Day 12 – Mons, Monks & Monkeys

23 Mar

For some reason, my mind thought that 5:30am was a good time to wake up … two days in a row, does not make a pattern.  As the real start was due at 8:00am, this meant plenty of time for breakfast!  The made to order waffles and honey were fantastic, and went nicely with the bacon and toast.  I couldn’t get more un-Burmese than that!

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The view from OK Kyaung

We headed first to the temple of Ok Kyaung, which afforded spectacular views of a large number of other stupas and temples, after climbing only a short flight of stairs.  George’s “cousin” from yesterday was nowhere to be seen, but plenty of others had filled her spot.  I started a photo taking competition (starring me and some bricks) in which Karen, Albery and Ethna all took part.  Results will be announced later.

A short hop to the Dhamma Ya Zi Ka Pagoda, which stood in front, saw us do the now traditional clockwise tour of the outside.  This one had a large golden dome, shrouded in bamboo scaffolding, and lots of smaller golden stupas sitting on strikingly red bricks.  Instead of having the traditional 4 Buddhas, this one had space for 5 – in preparation for the coming of the next Buddha – due in about 2,600 years time. (Every 5000 years – the last Buddha was born in 600BC).  Now that’s future planning!  Also around here were a camera crew and a French presenter practicing her English speech.  That doesn’t sound like a great combination.  And it wasn’t.  Inside, next to yet another Buddha shrine, was a glass object bejewelled with rubies and sapphires, which would normally shine at the very top of a pagoda.

We moved on to the local village of West Pwazaw and met with the former village chief who was obviously a wealthy farmer.  He employed 8 people and seemed to enjoy not having to do much himself!  They farmed sour plums and we witnessed how they crushed and separated the kernels which are then sold to the Chinese for £6/kilo for unknown reasons – they really don’t know what they do with them!  They also grow peanuts, sesame, beans, pumpkin, corn and cotton.  There was a demonstration of how to spin the cotton into yarn, and of course an opportunity to purchase the final product.  Despite the rest of the village owning enough cows to keep Tesco in beef burgers for months, this family only owned two cows – because they also owned a tractor!  With 5 children, 2 sons were still at home, two daughters are nurses (one still in the village) and the fifth was obviously not important (or I didn’t listen).   Lacquerware production was also on show.  It’s made from bamboo, horsehair and the sap of the lacquer tree.  I wondered why all the horses had short hair.  Funnily enough, it’s “lucky” to buy two, rather than one.

After being offered some rather tasteless tea (or maybe it was just my cold), we walked around the village – highlights included a man painting a wall without moving the bricks in his way, or indeed, finishing building the wall; a pen full of goats who wanted to like my hand – little do they know what I have in store for their friends on Saturday; a woman with the largest cigar on the planet; and a man who made bamboo cages that confuddle George – apparently they were rubbish bins.  We saw bamboo being split, some friendly cows and a cactus hedge.

Leaving the village behind, we attempted to document any remaining stupas that we’d not yet seen.  This started with the tallest (Thatbyinnyu Temple) and then Nanpaya Temple – with a very hot tiled floor outside, I was back to doing the Burmese Waltz across the ground in bare feet.  They should at least have a bucket of water on standby, if not a full first aid team. Inside were four columns with intricate Hindu inspired carvings and a missing Buddha on the raised middle platform.  This is different from most temples, in that they normally have four Buddhas facing every direction.

Outside the temple were some ogres and haspa (sp?) “curvings” (sic), as well as a good assortment of children trying to flog some postcards.  “Very nice, but I don’t need any” was a standard John2 response.  They’ve got to try refining their technique, as the bargaining reached $1million at one point.

In the next door temple, we had four large Buddhas, who looked like they had forgotten the dimensions of the building they were in.  As a result of their size, they look down on the visitors, apparently in reference to the sorrow of the king and queen that had them built.  Saving on the traders here, they had a large gold pot where you could just throw your money away.  Unfortunately, I was suckered in on the way out – another sand painting bought!

Back at the hotel, I had a chance to freshen up and eat (chicken and cheeseburger and fries) before heading off to Mount Popa with Tom and John.  We ducked the Explore version for a local taxi (saving $17 each!).  The journey took an hour, but it completed all possible methods of transport during this trip.  And it had working air con!

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Not the real Mount Popa

On arrival at Mount Popa we faced a 777 step covered climb – 1/3 in shoes, and 2/3 in bare feet.  The steps were full of local tourists and macaques (monkeys).  Fortunately the tourists had been toilet trained.  The macaques had not.  The monkeys were scavengers and would happily grab any food from your hand.   They also didn’t respect the Buddhas.  A team of cleaners managed to mostly keep the tiled steps clean and a group were feeding the monkeys at the bottom to try and encourage them to stay there, rather than pester tourists all the way up.  This didn’t work.  There were two sections of steep metal steps which had obviously been frequented by the monkeys more than the cleaners.  Razor wire was used to try to keep the monkeys away from key areas, but they didn’t seem bothered with it at all, using it to climb up and through.

At the top, it was a bit confusing, as there was a collection of shrines, no open space, lots of plaques and lots of people.  We worked our way around, admiring the views from all sides and were asked to star in a few photos by a monk.  We then persuaded a monk to take part in the photos as well.  Fair’s fair.  Anyone can sponsor anything for any reason – a few restaurants had plaques – from Beijing and San Francisco!

As a side note, we didn’t actually climb Mount Popa, but the rocky outcrop, half its height, officially called Popa Taung Kalat.  But known to the casual tourist as Mount Popa.

