Day 2 – Gold, Buddhas, Cake & Wet Wipes

13 Mar

This morning started far too early – 6:45am breakfast, and the umbiquitous chicken sausage made an appearance on my plate.  Also managed a green cake to go with the toast and jam.  And some noodles, and chicken, and fish.  OK, basically everything except the eggs.

Our bags were collected by porters and loaded onto the bus by 7:30am.  George gave us all a present of a woven water bottle holder.  Not sure we all appreciated it that much as only one was still on show by the end of the day!  It’s the thought that counts though.

Our first stop of the day, was to the Shwedagon Pagoda.  We entered via the south entrance and were asked to hand over our shoes and socks.  Those wearing shorts above the knee were asked to don a “longyi” – a tube of cotton that looks like a sarong, but is apparently much harder to walk in!  The men had the knot tied at the front, the woman on the left.  Thankfully, I’d just loosened my belt a bit and let my shorts adopt the teenager look – and they apparently passed the knee, so no longyi required.

We took the lift up to the pagoda level (rather than the stairs) and met under a Bodhi tree – the same kind that Buddha was sitting under when he was enlightened.  Even at this stage, the amount of gold on show was amazing – shrines everywhere, buddhas everywhere – but also scaffolding and major restorations were in progress.

George, and several small children, demonstrated the ringing of the bell – three strokes with a baseball bat.  We moved on to the main area and were confronted with the huge golden stupa in the centre of the complex.  This houses relics of the buddha – in this case hair.

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Shwedagon Stupa

Smaller shrines pointing skyward (64 of them) circle the 98m high stupa – apparently 21,000+ bars of gold were used in its construction, but it’s basically brick and plaster underneath.  There is also a lot of gold leaf used elsewhere – and you can buy some for 30p (500 khats) to attach at your leisure. Some of these shrines, at the cardinal points of the compass, were assigned to birth days and you are supposed to pray at the shrine for your own birth day.  Incense and candles were being burned, water was being poured, flowers and fruit were left as offerings.  There were also teams hard at work to clean up the mess left behind!

Barefoot, we padded carefully around the complex, taking pictures and absorbing the sights and sounds of a deeply religous place.  From the jewel encrusted golden stupa, to the elegantly carved wooden temples and gold leaf and painted statues, with only the occasional use of flashing LED lighting, it was a sight to behold.

The shaved heads of monks and nuns, buddhas in all sorts of poses, large gongs that MGM would be proud to have, huge 42 ton bells that I would have loved to strike, holy water, festive garlands, fragrant flowers, and the odd palm tree.  The list could go on and on.

Well OK, I will then … how about a currency booth, an ATM and a restaurant, a swishly dressed dyed blonde haired man in a red jacket carrying an umbrella, an umbrella salesman (miniature – for offerings), several cute kids, and a few builders with great pioneering skills – no American pioneering here!  The builders were sawing bamboo to make ladders custom fitted to the particular building they were working on.

We met back with George who helped us to reclaim our shoes, via the souvenir shop and large fan – both welcome.  The first of the day’s wet wipes were given and used – to clean the dirt off your feet before you put your shoes back on!  I decided against the fridge magnets at this point, as the whole shop was very expensive.

Back at the bus, the driver’s kid had laid out a wooden step and was there to give a helping hand to anyone who needed it.  Other kids were trying to sell musical Charlie Chaplin moustaches.  Our bus was thankfully moving by that point, or I don’t know how many I would have bought!

We headed into the centre of Yangon and the Sule Pagoda.  The British built a grid pattern of streets based on this as the centre. We debussed and walked past the colononial era city hall and the former supreme court (former, as the capital has now moved 200 miles north) into a pleasant green park with a large pointy obelisk in the middle – this was the Independence Monument – to celebrate getting rid of the British in 1948.  It was now dwarfed by a few modern skyscrappers.

On the way we were occassionally interrupted by some young monks begging for money.  Our guide advised that they should not be doing this, and not to give them anything.  They were “bad monks”.

I did buy some postcards – the pretty woman selling them was not the reason.  They use a natural paste as suncream – but they don’t rub it in, and it is accepted as enhancing their beauty.  Some of the younger kids use it as well, but the men are obviously too macho for that.

The tour continued to the Telegraph Office, where there was a large queue to register their mobile phones – only a recent government initiative to try and track them all.  Big Brother is watching.  They all seemed happy to do so.  Only 7 years ago, you could pay US$500 just for a SIM card (not the phone).  Nowadays they are available for US$1.  We also formed a smallish queue to buy stamps.

