Category Archives: Myanmar

From Nyaungshwe to Pyin Oo Lwin

Falls in Pyin Oo Lwin
Falls in Pyin Oo Lwin

Back in Nyaungshwe there’s time to find the bank to change money.  Hotel reception tells me there’s one just down the road but when I get there, it’s closed.  All banks close at three pm – a legacy from the British I suppose.  I have better luck changing my US dollars back at the Cherry Queen Hotel.  They are apologetic about not giving the same rate as the bank and it all has to be approved by the Finance Department which is upstairs. Phone calls are made to verify the amount then one of the girls has to go up the stairs to collect the cash. The Post Office is in the opposite direction where I easily by stamps for postcards.  Yes, I have one or two friends who still do these.

Falls near Pyn Oo Lwin Men bathing
Falls near Pyn Oo Lwin Men bathing

Richard still owes a couple of our group massages.  Ray, who now has an infected foot, is in no mood for this, but Mike is up for it. Garry and I decide to join the expedition and follow Richard C into town via a dog’s hind leg route.  He points out land-marks on the way and I’m thinking that this may well prove useful later.  The Massage is once again excellent – one by women this time.  Mike and I share a room and I hear him giggling away to himself.  The masseuse keeps asking him if he’s OK – he’s just enjoying himself.  Rather than walk all the way back to the hotel, Garry and I stop for a beer and wait for the others to join us for dinner. It’s Ray’s choice – he’s done his research on ‘gay friendly’ places in Myanmar and day-time coffee has confirmed this place.  The obviously gay friendly staff aren’t on this evening, but that’s OK, they are still friendly.  Some of the others are going on to a bar, but I’m ready to go home and set off confident that I know the way back. A turn to the right seems to be leading me into the outskirts and I end up in a dead end bus terminal, dark and deserted. Retracing my steps I run into Nev and Richard N – who fortunately know that it’s a left turn that’s needed to get back to the Cherry Queen.

Boys selling street food - The Falls
Boys selling street food – The Falls

The following morning we’re back on the road to Mandalay. Last year this journey took twelve hours and was allegedly scenic for part of the way.  Four of our party have elected to fly on a leisurely midday flight.  It’s an early start for those of us loyal to Priscilla but the deserters still have to get up and pack so that their luggage can go on the bus.

Priscilla the bus
Priscilla the bus

Our intrepid navigators Oo and Suu have a plan to take the quick route and not to stop for lunch. Our journey to Mandalay takes only six hours and we arrive olnly half an hour later that the flyers – much to their surprise.  This gives me and Peter time for yet another massage – to remove the travel weariness and meet up for drinks before a fantastic Burmese meal from Mama’s Guest house, served on the roof.

Colonial Mansion
Colonial Mansion

Our final destination is Pyin Oo Lwin, the Hill station where the British carried out their colonial administration in the hot season.  It’s a sprawling mass of a place with remnants of early 19th C colonial architecture struggling to be recognised among later additions and alterations. We visit a waterfall which Richard hasn’t seen before.  It’s full of local tourists and the young men have taken off their shirts for a swim.  We buy hot freshly cooked snacks from a stall and explore.  These falls cascade over arranged rocks made from concrete, they are pretty but artificial.

Favourite Temple
Favourite Temple

Next we call in at Oo’s favourite temple it’s claimed to have the largest marble Buddha in the world.  The Chinese had ordered it and were trying to transport it back to China. The task seemed impossible and it was decided that the Buddha did not want to travel to China, so here it stayed.

Giant Marble Buddha
Giant Marble Buddha
Marble Buddha
Marble Buddha

There’s time to recover before what Richard says will be a surprise at 4pm.  It’s a ride in horse-drawn carriages.

Peter's Pink Coach
Peter’s Pink Coach

Peter and I go for the pink one and off we all go to look at the colonial architecture, which now seems out of place in this country.  We pass a mosque then stop at a Hindu temple, followed by the Catholic and Anglican churches.

Mosque
Mosque
Hindu Temple
Hindu Temple

It is strange to be in these familiar buildings albeit with a local flavour.  Our dinner tonight overlooks a lake or more properly, a dam.  Garry orders a whole bottle of Gin and a crate load of tonic plus ice, so we are obliged to help him out with this.

Catholic Church
Catholic Church
Interior Catholic Church
Interior Catholic Church
Anglican Church
Anglican Church
Interior Anglican Church
Interior Anglican Church

We walk the short distance back to the Hotel in the dark.  It’s threatening rain and continues to do so the next day when we visit the National Kandawgyi Gardens. Richard C is intending to change money in town and gives me what he thinks might be enough to cover our entrance fee.

Kandawgyi Gardens
Kandawgyi Gardens

It’s nowhere near enough, but I can just manage it leaving me with 500kt (50c). I immediately set of to walk around the lake as indicated on the map. The layout looks promising with manicured lawns and brightly coloured bedding plants.  The weather is inclement and we have only two hours before the bus collects us.

Giant Bamboo
Giant Bamboo

I’m attracted to the bamboo groves. I’ve always admired its versatility and tenacity.  It has so many uses from scaffolding to kitchen ware.  Some of the stands here are massive.  There’s an aviary and I’m apprehensive as I especially hate seeing birds in cages. They were meant to fly.  These ones are in a netted off forest, not exactly free to fly away but better – only just. There’s a raised forest walk – very trendy in botanical gardens these days and a massive orchid section.  Unfortunately it’s not the season and I’m guessing that this would be fantastic at the right time of year.

