U Bein Bridge and the Moustache Brothers

The last stop on our Mandalay tour is the U Bein Bridge, kilometer-plus wooden pedestrian bridge that passes over one of the city’s lakes.  Our driver pulls in next to a little temple and tells us he’ll be waiting more or less where he’s dropping us off.  As with any tourist trap in these parts there are dozens of drink and ice cream stalls on the walk up to the bridge.

The bridge itself is lined with (mostly) old women selling the expected things like tourist trap trinkets but it looks like this is a legit market for local people as well, blankets are laid out with vegetables, fish and other types of food.

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Some parts of this thing are a bit rickety, walking near the middle you can feel some of the planks really giving way under our couple hundred pounds of white-guy-meat.

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We walk the length of the bridge and surprisingly don’t find any beers on the way, even though at a couple of points there are little cafe-type things jutting off the sides of the walkway.  Fairly uneventful walk but the scenery was nice.  The other end of the bridge looks completely different though, there are a handful of restaurants but they look like bona fide local joints and there’s a dearth of the trinket stalls we’d seen on the other side.  We walk into this neighbourhood and sure enough we’re the only white folks and we’re getting the “what the fuck are you doing here?” looks from everyone.  We step into a little temple to take a few pics.

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Nothing too special, on our way out we begin to turn back toward the bridge, it’s getting late in the day and we’re ready to wind it down, but a group of precocious kids in school uniforms tell us, mostly via gestures, to keep going down the street rather than turning back.  We head in the direction they indicate and come across a much more impressive temple.

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Thanks for the tip, kids!  We meander back to the bridge and head across to find our driver.  There are dozens of couples and groups taking selfies next to the edge of the bridge, I’m ducking and weaving around them until I look back and realize I’ve lost the boys.  Murphy has not only photobombed a couple of girls, he’s unleashed Narcopiggy for them to hold.

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Our departure is well-timed; the road out is complete chaos, apparently everyone in the city comes here for sunset selfies.  It’s difficult for us to get out but the vehicles headed toward the bridge are mired in complete gridlock.  It doesn’t help that much of the road is under construction and limited to one lane.  Fortunately our driver decides to get off the main drag, zips us through a few side streets and drops us off at the hostel.

We’ve got a few hours to kill until the Moustache Brothers show that evening so Drisdelle chills at the hostel with a few drinks while Murphy and I go looking for a pharmacy to try to quell some of the symptoms he’s been dealing with all day.  There’s a corner store a few hundred feet from the hostel so we stop in there to see what they’ve got first.  A lot of it is what you’d expect – cough medicine, paracetamol, diarrhea meds – but there’s a shelf with loose blister packs strewn about.  Some are pain killers and some are antibiotics.  Yup, loosey antibiotics, take as few or as many as you think you need.  We think about grabbing some but on closer inspection it seems like a questionable idea, although they’re labelled as antibiotics and have names closely resembling your standard products, they’re all not quite right – either the packages include a spelling mistake or the names are slightly modified, like “tricycline” instead of “tetracycline”.  Sketchy.  We move on to a proper pharmacy.

Murphy gets a bag of drugs from the pharmacist but decides he’s best off skipping the show, he goes into uncontrollable coughing fits every five or ten minutes and doesn’t want to be the guy in the audience that ruins it for everyone else.  Drisdelle and I jump in a cab and scoot over to the show, we arrive with half an hour to kill so grab a few rum and cokes – with local rum, cheap but ooof – at a place across the street.

We’re given “reserved” seats at the front of the small shop but only half a dozen people show up, a couple of guys traveling solo to our right and an American couple to our left.  Lu Maw comes out and welcomes us to the show and jumps right into the cheesy jokes, he asks us where we’re all from and with the help of a wooden board warns us that our respective countries’ security services will now be watching us as subversives.

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His style of humour is straight out of the Henny Youngman playbook, one-liners and jokes about his wife, but his facial expressions make it impossible not to laugh no matter how cheesy the material is.  Sometimes he’ll throw out an English idiom that isn’t even really a joke – like referring to his wife as a “ball and chain” – and he leans his head back and smiles, laughing in his eyes, and you can’t help but laugh out loud with him.

He pulls out one of the local Burmese cigars that we’ve seen around (and our hostel is giving out for free) and lights it up, telling us if we want some beer while we’re watching that’s no problem and holding out a bag of cigars and insisting we have one with him.  He asks the couple first and he’s clearly disappointed when they tell him they don’t smoke.  I grab one from him and spark it up and he’s thrilled.  “This guy is on my team!”  He leans his head back and gives me the laughing-eyes look again.  It’s actually a pretty rough smoke but I do my best to suck it back.

He tells us that he’s tried to quit smoking but his wife keeps buying him cigarettes because “she loves me”.  “I know that cigars will kill me and I tell her that, but she keeps buying them for me – because she loves me so much!”  That look with his eyes again.  He follows this up with some zingers about how he’s got several girlfriends but not to tell his wife.  Real cornball stuff but the delivery is gold.

After a few jokes he gets a bit serious and tells us the history of the Moustache Brothers, how his brother Par Par Lay was imprisoned by the military junta for several years for making jokes about the government being thieves, and pantomimes that he got away with it because he pretended he didn’t say anything and blamed his brother.  His brother passed away a few years ago from kidney failure allegedly from lead-tainted water given to him by the government while he was detained.  There’s also a third brother who used to perform with them – actually a cousin – and even though he’s a part of the current show he’s in a supporting role, Lu Maw is the real face of the troupe now.

Along with the history of his act he fills us in on the political history of the country and after showing us a video from the mid-nineties of Aung San Suu Kyi watching his brother perform.  “Now the government is my friend!  Look at me, I’m on my high horse!”, folding his arms and looking smug but with the same glint in his eyes he has every time he’s joking around.

He talks about the different ethnic groups that make up Myanmar beside the majority Bamar people and half a dozen of his supporting cast come out on stage to perform one of the minority traditional dances.  They look a bit uncomfortable doing it, especially Lu Zaw, the third Moustache Brother.  It’s, uh, interesting, I suppose.  I puff on my cigar and suck down my beer and wait for it to end.

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Lu Maw’s wife is one of the dancers and she hangs around on stage as the others leave.  She doesn’t really speak English but Lu Maw tells us the story of how they met, she was a dancer in their troupe.  “We traveled with ten dancers.  My wife was the pretty one.  The other nine were ugly.”  He scrunches his face up in disgust, then holds up a vintage early 90’s Lonely Planet guide for Burma, and it’s his wife on the cover.  “My wife is a cover girl!”  Smug/laughing look again.  “I knocked her up!” he exclaims proudly with the laughing-eyes face; I fucking nearly spray beer out my nose.  He goes into some corny jokes about being married and his wife is part of the bit, hitting him and telling him to shut up.  Hilarious.

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“I visited Thailand to see a dentist.  He looked at my teeth and said, ‘Don’t you have dentists in Burma?’  I said we do, but we aren’t allowed to open our mouths.” – Lu Maw

The rest of the show rotated between Lu Maw telling somewhat serious stories, then telling jokes to lighten things up, then having his crew come on and dance while he stood in the back and annihilated cigars.

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Before he ended he mentioned the current government being his friend again, but he made a point of stressing that the government isn’t really his friend, and no government is ever the real friend of the people.  At the end of the show we thanked him and his crew, Drisdelle grabbed a commemorative t-shirt and we trucked on back to the hostel.  Murphy was half-crashed out, half-delirious and super-crankypants when I tickled one of his feet sticking out from under his blanket, so Drisdelle and I had a few beers on the hostel rooftop common area before crashing out ourselves.

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