Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The brave men of Mandalay

To my disappointment, the Nylon Hotel was not made of nylon.

Our room boasted excellent views of the city, which we earned with our legs -- it was about 7,000 stairs up from the lobby. The electricity was an on-again, off-again affair, as it is in most of Myanmar. But the front-desk people were quite friendly and the location, across from the city's only ice cream parlor, was highly strategic.

Our first night there, we went downtown to see the Moustache Brothers, Mandalay's most famous comedy troupe. The Brothers offer a vaudeville-style mashup of jokes and musical numbers. They used to do their shtick in Burmese, but now they are only allowed to offer it in English before handfuls of foreigners in a converted garage. They boost their income by selling traditional puppets, which line the wall behind the stage.

Lu Maw (above) is the best English-speaker of the group, so he runs the show. His classically-trained wife does most of the traditional dances.

But the emotional heart of the evening is Par Par Lay, who has served three prison terms, including hard labor. His first arrest was for mocking the regime. The most recent was for leading opposition party members in offering donations to monks after the crackdown on the Monks' Uprising of 2007.

He doesn't do much talking in the show, but you can sense right away why Par Par Lay is one of the country's most beloved comedians. He has an irresistible radiance. When he comes on stage, you don't want to look at anyone else.

I've met a few famous people, mostly politicians -- but shaking Par Par Lay's hand was truly an honor. I can't imagine the courage it takes to laugh in the face of the Myanmar regime. It's something I can only aspire to have.

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