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The Road to Mandalay and Back

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In early November 1995 1 had the opportunity to travel
overland through Burma by truck.  My Burmese friends drove
with me from Rangoon north to Mandalay by way of Pegu,
Toungoo, Pyinmana and Meiktila, Then we returned to the
capital by a different route which took us through Pagan,
Yenangyaung, Magwe and Prome, The trip took four days. 
Although our destinations were the popular tourist attractions of
Mandalay and Pagan, most of the trip took us through areas
which foreign tourists rarely see.  We stayed overnight in
Meiktila and Yenangyaung, These towns afforded little in the
way of major touristic or cultural sites, but provided me with
the chance to catch glimpses of everyday life in the Burman

The roads over which we travelled were, with one exception
mentioned below, all in very bad condition.  Often they were
only a single lane wide.  This required some pretty fancy
maneuvering by drivers wishing to overtake slower traffic.  The
scarcity of buses, trucks and automobiles relative to the
population was evident from the crowded or overloaded
condition of most motor traffic.  Trucks were piled high with
goods, a practice which was not only dangerous because truck
drivers go very fast but hard on the antique highways (you
could actually feel the road shiver and shake as overloaded
trucks roared by).  Ordinary buses carried Burmese or foreign
tourists, but the most common form of public transportation is
either a small pickup truck fitted with seats in the back or a
larger truck which might have been better used hauling cargo. 
Both were invariably filled with passengers jammed in like
commuters on the Tokyo subway.  People also sat on the tops of
the trucks, a dangerous practice given the bouncing of the
vehicles over rough roads.

Non - motor vehicles included two forms of animal - drawn
wagon: the tonga,  an Indian- style two - wheeled, roofed
conveyance usually found in the towns and villages and drawn
by a horse; and simple cart drawn by one or two bullocks and
used mostly by farmers.  In Burma, animal- drawn vehicles are
not "quaint' or "exotic". but absolutely necessary given the lack
of motorized alternatives.  Outside the big cities, scooters or
motorcycles were rather rare.  As in China during the pre- Deng
Xiaoping era, bicycles are popular.  These are made in China or
locally.  Very often a bicycler would have a companion seated
in front or back of him/ her and a bit of cargo.  Another popular
form of conveyance is a bicycle which has been refitted to carry
passengers in a sidecar: in other words, a simple trishaw. We
left Rangoon around 6:00 in the morning, driving north through
Mingaladon Township which contains Burma's only
international airport and extensive military installations.  Many
of the soldiers based at Mingaladon and their families voted for
the National League for Democracy in the May 1990 election,
a major reason why SLORC chose to delay indefinitely the
promised transfer of power to a civilian government.  We
encountered several convoys of military trucks rolling north. 
These were new, Chinese-built Aeolus' trucks rather than the
antiquated Hino models which had been the military's principal
transport vehicle when I visited Rangoon in 1991.

We went north to Pegu, and stopped to see the Shwemawdaw
Pagoda, one of the most famous Buddhist sites in the country. 
A few miles up the highway we saw the first of many village
festivals.  There were large numbers of nicely dressed young
men and women bringing offerings of cash to the temples.  But
we also saw a fight between several young men carrying long
sticks and an axe.  The axe- wielder set off in hot pursuit of one
of the other men, running dangerously close to our truck.  He
hit the man with his axe, but fortunately did not draw much
blood.  Then he dropped his weapon, but continued the pursuit. 
The young men were drunk (this was about 8:30 in the
morning).  At other festivals upcountry I was made aware of an
undercurrent of frustration and violence which seem to come to
the surface whenever village men drank toddy (palm wine).

North of Nyaunglebiri Township., we encountered the first of
many forced labor details.  They were responsible for keeping
the road in good repair.  Their work consisted in heating tar in a
metal barrel over an open fire, then dropping the hot tar in the
ubiquitous potholes.  My recollection is that this labor detail,
and others I would see in Upper Burma, were made up mostly
of old men, old women. and children.  Their exertions were an
exercise in futility since nothing short of a complete
reconstruction of the highway could have eliminated the bumps
on roads which in many cases dated back to the British colonial
era.  But the government clearly cannot afford major
infrastructure projects - at least not as long as it spends so much
of its resources on purchasing weapons from China and other
foreign countries.