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Monks slapping monkeys

Descending and using all the available wet wipes to clean the monkey pee and monkey poo off our feet, we rejoined the taxi driver for the trip back to the hotel in Bagan.  My Pringles and Haribo were cracked open and eagerly finished off by traveller Tom.  I may have helped a bit.  The road back had some roadworks, the men making the tar and the women carrying it to the road for it to be applied by hand by more men.  Time consuming work!  In the middle of nowhere, we also ran the gauntlet of some people, mostly young, begging along the road.  They did this by trying to run in front of the cars to get them to slow down.  We sped up.

After dressing for dinner (well everyone else did – I put clean socks on), we met in the hotel foyer and the group flag photo was done.  Hotel staff are better photo takers than I am!  Disappointed to find that I’d been sold a dirty flag though!  George seemed to have a problem knowing which way up it went!

For our final group meal, we headed to the Star Beam restaurant, and after the meal Graham led the group thanks with a speech he’d spent all afternoon preparing for.  George replied.  “Yes. Yes.”  I hadn’t appreciated this was his catchphrase until this moment.

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Cassandra then led us on an ice cream hunt ending, very easily, with a peach and guava variety.  Delice. An early night as we all have planes to catch tomorrow – some of the group are heading to the beach extension option, and the rest of us have a couple of days in Yangon before our flight home.

Still plenty to come from me …

Day 11 – Stupafied in Bagan & The Stairway to Heaven

22 Mar

Shock, horror! A 5:30am start meant that breakfast had to be postponed!  This was to facilitate the sunrise – an event that has been happening successfully without me missing breakfast for the whole of my life.  A truly landmark moment.

Our coach took us to the Shwesandaw Pagoda and in the dark we climbed the steep, deep steps to one of the terraces to witness the sunrise over the temples of Bagan.  And some balloons.   The mist cast an eerie scene as the gloom became brighter. It’s easier to show in pictures.

Back in the hotel, the ubiquitous chicken sausage was available!  Between that and the bacon and waffles with honey, I was reaching nirvana.  It was still only 7:00am!

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As the full group met for the official program, our first unexpected diversion occurred when we encountered a parade of novitiate kids sat in carts pulled by bullocks (that’s male cows).  All in the brightly coloured outfits, their scowls gave away the early morning and the fact that they weren’t used to so much attention from their parents, the locals, and us.  I felt quite sorry for them.  The truck carrying the live band, PA system and singer trudged along at the back.

Back in the bus we encountered another procession – this one involved a man in an unfeasibly large moustache (a Burmese Charlie Chaplin), together with some transgender folks – or drag queens, George wasn’t quite sure.  For this one, the PA system was being pushed around on a cart, with a cable attached to the generator that was being pushed close behind.  The star of the show however was undoubtedly the elephant that had been hired for the event.  Probably by someone that had more money than sense.  With 2 kids riding on top, and the bright red and yellow clothes gently swishing in the wind, it created quite a scene.  Also in the procession was an archer as well as small kids on big horses.  At the very back was a dancing elephant costume – at the back because they were trying to change over the dancers, and this proved rather difficult.

Back on the official tour, we tried to take in as many of the 2,200 stupas and temples in Old Bagan. Or so it felt.  We started just past Myin Ka Bar where we discovered that children enhance the temples built by the parents by building over the previous one, or putting a bigger Bhudda statue around the previous one.  Leaving this area, we met a female clothes vendor on a motorbike.  Some bought a few things, but most didn’t.  This was to prove a bad mistake.

At Ananda Temple, we witnessed the first of the major crowds.  This is one of the most spectacular temples, and therefore on everyone’s itinerary.  The bamboo scaffolding was out and workers were breaking all the H&S requirements.  But the outdoor restoration work going on was spectacular – cleaning the black mould off and returning it to a pinky white colour.

Inside there were four Buddhas – in four different poses – one for enlightenment, one preaching, one showing no fear and the other philosophy.  Also showing were many niches with images (in gold) depicting the life of Buddha.  These possibly included his first date, his first drunken night out and (genuinely) his first steps – being taught to walk by two people who were even smaller than him.

On existing the temple, our female clothes vendor was there again, and her English was pretty much perfect.  She had taken “maybe later” and run with it.  Several more people in the group thought they were getting a good bargain.  But she can’t keep following us all day.

We arrived at Shwe Zigon, the next temple on the list, to find her waiting.  She had either asked George where we were going next, or guessed.  Or she could be his cousin.

Unfortunately, the temple’s stupa was entirely covered in a shroud as they were reapplying the gold leaf and they need to protect it from the wind.  However, the rest of it more than made up for that.  Four sides of flaking gold leaf and red paint made an impressive sight.  On each of the shrines, food had been left, but I refrained from eating.  In a side shrine, a strange sight awaited – a statue with money stuffed everywhere and a cigarette in it’s mouth.  Weird.  Kids were selling their colouring in for 60p and a hermit was acting out of character.

The next stop was Htilominlo.  Guess who was there waiting for us.  Her name is Win, as in winner (her words).  By this time, most had admitted defeat and opened up their wallets and purses to her.  Albery was on his third t-shirt and first shirt.

Anyway, in the grounds of Htilominlo, sand painters were at work and we had a demonstration of how they produced their stunning painting – adding glue to cotton and then a layer of sand several times, before adding colour, or scratching away layers of sand.  The result was something that could be scrumpled up and return to normal instantly.  Of course I succumbed.

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Htilominlo

After wandering through and around the shrine I snuck out the back gate at Tom’s suggestion and climbed a nearby structure for a rooftop view.  Finding the stairs was a problem, as was standing up anywhere except the roof.

Amongst the stalls in the complex was a weaving demonstration by neck ringed women.  They didn’t look overly happy about it.

