Rangoon, Sunday 18-3-73
They tell me it is impossible to buy aerogrammes in this place. It was possible but they are out of print and they are trying to print some more. In this backward country that could mean it will be several years yet.
My last transaction in Thailand was the purchase of some new sandshoes (they were white and blue at the time) to replace my Woolies specials which were leaking my toes out the front (after many hundreds of miles). This was effected on the way to the airport and set me back Baht 49. The ride to the airport was the usual nightmare on overloaded local buses (as only Asians know how to overload things). After all, the "limousine" service would have cost Baht 20 and with my impeccable knowledge of the Bangkok transport system it cost me Baht 2.50. Also I was getting close to the people!
The flight to Rangoon was fairly rough and we were only served a cold meal instead of the slap-up feast I had been hoping for. Still, it slid down quite comfortably with a few beers and some red wine. Formalities at Rangoon airport were rather painful, but they didn't find my $US20 worth of kyats (pron. "chuts") hidden in the middle of a toilet roll and various other places throughout my baggage. I feel no compunction about using the black market in this place, because they are cheating tourists by maintaining their worthless currency at an artificial exchange rate. The official rate is a smidgin over K4/$US1. I bought mine at various times in Bangkok for K15-16/$1 and didn't have to sign anything I interpreted as an untrue statement. The going rate in the street here is up to K12/$1. This makes the place cheap instead of very expensive. I have had to change $US8 officially to have entered on my form which I must present on my departure. Hope that's enough. The beggars also socked me $6.50 for a visa, which I haven't forgotten or forgiven.
A kindly American professor of Indian literature took me in a bemo-like taxi to the YMCA where I paid K3 to sleep on a wooden bed without a mattress. The temperature must have been close to 100°F and humidity extremely high. I'll be lucky if I get out of here without being run over. It's the first country I've come across where driving is on the right and I keep looking the wrong way. Thankfully the traffic is very light and a profound relief after Bangkok rush hours. Most of the cars are old and right-hand drive, as the change was only made about 2 years ago, for a reason I have been unable to establish. All countries around drive on the left. I suppose it was a gesture of defiance or a symbolic shaking off of their British past. I am very thankful for the British legacy of English-speakers, as Burmese is hard to learn. It also has a weird script which really "freaked out" the professor. The numbers are quite different too. The place is obviously not geared up for the tourist trade, which is refreshing. It also makes some articles hard to find.
In spite of the dirt, obvious poverty, begging lepers etc., Rangoon is quite a charming place in its own way. Life seems to be slow, almost Colonial, and an olde worlde atmosphere is created by the architecture, which I suppose is British, though it looks more Mediterranean to me, with wrought-iron-railinged balconies and interesting façades.
On arrival, I hastened slowly down to the Australian Embassy, where I collected a letter from you; a letter from Aunt C. and Uncle I. (containing some amusing and some rather perspicacious comments); a birthday card with lots of signatures and a note from Ruth and Beth (very thoughtful of them); and a card from S., bought in Paris and posted in London, bidding me forsake these "dark Asian countries for one where the true light shines". My day having thus been made, I wandered on to the railway station, found an A.U.S. Travel officer from Melbourne going to Mandalay and decided to join him the same night. The stationmaster snuck us in to get our tickets ahead of milling hordes of Asians, I donated my K3 at YMCA to charity and set off on the storied Road to Mandalay by "ordinary class" (hard wooden) seat for K17.50 (v. ca. K60 "upper class" sleeper), in company with two heavily-bearded 27-year-old Americans (a schoolteacher and a doctor). We were soon very sorry, but had lots of leisure to repent as the train pulled into Mandalay at 1630 the next day - 19 wearying, bottom-bruising hours (a mere 4½ hours longer than planned).
Burma is a country in a sad state of disrepair. It has been progressing steadily backwards after shutting itself off from outside aid. It may be just the season, but there are cacti and palm trees growing in the dusty, barren inland areas that are obviously meant to be rice-paddies. Mandalay is only a romantic name - the heat and flies were dreadful. We had an enormous meal in a Chinese restaurant, stayed the night in a guest house, and left at 0440 next day by pony-cart to the ferry. There was not even deck-space among the hoi polloi and their baggage on the ferry, so we took "cabin tickets" which gave us the privilege of sleeping on the floor in a separate room. The trip down the Irrawaddy was really very restful. A lot of time was spent carefully circumnavigating sandbanks. Once again I was most surprised to find the countryside flat and dry (rather like the Nile or the Suez Canal). There seems to be very little activity of any sort in Burma. We made land next morning (Friday) about 0530 at Pagan, an ancient capital of a Burmese kingdom, and known as the "city of 4,000 pagodas". Personally, I think they underestimated. As far as the eye can see in every direction there are the ruins of C11-C13 pagodas. We spent quite a pleasant day in a pony-cart, going about the quiet environs, climbing up pagodas by dark staircases and admiring the Buddhas!
Yesterday (Saturday) we decided to fly to Rangoon (sudden change of heart!) but discovered we would have to prove we changed the money officially, so we took a pony-cart and an old relic of a bus to the nearest town on the railway and took upper-class sleepers (very poor conditions) back to Rangoon, arriving about 1015 this morning after quite a comfortable night. Everything's relative. We're now back at the YMCA, I have K80 in my pocket and I leave on Tuesday. We feel that a feast at the Strand Hotel tonight of steaks and other lovely things would be in order. I can't find the maps and things I want to buy to use the money. I can get 20 more passport photos tomorrow for K11 - may send you some. I paid about 50c each for the ones I got in Sydney and when I think thereon I weep!
Postage from Singapore is obviously as good as I was told.