Kipling, the famed poet, never went to Mandalay.
The road he spoke of was plied by paddle steamers, which likely would have spirited a man there faster than my not-so-trusty BSA. Not to worry. There was much to see along the way- rural life unchanged for centuries, festivals, towns, pagodas, markets…..and mechanics. In hindsight, I didn’t do this journey justice, and would gladly do it again, even slower.
The Irrawaddy River was Kipling's "road to Mandalay", the old steamers "their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay"
At its peak in 1920s, The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (1865 until the late 1940s) had the largest fleet of river boats in the world, carrying some 8-9 million passengers a year.
The journey by land is 630km, possible by bus, train, or in my case, unreliable 40 year old British motorcycle.
Unscheduled stops were routine, allowing me plenty of chance to interact with folks along the way. Usually mechanics.
I was free (or forced) to stop at everyday scences which would blur past on a bus or train trip.
Like the steamer rides of old, scenes of rural simplicity and struggle unfolded before me.
Stepping off the bike at some random roadside restaurant-shack surprised a few folks. The food was always good, plentiful and cheap.
Yes, it was slow going. But that wasn't always a bad thing.
A mere 100km up the road, Bago was my first stop.
Despite its proximity to the capital, and over 400 years of European contact, I was still a curiosity, as is running water.
There are a number of Buddhist temples in the city, which at times was part of the Mon empires, the independent state of Hanthawaddy, or the Bamar kingdoms.
I don't remember seeing any. I spent my time walking around, watching street life.
The after-school rush filled the streets.
Leisure time for those that could afford it. Badminton is popular through much of east Asia.
Home made kites fill the air.
The railway line makes both a thoroughfare and a playground.
For the adults, work goes on, precarious and uncertain.
Cheroots workshops abound in Bago, (usually) women wrapping and bundling the ubiquitous tobacco leaves.
There was still over 550kms to go. I should have arrived in Mandalay the next day.
Between break-downs and photo-ops, I wondered if I'd ever get to Mandalay.
I had a flat, open road, a motorcycle and rural Burmese life all around. Here, a farmer collects thatch for roofing.
Corn harvest was in full swing.
A roadside market at some place half way between.
A farmer's life in Burma would appear little changed from that of his Pagan forebears.
Woman, graceful and elegant in traditional longyi and hats, collect alms for the local temple.
The frantic hussle and bustle of a regional market street.
A soccer match in the pre-dusk cool meant I would not make Mandalay.
I guess that Meiktila chose me. I knew nothing of its checked history, but none of that was evident anyway.
Part of the Bamar empires for 1,000 years, scene of a major WWII battle, and recently of ethnic conflict, Meiktila was actually a pleasant lakeside town.
And I had arrived on festival day! A traditional musical and theatrical performance was on in the main hall.
Ancient Buddha tales or Burmese folklore no doubt, although it could have been Burmese "Home and Away" for all I know.
But the star of the show was this rusty, rickety old ferris wheel, powered with renewable energy- half a dozen daring young Burmese lads.
Not content to just pull the frame from ground level, the workers pull themselves up to the top and drop down with all their weight. Nuts.
Trucks and jeeps have replaced steamers since Kipling waxed of "them spicy garlic smells/ An' the sunshine an' the palm-trees an' the tinkly temple-bells/ On the road to Mandalay... "
But one man's romantic view of traditional, rural idylls is dystopian reality for generations of Burmese.