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The Road to Mandalay
ve left behind the madness that is Vietnam, the traffic hectic-ness, the noise, the urban shambles and the plaintive “buy someting sir” cries of the poor street vendors as they chase you up and down the street, or even as they call from their boats on the harbour etc and have arrived in Yangon. But not before hiring a driver for a couple of hours to take us to some of the places we hadn’t got to. Ho Chi Min museum and mausoleum, a pagoda on a lake and something else. Most were closed. Seems in VN many of the notable sites are closed various days.
We did get to walk the Long Bien Bridge. Designed by Gustave Eiffel, it was bombed in the VN war, rebuilt
It is a steel structure that carries the colour of rust. But then this is VN. Seems a hallmark of communist countries remains the poor standard of living for its population, the poor conditions of everything and lousy infrastructure.VN reinforces this vision. Other than the train trip we have really only seen the coastal cities, the more rural areas do seem much more picturesque, though their residents are largely subsistence lives. For more images of our Vietnam experiences; http://blur.by/1eNEbvh
For more images from Myanmar please check out; http://blur.by/1mJYSej and do let me know your thoughts or leave a comment.
Back to Yangon. First impression, driving in from airport in the dark, good road, tho busy, all cars look like our Jap imports, reasonably orgnised compared to VN, some super modern buildings, some that didn’t look too flash too, and from our hotel window, she looks for all the world like a modern city. Perhaps in the cool (or not so cool, expect the temps to be around 30+), light of day we may see a different vision. Have been hearing about the massive amounts of foreign capital coming in and the development going on. Went down for a drink and snack before hitting the sack and the first person we meet is an Aussie lawyer here working in property/development law.
Well in the cool light of day, before our tour guide was to arrive, the place wasn’t quite so flash, more your typical Asian city. On the other hand the country doesn’t call itself the Golden Country for nothing. The gold-leafed stupas, pagodas and temples just simply litter the landscape.
We wait until about 8.30 for our guide, no-one turns up. We have no contact details, that’s because our tour service is not based here and contracts out to a local outfit. No-one wants to ring Vietnam for us understandably, and after about an hour’s effort the hotel staff track down our company and learn we are not booked for today. Totally different to our itinerary, but what can we do?
So into the hot busy bustling street we head, and to what was originally called Scotts Market. A couple of street scenes, could be your grandmother trying to earn for your education! The name has been changed to something local. The government it turns out has been changing anything with a British connotation. Now all landmarks, streets and places carry Myanmarian names.
Anyway the market seems pleased to see us, not so pleased to see us go, we didn’t spend a dime. Yahoo!
We are to fly to Mandalay at 3.00, so 12.30 back to the hotel. Guess what? The local tour deal must have checked it records after all the morning’s efforts and sent a guide and driver at 10.30, poor sods had to do our thing and wait 2 hours for us to return so the days promised activities were cut somewhat short, but at
least they tried.
Young mother and kid, both with the traditional thanaka painted on their faces.
Reclining Buddha in Yangon. As you probably already know there’s a Buddha for every position known to man.
TO BAGAN WE CAME
Mingalabar from Bagan.
Old Bagan, we are told, nobody lives. In 1985 the government did what it does best here, forced everyone to move to New Bagan. About 30,000 people live in the adjacent town of Nyaung Oo, and new Bagan.
Now I know you are asking how many temples, pagodas ans stupas there are here. Talking about the govts doing what it does best, the people of Myanmar woke up one morning about 10 years ago (I think it was) to learn that from today thou shalt drive on the right. Didn’t matter all the cars were right hand drive, and mostly still are. Just another disposal of something British. Whammo.
Well, in the Bagan area there are 2,217 temples, stupas and pagodas. How’s that for accuracy? Apparently there used to be 4 -5,000.
THERE are 1 mil monks in Myanmar, and 1/2mil nuns.
There Buddhas for every occasion too. Anne jokingly says the only one we haven’t seen in a blow-up Buddha. Perhaps today!
Just outside our hotel grounds.
Just inside our hotel grounds.
