They say travel is supposed to broaden the mind and I guess that is true.
Since being here in Myanmar we have both been impressed with the quality of the driving we see and have experienced first hand. With a huge range of 'vehicles' on the road it is just as well that by and large the drivers don't speed and generally give way with a friendly wave. We have travelled in taxis, buses, truck buses, horse carts and on bikes and found that to be true.
Enter the share taxi!! As the name implies it is a regular, or what passes for regular in these parts, taxi but instead of it being chartered by one person or group of people it is a common carrier that will take you to your destination for a fixed, or negotiable fee. The drivers of share taxis are not of the friendly wave, give way low speed variety, they are amped up on betel nut, in a hurry, short of time, put out by any other road users, lane swapping wannabe race car drivers.
So what did we do today? After a discussion with the hotel manager, Vicky and I elected to travel by share taxi to Pyin Oo Lwin, home of a great Botanical Garden modelled on none other than the Kew Gardens itself. The start to the day wasn't all that encouraging really. We appeared in the hotel lobby just before our appointed start time of 7.30 am to be greeted and ushered towards the vehicle which we (correctly) thought bore a strong resemblance to an airport taxi. When it was finally understood that we didn't want to go to the airport and we weren't in room 405, the assembled throng of staff, driver, various passers by and other hotel guests all looked positively saddened that we had so rudely spurned the offer of a perfectly good mini bus to the airport.
But we do want to go to Pyin Oo Lwin, the manager teed it up for us yesterday...
The airport mini bus driver took off and Mr Aung, the hotel manager was phoned for clarification. I spoke to him and he was adamant that we wanted to go to the airport and that we had rejected out of hand the idea of a day trip anywhere. I was instructed to return the phone to the receptionist who had a brief discussion before hanging up. When I looked expectantly at him he announced, "your tour cancelled." Just as this discussion was happening another foreign type man and his Thai wife appeared at reception with their luggage in tow. After several minutes I asked that Mr Aung be called again and I spoke to him of our arrangement, I reminded him of several key exchanges in our conversation and that we were in room 505 and I think he finally remembered who we were and our deal, I was once again instructed to give the phone back to the receptionist who spoke briefly to him, hung up and told me to wait 10 minutes. Relieved that our cancelled tour was now back on track I sat down to wait out the '10 minutes'. By this time the other foreign type, an American man was getting a bit hot under the collar about, you guessed it, his airport mini bus!!! He was busy telling the staff that if they said 7.30 then the bus should ******* well be there at 7.30. He told the reception staff that he wasn't angry at them, the manager was to blame and where was he anyway... It was all I could do not to ask him if he was in room 405...
Anyway their mini bus returned and off they went to the airport at about 7.45. Our share taxi arrived a few minutes later. Of course we had to then begin negotiations all over re our destination and cost, 7,000 kyats for the front seat and 6,000 for the back seat, about 6 and 7 dollars respectively not the slightly inflated figures the spokesperson for the driver was insisting on.
Agreed and off we went only to stop less than 1km from our starting point and into the back of the car went several boxes. A new Mr Driver took over clutching a ragged piece of paper and we were off, again.
'Merging' into the ever flowing traffic is a definite art here and it pays just to keep looking forward let me tell you.
He shouted into his phone a couple of times stared at his paper a few times then spotted his target walking along the road. The woman in question gestured towards a building where we screeched to a halt. Another person in the house raced towards us with an overnight bag and into the back of the car it went and into the back seat with me the woman sits. Off again, I don't think so, as more phone shouting and crumpled paper inspection indicated another pick up was imminent. Yes, our final passenger is a friend of the woman in the back seat and as it turns out they were off to a temple for a few days of retreat-great idea!
Now we were really off, ducking and weaving and occasionally even driving within a lane! Mr Driver was hell bent on eclipsing his best time and is using the horn as though it were a magical traffic clear all!!! As we climbed into the mountains the G Forces at work on the long sweeping right hand bends glued the woman next to me. We were stuck together like the opposite poles of a magnet until the car veered off in the other direction. Only then could she rearrange and recompose herself while I edged ever further towards my door.
Apart from that, it really was quite beautiful climbing out of Mandalay heading for the old summer retreat and we did get some decent views down onto the plain below as the scenery rushed past us. I
couldn’t get a picture, however, due to my rather pinned down position in the back.
In Pyin Oo Lwin the magnificent old Colonial mansions spoke of days gone by and the horse carriages that still ply the roads provided the slimmest of links to the 'grand old days' of yore. After seeing the living conditions down on the plain and the opulence of the mansions up there you can really see the glaring inequalities of the Colonial system.
We dropped the gals at their temple and then raced towards our target of the Gardens. I tell you I don't remember being quite so glad to get out of a car as I felt then. I literally flew out the door without even looking back. We thanked Mr Driver from a safe distance, bought our entry tickets and felt great to be back on terra firma.
The gardens were in fact lovely. We wandered past numerous beds of flowers being attended to by attentive attendants, a lovely lake, some serious swans and to our surprise a pair of takins. Takins are the national animal of Bhutan and we thought they only existed there, but no, here they were looking pretty comfortable in Mandalay. Takins are like giant guinea pigs, but with horns by the way.