In this area there were fewer military convoys but a fairly large
number of trucks carrying big teak logs.  I wondered if trucks
have replaced the traditional method of transporting logs from
Upper to Lower Burma: floating them down the rivers.

We stopped for lunch at a small Chinese restaurant, and then
got gas from a black market shop.  These are marked discreetly
with a small plastic or metal motor oil container set out by the
side of the road.  According to my friends, the Tatmadaw sells
this gasoline at a profit to black market middlemen, who then
store it in metal or plastic containers for sale to passing
motorists.  The 'gas station attendants', often women and
children, run out with a big barrel or plastic container of
gasoline and place it on a tripod which puts it in an elevated
position above the tank.  Gravity allows the gasoline to run
down a rubber hose through a funnel (equipped with fine wire
mesh to filter out foreign objects) into the tank.  These black
market establishments are extremely dangerous since, as
mentioned, the fuel is kept in containers above ground. 
Supposedly the great fire in Mandalay in 1981 was caused by a
fire breaking out at a black market gasoline store.  Ironically,
the city's small number of fire fighting trucks did not have
enough fuel to get to the fire!

Most of the countryside which we passed through, consisting of
rice fields, seemed prosperous.  Villages were nicely built and
attractive.  Houses seemed to be of three types; wooden, thatch,
and concrete.  Contrary to the common belief that "nothing has
been built in Burma since 1962", many of the concrete houses,
displaying their construction dates on their facades. had been
built in the late 1980s or early 1990s, Most of theses however,
were in the traditional (for lack of a better term) colonial A
style.  The Burmese apparently have not discovered the post -
modern concrete box style of architecture which makes so much
of Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines so unbearably ugly.
         People in this part of the country dressed very well, taking that
care in appearance which seems customary among the Burmese. 
I recall thinking to myself that stories of malnourished children
and people caught in an unbreakable cycle of poverty did not
seem too believable in this benign land.  But my impressions
would change as we went north.

At 2:40 p.m. we reached Toungoo, a town famous as the
birthplace of the great Burman kings Tabinshwehti and
Sayinnaung and as the place where succulent bananas -- unlike
any that I have seen outside of Burma -- are grown.  Their skins
have a remarkable bronze color and they taste much better than
the stuff imported to the United States from Central America. 
Soon after we crossed the border of Pegu Division into
Mandalay Division four Tatmadaw men hitched a ride in the
back of our truck. Toting rifles, they just hopped in without
asking "please".  When they arrived at their destination, they
rapped on the cabin for the driver to stop, saluted, and jumped
out.  I asked him if the soldiers made him afraid.  "No," he said. 
"I haven't done anything".  The incident reminded me of the
Third Amendment to the American Constitution which says that
"No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house,
without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a
manner to be prescribed by law".  Doubtlessly my friends
would have been in serious trouble if they had refused to
"quarter" the soldiers in the truck.  Incidentally, they told me
that it is illegal for persons to hitch rides in private vehicles. 
We had several groups of civilian hitch-hikers on our journey
through Upper Burma.  Because of the law, some of them were
initially reluctant to take up our offer of a ride even though this
saved them a perhaps expensive ride in a tonga or an arduous
walk along the dusty roadside.

Around Toungoo the main crop seemed to be sugar cane rather
than rice.  One of the farmers used his dah or Burmese machete
to strip the outer layer off the sugar cane and gave us each a
piece as a snack.  Sugar cane is very chewy, and only mildly

In the town of Pyinmana in Mandalay Division we saw a large
agricultural college which had been built by the Russians.  My
friends also pointed out a dam, built by the South Korean
Hyundai Corporation, which does not function because it lacks
a source of water.  Who is responsible for such a stroke of
genius -- greedy South Korean contractors or Burmese military
men with a primary school education -- is unclear, In the
distance we could begin to see the mountains of Shan State
rising up over the horizon.

