We’re up early to breakfast and meet our Moustache Bros private driver for our tour de Mandalay. Murphy is still sick as fuck, his TB has gotten worse to the point where he coughs uncontrollably for minutes at a time and then stares off into the distance like he doesn’t know where he is. He gobbles down a fistful of meds. It’s fine though, fine, everything’s fine.
Ostello Bello has killer breakfast noodles, almost plain but with a bit of olive oil and chili flakes. We sit across from and start chatting up an Aussie chick. She’s a doctor who’s just left her job in Newcastle to travel around SEA for a couple of months, return home for Christmas to stay with her folks for a month or two then take on a new job at the hospital in my old stomping grounds of Darwin. She’s got a thing for tropical diseases, and in all likelihood is talking to us as potential case studies.
Our Moustache Bros ride shows up. When we’d initially discussed the deal it was supposed to be a driver and the “Daughter of Moustache” as our translator but it looks like only the driver, her husband, is here. His English is okay but hers was fluent. The van is dope though, tons of space and crispy cool AC. We head to our first stop, “The World’s Largest Book”.
This place is a temple complex (properly named Kuthadow pagoda) surrounded by rings of over 700 stone enclosures, each containing a double-sided slab inscribed with text. Read them all together and you’ve got almost a 1500-page book. Our driver didn’t give us much of an explanation so I assume it’s a spy novel. When we walk in the front gates we’re told, as unexpected, that we have to take off our shoes. The boys are left to walk around this whole place – with stray dogs and god knows what else – in their bare feet. I gun-finger my socks and say “Socks. BAM!” Two seconds later as I walk in a groundskeeper yells at me “SOCKS! NO!” Murphy and Drisdelle simultaneously “BAM” me.
The hustle is strong right from the get-go here. Several women immediately approach us with armfulls of postcards, trinkets, typically tourist-trap bullshit. They’ve all got some kind of beige-coloured face paint on their cheeks and/or foreheads, either as simple circles or more complex designs like leaves. It turns out this stuff is made from a root that’s ground down and mixed with water to act as sunscreen. We really, really don’t want to buy anything they’re selling but they insist on painting our faces. “Gift! For you!” Okay, that seems harmless enough, so we all get leaves painted on our cheeks. Now here’s the catch – as they’ve invested a few minutes of time painting our faces, they’re pretty sure we should feel obliged to reciprocate by buying some of their shit. No. No. No. They follow us for two minutes. Three. Four. Five. Ten. Everything is lucky this, lucky that. “You will be my first customer, very lucky!” “You are lucky man, you look lucky!” “Luckyluckyluckyluckylucky!” This isn’t going to stop. Alright, if it’s like two dollars to get them off our backs we decide it’s worth it and cough it up for a handful of postcards.
This strategy worked for Drisdelle and myself but not so much for Murphy, fittingly the sickest and crankypantsiest of us at this particular moment. The woman he bought swag from wasn’t the same one who painted his face; this triggered some drama in the WLB. “She lucky! She happy! Me not lucky! Me not happy!” Murphy walks. She follows. Luckyluckyluckylucky. She’s clinging to his side for another five minutes, getting in his way as he tries to take pics and Murphy’s getting close to redlining.
He looks at me, ready to snap. “I’m not really sure what to do here man.” He’s holding it together but his smile isn’t a regular smile, it’s like the smile you crack before you slap the shit out of someone. I’ve been left alone so I’m getting a good giggle out of the whole thing. Zero idea how Drisdelle’s faring as we’ve lost him again.
Eventually – like after fifteen minutes or so – she gives up and we finally get to have a peaceful stroll around the joint.
A temple dog notices that we don’t really know where we’re going and gives us a free guided tour. Narcopiggy and him are instafriends.
On our way out Murphy gets the stankface from the woman who painted his face but we find the girl who he bought postcards from and he gets a Narco pose from her
We jump in the Stachewagon and head towards our next stop, the Mandalay Marble District. The streets are lined with shops where workers are grinding down chunks of stone then polishing them up, thousands and thousands of statues of all sizes, mostly of Buddhas. Our driver asks if we want to get out and tour around one of the shops. Naaaaah. Total white guy zone, super tourist trappy. Besides that there’s a white cloud of stone dust hanging over the entire neighbourhood and almost no one seems to be wearing masks. We just take a pic from the car instead.
Our next stop is the same idea but for wood. We decide to get off our asses and walk around this one a bit. These things are exquisite and the folks whipping them up seem to be pumping them out like they’re nothing. Among the woodworkers are some painters as well.
We headed out of the city core toward the innumerable temples on the outskirts. Topping up our fuel I jumped out of the Stachewagon to find a pisser and found this old rig:
Love the starter on the front. I take a closer look at the interior, the speedo only goes up to about 50 or so. While I’ve got my head leaned in the gas station owner comes over and says hi, starts her up (using an electric starter) and gives her the gas. Sounds like a beaut.
When we reach the river out of town there are two bridges, the modern-looking one we’re crossing and an older one that looks to be a train bridge but has a couple of car lanes attached to the side as well. We stop for some pics before crossing the river to the temples.