Climbing the2nd highest pagoda in Bagan ( 60 M) for the view. About halfway up, 2 monks, and goddam tourist ( these sods have the capacity to ruin every photo).you can see the landscape behind with some of the 2217 I mentioned.
Wildlife. Now there’s a thing. There virtually aint any. They must have eaten it all! Actually they do have some wonderful butterflies, and perhaps if you head into the hill country you would see the survivors.
Seen how the real hand-made lacquer ware, using sap from the lacquer tree is made visited another monastery, a down scale one with less than a 100 monks, saw them in meditation and in class being taught. Hopefully got some great shots. We also got to a village of about 40 families, interesting lives they have.
Saw a road being built, all by hand, mostly womens hands at that, the way it should be I guess. Don’t let Anne hear I said that. Monks in quiet contemplation.
Worker applies gold-leaf in lacquer-ware factory. Road building in progress..
Worker applies gold-leaf in lacquer-ware factory. Road
One mans goat compound in the village we visited.
No OSH around her. Sure you can imagine the state of footpaths and accesses in and around all these temples and pagodas. Walking the footpath doing what I do best, ,looking around for interesting things to shoot, my left foot found an gap in the footpath, about 6 inches wide, a foot deep, down I went, camera hits the deck, I hit the deck, the deck is bloody hard. Camera lens filter shatters and is bent I can’t remove it. The camera still works, but received another knock in restaurant when some clown kicked it over. Had a hard life that camera, has hit the floor about 5 times now. Just as well it’s a Sony DSLR A900. Nothing else would have survived I reckon. Well that’s my bad luck story.
Another day, a couple more Buddha, thought I’d got the message cross but the guides obviously get rewarded for the number of these seemingly endless over-restored statues they can sneak in.
We leave for Inle Lake at sparrow fart tomorrow on something we trust is a little bigger than that
Till next time
Tat tar, from Bagan
Layover at Inle Lake
Well this country continues to surprise. We left Bagan an hour late and arrived at Heho, the airport for the Inle Lake area. Then followed a day in a sedan, not the best in terms of space, but we did it. No option really. Other than the discomfort, we endured ou guide managing to fit about another million Buddha and pagodas. Early on after being collected while our guide was once again giving us the Buddha history and telling us of the wonderful and unique pagodas I interrupted to let him know that we has seen tons of them and what we really wanted to see. These people are interminably polite, said he understood and was very good at spotting things to stop along the way to look at and photograph. Didn’t stop him regaling us the life story of Buddha a few more times and get us to a swag of over-gold-leaved and over-decorated edifices. Actually it was only 2 or 3, but seemed a lot more. Can you imagine entering a great limestone cave that houses over 8,000 Buddha. So in we go, and once again, hear the life history, about the 5 Buddha images, the 45 Buddha mudras. Can’t wait to show off our new found knowledge. You won’t find it at all boring…..yawn.
Have to say Buddhism does seem a very peaceful, calm religion, if steeped in about 1 million miles more superstition than the religions we know (sorry Mum & Dad). All this aside, the day turned out to be one of the better ones in terms of seeing people going about their lives, the natural beauty of the place and we enjoyed a bit of fun along the way. This area is known as the breadbasket for the country (read food basket). They grow 80% OF THE country’s potatoes and a significant proportion of many other crops. One of which is the one we call canola. Explained we also call it rape. So often as we drove along past the yellow fields our guide would point to the fields and say “many rapes there”. In general our guides all have pretty good English, but there are always mismatches that confuse or make you laugh. We stop to photograph women weeding a wheat field, bullock carts dragging 250 cabbages each from the to the truck and few more interesting scenes.
Arrived at Inle about 6.00 pm. After a nights sleep, up and at it again. This time in one of their long tailed long boats we head off from the canal we, and the town is around, to the lake. This place is real interesting, they grow 85% of the country’s tomatoes on floating rafts of lake silt and weed. Incredible, then just as we’re relaxing and enjoying the interesting scenes and learning about the ways of life of the lake and surrounding villagers lives the little bugger got us to the jumping cat monastery for another round of the Buddha’s life story!!!