Moving on to a restaurant for lunch, Win was there to meet us once more.  I don’t know why as we were fast running out of money.  Karen was resisting however, and she must have sensed that eventually, it would happen.  Lunch for me was “Wet Thar Pone Yay Gyee Chet” – described as “Traditional Old Bagan style Braised Pork Curry with Soy Bean Paste”.  It was nice.  Ish.  The wasps however had more of a fancy to Cassandra and her lime juice.  The EFK (Epsom Fly Killer) sprung into action and succeeding in knocking more into the drinks than killing any.  This brought candles from the staff, to try and smoke them out.  The EFK’s napkins was close to catching fire, not only from the candle, but also from the speed of the wasps swotting moves.

Outside we saw some petrified wood – it looks like wood, but is actually stone.  Maybe it’s petrified because Win was still there looking for more customers.  Predictable, she followed us back to Ananda Temple where we boarded a horse and cart in pairs for trip through a village and around the countryside.  Industrial veg choppers, gold temples, and an impressive teak monastery.

We ended up on the terrace of South Guni temple to watch the sunset.  Several others were already there, and others were trying to climbing neighbouring temples, and seemed surprisingly upset when they were shouted at to get down, as only nominated temples are allowed to be climbed.  I’m not what’s worse – damage to the site or one less human.

Sunset was not as spectacular as sunrise and we passed the time chatting to some of the other travellers that were there.  On the way down, an enterprising old man had lit candles on the steep stairs.  With the low headroom and bare feet, death by candles is now on the list.  He also wanted paid for the privilege.

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This evening, we attended a meal with music and traditional dance.  I was mostly busy being the wine waiter for Gail, Ethna and Julia, but I didn’t miss much.  The hammock based xylophone player in particular was in my eyeline and he also seemed glad when the evening was over.  The standout moment of the meal was the serving of the rice.  A huge bamboo steamer was placed in the middle of the table, but when the lid was opened, only a single portion of rice was on the plate.  Everyone got the same treatment.  Except John of course, who had discovered that pasta dishes were available.

Back at the hotel, we had seven barmen to serve us our drinks on the rooftop terrace.  Not as fast at that might sound.  George joined us to compare tongue twisters, and a rum sour.

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I was welcomed back into my room by the local wildlife.

Overall, and despite some of the comments above, it was an excellent with a wide and varied collection of temples visited.

Only 2,195 to go …

Day 10 – Boating to Bagan

21 Mar

Ug, Ug, Ug, Ug.  Tried a shower to wake me up.  It only partially worked.

5:00am alarm (a time I never knew existed). 5:45pm boiled egg breakfast avoided. Who gives you a croissant, butter and jam but no knife in a packed breakfast?  Claire instantly regretted her choice of an egg free breakfast, with the fruit only option that was provided instead. I did manage to persuade the hotel to post the postcards for me.

With our bags loaded on the bus, we headed to the jetty for our fantastic, golden floating boat – not!  To reach our actual boat, we had to clamber through 3 other boats, with varying degrees of safety features to prevent you falling in the water or getting crushed between boats.  The rather shaky green steps were a particular highlight for the H&S report.  On board we headed upstairs to avail ourselves of the various seating options.  These were : cushion or no cushion, shade or no shade.  After much thought, I settled on the cushion no shade option.

The soft southerners were busy with all manner of second or third layers – from simple jumpers, to hoodies and down jackets.  As the boat got underway, the coffee, tea and toast was served below and a queue formed, including the variety of other passengers on the boat – including some Germans / Swiss.

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George helped me don my Longyi – Pasoe style.  I thought it might help prevent some sun burn later on.  However, jammy toast, stairs, and a slightly long longyi was a bad combination.  The toast survived!  Without access to any pockets, I adopted the local look by stuffing my phone into the pasoe.  Trying to catch up on sleep wasn’t going to be possible on this trip, but I tried.  Sagaing, a former royal capital & pagoda (number 1462 in our trip notes) interrupted my snooze.  Several photos later, and I was able to return to blogging, in the sun.

Our estimated 9 hour journey progressed but by 8:30am, some were already contemplating the alcohol options onboard.  Unfortunately the Mandalay rum was completely finished.

 

After a morning geography quiz game, where any Italian question was answered correctly by “Florence” and an early lunch consisting of rice, vegetables, chillies, egg and peanuts, the group began to show signs of restlessness.

It didn’t help the situation when we managed to follow a very noisy boat for a good hour, which also prevented any meaningful conversation.  However, we eventually managed to shake it off, and continued at a sedate 11mph (according to Waze).  I now also understand why the locals keep playing with their longyis.  Tucking in is not the same as a real knot.  However, they are really cool (in all senses of that word) – I’ll be mass importing them to Scotland and they will be available for sale at reasonable rates.  Much cheaper than a kilt!

By early afternoon, we had all pretty much set up camp as either shade crawlers or sun worshippers.  Books (the paper variety) were held poised near faces that that had long since been able to keep eyelids open. I was unable to join in, unfortunately.  Sleep is for later.

We passed families living and working by the river.  Fishermen and farmers, kids collecting water and mothers sheaves of crops.  They had to negotiate the steep sandy cliffs to the islands and banks in the river.  Dredgers were also out, helping Google Maps to be highly inaccurate as to the location of the island.  Our cheroot smoking skipper got us through with problem.

Passing the Pokémon inspired town of Pakokku and a really long bridge, George informed us that there was only 1 hour left.  As it turned out, he was stretching the truth a little.  “Ish” entered the Myanmar language.  Our 9 hour journey actually turned into 10.5 hours.  Thankfully, he also broke out the cake from his bag at this point and passed it around.

