Richard C is leaving us in the capable hands of Oo and Suu today as he’s researching hotels for a planned tour next year. Oo has stepped up to take the place of Georgie, who’s wife is about to give birth. He blossoms and reveals that he has more English that we thought. Our two boatmen arrive and we clamber aboard. As there are only five seats on each boat, Suu sits cross-legged at the front of my boat. I sense that these two don’t usually get on this part of the tour – they seem excited. We head south, riding through picturesque villages on poles – it’s a bit like a line drawing of Venice with skeletal bridges and flimsy dwellings, not a stone in sight.
There are signs of progress with iron roofs and walls employed on new houses or renovating old ones.
Our first stop is a silver jewellery place where young boys are creating fine chains, fish ear-rings and mounting coloured glass. They are probably all above sixteen but everyone looks younger, especially as they don’t shave and one lad looks thirteen.
A fish ear-ring takes three days to make and sells in the sop for $47 US, so that gives me some idea what the boys earn a day – not much, and they don’t look very happy. The shop attendants are ready to sell, but not aggressively, so we are able to admire some dramatic jewellery.
For the first of several times today, I get:
‘For your wife?’
‘I have no wife.’
‘For your sister?’
‘I have no sister’
‘For your mother?’
‘My mother is dead.’ All true answers.
Next up we visit the Padaung women. They are a bit of a shock as even though I’ve seen pictures, I’d not associated them with this part of the world. Two elderly women with lipstick and elongated necks greet us. Their heads are supported by heavy brass rings and their legs are also encased. The weight they carry must be exhausting, no wonder they move slowly. The origin of this custom was to prevent the women from being trafficked by making them look ugly.
But they are not ugly, just strange. The tradition persists and I wonder how much of this is to do with tourists who are here to look and buy the lovely woven cotton scarves. I’m into fabrics and we are all buying; so for today, the Padaung women can remain.
Our journey continues through the canals of the water village to stop at the silk weaving factory. Here they are extracting silk threads from the lotus flower stems. One end is cut half-way through and the fine fibres pulled out and put aside for spinning – its more labour-intensive that silk worms. We look at examples of different patterns being woven by women who are being paid by the piece. The silk is out of my budget, but they have cotton longyis and I can’t resist adding a third one to my collection. Mark is trying on fantastic coloured shirts, supervised by designer hubby, Garry.
It’s cigars and cheroots next. We watch the women rolling these at the rate of one every thirty-five seconds. The tobacco is wrapped in a special leaf and the resulting cheroots come in different flavours.
We are offered samples to smoke but most of us gave up decades ago. Richard N has a try and seems to enjoy the experience. Nev buys a wooden box-full for a friend and we all warn him to declare them to bio-security at Auckland airport. The women do an eight hour day sitting or kneeling on the floor; they earn 6,000 Kt per day ($6 US) and produce 700 – 800 cheroots.
Richard C has spoken about the golden Buddhas, covered with gold leaf over the decades by the faithful. When we get to this temple, I am totally unprepared for what I see. The pressing of gold leaf has rendered the statues unrecognisable as Buddha. To me they look like gold Easter Eggs stacked on top of each other – they must be worth a fortune.
I spot a party of women all dressed in yellow sitting to one side. There’s a notice saying ‘women are forbidden’ – only men can approach the Buddhas and press on the gold. I photograph the women from behind but Oo wants me to photograph them from the front and shows me where to get a good shot between two pillars.
Unfortunately the light is wrong and they are back-lit, but I take the picture anyway. Oo has bought a large gold-framed & glazed photograph of the ‘Easter Eggs’. He’s very excited about it and tells everyone it will hang in his house.
After lunch at one of the many café/restaurants on the lake, we continue through the intricate canal system, past rows of tomato plants growing hydroponically. This surely has been going on for years before the West discovered hydroponics.
The tomatoes are at the end of their season, but still have a few red fruit to brighten up the scene. The floating beds are staked with long bamboo poles to keep the rows from floating away or joining up. The crops are tended by small paddle or pole-propelled boats and the water in this part of the lake is clear so we can see the bottom. Taro and other crops grow in this way and every house seems to have at least one clump of free-floating taro amongst the water hyacinths.
Our last stop is a temple where the leaping cats live. Apparently they are trained to leap for fish treats and as the food in their dishes is white rice, it’s no wonder they’ll jump up for a bit of protein. There’s no leaping today, just loads of basking kittens and two sleeping mothers. Everyone is photographing the kittens, presumably to post of Facebook, but I prefer to watch Oo playing with one of them. He’s so gentle and firm with it that I think he will make a great dad.
I’m not sure how old he is, probably late 20’s. He’s married but has no children yet. Burmese fathers don’t allow their daughters to marry until the suitor can support her. Presumably Oo with his tour-guide-job is newly qualified. Suu, who is older has two children. Together they have driven us safely in Priscilla, the bus. She is a Left-hand drive vehicle and we are driving on the right. This means that overtaking on bends and anticipating oncoming traffic is difficult. Oo sits on a box – which doubles as our step – on the left hand side and tells Suu what is ahead and when to pass. Its great teamwork and with a communication system of toots to and from other traffic we are incident free. The overtaking vehicle toots its intention to pass and the vehicle-to-be-overtaken toots back, indicating that it’s safe to do so.
This is the only picture of a cat I’m posting – the net is already crowded with them. Suu has bought a new woven shoulder-bag from Padaung women.
Peter has acquired some tonic and later back at the hotel, needs help to get through his cheap, though acceptable gin. We are missed by the others, who have climbed up to the viewing platform above the water tower and Richard C has to come and call us for dinner.