This despite our pleas to show us people, not more Buddha can you believe it, he found another pagoda for us to spend an hour in before lunch. Clearly they get bonus points in the next life for sucking in poor unsuspecting tourists. This lovely man will fly straight to heaven and be reborn as a something real nice with a pretty wife. Apart from this he is a really nice and helpful fellow. He does have a task keeping Anne’s attention. Has to regularly stop mid Buddha life story, call “madam”, and when he thinks he has her attention, continue. At the jumping cat outfit he took us in and directed that we sit down while he repeated the life story, of the you know what. Didn’t work, Anne still kept looking around for things to photograph, and the cry of “madam” was heard many more times. Visited a fishing village, and he arranged for us to go into a house. These are pole houses of bamboo in the lake.
The old couple and their 28 year old attractive daughter plied us with green tea while our guide interpreted our questions and their answers. They have lived in this 3 room home on poles for 65 years they told us. Another good day done, home after dark and we prepare for tomorrow. I wonder how he will slide in a few more pagodas tomorrow. Think I ll promise him a good life and heaven if he avoids any more of the things. I know this all sounds like that’s all there is here, but really it is super-interesting in so many ways.
Couple more fishing villages, a monk novice ceremony we attend for a short time, a wedding we get into, photo the bride of course and decline an invitation to stay and dine with the guests, we see the floating part of some other celebration as teams row across the lake much walking talking and more Buddhism instruction catch up on some more fisherman. Then there are a couple of blacksmith shops, a silversmith, several weaving factories and very interestingly a lotus weaving factory. These shops/factories are real sweat shop style enterprises, very basic and crude in their equipment.
Today is on the lake again. Yes he get a couple of pagodas or so in, a floating market,
The species I know as ring-necked women. These ones from the Po O hill tribe have come to town and sit like this all day weaving. Must be very hard.
Some of the crowd at the novice ceremony, waiting for the head monk to arrive and give some sort of lesson.
At the novice initiation, a monstrous affair with 2 bands, monastery hire, 1000 or so guests and food to feed a small nation, we learn all this for one 7 year old who may only stay 1 week. That much is required. We meet the 7 year olds mother, an over dressed woman who tells us the ceremony cost $70,000 US.
Some of the crowd at the novices initiation ceremony waiting for the monk to arrive and deliver some lesson.
Fishing done several ways on the lake (which incidentally is less than 3 metres deep and abot 35 ks by 17ks), set nets, traps, conical traps like you have all the in the pubilicity photos and cast nets. Caught fish are generally keep alive in baskets under the fishermans house until taken to market. You’ll have heard if the leg rowing they invented and still use here. Rowing in a standing position is somewhat different to our way, but seems effective for them. Also frees a hand for pulling in a net while manouvering the boat. Sure you’ve seen this picture before, but here’s one of mine. The conical trap fisherman in action.
The celebration boat, rowers, and some of the on-board revellers. Get the betel nut stained teeth of the one on the left.
And I know yjou are dying to ask, “what about the sewerage for the180k people who live on or around the lake”. Thats a good question. Speaking of questions, I’ve been asked about the rice. Apparently, my early mentions of this staple and then lack of subsequent mention have left some wondering if we’ve left the region. No we haven’t. The rice still comes by the mountain, I have just learned to decline it.
Back to the sewerage. Yep, you guessed it all goes into the shallow puddle they call a lake. I can’t help wondering what it must be like to be washing your hair, your baby, yourself, taking a swim, cleaning the veges for the nights meal when the old man is taking a fully-fledged dump just feet away. Best to stop wondering me thinks, little wonder the lake has lost 35% of its capacity in last 65 years. Actually all the waterways have that nice rich brown colour, reminiscent of something else with a well known brown hue
To our last day in Inle, or more accurately the town of Nyuang Shwe. Awake to chanting monks, as we went to sleep to. All in all here we have seen some beautiful scenes, some interesting places and people and staying as we were near the docks, seen how busy the place is with all those tomatoes being boated in daily trans-shipped by hand to several warehouses before going to local markets or the rest of the country. The scene is reminiscent of those we see in movies of the good old days.Manually loading sacks of tomatoes from longboat to cart on siding.