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Finally, at 5:30pm the “May Kha 2” docked in Nyaung-U (just a short bus ride away from our hotel in New Bagan).  However, getting off the boat proved the toughest task yet.  The two boats moored alongside were easy enough to cross, but there was then a sequence of 3 or 4 narrow boards, with only 2 handrails available.  All the time, kids were playing and adults were washing in the water beside us.

We made it safely to the bank, and watched eagerly to make sure the porters carried our luggage safely across as well.

A new bus met us, and we transferred to the hotel – for 3 nights.  It has a pool, but no WiFi in the rooms (only at reception or the pool). This will make photo uploading tricky.

 

We met for food and walked to the local restaurant without George – see, we can do things ourselves after all!  The food was great – chicken curry with coconut milk (Burmese style) and coconut rice, but the service was very disjointed, with either the curry or the rice arriving independently of each other.  But at only £4.20 for the entire meal, no-one was really complaining.  The families that now live in the one street that is “New Bagan” were evicted from their homes in “Old Bagan” in 1990 by the government, but are now quite happy to develop their skills in the tourist trade.  It’s obviously still a work in progress though.

After some debate regarding the time of the sunrise, we all headed to bed.  Another 5am start tomorrow (optionally) to see something that happens every day. Why did I volunteer for this?

Because it’s a special place …

Day 9 – In Mandalay: Gold Leaf, Hills, Tuk Tuk & Mist

20 Mar

Another breakfast, another day.  This time, I took Tom’s recommendation of the bacon, cooked in front of you, and added waffles and honey. Need I say more?

Then we were off again – to another workshop hidden away in Mandalay that made gold leaf.  George explained the process before we went in, as it was very noisy.  Three men were banging away with their large dongs, in a melodic sequence – hitting a book like object filled with bamboo paper and gold.  The book itself got very warm from the constant pounding.  They were on the clock – a water clock to be precise – 3 minutes, three times over (that’s 9 minutes in total – for the Dundonians).  Nearby, they showed how the bamboo paper was made – bamboo is soaked in lime for 3 years! to make a pulp which is then pressed into paper and bashed against brass to ensure that the gold doesn’t stick to it.  They don’t actually make the bamboo paper here – they just buy it in from another supplied.  Nearby, a woman was entrusted with the cutting up of the gold leaf – it’s pounded several times to get to the required (thin) thickness.  Also on offer in the gold leaf workshop were some books on Myanmar, including one entitled “Making Out in Burmese”.  Phrases such as “pah thee ma!” (You whore!) and “ma yah ngee yaht!” (You don’t have the balls!) are obviously popular on Burmese dating scene.  “Baldy” shared a page with “Caucasian” and “White Boy” – presumably as insults.

The Golden Palace Monastery or Shwe Nan Daw Kyaung was our next stop.  Warning signs prohibited overhead drones and scratching.  The monastery itself was another load of teak.  Preserved was funded and supported by the Americans.  Although the lack of workers probably meant that they were all building a wall in Mexico.  The handy shose (sic) rack was ignored – instead everyone seemed content to leave their shoes in the way.  OCD in overdrive.  There were some very intricate carvings, the now familiar no ladies area and some golden pillars and roof.  Split into two sides – in today’s terms, bedroom and living area.  It’s also known as the glass palace (for no apparent reason).  It’s the only palace building to survive the British bombing of Mandalay at the end of the second world war.  King Mindon (second last king) built it in the 19th Century.

Monks with phones and tablets were everywhere, and whilst we were snapping away, the locals were a bit more reluctant to take pictures of us.  Although once we understood that was what they were after, the flood gates opened.  Mostly high school aged kids were posing for photos with us all.  The boys with their highly styled colour topped hair and the girls with their bright outfits.  Outside, some of the group topped up in ice cream, whilst George tried to persuade us that papaya salad was a better choice.

The next complex was “The World’s Biggest Book” in the Kuthodaw Pagoda.  After about 15 minutes of wandering around the huge complex of white temples, several people were asking where the book was!  They had missed the point of George’s explanation – the book is engraved on 729 double sided stone tablets, housed in the small white temples.  The dead language used is Pali (from India) – equivalent to our Latin!  Only the monks can read this now.  The book is actually made up of three different books (similar to the Bible) – rules for monks; parables for teaching; and buddha’s reflections on how to live a good life.

A 124 year old star flower tree was propped up in courtyard and mothers were busy grinding thanakha to apply to their children’s faces.  Nearby, a buddhist monk was leading a chant and repeat service. As we returned to the bus, we were still the centre of attention for kids talking photos – but I fired a few back.  Some of the dogs were jealously guarding one of the white temples.

At the foot of Mandalay Hill we boarded some covered vans for the short journey up the hill.  Thankfully we weren’t in with the locals – we counted 25 in some vans, whereas we were spreading out and filling the space with only 6 on board!  Near the bottom, we encountered a bare foot ‘Merkin who had become lost on the hill and climbed down almost all the steps to the bottom.  His shoes and his taxi driver were still at the top!  He clung on desperately as we negotiated a serious of sharp bends, climbing steadily. Whenever we stopped on the hill (due to other traffic) our man at the back would jump out and place a block of wood under the tyre, to stop us rolling back down.  Is that not what brakes are for?  At the top, the van driver managed to get us to within inches of the tiled floor and we left our shoes and socks in the van, jumping out onto the tiles.  The other group vehicle had more of a dusty, stoney traverse to join us.

