Unbearable poverty in Mandalay

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A few days ago I wrote a blog post about getting used to the poverty in Myanmar. And then we went to Mandalay, the country's second largest city.

And maybe it was just the places we went in Mandalay, compared with what we saw in Yangon, but what we saw there was a whole new ball game in terms of destitution. Wandering along beside the river one morning was pretty shocking - families living in tiny, unstable-looking shacks on stilts among the piles of rubbish; men struggling up the muddy banks and gangplanks with huge, heavy bamboo poles, or loading and unloading 25-50kg sacks from the boats, and then wheeling them away on cycle rickshaws. I have no idea what these guys get paid, but I suspect it's almost nothing. And what happens if you slip and get injured? Presumably that's the end of income for your family.

 It's hard to tell from a photo, but these are seriously heavy sacks of rice. The guy below is carrying two!

It's hard to tell from a photo, but these are seriously heavy sacks of rice. The guy below is carrying two!

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 This cycle rickshaw guy had already loaded up with two sacks of rice and was off getting another when I took this shot. Surely he can't pedal with more?

This cycle rickshaw guy had already loaded up with two sacks of rice and was off getting another when I took this shot. Surely he can't pedal with more?

 I have a horrible suspicion that these children and their mum live in this "house". It's good to see they have a mosquito net, but what do they do when it rains? The shack in the photo below definitely houses a family. 

I have a horrible suspicion that these children and their mum live in this "house". It's good to see they have a mosquito net, but what do they do when it rains? The shack in the photo below definitely houses a family. 

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It wasn't just the loading and unloading of the boats - almost everything was still done manually - thousands of eggs were being sorted by hand in a stall by the river and put into plastic egg cartons; a group of men was husking hundreds of coconuts with wood-handled machetes underneath a tarpaulin.

 Why is it that children living in the worst slum conditions are often the most cheerful and friendly? Certainly the case here.

Why is it that children living in the worst slum conditions are often the most cheerful and friendly? Certainly the case here.

It looked like a very hard life, and reading later that the government is considering dismantling the slums beside the river to make way for a night market, I could only hope that the alternative would be an improvement for these families. But who knows - history of resettlement in other cities doesn't give one much optimism.

 You'd have thought almost anything was better than this, but maybe not...

You'd have thought almost anything was better than this, but maybe not...

The following day was equally disheartening. A queue of monks lining up at what looked like a monk soup kitchen, although may have been part of a more positive Buddhist ritual.

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And then the most depressing sight of the trip so far - down by the railway station. Overnight it had rained heavily and we came across an area of families with small children, and skinny old people living under tarpaulins against the wall of the railway yard. Everything was soaked from the storm - bedding, clothing, matting - and mums were trying to get wet fires going to cook something for their muddy undernourished kids in the most appalling conditions. 

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 Having someone's (dry) car parked next to your unbearable hovel must make it even worse

Having someone's (dry) car parked next to your unbearable hovel must make it even worse

Not even the Burmese could look cheerful that morning - one stick-thin woman squatted despairingly in the mud, watched by her two children. She barely looked up when I pressed some money into her hand. Around her, skinny-looking men were setting off on battered cycle rickshaws for another day's work, and people were starting to hang out clothes and bedding over railings and trees to try to get them dry. 

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And then unexpectedly I came across this pair of small boys playing with a broken plastic water pistol, bits of an old calculator, and a scrawny puppy on a damp mat under a damp tarpaulin behind an open drain. Both were dressed in filthy t-shirts, and one with a gunky, half-closed eye, but they were chatting and laughing together. 

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And maybe that was the most unbearable sight of all.