Burma gets 5,000 visitors a year. Contrast that with the 5,000 a day who visit Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and you begin to see why the touts in Mandalay are desperate. To escape, I walked off the edge of the Lonely Planet map and down to the docks, which is usually the best place to see a city about its business.
Close to the edge of the river was a sign for ‘City Park’. It was early on Saturday morning, when the rollerbladers would be zooming past the joggers in Central Park, but Mandalay’s park was nearly empty when I paid the 10 kyat entrance fee (slightly less than one cent). The grass was overgrown but you could still see the stately British park design. Odder, though, were the dilapidated fairground rides everywhere. A rollercoaster, more rickety than the Coney Island Cyclone. A waterslide. A peeling hurdy-gurdy. A flying saucer ride, jury-rigged to run off a power mower engine. I could tell which were still in use by whether a path had been flattened through the grass.
At the back of the park stood a huge ferris wheel like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake. It was fenced off but the gate was open and I sat on the bench underneath to take photos. The paint was faded, and it seemed to have been propelled by huge truck tires. I wondered who built it, and how long since it had been used, when a man in his sixties approached. Another tout, I assumed, thinking that even here they found me like mosquitos. But he asked if he wanted to ride the ferris wheel. 125 kyats—10 cents. It took eight minutes to go around, he said. Very good views.
He started the engine and I climbed into cab number 13, scared witless, and trying to sit perfectly still. The ferris wheel turned at a gentle pace. I regretted that I had no one with whom to swap Cold War secrets as it climbed. It might have distracted me from the fact that I might well need a machete to clear a path through the overgrown branches that were no longer used to being disturbed by this ride.
At the top I could see the Ayerawaddy River wrapping around the the city, and the faces of all the people I hadn’t said goodbye to before hurtling to certain death. I was cheered by the fact that this seemed an excellent way to go, and that my unborn nieces and nephews would have one half-decent bar story to remember me by. But the doughty wheel kept turning, and by the bottom I was brave. Again! Again!
My host was proud to have shown me the ride and we chatted for a while. He had worked for the park for many years.
‘When you go back to Ireland, remember the City Park. Tell people about the City Park. I wish we could keep it better, but this government…’ He gestured helplessly at the overgrown grass and decaying rides. Then he brightened.
‘When you come back, next time, I hope that we will have democracy. Not this year, I think, but perhaps the next year. Or five years, we will have democratic government then, I hope.’
He was an old man already. He had been hoping for a long time.
When I left I noticed that he had carefully recorded our transaction in a tattered notebook. There weren’t many other entries.