The Su Taung Pyae Pagoda at the top of the hill was reached via an escalator – three of them in fact.  Bare feet and metal ridged escalators do not go.  Another one on the list.  Some careful stepping saw us reach for the top for the normally spectacular views.  George pointed out the important things that could be seen, such as the end of your nose, the golf club and the prison. Unfortunately the haze was too bad to see the rest of Mandalay, but we did wander around the tiled pagoda, spotting the monks and nuns (wearing pink) and lots of tourists – all mostly local.  It’s the thing to do apparently.  We saw the plaque dedicated to the Gurkha soldiers who lost their lives in a night attack on 8th/9th March 1945 to recapture the hill from the Japanese.  Cassandra was sitting peacefully by a pillar when she had a baby plopped down beside her before the mother retreated to take a photo.  Must be the power of ginger.

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Down the stairs we went, making sure to follow George and not to the bottom.  We passed more stalls, this time selling weasel shaped coconuts, barbecue food and fruit.

Moving on to the Mandalay Royal Palace area, I asked to take a picture of the Tatmadaw (military) guarding the Oo Teik Gateway, but they weren’t up for it.  The palace walls and gate were fantastic – 2km long on each side, with a moat separating the complex from the rest of the town.  We drove through the military area – with houses, schools and sports facilities.  The band was practicing and the rest of the army were there to watch.

The Great Audience Hall in the King’s Palace housed a replica of the Lion Throne (Sihasana) – the main throne of 8 (largest, highest, grandest).  The real one survives in the national museum in Yangon.  The rest were destroyed in the British bombing campaign of 1945.  It is noticeable that there is no blame attached to the British here – the signs never mention which country did it!

After several more golden rooms, I reached the rather plainer Queen’s Palace.  The King had lots of Queens – given as presents from neighbouring areas as a sign of friendship.  By this point, I had reached my holiday pagoda limit, but did manage to summon the energy to climb the slightly rickety viewing tower for a view over the whole complex.  It’s HUGE!  I do wonder what they would have done without teak or gold.

George gave us our lunch money (rather than force us to have the set menu), and I managed a very decent lemon chicken and chips, despite having literally less than £1.80 left afterwards.  Thankfully, we then found a currency exchange that was open and 4 of us desperately pilled in.

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Back on the road, and we arrive at another jetty, with a slightly more rudimentary approach to getting on and off the boats.  Kids were keen to “help” us down the slippery slope to the plank of wood that we had to cross.  Two men stood with a bamboo pole as a hand rail to give some hope of not falling in. Unfortunately, we had several boats to cross, enough planks, but not enough hand rails.  H&S fail.  The area the boats were in was close to slum conditions.  Trucks were loading cement and lime onto the working boats nearby.  The cludgie at the back of the boat was a sure sign that this was a permanent home to some.

The boatmen distributed photo books to browse through, and on the return journey offered bananas and nuts for free, as well as drinks to buy.  No jetty to get off at – just a bank of earth and a plank.

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This was the dodgy pagoda – aka Pa Hto Daw Gyi.  It was currently 50m, but had never been finished.  The King had originally planned it to be 150m high.  He died, and no one wanted to finish the expensive project.  A game of football in the dirt proved interesting – with some wearing longyis.  As did kids climbing trees like goats.  The dodgy pagoda was severely damaged in earthquakes in 1838 and lastly in 2011.  It looked like it was going to split in half at any moment, with several sections in need of duct tape or cable ties.  The dogs and the kids seemed to get on well here.

We hurried past the Mingun Buddhist Home for the Aged and saw the Mingun Bell – the second largest bell in the world at 90 tons.  It is the largest working one though.  16 feet and 3 inches at the bottom, it was originally destined for the unfinished pagoda.

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We hurried back to the boat, to discover that our faithful boatmen had taken on another job, but they safely took us south again to Mandalay.  The kids were there again to help us up the slope, but were hoping for money in return.  Don’t they know I’m Scottish?

Back on the bus we avoided the rollercoaster and the ferris wheel and headed back to the hotel.  Whilst Cassandra eyed up the cake display, I joined Graham, Rosemary, Claire and Julia for food on the terrace.  I say food – I asked for an American Cheeseburger.  I think they went to the US for it. Mandalay rum, however, filled in the gap.

I managed to drop my room key on the terrace, but persuaded reception to let me in anyway.  They stuck a tea bag in the electric supply to keep the room powered all night.  Thankfully Graham had handed in the card, so I avoided the 25,000 kyats (£15) fee for a replacement.

5am alarm call!  This isn’t going to be pretty …

Day 8 – Around Mandalay

19 Mar

Breakfast this morning included pancakes, waffles, honey and a yoghurt.  Past trying of the local stuff!  We had been warned that the breakfast buffet might take us 45 minutes to navigate.  Quite a few of the group had given it a good go.

We joined our bus at 8:30am – a late start apparently! We started the long day with a drive south for about 4 miles to the Mahamuni Pagoda, which consisted of a large gong, a huge buddha hidden away in the middle of the complex and surrounded by lots of men (women forbidden!), and a bunch of young novices being inducted into buddhism.  The lippy was obviously not his first choice, but his father was very proud.  We followed the multi coloured procession around the pagoda, and easily blended with the professional photographers, bowls of fruit and coconuts.  Also on show were some large bronze figures – if ill you are supposed to rub the bit of the statue that corresponds to make it better.  A surprising number of stomach issues amongst the local population.  Graham also found it a bit difficult to read the English version explaining all about them.  In summary, nicked from Angor Wat in Cambodia in 1563, nicked by the Thais in 1598, returned in 1784.

