Tag Archives: bamboo

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 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 …