National Geographic : 1995 Jul
* Braving a man-made monsoon in the back of a pickup truck, Rangoon youths greet the New Year with a splash. The entire city erupts in water fights during Thin gyan, which began as a solemn medieval ritual and infrastructure such as roads and har bors-that have enabled other Asian coun tries to flourish? Infrastructure is probably the most pressing need, because it makes trade possible. Because mountains rim Burma on three sides, it has few overland links with neighbors. Most trade has been by sea. Just after World War II, Rangoon's harbor had 10 berths. Now it has 13, even though Burma's population, which was 17 million in 1941, now exceeds 45 million. One ship captain tells me he waited for a month before he could unload. Such delays raise prices and exacerbate shortages of crucial items such as medicines. Scarcity of trucks, storage sheds, and cranes, coupled with poor connections to the harbor, also con tribute to the costly delays. Plans call for road improvements, financed in part by China, which wants better transpor tation between its landlocked western prov inces and Rangoon. SLORC keeps much of upper Burma closed to outsiders, but it grants me permission to visit Mu Se, the major crossing to China. I TAKE the night train to Mandalay. Nyunt Wai, a 39-year-old Information Ministry official, is assigned to travel with me. We pull out at 6:30 p.m. The train is crowded. At the end of the train are two "ordi nary class" cars with wood benches and people sleeping on the floor. The dining car has charcoal stoves. Windows are open, and wind makes the curtains bounce. Grasshop pers jump in. Because rural Burma has little electricity, the outside is black. Frogs, rain, and the train's metallic clip-clop. A rim of light slowly becomes brighter and rounder. After nearly an hour I recognize a pagoda, floating in the distance. A typical station: Soldiers. Incense. People asleep on straw mats. Dirt. Monks begging. Boy in a "Hard Rock Cafe" T-shirt. Plastic bags of coconut milk. Burlap bags of rice, onions, and beans. Children sell bananas, mangoes, grapes, pineapples, and quail eggs. When the train stops for bridge construction, voices rise from the darkness: "We are hungry. Have pity." Passengers toss food out to them. "It was never like this when I was young," an older woman mutters. Sunrise reveals purple soil, sunflowers, and banyan trees. Four bullocks wait to begin work. Arrival in Mandalay is at 9:30 a.m. the 373-mile trip has taken 15 hours. In 1890 Rudyard Kipling romanticized this city-"On the road to Mandalay, / Where the flyin'-fishes play"-but apparently he never National Geographic,July 1995 marking the advent of the monsoon season. Young people sporting the popular American flag motif prowl the streets armed with hoses and buckets of water, looking for tar gets-willing or not.