Myanmar – Lake Inle

Yangon Airways - the flying elephant

Yangon Airways – the flying elephant

A twenty-five minute flight took us from Mandalay to Heho on the very efficient Yangon Airways. It is the same flight we have taken each time we have moved from one area to another as it flies in a loop. This time we flew at 11,000 feet because, as we headed east the land rose up to meet us. Everywhere was parched, red earth, a patchwork of fields now harvested and being prepared for the next growing season when the monsoon rains come.

We are now in Shan State, the largest state by area with a population of about six million. For many years there was unrest here as they wanted autonomy but that dispute was sorted in 1990. Being adjacent to the Chinese, Laos and Thai borders it is fairly sensitive. Agriculturally it is very prosperous and this us evident in the houses they live in. There has been a housing revolution in recent years as they have moved from the traditional woven house to brick built, two storey houses. Agriculture is the mainstay of the people as the land if fertile and they are prepared to work hard. For a very few, part of that wealth may be attributed to the growing of opium, which is illegal but very difficult to control. There seems to be a stronger military presence here, possibly a throwback to the old days but there are problems with child trafficking that they are trying to combat. Children are trafficked for the Thai sex trade, for Chinese second wives and for organs. There are some evil people in the world!

DSC_0847We were not going to Lake Inle straight away but were travelling to see a cave with ten thousand Buddha statues of all sizes in it. It was a couple of hours drive from Heho along a narrow road through farmland. En route we stopped off at a village to get a closer look at how they lived. There were few people around and we discovered that nearly all the villagers had gone to an umbrella ceremony, the topping out of a pagoda. Those that remained had chosen not to go. Again we were greeted with nothing but friendliness with one woman insisting we have a look in her house. She said that next time we come we would be able to see her new, brick built house that was nearing completion behind her present bamboo screen house.

A proud land owner

A proud land owner

We met one man who had just received a visit from a local government officer. He was holding a piece of paper. When asked what it was it turned out to be the rights to his land. Now he could relax. the land he has been working on for most of his life is officially his and he has the piece of paper to prove it. There have been problems over land rights throughout the reign of the military regime, but now he can sleep peacefully at night knowing that what has always been his, is actually his.

Everything about the village was very tidy, everything having a place and organised, a sharp contrast to the litter that we had seen at roadside. I can only assume that most if that came from passing traffic although there did seem to be specific dumping areas, which the wind had spread further. Plastic bags seem to be a real problem and there are plans to ban plastic bags in some areas but it will all take time to filter through and have an effect.

DSC_0885Reaching the Pindaya Caves, we climbed a flight of steps to the entrance where we were faced with a wall of Buddhas disappearing into the roof of the cave. From the entrance it did not look very deep but on entering the walkway snakes between the statues. It is an incredible sight to see so many but it is also a little gaudy. Within the cave there are steps leading up to higher levels and platforms that give different perspectives, and squeezing through a shirt tunnel gains access to a meditation chamber. As you delve deeper into the cave the temperature and humidity suddenly increase. The floor is damp and the air unpleasant to breathe. There are also fewer statues and I am sure that in time all the gaps will be filled with newly sponsored statues and that there is the potential for the number to double to twenty thousand.

Leaving the caves we drove to Kalaw, an old colonial town where the British migrated to during the hottest part if the year.

The hotel was a little out if town but was a series of colonial houses and bungalows set in well cared for, weedless gardens. The accommodation was a little rustic but perfectly adequate, particularly as we were only staying one night. The dinner in the wood panelled dining room was good although the green track suit tops of the waiters did not fit with wood panelling. Breakfast was in the outside dining room under a large framed canopy more suited to a tennis court. Parts of breakfast were good but it lacked fruit.

Kalaw Station trying to look like and English country station

Kalaw Station trying to look like and English country station

Before we left Kalaw we visited the railway station, stemming from the colonial days with its mock Tudor facade. There are only three trains a day and sadly none came through while we were there. The railways do not have a good reputation and journeys can take a long time and are uncomfortable. From the 1st April tourists will pay the same fair as locals in an effort to entice more people on to the trains.

From the station we went to look at the market in town but it wasn’t as unusual as some of the markets we had been to. It seemed a very quiet and subdued market.

Collecting the nursery plants ready for planting out

Collecting the nursery plants ready for planting out

The drive from Kalaw to Lake Inle takes a couple of hours with occasional stops to photograph people working in the rice paddy fields. The fields provided a splash of green in an otherwise earthen landscape. Men, working up to their knees in muddy water, were gathering the young shoots from the nursery beds, putting them into bundles ready for planting out. While men tend to do this task the job of planting out tends to be done by women.

Exquisite glass work

Exquisite glass work

On the outskirts of Nyaung Shwe we stopped at a temple with a thousand small Buddhas housed in niches in the walls with glass work depicting stories of Buddha. The colours were rich and possessed none of the gaudiness of many other temples we had visited. There was a sense of age about the place. The glass work was particularly interesting. I guess it helped in that there were no other visitors there to distract us from looking and admiring.

Adjacent to the temple was a monastery for about thirty novices. They were having a rest, presumably after lunch and were lying in their sleeping quarters away from the heat with all the doors and windows open. As they played games on their phones or game boys they appeared no different to any other young boy.

After our own lunch we went down to the water to meet our three boats and boatmen. The boats were long canoes with an engine attached to a long propeller shaft, which also acted as the rudder. The shaft was not quite as long as the boat we had in Bangkok but the principle was the same.

To access the lake we had to travel down a long wide canal busy with boats going out and returning. Most boats were occupied by tourists but as we entered the lake proper there was a lot more other activity on the lake.

DSC_0966The most amazing were the leg rowing fishermen. To the watcher it seems such a cumbersome firm of propulsion but necessary because of all the things they have to do with their hands. They have small dugout canoes, the front and back being identical with flat platforms. The fisherman stands on one end of the boat with a leg wrapped around a paddle. His hands hold a thin pole and his fishing net, which he gradually plays out as his leg provides the forward motion of the boat. When bringing the net in he tends to squat so that he can extract any fish he may have caught. I couldn’t help but think that such an awkward action must cause hip problems in later life, particularly if they favour only one leg. However, they are equally dexterous with both.

Others were collecting weed from the bottom of the lake and loading it into their canoes so that the weight of it seemed to push the canoe below the surface. Every so often they would bale out the water collecting from their soggy load.

DSC_0970As we neared these people going about their daily business we would cut power so that we could watch and photograph. There are differing styles of fishing. Some, as I have pointed out, played out a long net and then beat the water with their paddle to try to drive the fish into it. Others used a frame with a triangular net and trawled it through the water for a few metres before bringing it up to extract any fish and weed they had picked up. A third method used a conical framed net, which they placed in the water. They then poked a stick into the top and, with a stabbing action, forced the fish into the net where it became entangled. Finally, a fourth group placed bamboo woven tubes into the water to pull up after a given time. These were fresh water prawn traps. All this activity gave us plenty of interest.

Thousands of tomato plants on floating beds

Thousands of tomato plants on floating beds

Leaving the open water the lake becomes a series of channels between floating islands surrounding a stilted village. The floating islands are made up of the weed that has been collected. These islands are held in place by long bamboo poles driven through them and in the mud bed of the lake. Smaller bamboo canes stick into the floating island for row upon row of tomato plants. Tomatoes from this area are the sweetest I have ever had. To break up the monotony of tomatoes vines have been erected for the growing of cucumbers and various types of squash. It is a remarkable system and it is easy to forget that this is still a lake and not a wetland with a network of canals.

During the monsoon the water level rises about four feet

During the monsoon the water level rises about four feet

The village we travelled through was quite large. Houses protruded from the lake on stilts, many larger than you would expect. The lives of the people revolve entirely around the water – it is their source of food, their income, their water supply and their playground. Children learn to swim at a very early age and they are as comfortable in the water as they are on land. Travelling slowly around the village we were given an insight into their daily life. They even have temples and schools built on stilts and all transport is via the water.