Moving back through the throngs of market stalls, selling all sorts of golden buddhas, waving cats, and sticks of thanakha (it’s a tree – the stuff they use as sun/beauty cream), we reclaimed our shoes and socks and found a betel seller.  Using a betel leaf and some lime (the white stuff), she added tobacco some nuts and some other spices, rolled it up and gave it to Tom to chew.  He lasted slightly longer than I might have.  Cassandra was offered a sweet, mostly coconut flavoured version without the tobacco.  Not sure how that went down.  At another stall, I got some sticky rice cakes to taste.  No-one else seemed up for it.

Back on the bus, George’s insights into the strange ways of Myanmar continued.  This time he narrated the story of his cousin, who had to pay a fine for holding the hands of his girlfriend in public.  Woman are well protected in Myanmar!

Moving on, we headed to a marble stone sculptor, or two, or sixteen.  All focussed on carving buddha statues. Not so sure Buddha would have approved of this commercialisation of his image.  Further up the road, they had stone polishers, painters, gold leafers and those that would sell you the finished product for US$500 (not including freight delivery).

Next on the list of industries to visit were the wood carvers and tapestry makers.  With their toes millimetres away from the sharp chisels, the 5 toed workers showed their immense skill in the making of all sorts of decorative wooden objects.

Also today, we saw some more silk weaving, this time not just with shuttle looms, but with some very intricate hand weaving.  Some very colourful items for sale in the shop and I managed to succumb to a traditional longyi.  I’ll need to have some practice tying it!

Driving on, we caught a short ferry to an island in the middle of the Ayeyarwady River.  Short was indeed the key word there.  The only boat so far without life jackets, because you could basically reach the other side of the water with a long pole.  We arrived on the island of Ava (aka Inwa) to a reception from some overly keen woman with all sorts of bangles and trinkets.  We jumped on a pony and trap / horse and cart.  Albery jumped in the back of mine and I managed to sit next to the driver, with the hairiest mole on his neck – ever.  I think I may have been conversing with it, rather than the driver.

Driving around the island, where cars had never been, we saw an idyllic rural setting, with crops being cultivated in the fields and a large number of pagodas and stupas set amongst the rice paddies.

Stopping at the Bagaya Monastery, we had the chance to see the incredible 267 teak posts, some 60 feet high and 9 feet around.  Bare feet on hot teak is not a great feeling, especially when the metal nails are hotter still.  In one, rather noisy corner, a monk was presiding over the neighbourhood’s poor kids learning a religious text by repetition.  Unfortunately, lots of long lens Chinese cameras were inches away from their faces and the monk had to step in with a loud “No Photos!”  Quite right too.  The noise didn’t seem to be disturbing the bats clinging on to the roof.

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Back in the horse and cart, I was now sitting on the back when a young boy jumped on board.  Think he was just looking for a free lift around the island – all the drivers are also farmers and take it in strict rotation to drive the tourists.  He was gone again in a flash.

Next stop was the watch tower – 90m high and rivalling the tower at Pisa due to an earthquake from 1838.  We eventually found the correct side to see the lean, and unsurprisingly it was not available to climb!  At every stop, people were selling stuff, but at this one, artwork was available.  Karen had her eye on a painting and initially bought it, but John persuaded her that another one was better, and I snapped it up.  Technically I had no money, as the currency exchangers were only open when we were touring, but they accepted an IOU until the following day.

Moving on, the last stop on the island was to the Maha Aung Mye Bom San Monastery, known as Me Nu Oak-Kyaung (brick monastery).  With a yellow and black mould exterior, it had a white(ish) cool interior filled with children and monk keen to point out anyone wearing shoes.  Name and shame – that’s the way to do it!  The neighbouring white and gold buildings looked like they had either been abandonded or recently restored.  There is at least a government department responsible for promoting the historical momuments, so, if they have the money, things can only get better!

Before leaving the island, we stopped off for lunch at the Small River (Ava) restaurant for some chicken balls.  A two minute walk to the jetty saw us watching the local laundrette woman bashing the clothes like it was her unfaithful husband.

Back on the mainland, we headed to a monastery containing 1000 monks.  We were met with lots of novices practising their sweeping skills, although they appeared to be sweeping things and never picking them up.  Teamwork is obviously module 2.  Clotheslines full of red robes drying lines the streets of the monastery.  Everyday, donors from all over the country donate food for all 1000 monks, and they can stay overnight within the grounds.  The kitchens and dining rooms were huge.  The largest pots and pans ever seen were used on 8 huge wood fired rings.  Barrow loads of vegetables, and warehouses full of rice were used.  There appeared to be one unlucky sod who was in charge of peeling the garlic.  The monks sit on a raised floor with low tables to eat.  If you want to be a donor of food there is currently a one YEAR wait, it’s that popular.

On a never ending day, we hadn’t yet finished until we visited the famous U Bein Bridge – the longest teak bridge in the world.  It was thronged with pedestrians making the 1.2km walk.  With some shaky boards and no handrails or other method to stop you plummeting to your death (or at least breaking a few bones), we gingerly crossed, trying not to get knocked off by the faster and the far more H&S reticent Burmese.  A flock of carnivorous ducks below were waiting for a culprit to descend.  Half way across, we descended to meet our boats.  The easiest £3 ever earned by the boatmen.  One lap under the bridge and back and then all the boats lined up to await the sunset.

In the meantime, the boatman over from us was showing off his bulge in his longyi.  A cloud of locust like creatures swarmed around us (still awaiting the frogs and the blood) and a dragonfly perched on our oar.  As the sun set, in a bit of haze, the camera filters were put to good use.  Heading back to the shore, the amateur oarsmen were apparent.  I’m surprised that some boats ever got back, with one going in circles.  The crossed oar action was indeed unique and needs more training!

