Wednesday was a travel day… we squeezed in another wonderful buffet
breakfast at the Chatrium before taxiing through Bankgok’s madness to the northern airport, where Thai Airways spirited us north to Mandalay’s airport, which inexplicably sits an hour south of town. Sue navigated the terminal with aplomb; the boys were pleased to learn that by Burmese standards, they are millionaires: the exchange rate here is 1,300 Kyat per dollar.
Mandalay isn’t much to look at. It’s a young city – the British established it as a colonial capital about 150 years ago – and it was bombed to smithereens in WWII. Set on the banks of the Ayeyarwady in the midst of its flat, fertile valley, the primary streets are laid out on a simple NSEW grid with a huge but inaccessible fortress in the center of town. In most cities such a parcel and the waterways would impede traffic… here they actually help because the eliminate cross traffic… which is the bane of the Burmese roadways: few intersections have stop signs (let alone traffic lights), and momentum or might makes right on these roads.
It’s taking me some time to get used to the new old names for things around here… the Burmese government has made a point of replacing colonial names familiar to us in literature: Burma’s now Myanmar; the Irrawaddy River is once again Ayeyarwady; Rangoon is again Yangon. Renaming isn’t enough… to completely reject colonialism the Burmese have moved the capital, and moved from left to right-side driving (though some hold that change was General Ne Win’s decision on the advice of a wizard).
Sue and the boys were a bit stressed from the travel, so I left them to relax at our hotel and set off to explore. I immediately got lost, but righted myself when I bumped unexpectedly into the train station, which serves as a good navigation point. It is as sad and neglected as any station I’ve seen, with abandoned tracks and forlorn train cars… small autos and motorbikes rule transport here. Walking north to the fortress then west through the soulless commercial streets I finally stumbled upon a market and some commercial charms before returning to the hotel.
The highlight of our day came in the afternoon when we taxied north to 800′ Mandalay Hill, shed our shoes and barefooted our way up to the hilltop temple. Soon we were greeted by two friendly monks intent on improving their English skills. They escorted us up and down the hill and we enjoyed a fair, friendly exchange.
The monks humbly rise at 430AM each morning, wander the streets and gather breakfast alms before returning to their monastery for worship and study. They eat again late morning then fast for 12 waking hours each day. Their evenings are free; hence our encounter.
Our dinner plans were foiled when we discovered the local pizza joint was closed. Mandalay’s streets are safe but dark and dirty, and the western dining options are few… the boys were growing despondent and irritable. I seem to enjoy seat-of-the-pants travel more than my kin; it’s a struggle to teach my boys how to role with life’s little punches… but I guess one of parenting’s great challenges is to teach resiliency, and budget travel presents many opportunities. I’m gravitating towards the theme of “Hero or Victim” as a relatable training tool… “Ben I know its disappointing when things don’t go according to plan. Now you have a cjhoice: are you going to manage it like a hero or a victim?” Eventually we found Bistro 82, a fine European-style eater with European prices. Crisis averted, lesson in persistence delivered.