There are twenty-two such villages on or around the lake sustaining the the lives of a great many people. I couldn’t help but think that with the increasing needs of a growing tourist population and the increasing needs of the villagers, there is a danger that the resources of the lake could be stretched in the coming years.

We arrived at our hotel on stilts. Shwe Inn Thar Floating Hotel in the late afternoon. Our boats deftly entered the hotel gateway and deposited us at the teak steps rising out of the water leading to reception and the dining room. From this central hub a series of walkways led to avenues of wooden bungalows beautifully constructed on their stilts.  To one side of reception there was a bar overlooking the swimming pool, a remarkable structure suspended above the lake level.

Our accommodation is on the left

Our accommodation is on the left

Our bungalow was at the end of an avenue with a perfect outlook to the west, from our balcony, of the setting sun. It is a beautiful location, only spoilt by the regular passage of boats, carrying tourists and locals alike, with their noisy engines.

Having arrived at our hotel we were trapped, unable to venture out to a restaurant, even if we wanted to. There were few other guests as the end if the season approaches so we were well catered for in the restaurant.

In our bungalow there is a notice letting guest know that there is chanting at 4.00am in the monastery in the nearby village. They hoped we would understand and that it would not spoil our stay. Indeed, at the allotted time the microphones chanting could be heard as it drifted across the water. It was quite melodic and not at all disturbing. However, it was obviously the call for all locals to get up and it was not long after that the boats started chugging by. That sound was less pleasant but still had a certain charm about it.

The following morning we had a relatively late start, 9.30, but a full day ahead of us, being transported from place to place by our three boats.

DSC_0097Our first stop was at a cigar making workshop. Again no cigars were being rolled on the thigh of a dusky maiden. A group of five women sat on the floor with all the necessary ingredients and tools in front of them. The tobacco leaves contained a mixture of tamarind, star anise, coconut and a little tobacco. Being paid by volume they can make between 800 and 1000 cigars in a day. We were invited to try one. Not having smoked since 1992 I was a little nervous. It tasted quite nice but immediately made me cough. I will not be taking up the weed again.

DSC_0101Travelling through the village we were able to observe life from our boat. Nearly everything happens outside, either on the bamboo platforms or on/in the water. People knelt on their platforms washing themselves, pouring water taken from the lake and pouting it over themselves, washing clothes, preparing vegetables, tending their floating vegetable patches from within a canoe or simply watching the world go by. All life is there for everybody to see and I felt privileged to be able to watch it.

DSC_0137Next we visited a lotus silk workshop. The clatter of looms was quite deafening. All the workers, in three workshops were women, none of them being particularly young and a warning sign that this is a dying craft that will one day be replaced by machines. Young girls prefer to work in restaurants and hotels. You saw each stage of the production from the extraction of the silk from the lotus stalk, the spinning, the dying and finally the weaving. There was a final stage, the shop! Having spent so much time at these two craft centres we had to go for lunch in a stilted restaurant before visiting a pagoda, the most interesting aspect of it being the golden boat that is brought out at festivals. By now we were pretty well pagoderd out and it was interesting that we were spending more time in craft centres and their outlets and less in the religious sights.

DSC_0169Talking of which we next went to a silver craft workshop where we saw the smelting of the rock to burn out the impurities and leave a silver bar which is then cut and worked into fantastic jewellery and ornamental pieces. There seemed no shortage of young men in the workshop, probably because the pay is commensurate with the skills required.

The final visit of the day was to the temple of the jumping cat, although cats no longer leap as the abbot felt it was cruel to poke them into jumping. The temple is also renowned for a number of ancient altars. We saw some cats but they weren’t jumping.

Back at the hotel we cooled down in the pool before watching yet another sunset.

My aggressor!

My aggressor!

I have been having some difficulty with a pair of swallows. Every time I step outside from my stilted room I am dive bombed by the pair. I believe them to have a nest underneath the platform and, for some reason, they consider me to be a threat. They are such skilled flyers, able to divert at the last moment to avoid hitting me but being close enough for me to feel the wind from their wings. I have to force myself to stay still to avoid there being any chance of them hitting me. It would certainly hurt me and would probably kill them. I decided to wear my GoPro and film them. They appear as very fast flashes across the screen. Each time they pass me they tweet a warning. It is wonderful getting so close to nature, or, in reality, nature getting so close to me. I was pleased to discover that I was not their only victim and that others who ventured too near were given the same treatment.

Two Paduan women and Angela

Two Paduan women and Angela

Our last day on Lake Inle was more relaxed with fewer places to visit. The plan was to visit the Five Day Market. That is not a market that lasts for five days but a market that occurs every fifth day. Our boats came to pick us up and take us to the market site. There was a degree of excitement as we were told that there would be some women from the Paduan Tribe, renowned for wearing neck rings. Sure enough, as we stepped out of our boats and went into the shop at the top of the steps, they were there. They were clearly there as a tourist attraction, looking immaculately groomed and willing to pose for photographs. Everything was precise about them, with perfect hair and make-up, poise and long necks encased in a collection of rings. The ones that they were wearing were light weight but on a table were some of the original brass ones which were extremely heavy. The rings gave them an elegance. I wanted to know if they ever took them off. They don’t, although they can if they wanted to. Underneath, their necks would be extremely slender and soft.  I was pleased to know that their heads would not flop from lack of strength in the muscles.

DSC_0226Moving on to the rest of the market, it was clearly geared up for tourists with lots of stalls, in a rectangle, selling mostly tourist trinkets and clothing. A lot of the items were of a good quality and it would be easy to spend a lot of money. There were a few local food stalls in a small section. I was more interested in the people rather than the products as there was such a varied selection or people of all ages and skin textures.

Returning to the shop where we started the women were now more active. I think they were mother and daughter. The daughter was playing a home made guitar and singing a rather monotonous, but captivating song, while the mother was weaving.

Flower sellers

Flower sellers

Leaving them, we sailed off to visit the Indein Pagoda ruins. To get to Indein we sailed along a canal with far less commercialism and an opportunity to see local people going about their business, men fishing, women paddling canoes laden with flowers, children playing. This was a pleasure to see before hitting the commercial approach to the ruins, a long corridor of stalls up a covered walkway. We managed to avoid their lure on the way up to the pagodas.

DSC_0267The ruins were spectacularly good, a huge collection of tumbling pagodas with little niches where small statues of Buddha once sat.

Closer to the main pagoda a lot of new ones have been, or are still being, built. Only a few have been gilded with gold leaf, the remaining one the natural grey or red depending on the type of plaster they have used. It made a pleasant change not to have everything gilded and, in some respects, I prefer them when they are not.

The return to our boats along the corridor of stalls was less easy with temptation getting in the way of forward progress. Dragging ourselves away from the stalls we returned to the hotel via a lunch stop and had the afternoon free.

Our leg rower

Our leg rower

In the late afternoon, six of us took three canoes, with a member of the hotel staff each, and went for a paddle around the village. It was very peaceful to be on the water without an engine sputtering behind us, but it was impossible to avoid hearing them as they passed near by. Our paddlers took us through some of the narrow backwaters and although we did not see a great deal in the way of human activity or wildlife, we were taken to places that larger, motorised boats could not reach. Occasionally our oarsmen changed style, preferring to leg row some stretches, particularly when an element of competition entered the fray. It was remarkable what a difference leg rowing made to progress through the water; it was significantly faster. It surprised me that such an ungainly action could be so effective.

DSC_0360The following morning we were up early for our boats to take us on the hour long journey back to Nyaung Shwe where our bus was waiting to take us to Heho and our flight back to Yangon. The early morning light on the lake was fabulous and for a while the rising sun washed out the colour in the lake, the mountains to the east and the sky, making the early morning fishermen stand out darkly against the light background.