At Tagaung, we had dinner at a Burmese restaurant.  We
angered the waitress by asking if she had washed her hands
recently.  This was the cause of much amusement among all of
us but I realized later that we might have been flirting
dangerously with hepatitis A. Most of the food we ate on the
journey was prepared in cleaner conditions than this.  The main
component of Burmese food is, of course, rice.  But this comes
in large plates rather than the bowls customary in China and
Japan.  Other ingredients are spooned on top of the rice and
mixed in.  It was easy to stuff oneself with rice at lunchtime and
not have much appetite for dinner, which again usually featured
lots of rice.  In general, the food we ate was less hot than dishes
typical of Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia (Burmese people say
they find Thai food laced with too much sugar and M- S- G, .
was also a bit more oily.  There was an abundance of green
vegetables, a soybean concoction similar to Japanese natto,
chicken, fish and pork served in small dishes.  Meals cost an
average of several hundred kyats for the three of us.  I wondered
how a Burmese of average means could afford such food.  The
salary for a university professor is only 700 kyats a month.

On the road between Tagaung and Meiktila, we saw "butterflies
of the night" visiting truck drivers resting by the roadside. 
Burma does not have the reputation for prostitution that
Thailand has.  But several Burmese friends told me that the sex
"industry" was becoming a major problem because there were
so few other opportunities for poor women to find decent
employment.  The sexual habits of cross - country truck drivers
are especially important since, if they acquire the AIDS virus,
they can transmit it to sexual partners in widely disbursed areas
of the country, to say nothing of infecting their wives or
girlfriends at home.  The promiscuity of Indian long distance
truck drivers has given that country one of Asia's worst and
fastest-growing AIDS epidemics.

We stayed at a hotel in Meiktila.  Early the next morning (our
second day on the road) we departed Meiktila for Mandalay. 
Many oil palms dotted the landscape.  These are very distinctive
trees growing to a great height and having shaggy tops
composed of leaves.  They were a prominent part of the
landscape from now until we returned to Lower Burma.  We
had entered the Dry Zone.  There was little agriculture.  The
population was scanty and those people we did see were poorer
than those down south.  Much of their income derives from
extracting sugar from the palm trees.  From time to time we
could see trucks with water-drilling equipment which belonged
to the government.  At a town called Wundwinn, we saw
factories which make textiles, including cheap longyis.  One
had a sign for "Lion Brand" longyis which I had seen for sale in
markets at Three Pagodas Pass.  This was one of the very few
examples of manufacturing industry encountered outside of

Further north there were fields sown with grain used to feed
livestock (sorghum?).  This region was the poorest encountered
so far.  My friends argued that the people were so conservative
and set in their ways that they did not think about growing new
and more profitable crops.  In later conversations, they, natives
of Rangoon, described Upper Burmans as a lazy, unenergetic
lot, drinking and quarreling too much and not making any effort
to think over or solve their problems.  "Their skins and their
hearts and dark, like Africans", they claimed (expressing the
widespread Asian disdain for Black people which refutes
notions of "Third World Solidarity".   My own point of view is
that Upper Burmans are caught in a cycle of poverty caused by
the poorness of the land and a government which just doesn't

Just south of Mandalay is the town of Kyaukse.  For over a
thousand years, this has been a center of rice cultivation
because of the existence of irrigation facilities.  Among other
distinctions, Kyaukse is the home town of Senior General Than
Shwe, chairman of SLORC.  Here I recall seeing a pleasing site
frequently encountered along Burma's roads: young men and
women holding out silver bowls to collect offerings for
Buddhist temples.  As we approached Mandalay, we passed by
lovely big trees whose top branches touched over the road and
made a cool, green tunnel to drive through.   Much of the
Burmese landscape was like this -- lyrically beautiful.

The road to Mandalay broadened out to a two - lane highway
built by who else? -- the Chinese.  We saw the three most
famous religious sites: the Mahamuni Buddha image,
Mandalay Hill (which provided fine views of the Irrawaddy
River and Shan State and a new jail -- one of Mandalay's largest
structures -- constructed after the old one was destroyed by
rioting inmates in 1988), and the Kuthodaw Pagoda built by
King Mindon in the 19th century.  Parts of Mandalay were
visibly prosperous, though the city was dusty and stiflingly hot. 
The famous Zegyo Market in the center of town has been torn
down, and replaced by a multi-storey retail building which
resembles Singapore's antiseptic "People's Parks".  The royal
palace moat has been completed by -- so human rights groups
tell us, an army of forced laborers just like King Mindon's
original in the mid - nineteenth century.