You may spot the woman on the woman on the other side beating her washing to some state of hypothetical cleanliness. So impressed was I, I purchased one of the sticks and will sell the washing machine on our return. Anne thinks that’s a good idea!
A more leisurely start, no guide to keep up with, a walk along a back street where I’m able to attempt some butterfly shots (I know, yawn).
Did I tell you there are 52 species of butterfly in Myanmar? They claim 257 of birds, think that’s a lie, I’ve only seen about 3, no elephants, no tigers, and millions of betel nut spitting men. The roads, such as they are, paths etc are splattered with red die from this disgusting habit. Turns out the chanting, back to that, we’ve endured for the last 2-3 days was in fact horrendous music from across the rice fields where some shelters are home to another novice ceremony/celebration, again we are invited in, this time decline. By now we are running out of time, but very appreciative of what we’ve come to see as the Burmese natural friendliness and welcoming nature.
Back for a late check-out, plane delayed about 2 hours. Seems to be a constant here.
Until learning about another flight delay, it has been another wonderful few days. Actually seems another constant along with all our great new experiences is all the traveling Germans. Every plane, airport, hotel seems to be dominated by them as they stand out with their “yah-ing & yor-ing”, their travelling uniform of long trousers and silly looking sandals (actually a bit like mine, when I think about it), some even with socks!
Back on the road to Mandalay.
Waterfront, a busy place.
Fishing, netting on Inle.
Hill-tribe woman come down for the market hoping to sell some wilted veges, then buy their needs for the nest week which they load in their boats and head off. Easy life?
A couple of kids in a small village school we visit.
Now at Mandalay, picked up and to our river cruise. Not only is it a grey day as we have come to find normal, but now it is hosing down as well. Lousy day for photography. The drive to the “pier” takes us along a road which is lined on both sides with shacks, surrounded by mud and slush and vehicle splashes. Our driver informs us these people are here because their real homes are flooded by the recent 3 floods that are normal each year. They will pack the hovels on a horse cart or similar and head home to grow their crops when the water subsides. Arrival at the “pier”.
Is not what we would have expected. She ain’t no Queens Wharf I have to tell you. Just a muddy river embankment, very industrial in nature.
So after slip-sliding down the 1sodden path under umbrellas helpfully held over us we board. The pictures always make things look a bit better and so it is with our boat, but enough complaining, it is really ok on board and as promised by the very helpful company office person we had dealt with, we have the best cabin.
So a miserable day to start our Irrawaddy river cruise, again all adds to the experience of travel here.
Myanmar has a pop of about 60 mil, Yangon about 5.5, Mandalay about 2mil. As we cruise the banks of the river and surrounding landscapes look like someone has scattered gold around, all the pagodas contrast with the shanty town shacks that the locals call their homes.
The afternoon outings.. Mingun, walk through a small village and the gauntlet of peddlers. All trying to make a buck because they have 3 kids ( I told them so have I, but they wouldn’t buy my offering!), or for their education or whatever, then to the Mingun bell, biggest bronze bell, or 2nd depending on who’s telling the story, in the world.
Little monks playing under the bell.
Then to a great big white structure and few other sights before the running of the gauntlet back to the boat. All the while a couple of persistent women followed us, helping out and trying to become friends.
Back to the boat, and the rain starts in earnest again. Lousy day for photos, did I already say that? Later we head out to a monastery on the highest hill in the province of Sagaing.
Las Vegans would be proud of this one!
You’ve got to see this thing to believe it. Its Buddhism on steroids, flashing lights over the Buddha’s head, the whole place is tiled and mirrored. Tiles would brighten any bathroom and of course the obligatory monster gold-leafed pagoda, and many lessor ones too. Built in 1995, you can’t help but be impressed but on the other hand this is Buddhism bad taste on a grand scale. Following that to a nunnery. In case you need to know the Buddhist nuns wear pink, the monks wear orange or brown. That’s the only way you can tell the diff as they all have shaved heads and look alike.
This place is the exact opposite. Spartan to the nth degree, the nuns were cooking breakfast on little charcoal burners in dark rooms with almost everything below knee height. Cooking breakfast because they don t eat at night.