DSC_0372Arriving at the airport an hour before departure we were beginning to relax in the departure lounge when our flight was called. The weather had been particularly clear that morning so all flights had been early, so instead of a 9.30 departure we took off at 8.45. this meant we would be arriving in Yangon much earlier than expected and much too soon for us to go the the hotel. Usa decided we should mix and mingle with the masses and take the train from the nearest station to the airport to the city centre, a journey of about an hour, not really exceeding 25mph.

Like many railways the world over it was a corridor of deprivation and filth with litter thrown on to the embankments and out of tenement buildings that lined the trackside. Putrid streams of black water oozed its way around the rubbish. We were seeing the worst side of Yangon but it was a thrill to travel on the train in a carriage of bench seats down each side with open windows and no doors. Despite the openness of the carriages it was very hot and sticky. Remarkably, in the space of three hours we had travelled by boat, bus, plane and train.

That was it. We had finished. We had just one more night in Yangon before we split up and took our various routes home.

A jade market trader

A jade market trader

It has been a fabulous experience. Myanmar is a beautiful country with much to offer. If temples and pagodas are not your thing, they are hard to avoid and you cannot visit Myanmar without visiting a few. It has been a surprise and an eye opener. I really felt that it would not be as advanced as it is, having been ruled by a firm military government for several decades. We had been warned that there would be no ATM machines but there were some, and they worked, and given time there will be many more. They claim to have internet but the service is very limited and, at the moment it is best not to waste time trying. Myanmar is gearing up for more and more tourists with large hotel building projects. They have big plans to renovate all the old colonial buildings in Yangon and the transport infrastructure is being upgraded. A lot hinges on the election next year and whether the constitution can be changed in time for Aung San Suu Kyi to be elected. If it can, she will most certainly be elected and then she will be under pressure to deliver all the social reform the country needs, particularly in education and health. If the constitution cannot be changed in time for her to be elected there might yet be more problems, which could slow down the rate of progress.

This sums up the people in a single expression

This sums up the people in a single expression

The most impressive aspect of this two-week visit has been the people. They are the friendliest people I have ever come across. They welcomed us with open arms and smiling faces wherever we went. We could not have been looked after better. They are a beautiful people, slight in build with stunning facial features. They deserve a peaceful time ahead of them where they can prosper and develop in a way they so richly deserve.

We have focused our attention on the main tourist areas for this trip but it has set the seed for a return visit to go off the beaten track. We will be back!

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Myanmar – Mandalay

A twenty two minute flight took us from Bagan to Mandalay, a place that has conjured up all sorts of images in the mind going as far back as my childhood. It was one of those places that cropped up in geography. Kipling wrote about it and, of course, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby travelled the road to Mandalay. As we drove into the city all those romantic images of Shangrila were dispelled in the chaos of the roads, the slightly ramshackle approach to building and the general scruffiness of the streets. They weren’t Kathmandu dirty but they were not as well cared for as some. It was particularly noticeable that the pavements were more hazardous and the allowance of thousands of motorbikes on the roads meant that they seemed much more dangerous, as much for pedestrians as anybody else.

This was just a fraction of the total!

This was just a fraction of the total!

Our first visit was to the Jade Market. I was expecting the usual demonstration workshop and a sale room. How wrong was I? I should have realised before I got there as there were thousands of motorbikes parked several deep each side of the road. I remember thinking as I walked past them, “How do they know which bike is theirs when there are so many that look alike?”

The entrance to the Jade Market revealed all. The cacophony of noise from thousands of voices haggling, bartering and making a deal was deafening. Most of the traders were Chinese who seem to have captured the trade in jade. We were hit by a wall of sound.

DSC_0392The market was made up of a series of alleyways in a grid system. Each alleyway was heaving with people, mostly men, although there were sections where women worked. Very few women roamed the alleys apart from nuns who were going around collecting alms. Some were young children, far to young to be in this sort of environment. On either side of the alleyways, and sometimes down the middle if width allowed, buyers sat at little desks armed with a small torch which they shone at the jade to check its quality. If an acceptable price was offered a deal would be sealed, if not the seller would move on to another buyer until he got something close to satisfaction. It was difficult to move around but nobody minded us being there even though they knew we were not there to buy or trade. The women tended to have trays at their little desks with small polished pieces if jade in little clusters according to size or quality. It was like a stock exchange. By lunch time things would begin to slow down and by the afternoon the market would fall silent and hopefully everybody will have found their motorbike and gone home.

DSC_0409As we drove further into Mandalay there were a number of motor processions on the streets. The vehicles were generally pick up trucks with plastic chairs on the truck carrying ornately dressed children and adults. They were all heading towards the foot of Mandalay Hill as part of the initiation ceremony for children, boys and girls, entering the monastery or nunnery. For some children this will be a life changing event as they leave behind their family and home to live in a frugal environment. For some they may spend years, if not the rest of their lives in service to Buddha. Others may only be there for a matter of days or weeks. If they are not happy they can leave at any time. However, the education that those who stay for a number of years will benefit them in later life whether they remain a monk or nun.

DSC_0424Driving to the foot of Mandalay Hill we joined the throng. Having processed, they were now going into the temple with offerings and then having a picnic lunch anywhere where they could find some space. There was very much a party atmosphere and everybody greeted us with happy, smiling faces. Over and above the noise of the human throng loud music played from vehicles stacked with speakers. It was great to mingle freely, clicking away, and I could have stayed there much longer but a couple of small trucks were booked to take us to the top of Mandalay Hill and the temple. The drive took us uncomfortably up a series of hairpin bends, at the top of which we gratefully disgorged ourselves from the trucks.

From the top we had views over the whole of Mandalay, although the heat was making it a bit hazy.

DSC_0491In the late afternoon we went first to see the wooden palace of Shwe Nandaw Kyaung. The palace was originally built in Amarapura, the then capital under the ruler King Mindon. The original building was heavily gilded with gold. The wood carving is fantastic in its own right but when it was golden it must have been a spectacle. When Mindon died in 1878 his son, Thibaw, became king. He moved the capital from Amarapura to Mandalay. In the process of moving Thibaw built a new palace complex in Mandalay behind a high walk surrounded by a wide moat. Each side was two kilometres in length. It was a relatively easy process as not a single nail was used. It was all held together with joints fixed with wooden pegs. I haven’t quite understood when and why it was moved to its present position but it is a good thing that it was as the whole of the palace complex, with the exception of the watch tower, was destroyed by the Japanese in 1945.

A film crew was at the palace filming a story about an American of Burmese descent returns to Myanmar to trace his roots.

Cooking on a large scale

Cooking on a large scale

En route to see the world’a largest book we came across activity in a garden where large quantities of food were being prepared for a feast the next day, part of one of the initiation ceremonies we had been watching earlier in the day. Having processed today they have large family parties the next day provided by a sponsor, usually a relatively rich family member. It was fascinating to watch the men stripped to the waist, their bodies glistening in the dual heat of the day and the fires. Huge woks and cooking pots were bubbling away as they deep fried huge quantities of fish, chicken and pork. Another ingenious stove was cooking a mix if eggs and sesame paste until it was thick enough to put in flat pans to set. Three holes in a line had been dug in the dry earth. The middle hole was where the cooking pot sat above a fire fed with sticks from the first hole. The third hole allowed the flames to escape and not over cook or burn the food. Brilliant! Again they were happy to show us everything.

Each small pagoda holds a page of the largest book in the world

Each small pagoda holds a page of the largest book in the world

From there we continued to see the largest book in the world, the 729 double sided stone tablets with the entire works of the Buddhist canon recorded on them. Each tablet is housed in its own shrine surrounding the Kuthodore Pagoda. It was an impressive sight looking along these rows if white structures.

In the evening we visited a small local restaurant where they produced an “all you can eat” buffet for as little as 4000 Kyats, about £2.50.

Tina being made welcome

Tina being made welcome

The following morning, on our way to Amarapura and Mahagandayone Monastery to watch two thousand monks process into lunch, Uza spotted a gathering for the second day of an initiation ceremony. Music was playing and there were lots of children dressed in their vivid and ornate initiation costumes. We were warmly invited to join the ceremony and as we sourced the hub if the noise we came across a large room where people were sitting on the floor at low tables eating a considerable meal of rice, vegetables, fish and various meats, as we had seen cooking the day before for another ceremony. People beckoned us to sit down and join them and as soon as we did a plate was thrust in front of us, a ladle of rice put upon it and an invitation to tuck into many of the succulent dishes on offer.

DSC_0540On a small stage the boys being inducted sat displaying a mixture of emotions. They were all wearing pink costumes and make up, both of which made them look very feminine. Although we could not use language as a means if communication, smiles, gestures and body language said a great deal. I couldn’t help but wonder how we would react if a group of fifteen strangers gate crashed our party.

Out in the yard a number of giant woks and saucepans kept the supply of food constantly refreshed as more people arrived. We could have stayed there much longer and we would certainly have been welcome but we had to move on. It would have been interesting to stay for the ceremonial head shaving which was due to take place at midday.

If only my legs were longer!

If only my legs were longer!

Moving on we arrived at Mahagandayone Monastery in time to have a look around to see something of their lifestyle before watching their lunch procession which started at 10.15. The kitchens were producing food on an industrial scale with wood burning pits and pots bigger than anything we had seen. One pot full of pieces of pork, probably from a number of pigs, waiting to be cooked was providing interest to a small puppy who could look into it but not reach any of the succulent pieces.

Before the allotted time some of the younger monks began to line up in silence trying to ignore the increasing number if cameras lining the route. Tourists vied for the best spot, hoping for an uninterrupted view. An electronic clock illuminated the time and at 10.15 a bell chimed and the procession moved forward in somber silence as the monks contemplated their lunch. It felt a little as those we were intruding but it was such a spectacle that it was something not to be missed.

DSC_0610The monks came in all shapes and sizes and it was particularly noticeable,with so many shaved heads, how varied the shape of the human head can be.

From within the dining hall chanting could be heard. Remarkably, monks were beginning to leave the dining room before some had finished processing. They do not eat all of their lunch but save some, knowing they have until midday to finish it, trying to spin it out, knowing that there will be nothing more until the next day.

DSC_0634From the monastery it was a short walk down to the Lake Taungthaman to see the world’a longest teak bridge, U Bein Bridge. There were two villages on either side of the lake. The village chief of one used to row across the lake to visit the girls on the other side who were reputedly prettier. However, this took time and energy so he appealed to the king to allow him to build a bridge. The king gave permission on the understanding that it allowed free passage for all villagers on both sides of the lake. So the U Bein bridge was built using 1200 old teak piles sunk into the mud supporting a wide teak walkway. At 1.2km long, it is a remarkable sight. Along the way there are a number of sheltering areas which are wider than the rest of the bridge. These are under canopies which today are used by stallholders selling all sorts of tat and extremely orange cooked crabs brought up from the lake. The most bizarre is a fortune teller.

DSC_0652Walking from one end to the other and back it was noticeable that it is used a lot by young local people who socialise, take lots of photos on their mobile phones etc. with so many people walking on the bridge it has a noticeable wobble and I can imagine a news report one day telling of the collapse of U Bein Bridge. Some of the supports suggest that day will not be far away. It is a remarkable structure and well worth the visit. There are boats on the lake. A boatman will take you out on the water and give you a different perspective of the bridge and a closer look at the fishermen and the water birds that live and feed on the lake.

DSC_0670Having walked the bridge I went down to water level to photograph the bridge in silhouette before returning to Mandalay via Sagaing where we visited a nunnery to see how they lived, and going to the top of Sagaing Hill. From the top we looked  down on the plain below and the Ayeyarwady River. I was already looking forward to travelling on the river the next day and bringing to life some of those rather boring geography lessons that I had to endure as a child.

Back in Mandalay we visited the old palace within its walls. A large part of the area within is taken up by an army barracks but where the palace had been before it was destroyed they have build a replica. Instead of gilding it with gold leaf they have simply painted those areas gold. It gives an impression but it is not worth spending a great deal of time there.

Boats of the Ayeyarwady

Boats of the Ayeyarwady

When I was at school the Ayeyarwady River often came up in geography lessons. It is one of those rivers that has a mystical air about it. It is 2000km long and all but 400 of those kilometres is navigable. Hence, at Mandalay the river is busy. On our final day in Mandalay we were taking a boat up river to Mingun. The journey took about an hour as we chugged up river. There was so much to see. There were boats of all shapes and sizes carrying tourists, teak, coal, vegetables, sand and probably much more. Rafts of bamboo were being towed to a bamboo market on one of the banks. They too provided interest with men cutting away at the loose sand banks to gather building material which they would shovel into small boats and take away. Fishermen cast their nets or set traps. On one sand bank makeshift bamboo shelters were being erected for a forthcoming party.

The depth finder is sitting at the bow

The depth finder is sitting at the bow

Many of the boats had men sitting at the bow with a long stick which they would put into the water every so often to test the depth. When it became threateningly shallow a rapid change of course would be made. The river is so large and carrying so much silt in it that the sandbanks and channels under the surface are constantly changing. It was a fascinating journey and brought to life all those dull geography lessons.

Most of the cargo boats travelling on the river would not get a license to sail in the west. They seem to be held together by nails in such a fashion that they look very Heath Robinson. Repairs have been done and bit added on to make them look very rough and ready. The engines are noisy and often belch out noxious fumes. But despite everything, I think they are wonderful. They have character and I could watch them all day.

The Unfinished Pagoda

The Unfinished Pagoda

Arriving a Mingun we went ashore to look at the unfinished pagoda. It had been guarded by two enormous lions but they, like the unfinished pagoda are ruins. It is hard to imagine what they would have looked like but they were the height of a three storey house when they were complete. The reason it is unfinished is because a massive earthquake did its best to destroy it in 1838. By then only the bottom third had been built. The desire was to build the biggest pagoda of all. The base that remains is a huge cube of bricks rising 50m. Huge cracks from the quake have split into it and large blocks have collapsed.

DSC_0742A short distance away is a shrine that houses the largest working bell in the world. There is a larger bell in Russia but it is broken. Weighing 87 tons, it is suspended from a huge beam. It is difficult to imagine why it was necessary to have such a big bell. I guess if you are wanting to build the biggest pagoda, you naturally want to supply it with the biggest bell. What  engineering difficulties they would have had to face had the pagoda been finished would have been interesting, particularly when they would have had very limited mechanical aid. Man has found solutions to such problems for thousands of years, so I expect it would have been successful if they had been able to finish the job. You can crawl into it and try to decipher all the graffiti that has been written on it over a great many years. The sound is not as deafening as I expected but I suspect that if it was hit with something more substantial than a piece of wood it might well be.

DSC_0744Just beyond that there is a pagoda that us unlike all others. It is blindingly white. There are seven tiers with wavy edges representing the seven oceans. Above is a dome with a small temple with two Buddhas, one white and one gold. The gold one sits in front of the white one. The gold one is a relatively new one because somebody cut off and stole the head of the original white one. It would be sacrilege to destroy the white one further so they placed the gold one in front. Since, the stolen head has been found and returned to its rightful place. Hence two Buddhas.

The boat took us back down stream and dropped us off at a riverside restaurant for lunch.

