|We got up at 6am and packed up our stuff in a hurry - both eager to get going. We were out the door with bikes loaded in no time flat. The owner was waiting for us outside, smiling. He was probably glad to see us go. I can't say I blame him, for all the hassle he put himself and us through. We both shook his hand, and rode off. We were hoping to get breakfast in a different part of town, on our way out. We found just the place. After some Shan noodles we were all fueled up for the ride.
The traffic was really heavy on the road out of town, and we passed several rough sections with construction under way. There were many people working with their bare hands and flip-flops on their feet. Once we got out of Kyaukse the road was in really good condition, and there was little traffic other than slow-moving horse-drawn carriages, people on bicycles and scooters, and the occasional bus or truck full of people holding on for dear life. Buses and trucks really let it rip on better roads. It was flat almost the entire way, but neither of us was really enjoying the ride. It lacked the feel of the last couple of days, with villages, people and rougher roads to make things a bit more exciting for us. We passed a man pulling a cart barefoot, and there was what looked like a dead body in it. That too set the tone for the day's ride.
We passed countless stands selling fuel out of little canisters and barrels, with the help of a funnel and some tubing. Some of the stands came equipped with beds and other home furnishings, as many of the people minding the stands likely live on site. At one point we passed about 20 of them in a row, spaced no more than 50 m apart. Most of these folks wait around all day just to sell 1 or 2 litres of fuel, otherwise there wouldn't be so many of them around.
We stopped several times on the way. The heat was unbearable as there was nothing but the bare highway. We were completely out in the sun the entire time. Our first stop on the way was a papaya fruit stand. A lady peeled and cut one up for us, and we enjoyed it under the shade of a tree. We could see that she probably got the papayas from the trees directly behind us.
We carried on, stopping later on for some tea. At the tea shop we watched a government official treat the people like his own personal staff. They all appeared relieved as he disappeared on his scooter. As we sat there watching the traffic go by, 5 men rode by on their old, rusty single-speeds carrying huge loads of green bananas, mounted front and back. Our loads looked puny compared to theirs. We also watched the traffic at a nearby betel stand. Many folks got their betel fix while we had our teas. People of all walks of life chew it here. It is way more popular than cigarettes in Myanmar, and is as addictive from the looks of it. They don't seem to care about what it's doing to their teeth. Sometimes you get a flash of toothless, blood-red gums, and you wonder if it's considered a sign of beauty in these parts - judging from the lack of restraint in displaying it. Kids as young as 8 or 10 seem to do it, but than again kids as young as 8 or 10 seem to carry massive loads of coal on their backs, or work in teashops instead of heading to school.
We made a couple more stops along the way. The road to Mandalay became really dusty at one point. We passed a row of women to our right, moving rocks onto the road and laying them out with bare hands. The thought of forced labour entered our minds. We rode into Mandalay with rather heavy hearts.
Navigating through the city of Mandalay was simple. There are streets going in both directions in straight lines, and there are street signs in English marking most of the major ones (unlike Yangon). With a little looking, we were able to figure out which way to go on our own. To get to our guesthouse, we went through a busy food market before turning onto a cobble-stoned road lined with shops selling nothing but monk gear. At the end of the street we could clearly see the golden Eindawya Pagoda. Our guesthouse looked surprisingly modern in this old part of town. The long-awaited shower was a cold disappointment. To make matters worse, the showerhead sprayed in all directions except the one we wanted it to, but we were happy to get cleaned up.
We arrived in Mandalay during the donation festival, where people collect funds and other donations in support of monks and monasteries. We also happened to be staying in the 'monk district' of Mandalay, a place that boasts the highest number of monks in all of Myanmar. Several large and flashy displays were set up, with bad music blaring through some cheap speakers, further distorting the sound. Each stand had a guy with a microphone, trying to yell his lines over the music. You could hear it coming from a few blocks away. There was a huge variety of small displays for sale, all made out of money. Nothing but the crispest of Kyat bills were glued together around various Buddha images, and made into a variety of designs, from peacocks to flowers.
Later we chatted to an Indian man visiting his family (the restaurant owners) from Yangon, over some cold Indian food, and tasty lassis. He sat with us for a few solid hours. Eventually we felt more at ease asking him questions about Myanmar. He answered them candidly, but often didn't fully listen. There is roughly 60% Buddhists, 20% Muslims and the rest Christians and other in the country. The government is very controlling, and locals have to worry about what they say and to whom. The government wants all the American cash they can get. Locals do not have the right to possess American money, and they can be searched and jailed if they possess some without a legitimate explanation. Of course, virtually at every street corner you can exchange American dollars for Kyat on the spot. It is extremely difficult to have any type of a 'legitimate' business in the country, unless you have the right type of connections. Otherwise, there are miles of red tape, and heavy restrictions, which make any venture unfeasible. The man we chatted with imports stuff from Thailand illegally by paying off several key individuals. He extracts a living out of it, but knows fully well that getting caught would send him to jail indefinitely.
The average person in Myanmar (trishaw driver, labourer, phone operator etc...) makes about 15000Kyat a month. One US dollar is worth 1300Kyat on the black market. A tea in a tea shop will set you back 150Kyat if your're a foreigner, and less if you're a local. You can get a couple of oranges for 100-200Kyat, and a bowl of noodles is roughly 400-500Kyat. It is no wonder that many people live on the streets. Often you see a whole family sleeping at their food stall, and sell food in the same place in the morning. There are many children begging for money. There is a staggering amount of child labour. Most kids work in tea shops from early morning to late at night, or perform heavy labour such as carrying coal or other stuff within the city. Parents have to pay to send kids to school, as well as supply them with a clean uniform - which makes it virtually impossible for some kids to even dream of going to school.
Over the last couple of decades, many young people fled to find work in Malaysia, Singapore or Thailand. As soon as they turn 18 they apply for a passport, and hire an agent to get them overseas work and a visa - a very costly process. Parents often spend their last pennies to give their child a chance at a better life. In Thailand, they can earn 10 times more, doing the same jobs. What often happens is that they work to have fun, and buy what they never dreamed of having back home, while their families go further and further into debt back home.
A few years ago, the government stopped issuing home phone licenses, and in order to own a phone in Myanmar you need to fork out $3000 US, to purchase an existing license. At that price, there are virtually no home phones, except in the homes of the obscenely rich. In order to make a phone call, as there are no pay phones either, you go to a street vendor. There, the operator dials the phone for you and watches you the entire time as you're having a conversation. No privacy, no freedom of communication. This is a rather effective way of preventing people from communicating ideas to each other freely. Internet is also heavily censored, and prohibitively expensive for the average person in Myanmar. Most sites are blocked. In order to send an email, you write it out on a piece of paper, and they send it for you, possibly revised.
By the time we left the restaurant it was dark outside. And I mean dark. No street lights, no lights in windows, except for the rare, generator-powered fluorescent bulb, and a bunch of candles. Walking through the streets of Mandalay is like walking down a country road at night, and if you look above you'll definitely see the stars. You often see shapes of people moving around, but more often than not it is difficult to make out what they're doing, or how many there are. There are large piles of garbage on street corners and in alleys. Little kids often sort through these at night, along with the stray dogs.