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Driving back to our hotel in Mandalay, we cleaned up and George offered a trip to a real local restaurant – Platinum.  Where “normal” is hot and “hot” requires hospital treatment.  Or 3.5l of lager, served at your table on tap. “Chicken feed” was on the menu.  We presume this was supposed to relate to the chicken feet in the fridge, although feed was probably more appetising.

Back in the hotel, dodging the alure of the neon and LED lit bars, I managed a late night trip to the hotel spa, before conking out on the bed.

The blog can wait …

Day 7 – The Road to Mandalay

18 Mar

More papaya, pancake and toast for breakfast at a leisurely pace allowed us all to depart Kalaw for our long road trip to Mandalay.

Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “The Road to Mandalay” was read out by Graham in his best Welsh / London vernacular, to much applause.  His additional adlibs helped relate it to our experiences so far.

George was then able to launch into a bit of history of the Anglo-Burmese wars – once again all about control of the sea routes!  The Japanese briefly overran the country in 1942, helped by Burmese Major General Aung San, who was promised that Burman would become an independent country. The British retreated to India.  Unfortunately, they discovered that the Japanese weren’t any better than the British.  Aung San described the Japanese treatment of the Burmese as “like dogs”.  With the help of Aung San the British were back in control in 1945.  Aung San met Clement Attlee (British PM) in London – but had to borrow a coat from India, as he didn’t own one – and negotiated a union of the states making up Myanmar. Full independence was granted in 1948.    But in July 1947, Aung San was assassinated along with 8 or 9 others.

Buddhism was announced as the state religion, which wasn’t popular in the mostly Christian hill states.  Influence from China’s Communists was also unwelcome.  In 1962, the military took control.  At this time, the Shan people, who had also enjoyed autonomy under the British, also had to give up their power.  All the missionaries left the country, which included the running of the schools.  Everything was nationalised.  It started a period of decline.  By 1964, a socialist constitution had been introduced – very similar to communism.

George described the conditions in the 1970’s and 80’s are very similar to now, except for the freedom to talk politics.  The army and police were not noticeable on the street.  In 1988 the people took to the streets, started by the students, caused by the lack of a decent standard of living.  Lots of students were arrested, fled to other countries or hid in the forests.

1990 saw the government change name (but with the same people) and started to open up as a market economy.  Hotels were built, with the help of Russia.  Phones became available – if you had $4000. Cars had a mark-up of 500%.  Foreign travel was permitted, if you had the money.  Deforestation and natural resource extraction started in earnest e.g. Teak to China.

2007 saw the Saffron Revolution, started by the monks, which lasted a few months, again because of the cost of living.  Monks were beaten and imprisoned. This led to multi party elections in 2010, in which “The Lady” (Aung San Suu Kyi) party didn’t take part.  A “civilian” government was formed, consisting of members who used to be in the military!  At the next election of 2015, there was a landslide victory for “The Lady”, but 25% of the members of parliament are assigned by the army.  This led to more investment from foreign countries.

Nowadays, the army is becoming more flexible and discussions are taking place to bring peace to the whole country.  Freedom of expression is much easier, and the tourist industry is booming.

Over 120,000 Rohinga people are in IDP (Internally Displaced People) camps.  The muslim Rohinga have been in the country for several generations, but they don’t have citizenship.  Most have immigrated from Bangladesh. Conflict erupted and the killing started – stoked due to the political situation.  “The Lady” kept quiet on the topic, because she was in a lose-lose situation.  Long term, it’s likely that they will be given citizenship, but not be recognised as an ethnic grouping from Myanmar – more as a foreign minority.

We had passed a truck crash on the side of the road – the cab was completely crushed.  Worrying. After many downhill bends, we stopped briefly at a service station – to cool the brakes with a water hose.  Everyone was doing it.  Another one added to the list of possible ways to die in Myanmar!  During this stop, we witnessed a young novice monk with a gun.  Sometimes pointing it, but mostly trying to hide it from our cameras.  We’re not sure if it was really or imitation.  Looked real enough to us!  Another one on the list!

Although yesterday’s blog was entitled 20 ways to die in Myanmar, I didn’t actually name them … so far we have :

  1. Too many chillies
  2. Any other food
  3. Attacked by dogs
  4. Mosquitos / Malaria
  5. Snakes
  6. Toilets
  7. Domestic plane crash
  8. Train rocking off the rails
  9. Drowning
  10. Engine fume poisoning
  11. Germs from ice
  12. Germs from glasses
  13. Burnt by the sun
  14. Upsetting the Army
  15. Talking politics in public
  16. Road traffic accident as a pedestrian
  17. Road traffic accident in a vehicle
  18. Bus brake failure & cliffs
  19. Monks with guns
  20. Faulty lifts

Back on the bus, the diatribe continued with more information on “The Lady” and her house arrest and rise to power.  Also the former UN Secretary General, U Thant who helped in the Cuban Bay of Pigs crisis.  In 1974, U Than’s body and coffin were taken by students because he wasn’t granted a state funeral.  The army blew up the Student Union when they didn’t return the body.  Not the best way to make friends and influence people!

We continued through the rural countryside at a sedate pace.  Small children sat idly by the roadside or entertaining themselves in the dirt, and we saw all manner of bamboo and brick shacks, carts, produce, bamboo fences, motorcycles and colour passing by.

The bus stopped briefly at a shrine to a previous governor of the province, and the assistant driver jumped out to pay respects and came back with some leaves – “Eugena”?  “Nats” are the (non buddhist) spirits that are also still worshipped in this area.  People will have two shrines – one to the Nats and one to Buddha “just in case”!