After lunch we visited a gold leaf workshop to see it being made. How the men do that all day and endure the constant noise of hammering is unbelievable.

The Mandalay City Hotel where we have been staying is right in the heart of the city. Access is through an arch into a courtyard space and an entrance that looks quite impressive. The lobby is airy and air conditioned but doesn’t have enough seats for all those wanting to use the wifi. It is the only place in the hotel that wifi works and that is not always the case. There is no lift. The rooms are adequately sized but a little tired. In my room only one light switch worked all the lights and there was no choice, it was all or nothing. Not all the sockets worked. The aspect of the rooms varied a great deal. Some looked out on to the small garden and pool area, and presumably adjacent buildings while on the other side you looked out on the drab buildings and a mosque which called you to prayer at five in the morning. I never really opened my curtains. The minibar was empty.

However, the food was excellent, both at breakfast time and in the evening and the staff were excellently trained and deserving of their tip.

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Myanmar – Bagan

The alarm rang at 4.00am for our early flight to Bagan. The airport was quite busy as nearly all internal flights take place in the morning and very few in the afternoon, once the planes have returned to Yangon. Check-in was extremely efficient and we were in the departure lounge within fifteen minutes of arriving, if not ten. The flight due to leave at 6.10 took off several minutes early and we landed at the airport that serves Bagan at 7.15 where the disembarkation and baggage collection was equally efficient.

DSC_0551From the airport we drove to Nyaung Oo Market, a market largely catering for locals but with some stalls to capture the interest of tourists. There is a hugely diverse range of stalls and they tend to cluster together according to products for sale. Thus, all the fruit and veg. stalls were together with their colourful array of exotic and not so exotic. Sitting amongst it all were the women chatting noisily to each other, laughing and enjoying the occasion, even though they do this every day. They did not mind us being there, walking among them and taking photographs as if they understood our interest and knew that we would be gone fairly quickly.

The meat and fish stalls were all clustered together with the women sitting among their fish or cuts of meat. It did not matter how much they wafted their fans they could not keep the flies off.  For the squeamish it was all a little too in your face, particularly the displays of offal.

DSC_0535Some stalls attracted our interest, and hence encouraged conversation with the stall holder, when we were at a loss as to what they were selling. The Betel nut in its various forms was one such item. Many of the people we had seen were all chewing on them, their mouths stained red. In places the ground was stained red where people regularly spat. Often, when people smiled at us we were faced with a mouth of severely stained teeth. I was interested to know whether it was addictive, like smoking. It is, and the consequences of can be very serious with cheek cancer being one of the possible effects.

DSC_0556We had most fun with the stall holders selling clothes, souvenirs and musical instruments. They, without being at all pushy, were most eager to sell things to us. They would readily enter into conversation with us, allow us to handle the goods, play with it if was a musical instrument and generally have fun. Inevitably the conversation would lead to where we were from and then degenerate into teams of the Premier League. It is a known fact that Man. Utd. has more supporters around the world than it has in the UK.

Skin protection

Skin protection

Since our arrival in Myanmar we had noticed many girls and women wearing a creamy coloured paste on their cheeks, foreheads and noses. The sun is so powerful that it can cause serious problems.  Made by mixing the bark of the Thanaka tree with water and working it into a paste so that can be smeared on the face, it protects sensitive skin from the sun and helps keep it young and fresh. Interestingly, as with many Asian cultures, there is a desire for pale skin, while we all look forward to a healthy tan.

It was impossible to keep my wallet in my pocket and I bought a chime bar and a frog soundbox that actually sounds like a frog. I thoroughly enjoyed the banter and the barter.

Just a few of the many pagodas of Bagan

Just a few of the many pagodas of Bagan

In a period of three hundred years from the 11th C, thirty one kings ruled in Bagan. Each king and members of their families built temples and pagodas within the area. Other people followed suit on a smaller scale until there were over 55,000 temples. Subsequent human and natural activity has taken its toll and reduced that number to around 3,000. The Moguls were the first to plunder them expecting them to harbour treasures within. Locals similarly plundered them over the centuries. More recently the Japanese during their Second World War occupation and an earthquake in 1975 have added to their demise. It is an incredible sight. I cannot begin to understand what it would have looked like with 55,000.

While a few are made of stone and plaster with a little gold leaf, the majority are made of brick. The bricks were made in villages along the banks of the Ayeyarwady River. The kings wanted nothing but the best so the brick makers were forced to have the name of their village cast in the brick. Sometimes even the brick makers name had to be cast. This ensured only the very best bricks were made and if they were not good enough the king would know who to reprimand. Not all the kings were compassionate. The one who had the largest temple built had the architect killed upon its completion so that he could not build anything bigger.

Colourful umbrellas

Colourful umbrellas

Swesdagon Paya, a golden temple glowing in the morning sun was the next place to be given our attention. Entry is by the now inevitable corridor of stalls selling religious and non religious items. Again there was no pressure from the stall holders to buy but the hawkers who moved about amongst us were a little more persistent but soon moved on when they realised they weren’t going to get a sale.

Swesdagon Paya

Swesdagon Paya

The pagoda was far less cluttered and the peripheral temples much more basic. Some devotees, including some nuns were carrying little cards of gold leaf and as they made small donations of food to various icons they also plastered on little squares of the precious metal.
It was here that we were introduced to Nats, spirits whom Buddhists seek help from. There are thirty seven Nats who during their lifetime became martyrs for some reason. There are Nats for every occasion, including one for gambling and drinking. When those who believe, and not all Buddhists believe in spirits, they visit the particular Nat they need, pray and give a donation and they find the answers they need. Younger generation Buddhists are more sceptical.

Ananda Paya

Ananda Paya

From there we travelled across the dry, dusty, water starved landscape passing numerous small temples and pagodas to Hdilominlo with sitting Buddhas and murals and on to Ananda Paya, known for its fabulous architecture. It is very large and the outside is going through a period of renovation, of crumbling stone being replaced and the whole facade being cleaned. The inside consisted of two passageways, an inner and an outer, going round the central core. In each of the four major compass points there was a large chamber housing a huge statue of standing Buddha. The walls, plastered and covered in very faded frescos had been damaged over the centuries, more recently by people taking prints off them and diminishing the quality.

One of the four statues was different to all the others and unique to all other statues of Buddha. If you stood at a distance and looked at the face the lips were smiling but as you walked closer the position of the lips changed and the smile was replaced by a much more serious expression. This denotes the pleasure of becoming a devotee but stresses that it is also a serious commitment.

On the banks of the

On the banks of the

For lunch we went to a restaurant on the banks of the mighty Ayeyarwady River. Now, there have been many months of dry weather and the water levels are low. Nevertheless it is still a very wide river with many channels, but in the rainy season there is so much water going down that it would be impossible to see the far bank. Large areas of, now dry farmland, would be consumed by the water, depositing fresh silt and making it very fertile for the next growing season.

DSC_0125Later in the afternoon we visited one of the many lacquer factories in Bagan. This is a craft that is particular to the area. A workshop at the front of the premises demonstrates the various processes that lead up to the finished article. Making the initial framework of thin bamboo is a skill in itself, particularly if it is mixed with horse hair so that the finished product is flexible. The artwork which decorates the various pots etc. are also incredibly intricate and take a long time to create and then transfer, first by sketching and then by scratching into the surface of the lacquer. Having witnessed the various processes we then had to go into the inevitable sale room full of fantastic pieces way beyond our pocket. However, there were some things within our reach and we were tempted into buying a few items.

The mist rising gently from the ground was more spectacular than the sunset

The mist rising gently from the ground was more spectacular than the sunset

Within the Bagan area there are a number of popular places to watch the sunset from. Some become very crowded. We wanted to avoid the crowds so we went to a smaller brick built pagoda from which to watch it. There were a few others who came to join us but it was far from crowded. The brick work was a bit crumbly around the top which made walking around it a bit precarious. Unfortunately the sun let us down and disappeared into distant cloud and haze before it could give us a setting glow. The mist which began to swirl gently around the trees and pagodas created some atmospheric pictures which made it all worthwhile.

After breakfast, the next morning, our guide Girou, who had been with us from the start, had to leave and he introduced us to our new guide, Uza, a much more attractive replacement. Girou had been good but if he could be faulted it was because he tried to give us too much information.

DSC_0173With Uza now guiding us we travelled to Mt. Popa, an extinct volcano about ninety minutes away. On the way we spotted some village activity and stopped to have a closer look. An oxen was being driven around in a circle, the hub of which contained a pot with peanuts in. The grinding action turned the peanuts into a paste and produced peanut oil, regularly used in cooking. Around the small farm were some palm trees. One had a bamboo ladder up one side. A young man climbed to the top of the tree to retrieve two pots hanging strategically and to install two fresh pots. Having climbed down he showed us the content of the pots and allowed us to taste the sweet sugary liquid. They were only two pleased for us to show an interest and we were allowed to have a go at driving the oxen. On a little table were grasshoppers and flower heads expertly made from strips of dried palm leaves. These had been made by the children of the farm. The hot dry season is when they have three months holiday from school, so they become involved in the everyday activity and use spare time to make these little items, which have to be bought. We left amid smiles and waves.

Mt. Popa, looking more impressive from a distance

Mt. Popa, looking more impressive from a distance

Mt. Popa loomed out of the mist. We were not actually going to the top but to climb a volcanic plug rising from its slopes. From a distance the pillar of rock looked impressive with its staircase twisting its way to the top. However, it turned out to be a little disappointing. It is supposedly the home of the Nats, or spirits, but while we saw some I cannot account for all thirty seven. It was messy on the top in respect of the way the temples are laid out and also in the way the place is kept. It does not help that the place is infested with a troupe of aggressive monkeys, only too eager to attack a passer by. There are signs telling people not to feed them but then there are stalls selling corn and nuts to feed to the monkeys. Their debris litters the steps which then sticks to bare feet. The nuts make the monkeys thirsty and as there isn’t a readily available water supply for them, anybody carrying a bottle of water is particularly vulnerable to attack. This was the first visit we made which we felt was a let down and I doubt I would recommend it to be included in any future itinerary.

A typical interior with bamboo matting and bamboo screen walls

A typical interior with bamboo matting and bamboo screen walls

After lunch and our obligatory afternoon rest, which for many included a swim in the delightful hotel pool, we went to the nearby village of Min Mon Thu to have a look at their way of life. A chaperone took us around and we were able to go into their houses to see how basic their living conditions were. Again everybody was very welcoming. The houses are built on stilts. During the rainy season the sandy earth will become a soggy mess and as the houses are only made of woven palm leaves they would quickly deteriorate. They become little playgrounds for young children where they can come to little harm and are easily supervised. I guess, also, that by having the houses on stilts they are less likely to get snakes in the houses, of which there are several deadly species.

New, beautifully made cart wheels

New, beautifully made cart wheels

We watched the various activities of the village and the tools they use in order to make themselves fairly self sufficient. Many revolve around hand crafts which they can either sell to tourists in the village or take to markets. One girl was making picture frames out of palm leaves, another was weaving, while more were carding and spinning wool, taken from their flock of goats which we later saw returning to the village. There were not many men about as they were all out in the fields with their animals or at market. There was a wheelwrights in the village, making wheels for the horse and ox carts we regularly see on the roads. These are beautifully crafted.

The half coconut shell catches the ash

The half coconut shell catches the ash

The old women of the village were smoking fat cigars, the tip of which was supported by half a coconut shell so that ash did not fall and possibly cause a fire with so much dry material about. It was fascinating watching them make the cigars dispelling the image of them being rolled on a dusky maiden’s thigh. Taking some dry leaves from a maize plant she cut them into shape. From a basket she took a mixture of tamarind, ground coconut and a little tobacco which she rolled into the leaves. One end she tied with cotton while the other had an extra piece of leaf attached. Both ends were trimmed with scissors and there you have it. I was offered one but declined.

As we left young girls were carrying water containers on yolks from the nearby well, a heavy job for such young girls to be doing.

For the sunset we went to another small pagoda, one less crumbly, and not often frequented. Again it failed to come up to promise and while the mist again provided atmosphere the actual setting was a disappointment.

Balloons over Bagan at sunrise

Balloons over Bagan at sunrise

Our last day in Bagan was more relaxed, although a number of us chose the early sunrise start, leaving the hotel at 5.15. Arriving at Swesandaw we climbed the five flights of steep steps up to the top tier. Some if the larger pagodas were illuminated by floodlights which looked spectacular against the night sky. The rising sun failed to produce the colouration of the sky that we hoped for but again the rising mist created the most spectacle. The balloons rising above the pagodas with the sun behind them added interest to the spectacle.

Later in the morning we visited lots of small pagodas all clustered together.

DSC_0359In the evening we took some beer to a small mound made up of thousands of broken pots. There had once been a village here that specialised in making pottery. This was the spoil heap. From here we watched the setting sun, which again was not spectacular but with a beer it did not really matter. It was perfect just absorbing the scene and occasionally you get a picture that makes the waiting all worthwhile. The horse and carriage just added the perfect touch.

The garden and pool at the hotel

The garden and pool at the hotel

For our last evening we ate in the hotel garden beneath the pagoda. The setting for the hotel is perfect. Accommodation is in bungalows each with their own veranda overlooking the garden forest of palms. A lot of wood has been used in the construction and decoration and this makes the rooms quite dark, even with the lights on. The room facilities are missing some little touches, the mini bar only has bottled water and the bathrooms are a little small and tired looking. The internet does not work and when it did for some it was very slow and only briefly.

The outside facilities are excellent with a lovely pool and garden. The evening restaurant in the garden is excellent although the bar closes at 10.00 and they failed to serve me a coffee one evening.

The outlook from our room, a haven for birds

The outlook from our room, a haven for birds

The breakfasts are adequate without being exceptional.  The staff are mixed, some better than others. You got the feeling that some were not used to dealing with guests and had not been sufficiently trained. When we returned to out rooms on our last full day the boys who cleaned the rooms had decorated the beds with petals and leaves. On the bed was a note suggesting, without actually asking, for a tip. The following morning, while we were in breakfast they visited all our rooms and scooped up any tips before we had left.

The positives far outweigh the negatives and I would recommend this as a good place to stay.

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Myanmar – Yangon

The short flight from Bangkok brought us to Yangon. The visa on arrival procedure was very simple, quick and efficient. I couldn’t help think that some other, much more developed countries could learn a few lessons. I guess I have to take into account the fact that Myanmar does not yet have crowds of visitors entering the country all at the same time. The day will come.

The foyer of Green Hill Hotel

The foyer of Green Hill Hotel

The drive from the airport to our hotel was a bit of an eye opener. Myanmar had been cut off from the rest of the world, had suffered economic sanctions for years. I was expecting to see a city that was struggling with its infrastructure, was dirty and disorganised. Not at all. The roads were good, if a little choked up with the morning rush hour. The streets were clean and, as we neared the centre, there was plenty of evidence of burgeoning development. Understanding the economic benefits of tourism, the government is encouraging the building of new hotels. Our own hotel, Green Hill Hotel, is a very modern, high specification hotel and to give it credibility with the world market is part of the Best Western group.

The Royal barge

The Royal barge

As it was early morning our rooms were not yet ready, nor those of the bulk of the group who arrived an hour or so before us from the UK. They had been taken by our group guide to the Royal Lake, Kandawgyi, and parkland for a leg stretch after their long journey and while they waited for their rooms to become available. Angela and I joined them in the park. Across the water we had beautiful views of Shwedagon Pagoda and despite the distance it was still reflected in the green water. The lake was a little too green and the only fish we saw were floating belly up and were very dead. Also across the water was a huge golden dragon boat, a traditional royal barge, now used as a restaurant. It is spectacularly big.

Returning to the hotel at 10.00 we relaxed in the restaurant with coffee while we waited for our rooms to be ready. The air conditioning was much appreciated in the comfortable surroundings. As the rooms became ready people disappeared to relax, freshen up and enjoy. The rooms are large and well furnished. The King-size beds look very welcoming. Each room holder was given a password to access the internet, which, although fairly slow was a welcome surprise. The minibar was fully supplied, the first time we had encountered this in seven weeks of travelling. The rooms were significantly better than I had anticipated. The outlook from the rooms was over the canopy of trees that surround the hotel. Another facility that was not expected was an ATM by the entrance. While there are not yet that many in Yangon, it won’t be long before they are more accessible.

As this was everybody’s first day and they were sleep deprived we did not have too much on the agenda. After a typical Myanmar meal in a restaurant we had free time to enjoy the air conditioning during the hottest part of the day before venturing out again at 4.30.

Colonial legacy

Colonial legacy

The group, having rested, met up at 4.30pm and we visited the old colonial part of Yangon, that was developed by the British in the 1860s. I have to be honest here and say that I did not realise how much influence Britain had had in Burma. The hub of the town is made up of colonial buildings, one after another. Many are in need of renovation and look sad with the blackened stains of humidity, but those that have been renovated look really good. Renovation largely depends upon foreign investment rather than relying on the limited funds of the Myanmar government who have the far more important issues of health and education to deal with.

The Strand Hotel

The Strand Hotel

One building that has withstood the test of time is the Strand Hotel, a fine example of 1860s colonial architecture. We ventured inside and explored the various ground floor public rooms. It was like stepping back in time. Even smoking was allowed in the bar, and it was strange to see people taking advantage of the opportunity when we have already become so used to not seeing it in the UK.

Tasty street food. Hens' feet can be seen in the pot top left.

Tasty street food. Hens’ feet can be seen in the pot top left.

As the light faded and the working day came to an end the streets became a seething mass of activity. Small stalls selling tasty snacks of pork and chicken were cooking on small stoves while people sat at small tables on plastic stools eating and socialising. The most unpalatable item were hens’ feet on the barbecue! Other stalls selling a wide range of tacky objects sprang up but there were a surprising number of second hand book stalls in amongst them. Traffic became busier and buses, taking people home were vying for custom.

As the sun set the lights were turned on the pagodas and their golden glow was like beacons in the night sky.

All too soon it was time for dinner and we were taken to yet another superb restaurant. I had expected this trip to be very frugal with mainly vegetarian food and a lot of rice. There was rice for every meal but there was also plenty of meat, chicken, beef and pork and we could see no reason why we should not eat it.

Our first day in Myanmar had been long and full so an early night was needed so we would be ready to face what the next day would bring.

Breakfast the following morning was a feast of such variety, healthy and less healthy options available.

DSC_0331Our first cultural visit of the day was to the Reclining Buddha, at 72m long, one of the largest images in Myanmar. I had expected, for some reason, for it to be out in the open but it is housed in what can best be described as an open sided shed. Common sense should have told me that it had to have some protection from the elements. It is huge and looks quite serene, and feminine. What makes the Reclining Buddha different from all other Buddhas, other than the fact that it is reclining, are the glass eyes, which make it more lifelike.

DSC_0347The original reclining Buddha, built in 1907, was in a half sitting, half lying position and was quite ugly. It was replaced, in 1957, by this much more attractive version. Lying on its left side, head propped by a hand, Buddha looks content in this resting pose. The glass eyes make its face more realistic. The robes are covered in gold leaf, and despite the fact that it is under cover, there were signs of damage to the leaf. In April of each year the gold leaf is replaced and other maintenance work done, using money collected through donation throughout the year.

The souls of the feet are pink and covered in symbols depicting the different aspects of Buddha’s life. Fortunately an explanatory chart was nearby making it a lot easier to understand.

The Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda where Reclining Buddha is housed is also a monastery and we were able to go into it to see how they lived and to understand what their daily routine was.

DSC_0355Each morning the monks are woken at 4.00am by a wooden gong. Of the many noises which roused us gently from our sleep in the early hours, this was one close to the hotel. They breakfast and then prepare to go out into the streets to acquire alms in the form of food from the community. They carry an alms bowl into which people donate rice and vegetables. When their bowl is full they return to the monastery where all the collections are put together and a lunch is prepared to be eaten between eleven and twelve and that will be their last meal of the day. For the rest of the day they will study until retiring early for bed.

Most of the monks were still out collecting their alms so there were few in the monastery while we were there. I was surprised to see one monk smoking, clearly a cigarette he had been given rather than him buying.

In the dormitory we saw the frugal space they have with a roll mat to sleep on. They have no personal possessions; even their red habits are not their own. One monk who had already returned from his walk around the neighbourhood demonstrated how he robed up before going out. It was a complicated procedure of twists and folds and nothing more to hold it all together. He, like all the other monks we met were only too happy to chat and give us an insight into their lives.

Breath in!

Breath in!

Before lunch we visited Scott Market, a tightly packed grid if small stalls selling just about anything. This was not a food market, although there were a few food related stalls, but a market devoted to clothes, household goods, souvenirs and much more. All the stall holders were friendly and, while they sometimes sought our patronage, they were not at all demanding. They were extremely easy to approach and enter into conversation with. I was amazed how good their English was. Nearly all the men, young and old, wear a longhi , a sarong like garment pulled  around the waist and tucked in. I bought one while Angela bought herself a cool to wear blouse, much needed in temperatures nudging 40 degrees in the hottest part of the day.

The hottest part of the day is the first few hours of the afternoon so after lunch we returned to the hotel for an air conditioned rest. This was to be the pattern each day.

DSC_0453As the afternoon progressed and the temperatures began to ease, a little, we went to the magnificent Shwedagon Pagoda, set on a small hill not far from the hotel. This pagoda is on a par with some of the great heritage sights of the world. The central feature is the pagoda, a huge golden dome with a spire rising from its centre. It is entirely covered in gold leaf and they maintain there is about 10 tonnes of gold covering it. They replace and repair the leaf each April, a process that takes approximately four months when fewer tourists and pilgrims visit. Around its base are much smaller pagodas, similarly adorned. A paved walkway goes all the way around, on the outside of which are a great many temples where devotees prey and offer money to the various deities. It is not the easiest place to photograph as everything is very close. Sometimes you need to step back but it is impossible to step back far enough to get everything in the frame.

Praying devotee

Praying devotee

It really is most amazing place and you can spend much more time than we were allowing and still not see it all.

Throughout our time there the light was constantly changing as the sun sank lower in the sky casting its dying rays on to the gold leaf, adding even further richness to the colour. As the sun disappeared artificial lights took over the mantle of lighting up the pagoda and all that surrounds it. More people were now strolling around, sitting admiringly and praying. There was a fabulous atmosphere.

Apprehensive young man

Apprehensive young man

During our time there a procession came through. In the front was a man carrying a bowl of fruit. Behind him came a young boy of about twelve. The man behind held a tall umbrella over the boy’s head. Finally came assorted family members, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Everybody was smiling and laughing apart from the boy who had a very anxious expression on his face. This was his last night as a normal twelve year old. In the morning he was going to the monastery to become a monk.