Along Mandalay's back streets, little boys ran back and forth
flying simple kites made out of paper, Their skill in keeping
them up in the air was matched by their courage in dodging the
heavy traffic.  On the way to Mandalay Hill we saw the large
and lavish Mandalay Novotel Hotel, all ready for the hordes of
tourists who will doubtlessly flock here for Visit Myanmar
Year 1996!

On this second night on the road, we returned to the hotel in
Meiktila.  I had gotten a cold and fever, and was very much
under the weather by the time we arrived.  Perhaps hours of
being bumped around in my friends' truck had scrambled up my
system.  I retired to bed early, but couldn't sleep because of
drunken revellers.  This was the night before the Full Moon
Festival, and some people weren't waiting for the following
evening to enjoy themselves.  Apparently some of Meiktila's
young men knew that our hotel was a preferred stop for
foreigners.  Fuelled by toddy, they shouted "You filthy rat!" and
other epithets in English outside my window.  Fortunately I had
recovered, though still a bit groggy, by morning.

On the morning of the third day, we drove from Meiktila to
Pagan.  We spent the morning and the early afternoon in the
ancient city, viewing pagodas.  Pagan is not a place that can be
seen adequately in a few hours.  As we raced from pagoda to
pagoda. each building we saw was something of a blur.  But at
least we were there, and the dark interiors of many of the
pagodas had the brooding splendor of Romanesque cathedrals. 
Pagan may be better sipped than gulped down, but our schedule
required us to head southward through countryside that was the
poorest we had yet seen.  Trees were stunted or non-existent. 
There were no villages, only small clusters of bedraggled thatch
houses.  Children stood by the side of the road, waving at
drivers.  These were beggars.  Every once in a while, a motorist
would take a wad of kyats, pitch it out the window, and watch
the kids scramble for the cash through his rear view mirror.  I
wondered how often a child, distracted by his or her pursuit of
kyats, was hit by a vehicle coming up from the rear.  As we
passed through this poor countryside, the sight of begging
children became more common.

At Kyaukpadaung, we saw a large livestock market which
looked like it could have been held in the European Middle
Ages, In this region, maize and sesame seeds are grown.  The
road brought us close to the Irrawaddy River and we could see
a cement plant on the other side which was evidently
functioning as smoke poured from its chimney.  This was again
one of the very few evidences of industrial activity which we
saw in Upper Burma.

One of the highlights of the journey was seeing the oil wells of
Yenangyaung -- not particularly romantic, but one of the things
which made Burma a 'treasure trove' during the British colonial
era.  A book I have entitled The Burma Petroleum Industry,
published as part of the Longmans Burma Pamphlets  series in
1946, has a picture of the Yenangyaung field fifty years ago. 
The hills are covered with oil wells.  But by the 1990s most of
these wells have run dry and have been dismantled. Like an old
man's thinning hair, the Yenangyaung wells are becoming fewer
and fewer.  Moreover, the wells were only thirty or so feet high,
not the giant structures one associates with Texas, Oklahoma or
Saudi Arabia.  My friends commented that a person caught
stealing oil from these dilapidated wells will get a twenty - year
prison sentence.

On the evening of the third day we stayed a hotel in
Yenangyaung.  It was the Full Moon festival night, and from
the gate of our hotel we could see a long line of young people
walking down the street carrying candles on their heads,
accompanied by traditional Burmese music.  It was an
impressive sight.  There must have been at least one hundred
and fifty people in the procession, their lights flickering like a
divine procession of stars down the road.  There was also, of
course, much revelry.  According to the hotel's proprietor, it was
a local custom for young men to break into chicken coops and
steal chickens.  Again toddy was much in evidence though the
drinkers did not seem as aggressive as in Meiktila.