As I ready to hit the sack on side of the Irrawaddy River, the chanting of monks can be heard all round, guess they ll keep that up all night just to make sure they are not the only ones not sleeping.
We awaken to the cock crowing, and its pagodas in the mist.
Another damp, misty day.
Politically everyone we talk to love the lady, as they call her, Aung Sun Suu Kyi.
They say about 80% (which coincides with the Buddhist population) want her and dislike the ruling military. Next election is 2014.
Today’s tour was to a small isolated village where they make pottery pots from the river clay. About 400 residents. A real treat to visit this place. A school has 108 kids and 4 teachers, an old bicycle was the only form of near modern transport spotted, and it was just one. Amazing to see the pots being spun and hear that they fire them in earth covered “ovens”. They are collected periodically and taken to the city.
Another 4 course dinner, tasty but simple dishes, a sit on the aft deck for a while then try to beat the last of the bugs and insects and geckos to our room, another day done.
Ah, a bit of sun this morning, bit like yesterday, cloudy (very) as seems standard in this part of the world, but at least some glimpses of blue and rays of light. Disembarking this morning and to Bagan we go.
Have to say NZ seems to have done a bloody poor job of selling our produce in this part of the world.
Since we left home we have seen virtually nothing of our produce. On the other hand, Aussie has done well. We see their meat, their wine everywhere. The only NZ product, and it is everywhere, is Anchor butter, those little plastic things you get in cafes.
The Road to Mandalay, and out again,
Well two days in Mandalay. Been great, except for the road to Mandalay itself.
Leaving the airport the road is as rough as guts. Sealed which many roads aren’t, but the surface is as you’d expect from a road made by hand by women. The “bounce about” factor is off the scale, then there are dips and hollows every few metres meaning the max speed is about 30 k’s p.h. There is about 10 ks, maybe 20 of this then you meet a new highway that runs through a large part the country. This new highway suffers the same inadequacies mentioned above, but being a highway surface is slightly better. Can get up to about 40kph, the speed limit in Myanmar is 80 kph, there’s no way you could do that. Anyway, at 30 -40 kph as the vehicle leaps all around the park. I joked to Anne that she might get seasick before the 1 hour journey was over. I did, felt real shitty by time we arrived, went straight to bed.
Having said that, the roads here are mainly dirt tracks once you leave the highways and main city roads.
Morning one; we meet our guide for next 2 days. Instead of being hustled into the car as we drive away be told how many Buddhas we’ll be visiting, we’d read the itinerary the night before and found there was 6 to visit, we asked Ei, our new guide to take a seat and told her we’d seen more Buddhas and pagodas than she probably had and heard the Buddha life story about 5 times already, and that was enough. Asked her to find some other things to take us to. She was brilliant, although did get us to 2 religious sites. She’s got the points to get to nirvana (not nirvana according to the ladder of Buddhism success we saw in the entrance to the cave of 8000 Buddha images), Buddha heaven. Pindaya Cave of 8,000 Buddha images, in Shan State.
In Mandalay the first place we go to is the Mandalay jade market. This enormous market place in the mud, dust and betel nut spit is unbelievable. People shoulder to shoulder jostling, buying, selling, trading jade. This is the biggest jade market in Myanmar we are told and only opens on 2 days per month, the full moon and the dark moon.
From there past some marble carving shops, all doing Buddhas and things for Buddha, to a goldsmith shop. Saw them at work but this place would make David Peat’s shop in Tauranga look like a hospital. From there to some back streets (actually, more back than back!), still the in the city but this is very village like, narrow, busy, dusty and of the poorest living and working conditions. In one area they make snacks, sweet and savoury, but in different shops. The traditional or pre-mechanised processes are all that exist here. We go into several and watch the process for toffee stuff, thinks that are like those old rice bubble and honey things mums used to make for kids parties, crispy noodles and such. These things are made and packaged in these places. Not what you’d expect when you see them in the supermarket. Wait till you see the photos of these places.
