Crikey, our journey here was amazing. First, we went to Yangon Domestic Airport: the very same classic airport featured in Maung Wanna’s 1971 film Wearing Velvet Slippers, Under a Golden Umbrella. (Nge Lay told us it’s actually one of the first airports in Southeast Asia – when Singapore built Changi, we came here for a study visit.)

And you know all those things people hate about flying in the first world – needing to produce passports, taking off your shoes, not getting to bring liquids on the flight? None of that was there. Amazing. Our tickets even had our names written on them by hand!  (Thanks, Cody and Joshua, for the observations.)

And our Asia Wings aircraft had exposed propellers! On the wings, mind you, not the nose – but still, scarily classic. 
Uneventful flight of 100 minutes: I passed around peanut candy, and unexpectedly the attendants had breakfast for us – a croissant, a Danish, some melon, coffee or tea. Oh, there was one odd event: just after lift-off, we saw a colossal mandala-like formation below us, almost revelatory in the dawn. I thought it might be some kind of pagoda complex or independence park. Then Zeya told us it was a prison.

Mandalay International Airport is a modern building in the middle of nowhere. There were plans for a huge airport here, so it takes 30 minutes by bus to even get out of the land reserved for the plane. The whole area’s dotted with stray stupas past fields – clay-brown ones, not the gaudy golden ones we’re used to in Yangon – so I kind of hope the development doesn’t happen the way it was planned.
KS took the opportunity to brief us on our itinerary over the next few days: basically, the artists aren’t expected to be productive or instructive during this time. We’re just supposed to take in the landscape and culture: an excursion to Mingun, the Wathann Film Festival, an alternative mapping of the city by Dr Tin Maung Kyi, and quite a bit of free time for us to do whatever the hell we choose. (Julie wants to get a sheet of gold from the Gold-Pounders’ District. I told her “gold-pounding” sounded like a euphemism.)

Mandalay is a city of crafts, of arts, much more than Mandalay, KS says. The only reason we didn’t have our FCP presentations here is because of a debacle at the Myanmar - Malaysia Performance Art Exchange on 24 May 2012. A bunch of artists got detained, deported and banned from the country, just for doing performance art in the street. (Four Malaysians, one American with her two year-old daughter, according to this report, with seven Burmese artists also implicated.)

Nge Lay was there. She explained the circumstances, including something about public protests against the electricity being down in the city, and the police believing the art was related to that. Seems that the police have the run of this place, due to the need to protect the tourist industry. Couldn’t hear everything she said, ‘cos Cody was next to me on the phone, trying to arrange an airport pickup for FCP artist Tadasu Takamine. (Not blaming him: the noise must’ve been worse for him.)

So no performance art in the streets, guys. Capisce?

Then arrival at our hotel! Due to the opening up of this country, we were unable to stuff all of us into the same hotel, so we’ve ended up split between Mandalay Hill Resort and Sedona, two and a half kilometres of highway apart. I’m at Mandalay Hill, and it’s freaking nice. Fresh flowers and gilt in the elevators, temple architecture in the pool area, which overlooks the hill itself.

KS had a flashback observing the pool: he remembered that he had a cocktail here, back when he visited in 1988. There was no-one there back then, he says. How things change. (Especially here – the hotel was called Sigona till last year. Got very confused talking to my motorcycle taxi driver.)

I’d planned on staying in today, pumping out articles and blog posts until my conscience was clear and my heart was light. What happened was I slept in for four hours and then realized that however posh this place is, the Internet connectivity is pretty awful – slow, intermittent – hence the absence of photos in this post as of 11 Jan 2013. I’ll add them later.


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