City of shady wheelers and whiplash dealers, full of narrow alleys and sweaty cash and jewelers tucked away in dusty corners: two thousand glances from two thousand strangers’ faces. It’s a stained parking garage and it’s a cage of muscle-rippling, thunder-rumbling guard-dogs the owner himself is afraid to enter. It’s a city with rubies squirreled away in tiny closets locked with secret keys upstairs into musty rooms above the seedy kitchen.
This is Mandalay of a million motorbikes and screaming traffic migraines.
It’s a palace gargantuan stretching its green square for miles in the city’s heart. The past grandeur looms, imposes, and dies: a monument of prosperity and excess, a shell of its former self—too enormous to keep clean, too far ravished to stock with treasures, too little money and too few tourists to restore all its former circumstance. But too historic to forget entirely.
So she sits and broods on former glories, and makes a screeching donut of the city.
Teak wood piles on teak wood until you start to itch for more gold. You crave more of the dusty sketches of the ancient potentates who wooed the Britsh ids with untold harems and flowing opium and a world of silk and smoke stretching long into the lonely dusk of tempting Orient sins.
Mandalay mills and deals around the dead palace at its heart, pactsmade in handshakes and cash under tables, where wealth churns in eyebrow twitches and tones of voice and in the trust you spark more than any resume you may produce.
It’s a city smiling in yellow teeth and blood-read betel.
Email is dead here, fax stagnant, and papers delivered crumpled in dust and sweat. Business runs by reputation and favors, invisible cash somehow swapped and never seen, to fester later in outsize gold rings on pinkies and tooth platings.
Tourists tread here, too, along wide sidewalks round those shriveled palaces and shells of monasteries; they snap some pictures and gaze at golden spikes of pagodas and palaces and revel a moment in the clash of the richest of colonies and a populace subdued by four years of filthy wars before subsequent generations of colonialism. And then decades of self-oppression. Now their steeled stares trace foreigners stepping inside the thick red palace walls to walk among the teak dwellings of the last weakened kings. They remove shoes to step through the dusty floors where his triple-digit harem once chattered and catfought.
Outside, locals slurp their tiny bowls of noodles.
Mandalay writes its names gems; it ushers in tourists it thinks it’s ready for, who think they’re ready for its markets. We thought so, too.
We trod through floor after concrete floor of high ceiling piled with heavy shelves and wiry men in folded legs sitting amongst mountains of powdered spice and herbs. The wiry young ones cursing you in glances while hauling wares in burlap sacks too heavy for reason and too bulky for the twisting narrow routes. Somewhere in the maze are the pearl dealers who will nod but never smile and watch with slicing eyes and quote shameless prices for their bulbous hunking oblong orbs—sawdust-painted women who sell from stalls next door to sweatshops of women sewing raw on machines pedaled and smooth and a century old.
Mandalay of fabled Burma. Mandalay of the opium den, of the opium triangle, of the gemstones fabled throughout the world, and the gold and the incensed shrines and the thick scales of its underbelly.
Mandalay—jewel of the orient, sparkling splendor so bright you can’t see past its past and feel what now it might lurk beneath.
Later, we slid upstairs for a rooftop duck dinner, of obsequious waiters bowing us through pumpkin soups roasted in their shells and thank-you’s to the host who footed the bill and bows embarrassed at the attention.
It’s a city where men bathe in the streets, pounding cold buckets of waters from public wells over their near-bare bodies and soaping up, leaving foamy dregs the wash across the gritty sidewalk and into the greasy street.
This is Mandalay of the longest wooden bridge the globe knows—the half-rickety half-robust horizontal tower stretches kilometers over muddy riverbed where anglers wade into the orange of the sunset and buffaloes moan toward marshy islands. Moldy canoes glide rippling puddles around the Irrawaddy’s backwash, and above, on the ribbon of rotting planks, we take pictures with young baldheaded monks while teenage lovers stroll self-consciously and awkwardly through the background.
Mandalay, where the sun sets oranger than you imagined, in a sky bleached clear of any cloud: a desert sky of hopeless orange, until a lone crane beats its giant wings against the coming night, rises from the mud a spotless, vibrant white, and capers off in heavy flaps toward that dying sun.