Then on to the Golden Monastery. Yep the 1st she’s snuck in. It’s actually teak, blackened with age. Has quite some history and is incredibly ornate in its carved facades and walls. Not a square cm is uncarved, and it stands about 3 stories high. Following that to another monastery. This one’s famous for its 729 stone slabs engraved on both sides with what is claimed to be the purest version of the Buddhist cannon. The fact nobody today can read it doesn’t seem to phase them or test their belief.
A couple of villages follow, one where all the men are woodworkers, carving with pretty rudimentary tools. The furniture ironically is destined for China.
The next village is more agricultural. These villages are close by, and there’s more of them but they seem only have populations of a few hundred each, each with their own specialty.
Following day we head down the Irrawaddy River banks which serve as wharfs for 2 way trade up and down the river. What a hell of a place. People working here also live amongst the mud and dust in real shanty-town shacks. Whole families, young kids, babies the works mix in amongst the trucks, Chinese ox (Chinese made tractors), ox and horse carts over miles of the river banks. We spend an hour or 2 photographing everything that moves including kids taking dumps, and babies likewise, arses wiped with a piece of bamboo which is then just heaved away for the dogs and cats to sniff around. Really reinforces the endless uses for bamboo. On the street above people are living in similar conditions, but also running their cottage industries, making woven bamboo mats, and a host of other things. The dust is constant filling the atmosphere. Enough to make one wheeze just thinking about it.
Burmese monks on the U Bein Bridge.
Next day we do a couple more villages and pagodas, then on out of there to Yangon.
A day spent in this city sees us walking around the old colonial part of the town, the port area, some market areas and finally the biggie, the Shwedagon Pagoda. Hell, if you’d wondered why there’s so much poverty in this country, you don’t have to look much past Buddhism and the endless wealth tied up in their edifices, this pagoda we are told has 60 tons of gold adorning its surfaces, and more is added each day in the form of gold leave rubbing.
We challenge our lovely guide on this and basically she just shrugs, “that’s the way it is, the importance we place on the monks, and Buddha.”
Back to the old colonial part, there about 60 buildings left, with about 35 marked for restoration. Probably won’t happen to most, they will crumble first. The government doesn’t have the money, that’s a shame as new pagodas caked in gold are going up all the time. Monks, novices, nuns and people in general are always out collecting to restore or build new ones.
Well we have an incredible archive of memories from this trip. The people, especially in Myanmar, but generally, have been fabulous, never any safety concerns, as we walk the streets countless of them call out “hello”, many want to engage in a discussion, at least as far as their English and our embarrassingly poor Burmese will allow. Many are very good English speakers. The kids pass comments and giggle, and jump when you offer them something, many of the parents encourage the kids to pose, even if you don’t want them to, and only some show signs of expectation afterwards holding out there hands.
The scenery has been interesting to say the least. Our travails have essentially been confined to urban and village areas and I suspect there is a lot more natural scenery to see and enjoy than we have.
The food, well we have had some great food, some ordinary food, some that has been hard to eat, and some that has had undesirable side effects. Never swallowed so many pills on a trip
in our lives. Different, is the word that comes to mind, but always an interesting experience.
The roads, shite, in both countries at least 2x our time expectations to cover a distance is required. And you arrive all shook up.
The wildlife, stuff all, the most disappointing part of the trip really.
The wine, other than Aussie stuff, it’s different, so didn’t drink too much of it, likewise the beer. Preferring to stick to cocktails which are cheap, but always different, some excellent, some like coloured water.
This has for me been one of the most enjoyable travel experience I’ve been fortunate to have. I mentioned the people many times already. The sights, the live styles, the people at work, and more will keep me interested in this country forever. Please excuse my odd notes of cynicism, they in no way reflect negatively on our experiences, there is so much that just raise questions.
There are so many more stories, experiences, memories and images than we’ve been able to share, but maybe these will come out and bore you when you least expect it.
My image gallery; http://www.brianscantlebury.com/Travel/Myanmar-now/ has many more photos I trust you’ll enjoy. Agin, please leave a comment or drop me an email.
So it’s a final tat ta from us. Oh the relief, I can just hear you saying!