Another city, another 4am taxi ride.
The bus doors open with a sigh and I’m slapped awake by the noise of a crowd of taxi drivers, fighting for our custom and yet completely blocking the exit. Just to escape the shouting and the shoving we squeeze through the doors and escape to a shack-like tea shop to wait. What we’re waiting for, none of us knows.
The squeals and twangs of a TV cartoon intensify my splitting headache and the smell of greasy samosas being fried in oil make my mouth fill with water, not because I’m hungry but because I think I might be sick. There’s a man asleep on a beach towel on the floor and cats creeping under every piece of furniture.
It’s just turned 4am and tiny Buddhist monks, some as young as six or seven years old, are collecting their alms. A few come into the tea shop and stand next to us with doleful eyes like saucers of spilled coffee and freshly-shaved heads that look as insubstantial as half-baked bread.
We’re not sure what to do but having them standing there is making us feel uncomfortable so we drop the deep-fried doughnut sticks that come with our tea into their alms bowls. ‘Don’t eat them for breakfast’, I tell the smallest one, ‘they’re bad for you’. He just stands there looking at me, he doesn’t speak English and I’m just a strange, pale lady making noises at him. I want to wrap him up in his saffron robes like a caterpillar in its cocoon, put him back to bed somewhere safe and warm and cook him a nutritious breakfast when he wakes up.
When it calms down and we’re ready to leave we don’t accept the first taxi drivers offer, a trick we think makes it look like we know what we’re doing. We accept a lower price and follow the driver to his taxi which is actually a flatbed truck on which a young family, father, mother and toddler, are already stretched out as though they’ve been there for days. He straps our bags to the roof and I feel pleased that we aren’t helping to price local people out of affordable taxi services, but then, I’m sitting in the front.
By night, the approach to Mandalay city looks a lot like Yangon. The same long, straight roads, congested even at this time with scooters, tractors and knackered old saloon cars. The same shop fronts with surreal English phrases like ‘Mother Mobile’ and ‘Big Heart Internet’ flashing in neon. ‘GRAND HOT’ dominates the skyline, presumably the E and L are broken but you can’t be sure.
We turn down a dirty, deserted back street and arrive at our hotel. We’re staying opposite the train station and there are at least fifty people, some of them families, some of them all alone, living by the tracks.
Only seven hours until we can check in…