We left the hotel around six o'clock the next morning and drove
through countryside which was the poorest and most deserted
seen so far.  Lunch was taken in Magwe, capital of Magwe
Division.  South of Magwe we passed by the ruins of
Beikthano, the Old Vishnu City built by the Pyu, pre - Burman
inhabitants of the country.  South of Beikthano we saw the
largest forced labor contingent encountered so far: about 30 -
40 people working on a small water reservoir.  But by the time
we reached Prome (Pyi) in the late afternoon, the countryside
had become visibly more prosperous.  We saw the Bawbawgyi
Pagoda by the side of the road, and enjoyed one of the rarest of
luxuries in military - ruled Burma: a smooth highway.  The
Japanese had built a road between Prome and Rangoon which
had been funded by an Asian Development Bank loan and
completed in 1992.  Rolling on in smooth comfort, we
encountered again the rich countryside of Lower Burma, rice
fields spreading out endlessly to the horizon.

South of Prome, we had one final encounter with the
Tatmadaw.  My friends asked some soldiers who were cutting
grass outside their military installation if I could take their
picture.  They happily lined up, waving their dahs and exuding
a menacingly friendly air (most of the military we saw seemed
to be friendly in a menacing sort of way).  Then an officer
stepped up and called a halt to the proceedings: no pictures
allowed!  It is apparently against the law to take pictures of
soldiers, and I doubt that the officer's career would have been
helped if a photo of his men happened to appear in a foreign

One last landmark before our entry into Rangoon in the early
evening: a solitary sign for the National League for Democracy
affixed to a house by the side of the road.  The sign was in
English.  I wonder if the NLD would have been allowed to put
up a sign in Burmese which the local townspeople could read!

There is a great temptation to draw cut - and - dried conclusions
from the kind of observations possible on this kind of trip.  This
is dangerous because we were almost constantly on the move
(often at 80 - 100 kilometers per hour) and the things which I
saw may not have been typical.  For example, my friends
frequently pointed out villagers along the road who he said were
in forced labor details.  None were guarded by rifle - toting
soldiers or seemed to be working very hard. Those repairing the
road seemed to be sitting around, doing next to nothing.  From
what I saw, I could conclude that forced labor under the
SLORC regime is not as bad as the foreign media have depicted
it.  But this assumes that what I saw was true everywhere in the
country, or that this form of forced labor was a minimal burden
to the people involved.  Both are unlikely to be true.

Yet I was able to draw some conclusions about living
conditions in the interior of 'Burma Proper' from what I saw
over four days.  One is the tremendous diversity of the Burmese
landscape, even in an area confined to Rangoon, Pegu,
Mandalay and Magwe Divisions.  Although both rich and poor
people are doubtlessly found everywhere, standards of living
differed greatly.  Some parts of the Irrawaddy Delta, where rice
was grown, looked like the Menam Chao Phraya basin in
central Thailand or the fertile regions south of Ho Chi Minh
City in Vietnam.  People were well dressed and seemed well
fed.  Children looked healthy and active.  In areas to the north,
especially the Dry Zone of Upper Burma, the landscape
resembled the African savannah.  Vegetation was stunted. 
Villages were few and far between.  Children, often dressed
very poorly, stood by the road and begged.  The places where
we stopped to rest or eat were often very basic, lacking such
amenities as refrigerated cold drinks or even clean restaurants.

Another valid general observation is the pervasiveness of the
military, at least in the villages and towns along the main
highways.  Military installations are established along the road
near all major settlements and one of the commonest forms of
traffic were trucks driven by uniformed Tatmadaw men. 
SLORC's policy has been a dramatic expansion of military
manpower from a pre - 1988 figure of about 165,000 to a mid -
1990s figure approaching 300,000.  Clearly their objective is
not only to raise troop levels in order to fight insurgents or drug
warlords along the border but to police areas in the interior of
the country which might be subject to civil unrest.  The people
may not like or even respect the military, but they are rarely
free of gaze of those guardians who defend the SLORC status

Overall, Burma is a very beautiful country.  The countryside is
mostly unspoiled.  The people are graceful and friendly. 
Traditional ways of life and the values of Theravada Buddhism
seem intact and unsullied by international consumer culture. 
Travelling around gives one a sense of calm and well being,
however, that may be illusory.  Just as a traveller to Germany in
the 1930s might have admired Hitler's autobahns without being
aware of more sordid aspects of the Third Reich, so the traveller
to Burma during 'Visit Myanmar Year" may think that all is
well in the Golden Land.  But how much suffering do the
people hide with their smiles and their gentle manner?

Kenneth Mackay
2 December 1995