Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Burma Journal: On The Road to Mandalay

Burma Journal; The Road To Mandalay

© 2006
by Richard W. Wise

Day one:

I take the night plane from Bangkok and arrive in Yangon on Tuesday, March 1st. My old friend Lwin (pronounced Lu-win) my guide during my last trip met me at the airport. Lwin is a dark haired, middle aged fellow dressed in the traditional Burmese Longji, a tight wrap around skirt. An ethnic Shan, Lwin grew up in Mogok, a member of the tribe that has controlled the gem mining districts for centuries.

I Checked into an old hotel in the old part of downtown Rangoon. (I am having trouble using the new terminology, Burma will always be Burma and I prefer Rangoon to the newly minted “Yangon.”) The hotel is an old one with its dusty corridors, polished teak floors, squeaking ceiling fan and wide shutters it thrusts me back into my daydreams of old Burma.

My plan for a second visit to the ruby mining town of Mogok in the famous Valley of the Serpents has been derailed. The valley has, once again, been closed to westerners. The army has screwed the lid down tight. Lwin’s old friend the general, from whom we got a pass last time, has been put in jail. Oh well, I only traveled twenty-five thousand miles to get here. Lwin has an alternate plan. He suggests that we travel to Mandalay by car. Mandalay is only about six hours from Mogok. Lwin will contact the miners who will meet us in Mandalay. Meanwhile I’ll get to tour the country.

We will take it easy and do the trip in three stages... The first day we will drive two hundred miles upcountry and stop in a small town at a hotel that Lwin knows well. The second stage, another five or six hours by car, will bring us to the ancient temple city of Pagan (Bagan). We will visit and photograph a few of the major pagodas, stay overnight, and travel the short leg to Mandalay the next morning. The more I chew over this suggestion the better I like it. It’s a chance to see the countryside. After a hectic week in Bangkok I can use a break.

The next morning promptly at nine, (Lwin) and his friend John, (a thin dark skinned missionary educated Burmese of about fifty with an excellent command of English) show up and we plan our itinerary. The only thing I don’t like is the return, four hundred miles from Mandalay to Rangoon. in one shot. Lwin proposes an alternative. One way by air!, that sounds better; ok, deal!

We spend the morning visiting Rangoon dealers who have ruby and sapphire to sell. Prices, as my Bangkok contacts predicted, are very high, as high or higher than in Bangkok. Only see one stone I like, a 1.74 carat cushion shaped Burma ruby from the new mine at Namya. The color is not quite right so I pass without making an offer. I bought three exceptional heated rubies from the Mong Hsu mine in Bangkok. One oval started off at 1.88 carats. The stone showed exceptional “pigeon blood” color but required a slight shaving of the pavilion, a small sacrifice of weight to sharpen the crystal and bring out the saturation it finished at 1.74 carats. Mong Hsu stones are often a purer red hue than old mine stones; the usual secondary hue is purple. Mogok rubies tend toward the pink. Another, a 1.36 carat round (pictured) was a real find. I found another, a 3.60 carat oval paradigm, one of the finest rubies I have ever seen. Perfection is expensive but I had to buy it.

Natural color or burned (heat treated), rubies of fine color are extremely scarce, almost as rare as untreated. I must have closely examined over a hundred burned stones. In the ruby trading capital of the world, I saw almost nothing of fine color. One more stop and we see a few more rubies and a large sapphire. The sapphire color is good the lovely purplish blue “peacock” hue that Burma is famous for but unfortunately the stone is overcolor, too dark in tone.

I return to the hotel for checkout. First stop a small local restaurant that Lwin favors. The restaurant located on a side street It has an front wall open to the street. It’s a little lacking in ambience, with plain well-scared wooden tables, serviceable chairs and no tourists, a restaurant in a garage. We amble up to the front counter that is set up sort of delicatessen style. With Lwin’s guidance I pick out my dishes. The place is bustling, people dressed in the traditional Longji with a western shirt or top, eating talking and generally having a good time.

Burmese cooking features a broad palette of herbs and spices. We try mint leaves, chili, lemon, and a saffron flavored curry all served over rice. Burmese food pleasantly hot but Lwin cautions, beware of the cute little green chilies, they can change your life.

Fuel, gasoline and diesel is rationed in Burma. You are allowed two gallons per day. Lwin has a coupon book. Although his 1990 Toyota Corolla is diesel, this trip will require a good deal more than two gallons of fuel Per day. The two gallons are very cheap, 160 kyat. (900 kyat = $1.00 on the black market, the official rate is 500). For additional fuel you must pay the black-market price, about two fifty US per gallon at the unofficial exchange rate. Luckily you do not have to go down a dark alley or know the secret handshake; you just pay the additional money and receive your fuel at the same government controlled gas station where you purchased your legal ration.

Well, its 2;00 PM., fed and fueled, off we go on the first leg of our trip along the road to Mandalay. Once we clear Rangoon‘s noisy environs, we find ourselves on a blacktopped one and a half lane country road with traffic moving in both directions. The day is hot and the road dusty. The ride through the countryside is not disappointing. This road, clearly a main artery, provides a running panorama of life in rural Burma. Did I say rural Burma? All of Burma outside the few cities is rural. Burma is a nation of farmers.

Driving the road requires a bit of etiquette. Compact cars going in opposite directions can pass each other, barely. But if you meet a lorry there is a delicate two-step that usually finds the smaller vehicle giving the most ground. Luckily outside the city, most of the traffic is made up of bicycles, trishaws and bullock carts.

The trishaw is a unique and interesting vehicle. It is basically a bicycle with a one-wheeled sidecar. It is the Burmese peasant’s answer to the family automobile. With a little planning it’ can carry five. Two in the sidecar, (wife facing front, mother-in-law facing rear); one child on the rear fender and another on the front handlebars. If you are a farmer, the bullock cart may be your vehicle of choice. Two yoked bullocks power this handmade wooden beauty. A bit slow off the line, it sports a five-foot wheelbase and can easily carry a large family and the family groceries. It’s a multi-purpose vehicle, sort of a third world SUV. When not in use carrying passengers it is perfect for off-road use (harvesting crops). It is easily navigable through all but the deepest rice paddies.

Lwin is the type of driver whose driving style would reduce a New York cabbie to fear and trembling. His technique is simple: If its smaller just keep punching the horn until it moves to the side of the road. If the vehicle is bigger than you are; keep on keeping on until the very last minute. The other guy will probably give a little and if that’s not enough its up and over the shoulder. Watch that bullock cart! He has a manual shift, four on the floor, but mostly uses two just two…fast and stop. At the end of the journey I can recall only one instance when we were passed (a large bus on a dirt road). The rest of the time it was us passing them. The man is the Burmese version of a grand prix racer. I am sure we passed half the motorized vehicles in Burma.

Along many sections of the road huge ancient Acacia trees, dating from the days of the British Raj, form a canopy shading the road.. Rice appears to be the dominant crop and we pass field after field with rows upon row of tender green shoots.

Six hours later we pull up at a bungalow hotel in the small town of Brome about two hundred miles south of Bagan. The hote

l is situated on a small lake and we eat our dinner al fresco on a covered deck overlooking the water. The food is good; I have a chicken stir fry dish laced with cashews. The night is hot and sultry, the food delicately flavored. Burmese music blasts from a loudspeaker somewhere in the distance.
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1 comment:

Tom Goodwin, G.G. said...

A very good read, Richard. I especially enjoyed your relating about going through rubies to find one actually worth paying a lot of money for!