Continuing down Pansodan Street, we passed many colonial buildings that had seen better days – including one with more greenery growing out the top than faded green paint on its wall, that was bombed by the Japanese in 1943, and never restored.  The street was full of all sorts of peddlers – included a large quantity of English books – English is taught in schools, so the demand is high.  Bells, hats, flip flops and household products were all on display.  They were also many families having an early lunch, sitting low around a table on the street.  Betel leaves – chewed with lime (the white stuff, not the fruit) were available, and there were large manual sugar cane presses churning out juice.

We passed the site of Grindlay’s Bank before arriving at the Strand Hotel – so posh that they don’t allow shorts after 6pm, although I believe the high tea is well worth it.  Our bus met us and whisked us off the few miles to the Reclining Buddha.  The only problem was the traffic – it took 40 minutes to move through town, with lots of honking of horns and gunning of engines to cut into traffic.

We had been warned that the 1960’s built Reclining Buddha was a bit feminine looking.  And they were correct.  It was also housed in what could only be described as an aircraft hanger.  It was huge – 70m long – the eye ball was 1.76m wide!  They had at least built an appropriately sited photo platform at one end.  I managed a water offering to the Monday tiger shrine in the corner.  Lots of small golden buddhas here. After a quick walk round, we had another wet wipe to cleanse the dirt from our feet.  The dogs outside managed a karaoke chorus – not sure of the tune, but they were very loud!  Just before we got back on the bus, a cage of many birds caught our attention – the idea is the visitors think it’s cruel and so pay to release a bird.  There is some flawed logic in there somewhere.

We travelled on, past the Yangon Radar Station, to the domestic terminal at the airport.  It had recently been done up / built only 2 months previously, so was very large, very nice and very empty – especially of planes.  Our 2:45pm scheduled flight had already been delayed to 4:20pm by the time we checked in, but was advertised as 5:30pm by the time we’d been there a while.  The reason for this was that the well known “Mann Yadanarpon Airlines” (www.airmyp.com) only has two planes.  And there had been a storm elsewhere, la la, la, la, la …

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How can anyone survive on a bag that small?

Some people managed to fit two weeks worth of clothes into a very small bag, whereas mine, as usual, includes the kitchen sink.

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4 port portable chargers were available on request!

Anyway, we got a box of cakes and a free drink out of the 3 hour delay.  Unfortunately, we’d already been working on emptying the place of beer – Karen and John and I were chatting.  Who knew one person (not me) could rack up £30+ worth of cake and beer – we think that was 5 cakes and 7 beers, but we lost count.  All were nice.  Others in the group had visited the upstairs all you can eat lounge for $10 – but no alcohol.

Once the cake stand was empty, we moved on to KFC, which I justified internally as I had the Chilli Lime Chicken – totally Myanmar food and not available in the UK!

Eventually boarding the plane, we took off at 5:40pm – 2×2 seats wide – twin propeller plane!  Shortly after, the ever cheerful cabin steward gave us even more cakes and a cheese sandwich. Well, I say cheese.  It couldn’t possibly have been anything else?  And a wet wipe.

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We arrived in Heho airport at 6:50pm and deplaned to one of the smallest airports on the planet (and another wet wipe).  Baggage reclaim was in the form of pointing at your bag.  We wheeled them out to a metal trek cart and the two guys literally rolled them down hill at speed towards the bus.  We kept up just to make sure that they weren’t stealing them!

On a large coach now, we headed to Inle Lake in the pitch dark, on narrow country roads that could barely take two large buses in places.  In the distance, a large red full moon helped to illuminate many raging hillside fires – remnants of sugar cane being burned after harvest, apparently.  George explained that only 40% of the population have electricity and the population do a lot to contribute to deforestation to heat their homes.  Creating an electricity distribution network is therefore one of the main priorities of the current government.

We were met at the Hupin Hotel in Nyaung Shwe, with a welcome drink and a wet wipe, and shown our comfortable but basic rooms.  Air con, a TV and WiFi make the place perfectly acceptable.

Meeting for dinner, Graham, Rosemary and I were at one end, and having just discovered that IndyRef2 was officially on the table again, we chatted about that and then George’s previous stint at being a Catholic priest was mentioned – he didn’t stick it due to the celibacy requirement – he was only 27 at the time.  Got the feeling that there was probably more to it than that – and he hinted at the attitude of others already ordained to their vows was somewhat lax.

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More “Chicken with lovely scent” and rice later, and we all retired for the night.

As we are in Shan Province, I need to find some Shan Noodles … and a wet wipe.

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