In many ways I feel that the true beauties of Burma are mystifyingly hidden, much like my friend Dave Simpson’s superior off-road Land Rover driving skills, exhibited to me recently in Southern New Zealand. The landscape in Burma constantly varies from lush bowling-green plains to weathered mountains adorned with shiny temples and there are also apparently beautiful islands in the southwest which I have not yet seen, except abstractedly from the air. I traveled with a company called Mandalay Air or, as I call them, MA for Missing Airplanes as they apparently have only two small planes, which I never saw. They do have a tiny sizzling ticket office at the airport in Mandalay where they sell you old-style hand written tickets for crisp new U.S. dollar currency. Then they reliably and sequentially cancel all your flights within 24 hours of their scheduled departure. But they did it in a really smiley Burmese hospitable tactic and with great labor-intensive attention to detail. Since we foreigners are tracked vigilantly as we move all over the country by visa number and hotel locations the airline knows exactly where to call to provide the last minute cancellation information. And since Missing Airplanes apparently code shares with anything that can achieve powered flight I was put on some other airplane generally going in my intended direction. When Mandalay Air gets their third small plane rumor has it they will rebrand their larger airline business as Mandalay Airways.
There are, I am told, over 1,000 glorious temples around Bagan, which is located in the epicenter of Burma. Some of these sun blasted wonders are as majestic and as large as the central Mexican Teotihuacán pre-Aztec pyramids I was fortunate to climb just last month. But they are better preserved as the pyramids were essentially reassembled in the early 1900s from a large pile of stones (hey let’s make it pointy). The main source of any damage incurred by some of the Bagan temples was from a huge 1975 earthquake. Damage to the temples is minimal when compared to WWII allied carpet-bombing that occurred elsewhere. The Teotihuacán pyramids were not bombed; I think they just fell apart but I would have to Google that (slow patchy Internet here) so I am not asserting any national differences in workmanship or materials in this memorandum. Many of the small and mid-sized temple doors are locked and require some local guardian to provide access and a flashlight so that you can go and poke around inside in the dark while observing original eleventh century wall paintings and Buddha after Buddha. Some Buddhas are made of stone, some of teak, and others of gold-painted teak. I will provide my deliberated take on Christianity vs. Buddhism as seen through statues of the preceding millennium in a future communication.
The sensible and prevalent way to get around the off-road temple areas in the shimmering plains of Bagan when going temple to temple is by old-fashioned horse and cart. Shunning any form of air conditioning in a wobbly, inelegant, bouncy barrow apparently adds to one’s visit experience. I acquired the services of a Burmese guy, Unco, and his trusty, but underfed looking steed, Mimi. Mimi the malnourished mule is not to be confused with the exceptionally well-fed Mimi from Vietnam who runs the king queen nail salon in my hometown downtown McLean. From the photo below you can see that I am probably heftier than Unco and that poor pony combined. The process was that Unco would navigate me around, I’d get off the wagon, grudgingly take off my shoes, dash madly for the shaded flooring, use a flashlight in the dark interiors of the temple, then get back on the wagon and repeat. There were really never any other tourists around as the song goes. Everytime my churchillian frame stepped gingerly onto the back of the cart I could hear the clunk of Mimi’s rear hooves hitting the ground as her ass returned from a one-foot high cantilever. I’m not saying I’m fat though; I just have high body density. Dave Simpson tells me I’m fat, but I tell him that am somewhat solaced by my robust hair retention and the knowledge that at some future date I could be thinner. For the record, I do not believe that I could cantilever Vietnam Mimi. And to make matters worse those little rickety wagons are designed for a lead charioteer and two passengers. I was taken by the thought that had my good friend and talented music producer Keny Ruyter accompanied me on this trip there could be some serious animal rights issues. However, together for sure we would slay Vietnam Mimi on the see-saw.
After my edifying and culturally stimulating antics in the early part of the day, in the intense heat of the mid-late afternoons I would try to retreat to the hotel spa, saving swim time for dusk, or sometimes dawn if I couldn’t sleep. The Thiripyitsaya Sanctuary Spa in southern Bagan was especially noteworthy where I would gladly receive a daily foot massage to repair my ailing hooves and acupuncture to maintain my overall ambiance and mortality. (Picture of the spa and me with the charming acupuncturist Soe-Soe shown below).
Sorry if some of these travel notes are a little on the long side but I recently started cutting back on my use of Facebook as a dependency for social interaction after my old school friend David who lives in Manhattan created a page for his dog and the dog tried to friend me (sic). My immediate thought then was that I could make a page for my pet Lucky and I could put both dogs in touch with each other. At that point, however, I then thankfully realized this plateauing feature of social interaction was becoming sorely tangential. How this business is worth more than almost twice the combined GDP of all three Baltic States I do not know. I’ve been recently to each of these fine EU member nations and I can attest that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have infrastructure, commerce, civilized systems of government, half-decent restaurants and other cultured features of first-world countries. Whereas Facebook is just a big server farm running Linux and SQL which you can buy on Amazon for $59.95, according to my IT specialist and long-time friend Brian Cunningham. And he should know. Who would have thought all those years ago at the Glasgow College of Technology Brian would emerge as a top-notch 21st Century data cleanser employed by some of the world’s foremost dirty data users.