I had set the alarm clock early in order to take a photo shooting of the local morning market, a few blocks away. There, barely at dawn, you can get a glimpse of ordinary Burmese social life. I covered the distance on foot, witnessing Buddhist worshippers partaking in early morning rituals at local temples, and the timeless processions of barefoot monks of different ages in red and orange robes, collecting offering from the locals inside their alms bowls.
The market area, covering several noisy and smelly blocks to the south of the palace, buzzed with energy and activities as hundreds of stallholders exposed their locally grown produce spread out on both sides of roads: meats, fish, flowers, fruits, veggies, rice and noodle meals, and other items, some never seen before, such as sweets, dried meat and fish, and exotic fruits and spices. Shoppers arriving by rickshaw, on motorbike or on foot negotiated prices and carried their colourful shopping in plastic bags. Monks walked through the market to collect alms or to purchase items needed in their monastery. I stopped at one of the several coffee houses and tucked into a bowl of Shan noodles, a chappati and a dark coffee, rubbing shoulders with the locals.
At 7:30 the sun was rising fast and the traffic on 4 wheels was intensifying: tractors full of vegetables, old trucks carrying iron, wood and people, rusted buses so full with locals returning to nearby villages that some passengers hanged precariously out of their doors, with ticket sellers and drivers shouting names of destinations. Dozens of bicycle rickshaws invaded the streets, waiting for passengers loaded with plastic bags full of food. It was like being at a theatre, and I enjoyed the convulsed sight while sipping another tea in an open-air tea-house, munching on a vegetable samosa, until the sellers started to pack up.
I was on my way again; I wandered aimlessly towards the east, block after block until, along a side road, a young chap in longyi, bare-chested, bold-headed except for a thin and long hair pigtail at the back of the skull, tattooed with Chinese motives and sporting a few short hair growing right in the middle of his right cheek, spotted me and approached to offer me, in an undistinguishable language, a bite of betel, skillfully prepared by his young wife at their derelict roadside stall. I admit I knew very little about betel nut (called kun-ya in Myanmar) apart that it made your teeth red, that it was an appetite suppressant, and that it could get you intoxicated. Oh, I forgot, and that while chewing it, lots of red saliva forms in the mouth and needs to be expelled from time to time. No wonder streets in Mandalay are stained with millions of red blotches.
The guy’s wife held up a vine leaf, laid it on a wooded board and started working on it. She first spread a little lime paste on the leaf, then added cloves, aniseed, cardamom, tobacco marinated in alcohol and some crushed betel nuts. She skillfully wrapped the leaf and handed it to her husband, whom handed it to me, a complacent smile in his face. I put the leaf in my mouth and started chewing on it, and an enormous amount of saliva immediately filled my mouth. I approached the side of the road and spitted the red liquid, with my new friends laughing approvingly. They packed two more pieces for me to take away, and did not want to get paid at all, not even a little tip, bless them. I finished chewing the lot and spit out the remains – after so much spitting it was not fun anymore in the end -, washed the mouth with water, and started walking again. I experienced a slight tipsy feeling and I guessed it was the effect of the betel nut. Not the best amongst legal intoxicants, I though. I later read that chewing betel nut regularly causes oral cancer, a growing problem in Myanmar…
Early that afternoon, I kept on walking the streets of Mandalay in search for the mystic Mustache Brothers. This is the art name of 3 comedian brothers that have been performing political satiric puppet shows for over 30 years. Their shows have often infuriated the totalitarian regime to the point that they have a collection of arrests, years of jail and forced labour (seriously!), and a total ban on performing in public. As a compromise the 3 brothers, now freed, have accepted to perform only in English and just from their home in Mandalay.
I met with Lu Maw, the only English-speaker of the three, whom has hence become the spokesperson for the group. He was spending a quiet afternoon with his wife and nephews and accepted to have an informal chat. We sat on modest chairs and I was offered tea by his wife; I observed the house walls covered with puppets of different size and clothes, political propaganda and framed articles of foreign newspapers and magazines featuring the comedians.
Lu Maw proved to be an affable man, but understandably he did not want to go too much into details about his incarceration and hardship over several years of his life. After a few jokes about the military junta and their intelligence, whom he calls KGB, he suggested I bought a 10$ ticket to his evening show, and kindly saw me to the door. I had heard his shows were very popular amongst tourists, with audiences of between 10 and 50 people each night, all crammed into his small living room.
Sunset approached, and I felt worn out but satisfied of what achieved and seen in the 2 intense days spent in Mandalay, where I met lovely people whose source of happiness seemed to be based on their ability of being contented at all times despite the odds.
It was worth experiencing the magic of Mandalay before the hordes of tourists descend to the town. With new airline connections to the city, and that includes low budget Air Asia with popular flights from KL and Bangkok, and Air Mandalay proposing new regular routes to CM and beyond via Yangoon, the city is certainly on the way to an explosive success as a great travel destination.