The first Impression, flying in to Mandalay from Bangkok, is of bright blue roofs. Closer to the ground green roofs emerge from the surrounding foliage. It’s not significant, just a change from orange, red or grey. The airport itself is new – a runway in the middle of a field – we are the only plane at the terminal. It’s reminiscent of the early days of Ryan Air and Easyjet in Europe, who flew into provincial upgraded airstrips two hours away from where you wanted to go. Tour guide Richard and owner of Outside the Square (almost independent travel for Gay men and their friends) is there to meet me. There are others to arrive on a later flight so there’s time for coffee – a pale late – and to get cash out of an ATM. Two or three years ago there was only one in the whole country, now there are two at this airport and they pop up in the cities and Hotels. Myanmar is gearing up for a future of tourism, so it’s good to be getting in before the rest of the world. Mike and Ray, both from Auckland, emerge with damaged luggage. Ray’s wheelie rucksack has a gaping compartment exposing all his pills and potions.
He’s cheerful enough about it and has brought along needle and thread to re-mend the tear. John and Nev, both from Christchurch are also on this flight so now we are six and the next introduction is to a bus nick-named Priscilla – after that camp Australian movie with Terrence Stamp in drag. The Windows are adorned with a scalloped pelmet with mauve tassels. Red and white fairy lights and lacy antimacassars on floral seats complete the picture. Priscilla (not her real name) belongs to the Mother-in-Law of our local guide, Georgie, who employs a driver and assistant Oo. We galumph along a rolling dual carriage-way into the city at a sedate pace. Myanmar is both a very ancient civilisation and an emerging country. Ruled by strong in kings the 10 – 12th centuries, the country was subsumed by the British in the exploitative way of Empire. The Japanese drove out the British in WW2 and were in turn defeated by the allies. For decades now, the country has been ruled by Generals. All the while the patient Burmese have continued, sustained by their Buddhist faith. Their reward has been a democratically elected government lead by Aung San Suu Kyi.
We are staying at MaMa’s Guest house, owned and run by a woman called Sue. She’s clearly looking to the future, preparing for the influx of tourists, (visas, previously issued for seven days, now last for twenty-eight) and she is building an extension. A new ground floor reception/dining room is complete and workmen are building two floors above for accommodation. Mark and Garry from San Francisco arrived the day before, so after sorting rooms and bags we 8 set off in Priscilla to the Sandamuni Pagoda.
The central stupa is surrounded by fields of small white stupas, each housing a marble tablet inscribed with the writings of Buddha. It’s been described as a temple surrounded by the world’s larges book. Richard has provided us each with a lungyi, the all purpose garment worn by men and women. We’ve had instruction on how to tie them, a cause of much hilarity and varying degrees of success. Basically it’s a tube of material and you have to step into it, draw one end up to waist level, hold it out on each side with your hands. There follows a movement best described as lifting and drawing together so the front stays up and the sides are brought to the centre, twisted around each other and tucked into either side of the centre tail which ends up looking a bit like a codpiece – cue more hilarity and size envy – as one might expect from a group of gay men old enough to know better.
We adopt the lungyi to visit the temples, mainly for respect. Though we are all wearing longish shorts there’s a chance of revealing a knee. Shoes of course have to be removed, so I think we are going to get tough soles on this tour. The Burmese of course have the most beautiful broad feet, un-spoilt by narrow fitting shoes. This temple complex continues down the road, where preparations are being made for a celebration.
Terracotta dishes are being lined up along the paths, filled with oil, wicks added ad lit. People are arriving in their finery and we learn that it’s Aung San Suu Kyi’s 71st birthday. 710 lamps have been lit.
A young man has a drone overlooking the scene. We decide to stay on, postpone the next temple and rearrange our dinner time.
A band from the San area is playing and men dance in mock fights, one with gold painted wooden swords. Aung San Suu Kyi is much revered and now her birthday can be celebrated more openly. It feels like an
honour to stay and share it with the people, who are so welcoming and accepting. The security guard and the Red Cross Brigade insist on being photographed with us. We as westerners are
curiosities but also a link to the rest of the world, although none of this is spoke … yet. I just wonder what they would make of the extraordinary politics happening on the other side of their world at this moment.
Mama’s is cooking us dinner tonight and the last of our party, Richard from Titirangi and Peter from Perth arrive from a few days in Yangon, in time to eat: Chicken Burmese style; Spicy Aubergines; stir fried vegetables and tea salad (hot and delicious) and rice washed down with local beer. We sit around the table and introduce ourselves one by one. Life stories are exchanged, questions asked and laughter shared. It’s a good start and it’s going to be a good group of people who have lived full and busy lives.