There was much evidence of road construction and we passed through a toll booth to help finance this.

We stopped off at a pot seller and two young kids were watching cartoons on their tablet.  They were good at English (even at the age of about 7 or 8) and we found out all about Iron Man, Spiderman and Batman from them.  Pokémon and Power Rangers toys were scattered about, but they seemed most concerned at the lack of light (electricity).  They were very keen to use the phrase “See you later” and we eventually got the hint and left.  At that age, they learn English from their parents.  Currently it’s the 3 months of the summer holiday (March – June) which is why they weren’t in school.

More from George – this time on funerals.  Gambling is banned, but they are allowed to play cards at funerals!  Catholics are now allowed to be cremated.   In related news, healthcare is available privately or relatively cheaply from the government, but traditional medicine is still widely used.

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We drove on, past some man made lakes to the junction town of Meiktila, where we stopped for lunch.  Almost everyone took the chips option.  Mostly on their owns.  I added prawns in a lemon sauce.  Not all of the prawns were edible, in that they had a few too many hard bits included, however the lemon sauce was fantastic.

Back in the bus, we drove on to the highway to Mandalay.  This was dual carriageway i.e. two lanes, which the driver managed to straddle most of the way to our destination.  Every so often he had to pick a lane to filter through the toll booths.  The road wasn’t exactly busy, and he was able to reach speeds of up to 60mph.  I think this was more limited by the brakes than the law.

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On the approach to Mandalay, I could see that every hillock was covered in a Golden Stupa.  Mandalay is the religious centre of the country and there are more monks and monasteries here that anywhere else in the country.  However, driving through the second biggest city in Myanmar to our hotel, we noticed that it was mostly a very modern place with large shopping centres and a buzz of neon and moving LEDs.

The Hotel Marvel was on the 4th floor, above the train station – probably in the same manner that the Dundee Train Station will look when it’s eventually finished.  I hope it’s as posh.  Once we all squeezed into the lifts, we were offered orange and papaya juice and a refreshing towel before the bell boys fought to take our bags to our rooms, show us there, turned on the air con and then came back later to offer a turn down service.  The hotel foyer also featured a spa, restaurant and enormous snooker/billiard table.  The famed karaoke bar was thankfully far away.  I could see the trains arriving from my balcony though.  Hopefully the noise won’t be too bad.

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Managed a quick snooze and then the chicken and fried rice on the hotel terrace.

We’d booked a trip to see the marionette puppets, so we jumped in a couple of taxis to take the 7 of us across night time Mandalay to the tiniest of theatres.  The lights dimmed, the band paused from tuning their instruments incessantly, and continued playing the same thing.  The curtain rose – just a little, and a harpist started the show.  Followed by a dancer.  Eventually the puppets appeared, each time preceded by some sort of story in English, but it was quite hard to follow.  I do remember that there was a horse, a monkey, an alchemist and a snake appear at several points.  Occasionally, the curtain would rise higher revealing the puppet masters themselves.  Some of the puppets had a violent fight on stage, and the masters had a few words as well.  It was unclear who was doing the singing – there might have been a cat being strangled out the back.  It was entertaining, if not necessarily repeatable.  I really should learn.  The seats were the most uncomfortable wooden slat type.  The redeeming features were that it finished bang on time and when the 85 year old puppet master’s master was introduced.  I even got to shake his hand afterwards.  He wisnae bad a’ a’.

After a slight detour via a closed bar, we end up back at the hotel bar, trying hard not to hear the karaoke from the 7th floor every time someone opened a door up there.

It’s a busy day tomorrow.  Here’s hoping it will be as enjoyable as the rest …

“Mandalay” by Rudyard Kipling

18 Mar

BY THE old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay! “
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay ?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay!

‘Er petticoat was yaller an’ ‘er little cap was green,
An’ ‘er name was Supi-yaw-lat – jes’ the same as Theebaw’s Queen,
An’ I seed her first a-smokin’ of a whackin’ white cheroot,
An’ a-wastin’ Christian kisses on an ‘eathen idol’s foot:
Bloomin’ idol made o’ mud
Wot they called the Great Gawd Budd
Plucky lot she cared for idols when I kissed ‘er where she stud!
On the road to Mandalay…

When the mist was on the rice-fields an’ the sun was droppin’ slow,
She’d git ‘er little banjo an’ she’d sing “Kulla-lo-lo!
With ‘er arm upon my shoulder an’ ‘er cheek agin my cheek
We useter watch the steamers an’ the hathis pilin’ teak.
Elephints a-pilin’ teak
In the sludgy, squdgy creek,
Where the silence ‘ung that ‘eavy you was ‘arf afraid to speak!
On the road to Mandalay…

But that’s all shove be’ind me – long ago an’ fur away
An’ there ain’t no ‘busses runnin’ from the Bank to Mandalay;
An’ I’m learnin’ ‘ere in London what the ten-year soldier tells:
“If you’ve ‘eard the East a-callin’, you won’t never ‘eed naught else.”
No! you won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells;
On the road to Mandalay…

I am sick o’ wastin’ leather on these gritty pavin’-stones,
An’ the blasted English drizzle wakes the fever in my bones;
Tho’ I walks with fifty ‘ousemaids outer Chelsea to the Strand,
An’ they talks a lot o’ lovin’, but wot do they understand?
Beefy face an’ grubby ‘and –
Law! wot do they understand?
I’ve a neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land!
On the road to Mandalay…

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren’t no Ten Commandments an’ a man can raise a thirst;
For the temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be
By the old Moulmein Pagoda, looking lazy at the sea;
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay,
With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!
O the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay !