Friday, 17 February 2012

MANDALAY - BURMA ( part 2 )

3rd - 4th Feb 2012

Ducks' arse
Left: Another workshop, this time weaving cloth. Again primitive equipment, hand looms, and I couldn't fathom out how the damned things worked. The girls operating these consulted some complicated hieroglyphics on what looked like sheet music held on a stand and whizzed the shuttle side to side and pumped the pedals non-stop with their feet. Quite some skill and co-ordination. The end product was an intricately designed length of silk and cotton fabric.

I forgot to mention our driver, the delightful Mr Myo. He was the perfect chauffeur and felt obliged to open and close the car door for me whenever getting in or out. I must look more decrepit than I thought. We went off to visit another couple of ex-royal capitals nearby. Firstly Amarapura, about 7 miles south, Burma's penultimate royal capital before King Mindon moved it to Madalay due to a Buddhist prophesy. It is most renowned for the iconic U Bein's bridge ( right ). This crosses the shallow Taungthaman Lake and is 1.3 miles long. It is the worlds longest teak footbridge. I am getting a little cynical about 'the worlds biggest, longest, shortest etc.'. It is always very specifically qualified. I mean I could claim, with some justification, to be the world's tallest ( English, wearing a cloth cap, carrying a Burmese walking stick, in Mandalay on 3rd Feb 2012 ) man.

We walked about halfway across and past these men, there were six of them, up to their chests in water. I thought they were herding ducks ( of which there were hundreds and didn't, or couldn't,  fly ). They waded in formation around the lake slapping the water as they went. It turned out that they were pulling a fishing net. We watched them for ages being keen to see what they had caught. Not very much, as it happened. Not even a duck....something I noted that the English cricket team had acquired  a lot of in the recent Tests against Pakistan.
It always seemed to be rather misty around Mandalay.

After this it was to another monastery, the Maha Ganayon Kyaung, nearby. It is home to several thousand monks of all ages ranging from 6 or 7 yrs to very old, who study, meditate, sleep and there. Definitely no TV, whisky or wild women.  There were lots of tourists gathered because, at about 1100am, the monks go to lunch. This is the equivalent of a chimpanzee's tea party; 'the monks lunch party'.  To the sound of clicking cameras and ( shoes off again ) the whiff of rice and smelly feet, thousands of monks, carrying their rice bowls, traipse through the open plan dining hall and sit down to midday nosh ( right ). The ordinary monks eat very simple silence. do the very young child monklets in the white robes ( left ). They are forbidden to talk. Something here reminded me of a soldiers' cookhouse ( c. 1970 ) where the duty officer had to walk around, inspect the food and receive any complaints. You know, the normal ones like "Sir, these peas are not green enough", or when asked, "How did you find your steak, Trooper Smith?" The reply being along the lines of "Well, sir, I just lifted up this chip and there it was".
The senior monks here sensibly avoid this humiliation.

Right: I think this must be the chief monk who was eating alone. He has quite a spread in front of him. As with the military system; rank has it's privileges.

Then on by a small fast motor boat across the river to another ancient capital, Ava ( now called Inwa ). I was by now getting quite competent at 'walking the plank' twixt boat and shore. At least I haven't fallen in yet. Our next mode of transport was pony and trap. In fact this vehicle is the norm in Burmese rural areas as well as the smaller towns. Left: Miss Tit Tit standing next to our chariot. She was terrified of the pony which was called Su Bang or something similar. Better than Michael Jackson or Fidel Castro as per the Indian camels.

We set off on what was a long hot dusty and bumpy drive around the few remains of this ancient city because what is left is well spread out. Many temples/stupas and disused monasteries were on our route and, naturally, involved much de-shoeing. Miss TT is very devout and knelt down and prayed in front of every Buddha we came across. That, for her, involved a lot of kneeling. The other guides did not do this. Maybe they were more 'footy' worshippers than the Buddha variety. Right: Miss TT praying to one of the Buddhas. You may also notice a small stuffed rodent sitting in front of it and to which she was also making obeisance.
I will try not bore you with too many more photos of the many temples, monasteries and Buddhas etc. which tend to become a little repetitive. 
I forgot, however, to take a pic of what is known as the Leaning Tower of Ava. This is a 90ft high crumbling and derelict tower which lists at an alarming angle and was badly damaged in an 1838 earthquake. The view from the top is not particularly inspiring but you certainly notice the precarious tilt as you climb up the spiral staircase, with loose wooden steps, on the outside of the building. Miss TT climbed part of the way up ( I don't think she likes heights, or loose wooden steps for that matter ). I managed to get up a ladder onto the open roof space where I found a group of young Burmese having a very jolly picnic with music ( ghetto blaster ) plus copious quantities of food and wine. I hope they managed to get down safely.

