Thursday, 16 February 2012

MANDALAY - BURMA ( part 1 )

1st - 2nd Feb 2012

Mandalay Hill, in the mist, north of the city

"On the road to Mandalay, where the flyin' fishes play" as the words, written by Rudyard Kipling, go. Do they bollocks! I believe Mr Kipling was not in Burma very long; maybe just for a night stop-over when, after a few too many pink gins at the bar of the Strand Hotel in Rangoon, he wrote this poem. There are certainly no flyin' fishes in, or over, the Irrawaddy. At least no more than there are pink elephants and green spiders.
Early morning, 0515hrs and pitch black, we boarded by means of a long wobbly wooden plank the good ship Schwe ( that word again ) Keinnery and left the riverside at Old Bagan bound for Mandalay on the 13 hour voyage up the Irrawaddy. It left in the dark so I hadn’t a clue how the skipper knew where he was going. They probably do it from memory and cross their fingers that they don't hit a sandbank. It was a normal river boat, nothing luxurious, but had fairly comfortable reclining chair seating and a bar and restaurant upstairs plus an upper ‘promenade’ deck with deck chairs. It had the capacity for about 150 passengers. There were only six of us ( tourists ) on board including two amusing English ladies from Kent and a Frenchman from Lyons . Plenty of room.

The journey up the river was uneventful and there was not really much of great interest to see sailing through the flat countryside. At this time of year the river is low and many sandbanks have to be avoided. At some potentially very shallow parts a chap hung over the bow with a long bamboo pole to check the depth and yelled words of encouragement or caution to the helmsman up above. I think they were following, or avoiding, a line of bamboo poles sticking out of the water.
Left: There were occasional tugs towing rafts of teak logs downstream. These rafts had temporary houses built on top of them for the workers to sleep and cook in.

Right: We also passed one of the super-luxury Pandaw ships, a restored ex-British Irrawaddy Flotilla Company vessel from before WW2. These do cruises up and down the river with comfort levels and tours ( and prices ) similar to the Indian ‘Palace on Wheels’ train, I read.
It was noticeable how little bird life was present; just a few seagull types. No sign of any fish rising either, let alone flyin' fishes or the strange bulbous headed Irrawaddy dolphin that I'd read about. Maybe that was just another figment of the inventive Mr Kipling's imagination. 

Left: On the east bank approaching Mandalay. Not sure what this temple complex is but it looked quite impressive. We arrived, again in the dark, at 1900hrs. The skipper was using spot-lights to do the landing.

Mandalay was the last Burmese royal capital city with King Thibaw as ruler until the British removed him and packed him and family off on holiday to India in 1885. It is a pretty uninspiring place, low rise and sprawling with a sort of street grid system where most of the streets are known by numbers ( 1 - 50 E-W, and 51 - 100 N-S ) It is situated below Mandalay Hill, which was reputedly visited by Buddha, and from which it got it’s name. It is also mostly very clean and well swept if a little on the basic side. These Burmese take a pride in their local environment and enjoy a bit of personal space, unlike some neighbouring countries to the west that I could mention.
I had a lady guide for the next two days. Her name was spelt Htet Htet Wai Hiang. She pronounced it ‘Tit Tit Wee Ing’ which, I thought, was not very flattering. I don’t know who was responsible for translating the squiggly Burmese writing into Roman script, but he, or she, must have had a tin ear because the spelling you read in the translated aural version often bears scant resemblance to the Burmese pronounciation. As a case in point, the word for their currency, the Kyat ( as spelt in guide books ), is pronounced more like ‘Chet’. It was probably done by some well refreshed British civil servant in a couple of hours after a very good lunch.
The only other Burmese word with which I have become familiar is 'Mingulabar', which means hello, or good morning, or good evening or whenever you greet someone.

We started off by visiting another blinking temple, the Mahamuni Paya, which is extraordinary for the fact that the star feature in this enormous complex is the highly venerated 13ft high Buddha ( right ) which attracts thousands of devotees daily to stick gold leaf squares on it. The Buddha now looks very lumpy with about six inches of solid gold splodged onto the exterior after years of gold leaf being added. Women ( including Miss Tit Tit ) are not allowed to approach this Buddha.

..... but I was able to walk up to and around the back of this lump of gold and watched as a continuous stream of men came up and each stuck several small gold leaf patches onto it ( left ). I was working out if I could accidently dislodge an inch or two. This Buddha is also subjected to it’s teeth and face being scrubbed in a ceremony at 4.00am every morning. It all gets stranger and stranger.

Right: I'm not sure if it was in this complex, or another ( who cares ) where there are some ancient bronze statues which supposedly have miraculous healing powers. You are meant to rub the part of the statue which corresponds to that bit of your body which needs rectification. You can see from the photo by the parts which shine, or have been completely rubbed away, those areas which most commonly trouble the afflicted believers.

Next on the agenda was a visit to a factory where tapestries, wood-carvings and marionettes are made. As with all these ‘workshops’, the skill, effort and sheer time which goes into producing a complex design and beautiful end product, all painstakingly hand made using primitive equipment, is not reflected in the price charged. The ladies making these highly intricate tapestries sit and stitch with minute accuracy for a solid eight hours per day, every day of the week. The pay they get for this work is minimal and the cost of the finished product is small for the labour put in. Nowhere in the western ‘first’ world could such skill or work ethic be found. Noone would be prepared to do this for any price, I suspect.

