their early morning mohinga as baggage handlers wrestled and shoved a great amount of baggage and freight into the few freight cars. Our attendant, U San Win, met us at the gate and smoothly guided us through the crowd to our coach, which had already been attached to the mail train.

As though they had been signaled by hidden cameras, two immigration officials arrived almost immediately. While one of them did the necessary paperwork, the attendant served hot tea and we engaged the other one in friendly small talk. Then another unexpected "guest" arrived, but he politely declined my invitation for a cup of tea. He was an officer of the Military Intelligence, a tall man in his late thirties who looked impressive in his boots, fitted green trousers, and padded olive-colored jacket. I supposed that the poor man had probably needed to get up before five o'clock and then drive across the dark town on his motorcycle just to make sure that this nosy, troublesome tourist would definitely leave town.

Just when the city seemed to be waking up, the train pulled out of the station. From the twenty-nine hundred foot (880 meters) altitude of Lashio, we would slowly descend over a period of about twelve hours into the dry central plain of Upper Burma and then, at the end of the day, reach Mandalay. Aung Aung and I sat down to breakfast, he to have his favorite noodle soup and I a Western meal of boiled eggs, a slice of white bread, papaya with lemon, a banana, and a cup of English tea. As the train rolled down the mountains toward Hsipaw, we took pleasure in the scenic countryside. I was glad to be on the road again, even though it was the same route we had traveled a few days earlier. Hsipaw would be the next stop, then Pyin Oo Lwin, and finally hot and humid Mandalay.

Glancing our the window I saw a little boy herding several goats toward the green slopes, but it was time for me to do some reading and to work on my journal. And so I let the landscape slip by unnoticed for a while. At Hsipaw, we could see the Dokhtawady River and the Grand Haw of Sao Oo Kya from the train, but I returned to my writing until U San Win called us to another of his wonderful lunches, after which I indulged in my ritual afternoon nap.

Arriving at the Mandalay station two hours late, I was relieved to see the travel agent's driver waiting for us at the gate. But first we had to talk to the stationmaster about our coach. I quickly gained the impression from him that our protest about the "stolen" car had gotten the attention of the Ministry of Railway in Yangon; they were sending our original coach back the next day. But after a short consultation with Aung Aung, we decided to keep going in the new coach. Doing so would save us the trouble of moving all our belongings and provisions, and besides, I was feeling a bit perverse; however, I did ask for compensation for the lost provisions and return of the cash we had given the attendant knowing full well that both requests would be ignored. It seemed important at the time to remind them in some way that they had treated a foreign tourist improperly.

Even though my private railroad car had been most comfortable, Mandalay was a hot city and I wanted to enjoy the amenities of a nice hotel for a change. So I checked into the Swan Hotel, a pleasant and restful place with a swimming pool where I could relax, take a swim now and then, and prepare for the last lap of my journey through Myanmar. Day sixteen was therefore to be a day of leisure and rest. We did a little shopping at the bustling Zegyo Market, where we stocked up on provisions, bought some soccer balls for the boys at the orphanage, and a padded jacket to keep me warm in the cool Kachin hills. We also visited the orphanage and observed some classes that were attended by girls and boys from the other two orphanages as well. I found the seriousness of the children extraordinary and wondered if perhaps their attentiveness was the result of their experiences prior to coming here. Or are the monks too strict with them? Some of the children, especially those with disabilities, must have had an especially difficult life before coming to the orphanage. A Chinese-Burmese boy from Muse told me that he had been sold to a Chinese family after his parents had died and that he had run away and made it all the way to Mandalay. I noticed a young Danu boy who was partially blind and a girl who appeared to be so ill that she could not keep her head up during the lesson and soon fell asleep on her bench, with her head resting on the desk.

Some of the children had a great deal of trouble in following the lessons; these children came from minority tribes in the Frontier Areas and did not yet speak or understand Burmese well enough to do well in school. The method of instruction was recitation of a text by the teachers, after which all the students would repeat the text, in unison and at the top of their lungs. On the other hand, the senior students, about sixteen years of age, quietly studied mathematics. They also receive instructions in two foreign languages, English and Japanese. All of the classrooms had cement floors and were sparsely furnished with some dark, old, wooden benches and small tables; the walls were unpainted. The abbot again invited us to lunch with him and, as before, we ate only after the monks had finished their meal.

It was a luxury to spend part of the early afternoon at the pool before packing my suitcase and leaving for the train station at about five o'clock, early enough to make sure we had the right coach to take us on our journey north to Kachin State.


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