I thought I should take a picture to prove they were there when, to my shock and horror I realised that my camera was not in my bag, nor in my pocket, nor in my hand-it was nowhere to be seen! I had foolishly left it in the taxi, simply overlooking it in my desire to get out of there as fast as possible. Many images and thoughts run through your head at these times not least of which is how could I have been so stupid?? Closely followed by the thought of doing the all the paperwork at the police station for the insurance claim in the event of it not being found, arrghh!
We bee lined back to the entrance in the hope of being able to find and use a phone to again call our friend Mr Aung. The girls at the entrance were sympathetic but they had no phone and it was up to the very nice Security Guard who simply handed his mobile over to me.
Mr Aung understood the situation after several very frustrating minutes of me trying to establish just who I was and just what had happened. I think the key exchange there was actually Mr Security shouting at the phone from a distance of a couple of metres or so that his foreigners had left their camera in the taxi. No problem, no problem OK, OK Mr Aung assured me before proceeding to completely baffle me with some talk of the share taxi company office and his friend the driver. I interrupted him and simply asked him to call the driver to see if the camera was in fact in the taxi. No problem, no problem OK, OK Mr Aung repeated and then told me that if I had any problems I should call him back! I quickly responded by telling him that I did have a problem and that I was calling him then! I asked him to check and to please call back asap and we left it at that. Mr Security seemed happy enough with the outcome and, along with his colleagues, proceeded to eat his lunch of fried noodles. He kindly offered us some lunch too which was way above and beyond the call of duty.
After about 20 minutes we again asked him if we could use his phone and he instantly agreed. This time Mr Aung appeared to be outside, perhaps walking to the share taxi office. He was maintaining a conversation, audible to all and sundry at my end of the call, but nothing he was saying was making the slightest bit of sense to me. The first intelligible words of English were, perhaps predictably by this stage, no problem, no problem OK, OK, hanging up now!!! I implored him to stop and wait a moment and I tried to think of the easiest way for me to find out the status of his search for my camera, not easy as he was by then off again talking about the share taxi company. Does the driver have my camera I managed to ask him, when I heard the beginning of the no problem routine Mr Security took over and literally shouted down the mouthpiece which only served to inspire Mr Aung to even greater volume and lesser understandability... Then after several minutes of voluminous exchanges, Mr Security handed the phone back to me. I tried the old ‘does the driver have my camera’ routine and Mr Aung told me at Unity Hotel! My camera is at the hotel I gasped excitedly as in our hotel in Mandalay I asked seeking further clarification as there was a Unity Hotel just down the road from the Gardens but of course Mr Aung was getting into the opening phase of his no problem, no problem thing when once again Mr Security took over, this time electing to simply shout from a distance rather than actually down the throat of the phone. The call ended and I was still pretty much none the wiser but fairly confident that my camera was either at the hotel down the road or back in Mandalay. Mr Security confirmed that it was the Mandalay Unity Hotel that was being discussed and we all felt very relieved that my camera was not only found but had been returned to our hotel.
Genuinely relieved we again tried to pay for the calls and this time were successful in at least giving him a small token of thanks. We returned to the gardens in the increasingly heavy rain and took a further look around some of the sights before calling it quits and deciding to head back to the city. Our friend, Mr Security, was happy to call a share taxi for us and we were glad to think he could put a bit of business his friend's way. The standard 10-minute waiting time was over in a flash as an ancient Toyota Corolla wagon coughed and lurched up to the entrance gate. I glanced in the rear section and saw boxes and figured it was par for the course to be delivering goods and people, I also noticed another passenger, a big guy, in the back seat. I instantly felt claustrophobic at the thought of that big fellow clamped to my side during the curvy descent. After I got in I realised that the passenger in the back seat was none other than Mr Driver from the way up!!!
He was literally beaming at me and the red gash of his betel nut stained smile was rather the sight I can tell you. He then mimed taking a picture and that at least gave me comfort that my camera was somewhere safe. Bewdy.
We motored back to the centre of Pyin Oo Lwin, stopped in a side street and Mr First driver got out, we thought we were changing cars but Mr New Driver motioned us to stay still as Mr Betel Nut smile sauntered across the road, opened up his taxi, got my camera out and returned it to me with a flourish and more huge, rouge smiles!! Happy as Larry I rewarded his honesty and good humour with a small token of appreciation as we drove to the market area. Just like that he was gone and a new passenger as well as more boxes joined us for the trip back to Mandalay. The new passenger was a young man clutching an absolute brick of money and a mobile phone, the de rigeur travelling set!!!
Off we went. Now that we got a look at Mr New Driver we could see that he was of course another manic Betel nut chewer and if anything even more determined to set a record time for the downward journey. His thumb literally never left the horn button and despite the horn ceasing to work after a particularly bumpy section of road, he worked it for all it was worth.
I think all of central Myanmar knew about my camera as we were dropped right at our hotel and the driver actually came in to the lobby to let the staff know that he had returned the loser and the lost camera safe and sound. Smiles all round.
What a day, what an education. Never judge a book by its cover, reward good deeds and always shout when on the phone!