Left: An array of exquisite embroidery and cheap at the price. The wood carvings and beautifully dressed large and small puppets were equally impressive. Truly a labour of love or, more likely, no other means of earning a living.
Then on to one of the places where they make and sell the gold leaf. This is another extraordinary workshop. They take a small ( memory stick sized ) 12 gram mini gold bar and initially heat and then roll it into a 5 metre long gold strip. This strip is cut into 200 pieces. Each of these 200 pieces is progressively hammered, by hand, into 1600 2” squares of tissue thin gold leaf. I tried to get the details written down correctly, but don't bank on them! The hammering is done in 30 minute sessions, timed by a coconut shell with a hole in it sitting in a bucket of water until it sinks, over a total aggregate of 5 hours hammering. I didn't ask why they don't just use a clock. Each little almost transparent square of gold leaf costs K1000 ( about 1.2 US$ ). I bought two as souvenirs. This gold leaf is the stuff that the worshippers stick onto the Buddhas etc. It is all very weird to my way of thinking.

Right: The hammerers and the coconut shell timer in the brown bowl of water. Keeps them fit, no doubt. I had a go and it is jolly hard work. Maybe they have a machine that does it much more efficiently when the tourists' backs are turned.

Left: This is the girl who did all the explaining. She sold me two bits of gold leaf but failed to sell me lots of the more expensive gold items.

We then went on the old Royal Palace complex in the centre of the city. This is a big fortified area. Each crenellated outside wall is about 2 miles long and has elaborate Chinese style watchtowers along it’s length and a large covered gate in each side plus a 50 yard wide water filled moat surrounding it all. It became a military base in British days known as Fort Dufferin. It was bombed flat in WW2 and all the old palace structures were destroyed. The bloody Japs were to blame.

Right: Replicas of, supposedly, the original palace buildings have now been rebuilt ( with red corrugated iron roofs ) and look a little tacky and artificial, and the central area is open, at a price, to tourists. Most of the tree covered inside area is still a Burmese army base which is strictly out of bounds. This is looking down on the central palace buildings where King Mindon and finally King Thibaw presided. The pic was taken from the top of a rather rickety tower. Miss Tit Tit was completely knackered when she got to the top. It wasn't that high but she could scarcely get her breath back. She is not fit. Obviously been neglecting her physical jerks in the mornings.

Left: King Mindon on his throne. There are other dummies around the place; supposedly look-alikes of long deceased royal personages.

Right: A part of the wall and moat. Alongside much of the railings on the footpath between street and moat they have built a sort ‘excercise’ route with push-me-pull-you machines and things you stand on and swivel your hips plus lots of other body toning devices. They were being well used, I noticed, on leaving the city early one morning. Not by me, I hasten to add. 
The majority of people in this part of the world ( Thailand and Vietnam included ) get up very early and regularly do some form of exercise, in the dark, before going to work. I also saw squads of ladies and gents doing choreographed dance routines and complicated things with long sticks. They take their physical jerks quite seriously before going away to smoke their heads off and chew the carcinogenic betel nut gunge. Miss Tit Tit must be an exception to all this. 

Then after lunch by small boat up-river to Mingun about 10 miles north on the western bank. Myself and Miss Tit Tit had a boat to ourselves. Left: Boarding involved clambering from boat to boat from the shore along more wobbly planks. One needs to be relatively sober to complete this boarding procedure without falling in.

Right: The deck of our boat. The skipper plus his sister and mother were the crew. They supplied refreshments and got us safely there and back.

Mingun, another ancient royal site is famous for three things. An unfinished stupa, a large bell and a big white pagoda.

Left: This unfinished construction was to have been the biggest stupa in the world. It was the brainchild of a previous king and building commenced in the late 18th century. What you see here is only the remains of the base level. It would indeed have been enormous and by far and away the biggest stupa in the universe but the king died in 1819 before it was completed and the project died with him. I imagine the workers and the next regime got supremely bored of this mammoth task. It has also some big cracks and much damage caused by earthquakes. In fact it resembles nothing more than a gigantic pile of bricks; millions of them. You can climb to the top up a series of rickety debris-strewn steps but, believe it or not, you are obliged to take off shoes and socks to do this. I need to use my feet again so wasn't tempted. Inside the doorway in the white front porch is, yes you've guessed correctly, a Buddha ( rather a small and unimpressive one ) plus collection boxes for the 'maintenance' of this heap of rubble.

Right: Then there is the bell. Another mega-project by the same size obsessed king and made in 1808. It is cast in bronze, is 16 feet in diameter, 12 feet tall and weighs 90 tons. It is the largest intact bell in the world. There is a much bigger and heavier one in Moscow but that is cracked and not hung. The done thing here is to climb inside and get your friend to whack it with a big heavy stick provided for the purpose. It does indeed make a loud 'BONG', and I only heard it from the outside.

Left: Lastly, a strange white pagoda. We climbed up to the top of this ( sans sabots, obviously ) where a couple more Buddhas were waiting in situ, together with a security guard who expected a small donation to reward his sedentary efforts. I was told what the significance of this pagoda is but, to be honest, I've now forgotten.
That was Mingun and concluded the first part of the tour of Mandalay and environs. 
Quite an interesting and enjoyable day and I only had to do the shoes off/on routine 5 times.


  1. Dear Uncle Matt,

    You were on the river, the flying fishes play on the road. Kipling was right.


    P.S. He also bakes exceedingly good cakes

  2. Antonio,
    1. You are very clever managing to make a comment on this site!
    2. You are undoubtedly correct re the fishes on the road. I overlooked that small detail.
    3. I still reckon Mr Kipling was pissed when he wrote that poem. Have you read it? Load of Mumbo Jumbo. He should have stuck to the cakes.
    4. Hope all's well in Blighty

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