In the dock of Tiger Bay
On the road to Mandalay
From Bombay to Santa Fe
Over hills and far away
Hit me with your rhythm stick
Hit me! Hit me!
S ince planning to get on the road to Mandalay, this great song by Ian Dury has become my earworm. Having left my alpine walking stick under a banyan tree, and also now having left my replacement bamboo stick in hotel reception in Nyaungshwe I think I’m probably better off with this mental stick!
The Road to Mandalay is also a famous poem by Rudyard Kipling (he wrote The Jungle Book, Kim, Just So Stories For Little Children, and a great many more). It’s a rather sentimental poem about a British soldier’s reminiscences of Burma. It’s very much a poem of colonial times. And anything associated with colonial times is something that the Myanmar military government has been trying, with some success, since 1962, to erase. And basically it’s not PC to talk about British rule in Burma. So I had to have a hearty laugh when I googled Road To Mandalay and came across a short video of Boris Johnson on a recent visit to Myanmar. He’s standing next to the British Ambassador, and like some “oh such a clever schoolboy”, he’s reciting aloud Kipling’s Road to Mandalay. The ambassador is doing his damndest to stop him but Boris can’t help himself and just keeps reciting away. You must watch it. It’s laughable. Or maybe he’s being intentionally mischevious and thinking, I’m British and I’ll bloody well recite Kipling whenever and wherever I like. Who knows.
The real road to Mandalay (from the southeast) is a nightmare. We’re on another long haul JJ Express bus journey – this time only eight hours. But the first four hours is like grinding through the world’s biggest quarry. We’re sitting at the rear, just in front of where the second driver is sleeping on the back seat. And he snores, as does the passenger next to me, and his feet (or some other part) smells bad. The second four hours is a relative breeze and it’s great to arrive at Mandalay bus station at 3.15am. We transfer to a free shuttle bus for a short ride downtown. Then we haggle with our first tuk tuk taxi driver.
We’re in Mandalay really for only one reason. Jo likes bridges (and rocks) and in Mandalay there is one very special bridge – the U Bein bridge – the world’s longest teak footbridge . It is definitely a bridge, as it joins two land masses, but it looks more like a very long pier (1.25 km long). It spans the shallow Lake Taungthaman and is constructed from a framework of massive teak logs driven into the bed of the lake. It’s impressive. And the best time to see it is at sunrise or sunset. So here we are at 3.30am haggling with a tuk tuk driver. And we think the sun rises at about 5.30.
We do a deal. Tuk tuk man will take us to our hotel where we’ll wake somebody up and drop off our bags. He’ll then drive us for thirty minutes to the bridge, wait for an hour and a half, then drive us back to our hotel. All for 15,000 kyats (£7.50).
But Jo, me and our bags won’t all fit in the tiny tuctuc. So he slings Jo’s bag on the roof (not mine!!) and straps it down. Off we go. Ten minutes down the road and the strap holding Jo’s bag springs off. I reach up and hold it in place. What fun we’re having.
We do wake everybody up at hotel reception and dump our bags and we make it to the U Bein bridge at 4.45am. It’s been a long night and I’m gagging for a cup of hot sweet Myanmar tea but everything is closed. We head into the dark and step onto the bridge’s first creaky planks.
We pass the occasional monk or surprisingly a woman performing keep fit exercises but we’re mostly alone. We cross the bridge in total darkness. Its 5.30 and no sunrise. No tea to be had on the far shore either although I can see cafe owners stirring from the tents within their cafe terraces where they sleep. We start the return crossing and I point out to Jo a faint glow to the east – a hint of orange in an indigo sky. Jo is seeking out the “money shot”. The sky and lake turn a dramatic pink and the indigo sky above lightens to a yellowish glow. We are halfway on our return walk and Jo says she’s going back for better photographs. I tell her I’ll wait – which I do for about thirty minutes. And I’m completely captivated by the scene. More people are arriving for early morning gymnastics. The lake is now alive with flocks of birds – corvids, fish eagles, assorted wetland fowl. I clap my hands to ward off a couple of rats. Peering over the bridge parapet I look down at a huge water buffalo tethered to a teak pillar. And all the while the colours are changing in the sky and its reflection in the lake. The U Bein bridge and the lake are palpably alive.
Jo does eventually return with a big grin on her face. And after nearly two hours tuk tuk man is happy that we have eventually returned too.
We’re tired. I’m writing this blog next to a splendid swimming pool in a tropical oasis garden in downtown Mandalay. Thank you Rough Guide. For $5 each we can relax and sleep here all day. And that’s exactly what we’re gonna do.