In Myanmar distance is referred to in miles and speed in km! Therefore, Thein told me that while it would be 360 miles to Mandalay from Bago, the speed limit on the highway would range from 80 to 100 kmph. It was decided that we would leave the hotel after breakfast, which would be served at 7 am. Accordingly, I was in the lobby of the hotel after loading the luggage and sprucing up the car in time for breakfast, where I was joined by the rest. We were met by empty trays and plates in the buffet hall. Aye and Thein fuelled some action by reporting the matter to the reception and in a while a person came to the dining hall to enquire what I wanted. I asked for toasts and eggs. In the meanwhile a family of three also arrived in the dining hall. They too were surprised that items to break their fast were not on the table. However, in 15 minutes noodles, fried rice, fried eggs, toasts, cakes and bananas filled the buffet table. Instead of coffee I had helpings of an excellent cool lime and ginger drink.
Thein wanted me to experience the old highway to Mandalay, which he felt would be more scenic and enjoyable. Besides, he said that the tarred old highway would be easier on the tyres. I went along with the idea because I had already done the new highway when travelling from Mandalay to Yangon. However, I was apprehensive about the time it would take to reach Mandalay via the old highway. Nevertheless, we started out at 7.45 am from Bago to Mandalay on the old highway. Immediately as I got on to it I knew that my apprehensions would prove right – the traffic was slow and the preponderance of heavy cargo vehicles prevented faster movement. Moreover, most of the road was a single carriageway. To top it all there were temporary road diversions due to road works in progress. I told Thein that we should get back to the new highway failing which we would remain in the road till nightfall. He too appreciated the condition and we switched to the new highway, travelling through long stretches of village roads. We got to the new highway at mile 72, which meant that there were 300 miles more to Mandalay. Thein said that that we would stop at mile 285 for lunch.
Thein kept up a lively conversation about Myanmar and that kept drooping eyelids at bay for a while. However, by 11 am I could not control sleep anymore and pulled up beyond the pavement for a power nap. 15 minutes is what I usually allot for my power nap. But this time I woke up after 3o minutes of deep sleep – I had woken up at 3 am and that had caught up. I felt miserable having kept the rest waiting. But they too appreciated that I did what I did instead of driving through with fatal consequences. The new highway is also known as the Death Highway because of the numerous accidents that happen on it, mostly owing to bus drivers falling asleep behind the wheel. Thein narrated many such instances; I suspected that he had suggested the alternate route because of the high incidence of accidents on the new highway!
After the nap I felt supercharged and Thein helped to keep the batteries recharged with a lively debate about my experiences in Myanmar. The transformation I have witnessed in Myanmar between 2003, when I was here on a backpacking trip, and 2015 is nothing short of miraculous. The order and discipline, road infrastructure, industrial and agricultural development and the growth of local entrepreneurship have been extraordinary. Seeing all this first hand I have become extremely sceptical of media propaganda, mostly western, about the country. Media reports highlight low salary levels in Myanmar. But they do not correlate that to the purchasing power of the people. Most importantly, development, however slow and gradual, has not spoilt the smiling and service oriented Myanmarese. This is so with most of the South East Asian countries. There is life and warmth in the people. Maybe, this is not true of Singapore, but service levels are very high there too.
By quarter to 2 pm we reached mile 285 and detoured to the comfort station for lunch. The Shwe Inlay Hotel served us what they had, the kitchen having been closed at the late hour. I had two helpings of yummy chicken curry and steamed rice. I walked around the many stalls in the comfort station and observed that chikkies were the most sold there. The area grows a lot of peanuts and sesame; it’s rich in production of palm sugar too. I picked up different kinds of chikkies as well as exotic tamarind balls in sugar!
Shortly after we had hit the highway after lunch Aye discovered that he had left his waist bag behind at the restaurant. It did take us a while to get back to the Shwe Inlay Hotel because of the protected highway with minimal interconnections between the two carriageways. However, we retrieved the bag and Aye tipped the smart youngsters who came running to the car with the bag as they spotted us. By this time the horizon had turned dark as night and lightning was seen embellishing the landscape.
Rain came down in buckets with gale force winds. It was a heavy storm and most vehicles pulled to the side due to poor visibility; nothing ahead could be seen. Thein suggested that we pull over too. I insisted on driving through at slow speed with hazard lights. More than 30 minutes of that and we were through it. But, it was an experience I have not had before. I could make out that my co-passengers had had their hearts in their mouths till the storm blew over. It became sunny and hot all over again and it was steaming in Mandalay when we stopped for fuelling.
Overnight stay was once again in the Mandalay Hotel. I love the lovely teak furniture in the hotel and the commodious room. After settling the luggage Aye took me to a store to buy a couple of Myanmar beers. I also picked up a bottle of Mandalay Rum, which is considered to be the best produced in Myanmar. The proof will be in the drinking! Over the beers I completed pending documentation in the room. I wanted to hit the sack early because of the 5 am departure planned to Kalay next morning. Aye and I went to a Chinese restaurant where I had a plate of fried rice and the most gorgeous mangoes for dessert. Over dinner Aye reminded me that we had met before in Yangon. I had completely forgotten that he was working in Silver Hills and had met him in the company of Myo Min. He told me that he had worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for ten years and had resigned to join the tour company. The motivation to resign was the poor salary he got in the government job. I was shocked by his declaration that he a monthly salary of 950 kyats (less than USD1) when he joined service, which rose to USD 25 by the time he put in his papers. He gets more than 10 times that in the private sector job he is in now. Additionally, during his spare time, after office, he drives a taxi. His is a double income family and that has made it comfortable for them, with a little set apart for the rainy day.