The Sights and Sounds Of Burma Along The Road to Mandalay

In one short flight from Bangkok, we have traveled decades in time.

We are now traveling by bus along one of the world's old roads. The moon is close to full. The potholed pavement winds laboriously north to Mandalay, skirting canals, crossing railroad tracks, threading between stately rows of trees in the countryside and close, low, candlelit thatched dwellings in the villages.

Boys in traditional Burmese dress - skirts called longyi - bat a cane ball strung between two bamboo poles. Cooking fires flare in dark rooms and one bare bulb hangs in a tea shop where men gather to drink sweet, milky tea or Ovaltine, sitting outside on low chairs and at low tables.

At 1 a.m., numerous people are walking south, sharing the road with pony carts, bullock carts, and bicycles. Women carry bundles of firewood on their heads. We pass flooded rice paddies and the grass huts of their keepers.

Ann and I leave the bus, which has no bathroom, for a pit stop around 2 a.m. The air is cooler than Bangkok could ever be. Already this road meets our need to travel to less-discovered places. We soak up sights, sounds, and smells, hungry for the details that bring to life a people and a country.

We are standing in the middle of the largest north-south artery in Burma at 2 a.m., feeling the cool, watching the monks, and men file back on the bus. A bicycle bell rings and we step out of the way.

Pagodas along the way

We pass distant pagodas lit up gold at night, and roadside pagodas inlaid with tiny mirrors that catch and reflect our headlights. We pass mosques and churches, including one with a neon green cross. We stop often to fill our radiator with water from the canal. As the night starts to lift and recede, great flocks of large white birds wheel over the rice paddies.

The nuns in Burma wear pink. It gives them an oddly coquettish look offset by the severity of their crew-cut hair. The monks dress in maroon, a serious and mature color. The youngest monks are five and six years old. They scramble about with their black lacquer begging bowls, looking like tiny old men. Or they ride on top of buses, robes billowing, heads shaved, expressing a kid's excitement in the hot wind.

The monks on our bus are not young. Through the night they watch the movie "Judge Dredd" with some interest, followed by "Waterworld." The movies are shown in English with - inexplicably - English subtitles, on a small screen behind the driver's head. The ride is 388 miles, accomplished in 16 hours.

Between movies we have loud Burmese music to keep us awake, and snack stops to keep us happy. The bus pulls up in front of a tin-roofed shed where a dozen tables are already filled with local travelers. Out front, a man throws circles of dough into a spitting vat of oil. A boy runs from table to table scooping up dishes in his arms, shouting shrill orders to three laughing women making noodle soup. The din is extraordinary. The dim light from a single overheard bulb lends a foggy aura to the scene. Suddenly a piece of pineapple cake is thrust in front of Ann, and I receive a bowl of noodle soup with what looks like a duck bill sunk at the bottom.

Moving again we pass large trucks carrying old-growth forests - teak logs - to market in Mandalay. We pass a woman carrying two water buckets hung from a pole across her shoulders. She walks with a quick running step to keep the water from spilling onto the road. We pass ancient tractors and a small boy asleep on the tailgate of a truck piled high with bamboo poles. Four people on a bicycle. Live chickens in bamboo baskets. Girls with large creamy circles of sandalwood decorating their cheeks. Everyone wearing longyi.

The charms of Rangoon

For many Westerners the road to Mandalay begins in Bangkok. There we were told that if we wanted to see Bangkok as it once might have looked - a river city, a capital city, a revered city - we must go to Rangoon, whose new name is Yangon, in Burma, whose name is now Myanmar.

The avenues of Rangoon are lined with trees, and at night only the rare car is out. Early in the morning the joggers' path is the yellow line down the center of the street. Cars still yield to horse carts. Bicycles and trishaws are more numerous than motorcycles. Bangkok has none of this. It has a furious appeal too relentless to be called charm, but its open parks show a hint of what was. It is a hard, alive, noisy, dirty, crowded place.

Traveling the road to Mandalay I felt myself on a river running backward. From the moment we landed in Burma, time had begun to reverse itself, and with every northward kilometer we lost more of what we facilely call the modern world. I was happy to lose it, and to leave behind the demands of its frantic pace, its materialism, and most of all its violence.

The violence in Burma is that of a military government against its own people, but among those people humanity has become more important. As tourists we were treated with kindness and respect - and curiosity - by everyone except soldiers, with whom we had one tense encounter. Ironically, the government has declared this year "Visit Myanmar Year" in an attempt to attract foreign dollars when its human rights violations are attracting international attention.

On the outskirts of Mandalay we passed men and women laboring to improve the road. A woman stood in the smoke of her fire, heating tar in a 50-gallon drum. This was the new road in the making. She'd built her fire under one of the trees that lined the road, and its magnificent canopy shaded her from the growing heat of the day. When progress finds this place, these beautiful old trees will be the first to go. Their shade will be sacrificed for wider, faster, and more efficient travel. Air-conditioned vehicles will prevail. Progress takes no prisoners. It is not sentimental. This woman will not stand here much longer.

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