Left: This is a misty view from a disused monastery window across the river to Mandalay in the distance. The little girl took quite a shine to the rat. It could have become quite a protracted struggle to get it back and developed into a 'hostage' situation. Aided by Miss TT, I managed to secure it's release, unharmed, after some hard bargaining and handing over K200 ( 20 cents ). I think I was very lucky to get away with it so cheaply.

Right: A typical rural house in Ava. These are simple dwellings but beautifully built from various woods, teak and bamboo mainly, and the outside areas are always well swept. Poor people maybe, but clean, tidy and house proud. Entirely unsimilar to 'poor' areas of London, for example.

Back across the river and after lunch we visited a building near the Palace and Fort called the Shwenandaw Kyaung ( that 'shwe' again ). This was originally a royal apartment in the palace complex. It was in here that King Mindon died in 1878. His son, King Thibaw, repeatedly saw the ghost of his father there and had the building dismantled and reassembled outside the palace ( fort ) walls. It is a beautiful teak building with remains of some intricate carving and ornate gold decoration. It subsequently became a monastery. Just as well he moved it because otherwise it would have been destroyed by bombs in WW2, along with all the other palace buildings.

Next on the agenda was the 19th century Kuthodaw Paya. This temple/stupa is notable for the fact that it, and another adjacent temple, are encircled by many concentric rings of marble tablets, each contained in it's own little shrine, or mini-stupa ( badly shown on pic to left ). There are a total of 2503 ( yes, really ) of these slabs and shrines which have engraved on them all the 15 books of the Buddhist 'bible', the Tripitaka, plus added commentaries. They are collectively known as the World's Biggest Book. It is difficult to get a photograph from ground level which demonstrates the huge scale of this 'book'.
Something I didn't have time to do was to go to see a performance of the locally renowned Moustache Brothers. This is a three man satirical comedy group who regularly take the piss out of the Burmese government and, as a result, are equally regularly locked up. They seem to be able to carry on regardless even if often down to one or two performers at times. Their act is spoken in Burmese only so, I suspect, a lot of the jokes would be lost on non-Burmese speaking members of the audience, as well as the Burmese government. Despite this they are probably funnier than many of the dreadful and witless present day British 'comedians'.

Right: Before I forget, I took a photo of one of the many street-side stalls set up to provide the popular ( amongst the poor, mainly ) and cheap betel nut chew. The ingredients consist of a large betel tree leaf, a dollop of lime ( this is not the lime you put in your gin & tonic, this is white lime as in Calcium Hydroxide, Ca(OH)2, which you might use to clean the drains with ), some cut up betel nut, a dash of chopped tobacco and maybe a sprinkling of aniseed or cloves to taste. This is wrapped into a mouth sized portion and chewed resulting in a slightly hallucinogenic effect, black and red stained teeth and lips, rotted gums, and scalded throat plus copious quantities of red saliva to be spat out ( note the advertising of Oral B! ). I think I would be equally happy to chew some cardboard soaked in battery acid and sprinkled with iron filings. Whatever turns you on, I suppose.

Just in time to get up Mandalay Hill to the temple up there,  to witness the sunset over the Irrawaddy ( left ). These 'sunset and sunrise viewings' appear to be a staple of the tourist diet worldwide. I tend not to do sunrise viewings because I am asleep then. There is a memorial up here to the Royal Berkshire Regiment who re-took the fort from the Japs in March 1945.
Shoes off and on nine times today. 

A slightly early start tomorrow morning with a pick up by the marvellous Mr Myo for an eight hour drive over the hills to Inle Lake.

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