Steve Weir
Racing Club de Blackheath in MYANMAR 2016

Day 4 Tuesday 25/10/16 - Bagan

Bop-Showaddy, Irrawaddy-Waddy

Breakfast was on a very pleasant roof-terrace overlooking the landscaped garden and swimming pool, with no sign of any cockroaches in the fruit. I filled my boots with various egg-related dishes, and then we set off in the coach for a quick spin around one of the local markets, which had a wide selection of hats, always an irresistible temptation for Racing Club.

Bastard Foster opted for a rather feminine-looking straw Coolie- hat, with pink-piping, but I chose a more robust-looking bamboo pith-helmet. Bastard Hanning said I looked a right bastard, which was the image I was looking for. I fancied myself as the kind of bastard who was insecure about his lowly social status amongst the colonials, and took it out on the locals by secretly being even more of a bastard than the bastards in charge. Bastard West joined Bastard Foster in going native, and also sported a Coolie-type hat.

While I had been trying on the hat, the woman in the market had smothered my face in yellow sandalwood paste, which the locals use as a kind of sun-guard, particularly the women, so I’m guessing it doubles as a beauty product. It had its work cut out trying to beautify my face, and I wasn’t sure if it made me look more of a bastard or less, but certainly contributed to the image of Buffoon Dad, an image my daughter, like many other teenage daughters, is keen to project onto her father (thereby enabling me to pretend I’m doing it deliberately, for her entertainment).

We were on our way to see what the guide described as a “cave-temple”, but the bus got caught in a mud-rut on the way. One of the street-sellers from the market had rather randomly followed behind our bus on his mini-scooter, and now set about pushing twigs under the wheel, in order to provide traction in the mud. Bastard Vigne was engrossed in the logistics of the problem, and wanted to stay behind to help, but we had to push on down the dirt-track for about a mile longer, to see the fabled cave-temple. It briefly occurred to JoJo that she needed re-assurance that there were no tigers around, which met with a sarky dismissal, but secretly, I wanted to know how they knew there weren’t (aside from the fact that they are almost extinct. Just because they’re rare, they’re still hanging out somewhere, and I imagined this to be perfect terrain).

Descending a steep set of stone stairs, we reached the cave-temple, but the restricted space meant we had to wait in turns to visit it. I sat on a kind of tiered wooden bench, and was shooed away unceremoniously by a local woman, an act she had to repeat for three more people before she was able to start using it as a display-stand for her collection of Buddhas and masks. I had thought I was being shooed away out of respect for the Buddha, but there weren’t many people around, and it turned out she was keen to seize the moment for her retail empire. Small groups of people were coming back out from their cave-visit, and each successive group looked less impressed than the last. Mrs Vigne said “Don’t bother going right to the end, there are no surprises”. Bastard Knight came out next, and said “My wine-cellar’s more interesting than that”

I decided to go in anyway, and crouched down into the tunnel, to the left of the inevitable gold Buddha guarding the entrance. It was a brick tunnel with a sandy floor, no more impressive than I had been warned, and I quickly developed a desire to see Bastard Knight’s wine-cellar.

There was a discussion outside about how to wear the “longyi”, the Burmese kilt-like garment that various people had bought. I wasn’t sure if Bastard Lindsay was included in this discussion, as a kilt is his traditional choice of apparel for Racing Club tours anyway, so I didn’t know if he was wearing a longyi, or one of his favourite Indonesian kilts. Junior Bastard Ben Hoff had been taught the feminine way of tying his longyi, which entails a deft, slim-line little fold over the top, emphasising the waist. In contrast, Bastard Vigne had been taught the masculine way, which is a huge, bulky top-knot covering most of the crotch, and lending a macho swagger to the wearer.

We left just as the woman was placing her last Buddha statue onto the wooden display-stand, in anticipation of a sales rush. You have to speculate to accumulate, as my permanently skint cousin used to tell me, each time he lost most of his wages on a horse. To be fair, even in her most wildly pessimistic moments, painstakingly lining up her merchandise while shooing away another person who had mistaken her display-stand for a multi-tiered bench, the woman probably didn’t envisage selling nothing at all.

A short walk from the cave-temple was a little jetty, where we were to embark on a river-trip down the Irrawaddy. They evidently hadn’t found a boat big enough in which to set out a lunch-table for a party of our size, so with third-world ingenuity, they had strapped together two boats, with a table set out on each. Health and Safety Officers should not visit Burma, it would put them at risk of a heart-attack.

The Irrawaddy is the famous “Road to Mandalay, where the flyin’ fishes play”. It became known as the Road to Mandalay because it was the standard route for transporting British soldiers from Rangoon to Mandalay, from where they were sent out to face recalcitrant native rebels. The Kipling poem from which the song derives is in fact a piece of soldiers’ “locker-room” talk (an occupation recently made more topical by a certain Donald J. Trump).

“There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me”.
“An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot”.
“She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing ‘Kulla-lo-lo’”.

To be honest, she sounds more like an Appalachian hillbilly than an exotic Burmese siren, but Rudyard had the hots. (“They let you do whatever you like if you’re a famous poet”).

I declined my ticket for the Curry Lottery again, and restricted myself to a couple of delicious vegetable somosas and a cup of coffee. It was a broad river with dangerous-looking currents, and I thought of the famous Chindits, who had had to cross it up-river of here, in order to make their way back to safety in India. Their commander was Orde Wingate, a copper-bottomed, ocean-going fruitcake, who had infiltrated them to the east of the Irrawaddy and ordered them to disrupt the Japanese occupation of Burma during WW2. Orde was a man who was in the habit of wearing a string of onions around his neck, as well as emerging buck-naked from his tent to dispense orders to his startled men, and now he was keen to get on with the job of biffing the enemy.

The poor bastards succeeded in disrupting the Japanese railway for about a week (an accomplishment which the management of Southern Rail would dismiss with contempt, as they are able to disrupt railways for months on end without breaking into a sweat), before Orde decided it was every man for himself. Orde himself was one of the first back to India, but the others had to break up into groups and somehow get back across the Irrawaddy, heavily patrolled by the Japanese. Many of them ended up wearing only their backpacks and their boots as they trudged through the jungle looking for a crossing-point. The state of their intestines rendered it pointless to put their trousers back on, and none of them had access to Mrs West’s big green medicine-box.

Of those that made it back without being ambushed at the crossing-points, the vast majority were invalided out of the army, such was the state of their health. Churchill was initially impressed by Orde’s derring-do, and kept him hanging around for a while, until it dawned on him that he was a fully-fledged dingbat., and dropped him like a stone. All of which remains topical, in light of recent events, as we draw the lesson that just because you are a sandwich short of a picnic, it doesn’t mean you won’t be put in charge.

JoJo briefly did a Kate Winslet at the bow of the boat, inadvertently resuscitating my secret ambition to shoot Celine Dion, but with another boat’s bow strapped to the side of it, it lost its dramatic imagery, in spite of her well-casted teenage charm. We didn’t see any flyin’ fishes, and we didn’t see any Irrawaddy sharks or crocodiles (I think they may be almost extinct, too), but we made our way down-river in stately fashion, the Bagan temples poking up from the tops of the trees, like enormous docked cruise-liners, on our left-bank.

Match 2 - Bagan

More impressive logistical planning meant that the coach was waiting for us when we disembarked, and it took us on to the venue for the second match. It is always good to have a quirky football pitch included in the itinerary, and this one didn’t disappoint. Emerging through the surrounding woods, it had been cunningly designed (perhaps by the same designer employed by the hotel in Yangon) so that the hard-mud of the running track ran around the inside of the pitch, rather than the outside. Perfect.

We engaged in the standard preliminaries, hand-shakes and photo-opportunities, and were particularly charmed by the hand-painted banner marked “Welcome to Racing Club”. Kicking off, it soon turned out that our guide Cato, making a guest appearance for the opposition, was a handy footballer, and he put them 1-0 up after bursting through our defence and hitting a powerful shot past Bastard Foster (who had bagged the goalie position after pulling a standard Racing Club tour-injury in the first game).

In general, this match followed much the same pattern as the first, both in terms of my own non-performance, and in terms of the general pattern of play. They were very adept at keeping possession, but Cato aside, didn’t have much in the way of power (not unlike Yangon, with its frequent power-cuts). In the meantime, we had become a little more adept at getting our powerful young players on the ball, and so finished the game with a more respectable scoreline, losing only 4-3.

By now, things had more or less stabilised, and I was grateful for Mrs West’s big green medicine-box, which had successfully staved off disaster. So for dinner I was able to saunter into the nearby little village, having dropped the apprehensive mince which had been my gait for the previous two days. The village consisted of a wide mud-road, with grand shack-like structures either side, not unlike the set of a western, but housing some busy-looking restaurants, and selling some inviting-looking Myanmar beer.

We were unable to get into the Weather-Spoons, where Bastard Watson and family were dining with Bastard and Mrs Lea, so we settled for a restaurant across the road, where we found that the rest of the main group was already dining.

Bastard Hoff sent over a chicken dish, which he described as too bland for his own tastes, but thought it might do for us. We tried some of it, but made it clear to Bastard Hoff that it was too bland for our tastes, too, and ordered some more food of our own. I wasn’t initially impressed with my hot and sour soup, which I thought was also a little too bland, but Bastard West thought I might have received the wrong order, because his was spicy. Confident that Bastard West was something of a wimp, and didn’t know spicy when he tasted it, I tried a spoonful of his, which burnt my throat and made me cough my entrails up. So naturally I sent mine back, and had it replaced with a genuine hot and sour. Awareness of the existence of the big green medicine-box had given me a cocky swagger.

Over dinner, Bastard and Mrs West told us how they met, an entertaining tale of serendipity that has more twists and turns in it than the plot of Breaking Bad.

The poolside bar was closed when we returned to the hotel, but Bastard West leaned on the staff to re-open it, employing all the persuasive skills of an ocean-going bastard, so we finished off the day with some more Myanmars, while the bar-staff stood around wondering when they could go home. But the staff had earlier revealed themselves to me to be Gooners (“we like the style of football”), so I didn’t care.

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