Travelling Myanmar

Black market dealers were everywhere. The most reliable were the taxi drivers who hung about outside the Grand Hotel in Rangoon. They would either drive you around the corner to make the deal or take you to someone who would. We dealt whenever possible with the same man we came to trust. We learnt very quickly that only the government cheated you in Burma.

The Grand was where we spent our first night. It sat facing the Yangon River on Strand Road among a row of other once impressive colonial piles. Formerly wonderful but now faded and shabby, a double room in this old British hotel cost ten dollars. Now, since the government has tarted it up, you can hardly get a drink there for that, and rooms start at around four hundred.

Faded or not, I loved The Grand’s ambience. Entering the hotel from the street, climbing its unswept grimy steps, we found ourselves in a foyer redolent of the Raj, dominated by a great polished wooden bar surrounded by old leather armchairs. Our ballroom-sized room came with an enormous bathroom containing ancient fixtures, a cavernous bath and understandably faulty plumbing.

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It would be a dash to get in and out of Burma a fairly large country, a bit bigger than France in one week, so we left Rangoon the next night on the train to Mandalay.

Burma has never had a quiet life. For hundreds of years, until 1885 when Britain took control, it contained many small warring kingdoms. Rebellion was still rife among ethnic minority groups and Karen insurgents would demonstrate their displeasure with the government by coming down from the hills every now and then to blow up the Mandalay train. While I sympathised with their grudge against the government, I didn’t want to be sent heavenwards by one of their bombs. I spent the night anticipating a loud bang and clung tightly to my top bunk, not only because it was a very rocky ride. The explosion failed to materialise and we arrived safely in Mandalay the next morning.

Mandalay was all I had expected. With its old royal palace and mountain-top temples, it felt far more Burmese than Rangoon had. We climbed the hundreds of steps that led up to the temple on the top of Mandalay Hill, in order to achieve good karma as well as to look down on the town from a great height.

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