IT’S A HUMID WEDNESDAY EVENING and I’m chatting with Zimi, the daughter of comedian and political activist U Lu Maw. We are in front of their house in central Mandalay, where from the bench I’m sitting on, I can see various snippets of the colorful past of her father.
Lu Maw is a member of the comedic group Moustache Brothers, who rose to international fame for their satirical criticisms of the government. Along with his elder brother Par Par Lay and cousin Lu Zaw, the trio have been doing vaudeville-style performances and screwball comedy for almost three decades, earning the ire of the oppressive military regime they’re poking fun of. They were jailed, but not totally silenced.
Things have changed significantly in the past few years. Par Par Lay passed away in 2013, and Myanmar is now tentatively transitioning into a democratic government, but for the two remaining members of the group, the show goes on. To be more precise, the show is performed every 8:30 in the evening at their house, where a large room acts as the theater and a makeshift platform in front functions as the stage. Rows of plastic chairs are neatly laid out. The walls are filled with photographs showing various high-profile people the brothers have rubbed shoulders with, including Aung San Suu Kyi. A poster of the movie About A Boy hangs on a window, because one character mentioned Par Par Lay in one scene.
International recognition is a big deal not just for the Moustache Brothers, but for the people of Myanmar in general as well. Isolated from the world for decades, the people of Myanmar are yearning to be heard and their presence in the international community recognized. Which is why Zimi, who’s been keeping me company while waiting for the show to start, is asking me what I think of her country.
“It’s amazing,” I tell her. “Myanmar is really beautiful.”
She then asks me about my country. “If I want to go to the Philippines, what places can you recommend?”
I tell her of Boracay and Palawan.
“What language do you speak in the Philippines?” she asks.
“Is it hard to learn?”
“Oh, yes. Even us Filipinos have a hard time learning its rules.”
In a few minutes, Lu Maw calls us inside as the show is about to begin. I take my seat in the front row along with three other foreigners. Zimi pulls the blue curtains at the doorway and shuts out the rest of the world as her father and her uncle, as well as the rest of the cast members do their performance for the evening.
THE MENTION OF MANDALAY usually evokes the stereotypical images of colonial Southeast Asia, thanks in large part to Rudyard Kipling, who never really went to the city but waxed lyrical through a poem about it. The reality on the ground, however, underwhelms many visitors, especially those who have been to Myanmar’s top-billing attractions – Bagan, Inle Lake, and even Yangon. Mandalay has no ancient temples, scenic lake, nor a downtown filled with evocative colonial buildings. Instead there are nondescript concrete buildings, a large moat surrounding an ancient palace, and grids of vehicle-filled roads. On the surface, Mandalay is a forgettable city that merely acts as a hub for travelers before they go to the more “interesting” destinations.
But linger a bit longer and the city’s subtle charms pull you in. There are countless Buddhist structures around that will take at least half a day to explore, three former royal capitals that are a few minutes’ drive from the city center, and a hill worth a climb for the view and an opportunity to mingle with locals.
The next morning, I join six people from the hostel I’m staying in in touring Mandalay. We hire a share taxi to take us to various sites in and around the city. We first go to the Mahamuni Paya, Mandalay’s answer to Yangon’s Shwedagon Paya. The Mahamuni is the second most important religious site in Myanmar, and so it sees a large crowd everyday. It’s set in a large religious complex housing a seated golden Buddha. The image is covered with gold all throughout except for the face, which is regularly washed by monks at four in the morning.
We go next to Aung Nan, a handicrafts workshop where artisans work on various woodcarvings and tapestries. Mandalay is asserting itself as Myanmar’s cultural capital, so many artisans imbue the city with their craftsmanship. In fact, the city produces most of the country’s handicrafts. Many families in the area are professional artisans with men working as woodcarvers and women on glass mosaics and gold gilding.
In the afternoon, we get out of the city to visit the three former royal capitals – Sagaing, Inwa and Amarapura.
ON MY LAST FULL DAY IN MANDALAY, I decide to explore the city on foot. Clutching a guidebook in one hand and a phone with a Google Maps app in another, I set out on my walk. I amble along 80th street, looking for a cheap place for breakfast. I find a stall at a street corner, where small tables are set with blue plastic stools. A woman is cooking the food on a stove while two young girls are flitting from table to table, alternatively taking orders from customers and serving bowls of noodles. In my broken Burmese, I order a bowl of mohinga. The dish I get is a different version from the one I had in Yangon. The noodles are thicker, covered in orange sauce, and is served separately from the broth.
Tummy grumbles fixed, I resume walking. I start from the 26th street, then enter a leafy road leading to the Ein Daw Yar Pagoda. Entering the temple compound, the bustle of the streets turn into hushed whispers of visitors and monks, and the general noise of the city give way to the chirping of the birds.
I weave my way through narrow streets and alleys until I emerge at the road by the Irrawady River. I make my way to the jetty, where ferries go to Mingun, a town on the other side of the river filled with interesting sights, such as unfinished stupa, which would have been the largest in the world. I missed the ferry, though, and I don’t have enough cash left to pay for a private boat. Instead, I hire a motorcycle taxi to take me around Royal Mandalay and Mandalay Hill.
The driver drops me at my hotel a few minutes after 12 noon. But I’m not ready to get in yet. Instead, I walk around some more, looking for another food stall serving cheap lunch. I find one in a narrow alley behind the hospital. A spread of various dishes are displayed at the window, and customers point to which dishes they like, which are then served with rice. I pick two lentils-based dishes and pickled eggplant. It’s the cheapest lunch I’m having in Myanmar. But as I’m approaching the end of my trip in a country that has been an enigma for most of the past few decades, it’s also fitting that I’m enjoying a meal in an obscure street.