Shwedagon Pagoda temples

Shwedagon Pagoda temples

Our time in Yangon was coming to an end. The Garden City had been a real eye opener and lots of impressions have been shattered. The people are delightful, hard working, happy and seem genuinely pleased to see us. They are a patient people and show no aggression towards others. This was particularly apparent on the roads. There is a lot of traffic in the city and there are times of day when you cannot go far fast. There seems to be total acceptance of this fact. Despite the traffic and congestion it is quiet, apart from the bus conductors shouting out their route to potential passengers. Something is missing though. There are no horns. It is illegal to sound a car horn; caught doing so can lead to the equivalent of a $10 fine. So the streets are quiet. There is something else missing. There are no motor bikes. The government has banned motor cycles from the city’s streets to ensure they do not become more congested. It is an interesting city and I feel sure we have only scratched the surface and there is much more to see. Maybe we can explore further when we return towards the end of this trip.

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Bangkok

After a fourteen hour flight from Christchurch, which included a ninety minute stopover in Sydney, I was not feeling my best when we arrived in Bangkok at one o’clock in the morning. For a start the distance we had to walk from our entry gate to immigration was as far as I have ever had to walk in an airport and then we had to endure the long queue to get our visas. By the time we had done this and collected our luggage it was 2.30am. Outside it was hot and sticky but it did not take long to find the taxi rank where we could get a pink, metered taxi to take us to The Ecotel. As soon as we had driven 100m the driver pulled over and asked if I had a map. I brought Google Maps up on my phone and found it but kept losing signal and the map. It was probably costing me an arm and a leg in data. He seemed confident as we drove quickly through the streets. I was seeing nothing in the lights of the other cars that impressed me. It seemed to be a concrete jungle. On reaching the road where the hotel was we stopped again, all confidence draining rapidly. While he wandered about, I popped into a hotel to ask the night porter if he could direct us. He didn’t know where it was but we looked closely at a map for a few minutes until we decided it was time to get back in the car, cross the main street, go down a side street and rather by good luck than good judgment we found our hotel, not on the street in the address but some way off it. By the time we checked in and found our room it was 3.30am. Remarkably the two massage parlours opposite our room were still active, or would have been if there had been any customers. Instead the girls sat at tables in the street chatting loudly, but not so loudly that it kept me awake.

In the morning, following a breakfast I really didn’t fancy we went for a brief stroll around the immediate area to the hotel. In doing so a taxi driver attached to the hotel offered to take us to see the floating market and some temples. Knowing we had such a short window of opportunity to see anything we took up his offer and agreed the 1000 Bhat fare (£30) What helped persuade us was the fact that his Toyota had air conditioning and that we would be away for about five hours. That made it sound like we were getting value for money.

The journey took us out of Bangkok and eventually into the countryside. The road was quick and we were covering quite a distance. Out in the countryside we went through an area of salt pans where workers were skimming the surface with rakes to create piles of slightly pink salt. On either side of the road were makeshift stalls selling salt in bags of various sizes.

Angela with our boatman behind

Angela with our boatman behind

It took us an hour and a half to get to Damnoensaduak floating market. We still had no idea what we were in for but we soon discovered that the 1000 Bhat fare did not cover any of the entrances. There were three things they were trying to entice us with, a boat trip around the canals to the market, an elephant ride and performing monkeys. I cannot abide performing monkeys so we turned down that and I should have turned down the elephant ride as both of us have done it on numerous occasions before. However, I was caught up by the moment and agreed. The cost of the two enticements was 3000 Bhat! We were only in Bangkok for twenty four hours and I didn’t have that kind of money with me so had to pay US$130. Be warned! I sometimes think they see us coming and once they have got us hooked they play with us and milk us for as much as they can. Inside, I was annoyed with myself for succumbing to it. I have done enough travelling to know when I am being taken for a ride but sometimes it happens too quickly and it becomes too late to back away.

One of the many waterside stalls

One of the many waterside stalls

I am guessing that we had come to a former swamp area which had been managed into a series of canals. Our long boat with rear engine and propeller on a long shaft took us, at speed, along the canals. At first there were banana and coconut trees on either side but we soon came across stalls built at the side selling a whole range of craft items, not what I was expecting at all. I was expecting to witness from a distance a fruit and vegetable market, perhaps on a river or lake shore line, not to become part of it. Whilst I could easily have been tempted to buy many interesting artefacts, I resisted and only bought a bunch of bananas, far mor than I needed but there was no negotiation. None if these early stalls were floating but were structures built at the side of the canal but as we delved deeper into the network of canals there was much more water traffic. Women paddled their canoes loaded with a variety of fruits and vegetables. Some were even floating kitchens with gas cylinders fuelling a small stove churning out noodle and rice dishes on paper plates. There was a lively atmosphere, particularly around the central hub where there were many small eating outlets.

Whilst our canoe had to carefully negotiate the right angled bends in the canal system, it could pick up a lot if speed on the straight sections. Occasionally caution had to be considered when the backwash from the sides, particularly in the narrower sections, made the water quite choppy. Along the route were the houses these canal dwellers lived in. While quite basic in many respects they were often festooned in colourful flowers growing profusely in the hot moist conditions. Hanging underneath a canopy there would always be a narrow boat suspended above the water.

DSC_0210Stopping off, we visited a temple where extremely loud music from a bank of speakers was booming out. There was a private party in one if the halls. The main temple we could go into but I was disappointed in the commercialism within and the profusion of donation boxes. There were several statues of Buddha covered with loosely attached gold leaf with edges sticking up and making them look as if they had a serious skin disease. It was all a bit tacky. The third temple was almost derelict and clearly not in use. It was much more interesting as there were no people around. We were enjoying wandering around the outside when we disturbed the local pack of dogs who came barking towards us. We made a hasty retreat closing the gate behind us so that they could not get at us. A bit scary!

On our elephant

On our elephant

Back in the boat we went the see the elephants and take part in a short elephant ride. Having done this several times and often found it to be uncomfortable, this was much pleasanter as we were in forward facing seats. It was a short lived experience and not worth the cost. They do seem to have it all sown up here because from the same place we could have hired quad bikes and gone off through the swampy land on a quad adventure.

Wherever we went, either on the boat or on the elephant there was somebody taking our photograph and when we alighted there was a presentation set for us to buy. It looked really tacky and we declined each opportunity to buy.

Back at the start we had a bite of late lunch from a roadside restaurant before heading back to Bangkok.

Chanting devotees

Chanting devotees

Back in town we visited a multi-layered temple with rhythmic chanting taking place. It is easy to become entranced by it as the sound echoed from the walls and ceilings.

Before we returned to our hotel our driver insisted on taking us to an emporium where he would have a coupon stamped allowing him five litres of fuel if we bought nothing, ten if we did. Inside we first passed through a workshop where jewellery was being made before going into the showroom where we could spend up to £1,000,000 on a piece of jewellery. Although Angela deserves it the account could not quite run to that, but we did buy a few small items so that our driver got his 10 litres of fuel.

In the evening we ate at a restaurant close to the hotel, a superb whole sea bass shared between us before retiring for an early night as we had to be up at 4.30am for our early morning flight to Yangon.

Sleep went well for the first few hours but once awake the noise from the partying massage girls across the road prevented any worthwhile sleep. They were still at it when our taxi drew away from the hotel at 4.50am.

Bangkok. While we only spent a few hours there, left an impression upon us. It is a city that never sleeps and tries its utmost to prevent those that want to from doing so. It is a city of flyovers. I have never seen so many and as we took off and looked down on to the road network below all levels were chocked full with slow moving traffic. It is a city where the reliance of the car is emphasised with the number of garages, sale rooms and car related businesses dominating. It is a city where Tesco has firmly got its foot in the door in partnership with Thai company, Lotus. It is a city of grey concrete covered in black mould from the hot humid atmosphere. It is the city of the high pitched voice that sounds as if people are arguing when, in fact they are enjoying themselves. It is the city of pink taxis. It is the city of good food and fabulous flavours. It is the city of smiles. It is a city to experience briefly and then escape from.

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