On the Road to Mandalay

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There is an old song that partly goes…

Come you back to Mandalay

Where the old flotilla lay

Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’

From Rangoon to Mandalay?

On the Road to Mandalay

Where the flying fishes play

And the dawn comes up like thunder

Out of China ‘cross the bay.

Someone used to sing that song when I was very young – I don’t remember any more of it but it gave me this exotic/nostalgic vision of Mandalay, Rangoon and Burma. It is funny the things that stick with you and the things that you may be predisposed to remember. My “triggers” are all tangled up of “far away and out of time”. The music of Bolero and the desert city of Jaisalmer, this snippet of a song and Burma/Myanmar. The truly fortunate aspect of my life has been in part, being able to discover these exotic yet dearly familiar places. I’d be interested in hearing if anyone else has had these kinds of experiences….?

So – Mandalay. We stayed in an odd hotel on the Ayarwaddy River which gave us direct access to the teaming and industrious life on its banks. Our first morning was a pre-dawn photo shoot call for a trip across the river to visit an itinerant “river gypsy” community. This involved scrambling across 5 or 6 river boats roped together on skinny, bouncy, creaky boards in the pitch black dark with barely visible hands reading out to stabilize us “land folk” desperately clutching cameras and gear! Off we set with photo ops of the sunrise, the boat owner and wife, and the strenuous but highly entertaining efforts of most of the available men to get us off the sandbar we discovered. Eventually we flagged down a passing work boat – sort of a large flat bottomed canoe type of thing and resumed our travels. The river gypsies make their camps on the shifting sand spits, wealth is a pig and a chicken or two and there is VERY little to place them in this day and age. When the monsoons come, they simply float their houses around on bamboo rafts – even their temple is on a raft. They are true boat people, kids learn to pilot a canoe almost as soon as they can walk.

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