I decided I felt well enough to tackle Mandalay Hill today, and thought I'd get an early start, right after breakfast. It is the norm in Myanmar for breakfast to be included with the price of the room, and so far mine have been getting increasingly better: in Yangon I had just coffee, with toast and jam; in Kinpun I got the same, plus one egg, scrambled or fried; in Mandalay, they saw that breakfast, and raised it a glass of orange squash and two bananas. I can't wait to see what comes next. The coffee is one of those three-in-one jobbies that they were so keen on in the Philippines (only the ones here taste much nicer - I don't think they're Nescafe, the brand that is to coffee what Laughing Cow is to cheese triangles). They are so terribly sweet, though, but I notice that sugar is always on the table just in case they're not sweet enough. At this place (The Royal Guest House), black coffee is also an option, or "b'coffee o' m'coffee", as the young serving girl puts it, followed by, "Ya la eh?" and you can have your "eh" fried or scrambled.
I could have taken a trishaw to the foot of the hill for 500 kyat, or a little more, but decided to travel by pickup instead. The first one that stopped for me wouldn't let me get in the back. Instead the conductor led me to the cab, and opened the door. I asked how much, and scoffed at the reply of 500 - bugger that. The next few wouldn't stop for me. A trishaw driver (rider?) approached me; "I can take you there for 500 kyat, you don't want to travel in a pickup - very full, and many pickpockets." The next pickup slowed, so I jumped aboard - without asking the price this time. I'm figuring that if you have to ask, you'll be overcharged. I waited to see what the locals paid, and thought one handed over a 100 note, so I did the same. I got no change; I don't know if I paid over the odds or not, but it seemed an okay price to me.
At the hill I started the climb up one of the sets of steps, after jamming my shoes into my bag. In Myanmar you must remove your shoes as you enter the grounds of a temple, or even of a ruin of a temple. Smoking and spitting are perfectly acceptable, but no shoes. I took the climb easy - not only as I am still somewhat under the weather, but also because I am lazy, and prefer not to exert myself. The steps are shady and cool, and there are a multitude of seats along the way, so it was not too arduous even for me. One does have to keep ones eyes open for turds along the way, though. Most of these I attributed to dogs, but there was one that I honestly think came from a human...and it had been stepped in too - eugh! It's best to avoid the still-wet betel spit too, although the dried stuff is no problem.
The phrase "are we there yet?" could have been invented by someone climbing Mandalay Hill - time after time the steps would open out to a shrine, or a hall full of mirrored pillars, and I'd wonder if that was the top before I noticed more steps ascending further. The views were great, and the bit of haze that hung in the air did not get in the way, as I looked out upon the pagoda-strewn land. At the top was a platform whose white tiled floor dazzled my eyes, where there was a 350 kyat charge for photographs, so I took none from there. I did jolly well at dodging the admission fees, and escaped without paying my $3 to the government. On the way back down I stopped to get my fortune told by a very sweet lady, who foresaw much travelling at the moment, but from the age of 35 onwards I would meet my husband and settle down to have four or five kids. Hmmm, let's hope not. I'll also get a promotion at work and have much money come to me. All good then.
I wanted to visit a couple of temples at the foot of the hill, but decided to eat first, once I'd descended. I chose one of the many kareoke restaurants that lined the road, explained I was tatalo, and got served up rice and fried veggies. A group came in whilst I was eating, and retired inside for a bit of a sing, as you do after spending the morning worshipping. After eating I asked for the toilet, and was led outside, though the cooking area, and motioned around the side of a screen. Now I've been in some primitive toilets in my time, but I think this one took the biscuit. Basically, it was shit in a ditch time. There was a gully running along and disappearing under the restaurant. The contents were stagnant, and I don't know when or where they go. I took a good look around to make sure I wasn't missing a door to a squat toilet, which is what I'd been expecting, but no. So I did what had to be done, and walked back around the rattan screen, where the girl was waiting to pour water over my hands.
I went then to Sandimani Temple, where numerous bright white stupas each enclose a tablet with commentaries on the Tripitaka, which is the sacred canon of Theravada Buddhism - and yes, that was name of the priest in that fab series, Monkey; monkey himself represented Hanuman, the monkey king (of course!). Right next door is Kuthadaw Paya, which has earned the title of the biggest book in the world, as it has the entire Tripitaka inscribed on 729 slabs, each enshrined in there own gleaming white stupa. One could say that it was a case of "same, same, but different". I liked the temples, and the fact that I'd again been able to sneak under the radar and avoid paying the $5 fees. I decided, however, to call it a day, leaving other temples unseen - shocking, I know, but I put it down to ill health.
I returned to the place where I'd been dropped off by the pick-up, just as one came swooping through. I said "zeigo" - which is the central market where the pick-ups leave from - to the money collector guys, who nodded and ushered me aboard. There were only a few people on board, and I wasn't convinced I was on the right truck, and checked twice more; okay so my pronunciation made it sound more like "sigh-go" than "zhigh-go" (which is kind of how it's meant to sound), but hey, I was a fahlang, where did they think I was going. After a couple of minutes I was pretty sure I'd been had; the guys were giggling, woman on the truck were looking at me strangely, like they felt uncomfortable, and the scenery didn't look right. When we got to one of the regular road toll stops I knew I was on the wrong vehicle; we'd definitely not passed one coming in, and they're usually on the way in or out of a town or district.
I asked again, "zeigo", pronouncing it the same as before, and was met with shaking heads, and a place name that began with an M - no way was this an honest mistake. I was angry and upset - why bother doing that? Did it make them feel big and clever? Did they plan to sting me for a ride back into town afterwards? Or was it just a case of trick the dumb fahlang? While the majority of people here are genuinely friendly, there are a significant proportion who just see a white face as a license to print money. Probably if I'd have been feeling better I wouldn't have made the mistake of getting in in the first place, so I was angry at myself too. I jumped out and shouted at them, annoyed at the walk back I'd have (too nervous now about compounding my error and jumping in another wrong vehicle).
The policeman at the toll booth came to my rescue though - I know these are the bad guys over here, but I speak as I find, and he helped me out (mind you their motto, as displayed outside every police station, is: may I help you). He made sure I'd not handed over any money, and got me a bamboo seat, making me sit down until the right bus came along in the other direction, and telling the conductor where I wanted to go, to save any further mistake. And he didn't even ask for a present - the euphemism given to bribes over here, as in "would you like to give me a present?". He'd told the guy not to charge me either, but that wasn't fair, so I handed over a 100 kyat note when I got out.
Once I was safely back and showered, I decided it was time I seek out a chemist and get something for my stomach, as it had been over 48 hours by now. On the way there I twisted my ankle - not the ankle, that I twisted umpteen times in Africa and the Middle East, but the other one. It never rains but it pours! There are some ancient cities near here, but I'd already decided to give them a miss (this time around, at least - I'll be back through Mandalay though), as I'd been told that there are a multitude of beggars, vendors and would-be guides, and I just don't think I'm up to all that just now. The tenuous plan is to head tomorrow to Pyin-U-Lwin, but I'll have to see how I'm feeling.
I'm enjoying Paul Theroux's Great Railway Bazaar right now, and trying to ration myself to make it last longer. My favourite passage so far is this one:
At my lowest point, when things were at their most desperate and uncomfortable, I always found myself in the company of Australians, who were like a reminder that I'd touched bottom.
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