Exotic caged bird
Exotic caged bird

By this time I’ve teamed up with Peter and John who seem to have a system.  We have a look at the butterfly museum. No, there aren’t any butterflies floating around, they are all dead and we’re initially disappointed but they are so magnificently mounted – arranged in patterns en mass, that we are stunned.  I am determined to walk right around the lake, even though it means going out of the park and around the road.  Richard N, who has rushed up the tower, joins me and John – Peter takes a short cut bridging the lake.

Food stalls at Kandawgyi Gardens
Food stalls at Kandawgyi Gardens

The view from the tower is through dirty glass windows, not worth the climb as the lift is not working.  Everyone else is having coffee when we get back to the main entrance and the bus is waiting for us.

Kandawgyi Gardens
Kandawgyi Gardens

There is no sign of Richard C when we get back to the hotel, which is a bit of a worry as I now don’t have enough cash for lunch.  A whole crowd of us go to a local espresso place which does cakes and French toast.  Garry treats me to lunch but back at the hotel, Richard is still not around.  He’s been all day looking for a place to change dollars, not realising that it’s Sunday.  Eventually a gold jewellery shop does it.  Fortunately he returns in time for me to pay for my last Burmese massage.  Having been told that there are no massage places here, Garry has discovered a couple of lads who make Hotel visits and I’ve grabbed one of them.

Orchids
Orchids

They are rumoured to be twins but when both arrive at my room, they are clearly not even brothers. Richard N has agreed to vacate our room for ninety minutes, so I leave one lad and take the other one to Garry.  I’m a bit nervous about this taking place in the hotel room but this turns out to be the deepest and best massage of the tour.  My lad says he’s nineteen – been doing this for one year and his mate who finishes a bit early, comes to chat while he finishes.  They have little English, but I gather that they only visit hotels and massage ladies and men. They get excited when I mention Aung San Suu Kyi and they have heard of Obama, although I point out that unlike Garry, I am not American. The older lad is twenty and sports the local sun-block on his cheeks. They both have mobile phones and were probably checking with each other and whoever finds them the work.

Orxhids
Orxhids

The last dinner is a set menu at the old ‘Club’ building from colonial times.  We are the only guests and have an entire dining to ourselves.  It’s a great atmosphere and we’ve had a fantastic time with Outside the Square.  Richard did warn us that Myanmar is still developing and not to expect the same standards as other nearby countries.  We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the hotels and how safe we all feel in this amazing country.

Kandawgyi Gardens the tower and lake
Kandawgyi Gardens the tower and lake

This all may change in the future, but I hope not.  Best of all, someone points out, that being an all gay group, we’ve not had to filter our conversation as we do in mixed situations.  This has surely contributed to the relaxed atmosphere throughout the tour.  I’m looking forward to Argentina with Richard C in September – watch out for it.

Indiana Jones goes to Inthay Village

Riding under a bridge
Riding under a bridge

This morning we’re going to Inthay village which, Richard C promises, is an Indiana Jones style ride upstream. Our regular boatmen collect us and we journey though the lake village to a muddy river. Bamboo weirs have been constructed at intervals and there is just enough of a gap for one boat to accelerate up the mini rapid to the next level.

Village Bridge
Village Bridge
Boys practice their dives wearing longyis
Boys practice their dives wearing longyis

It’s not quite as narrow or as fast-flowing as Indiana Jones would prefer, but it’s still a good ride, especially as the boatman has to allow for downstream traffic and give way or steam ahead accordingly.

Waiting to go up the rapid
Waiting to go up the rapid

Canal boats in England have a speed limit to preserve the canal sides. No such speed limit here, and the result of erosion can be seen, not only in the colour of the water, but the banks, in many places have been sand-bagged up to prevent further collapse. The river is busy with trading boats carrying all kinds of goods, from cement to woven baskets. There’s lots of demand for cement here: the river banks need constant shoring up and there is a boom in building everywhere. The English

The Village Laudary
The Village Laundry

Language news-paper boasts of economic progress and the determination of the country to join the globalised world, beginning with trade talks amongst their immediate South East Asian neighbours.  I wonder if they know quite what they are letting themselves in for. It’s a difficult thing to deny a decent standard of living, though I don’t see anyone starving, just lean and healthy.

Richard displays this outrageous piece, made from cow teeth.
Richard displays this outrageous piece, made from cow teeth.

We are heading to the Shwe Inn Tain, yet another temple up a hill and there’s a 500Tk (50c) charge to take photographs. This must be the longest shopping mall yet, though as it’s the low season, most of the stalls are empty. There’s some pretty amazing stuff for sale and it attracts our attention. You have to be wary of saying ‘on the way back’ as the stall holders will remember you and if you’ve already bought from someone else, they will be upset.  There’s also dozens of abandoned stupas, overgrown and ripe for exploring.

The Stupas out the back
The Stupas out the back
Stupas at the back
Stupas at the back
Ladies are Prohibited
Ladies are Prohibited

The actual temple at the top, houses the usual statue of Bhuddha, but the stupas out the back are fantastic – so photogenic as they line up in rows for eager photographers. Then there are the forgotten stupas with trees growing out of their tops. I manage to avoid engagement with the stall-holders on the way down and find a group of overgrown stupas to shoot.  Back at the river there is a group of white tourists discussing if it’s worth paying the 50c to take photographs, ‘Yes’ I say in passing. They look surprised and I don’t wait to see what they decide.

Golden Row
Golden Row
Thriving tree - crumbling stupa
Thriving tree – crumbling stupa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cement boatmen unload
Cement boatmen unload

I pause to watch boatmen unloading cement. They’ve removed their longyis so they won’t get dirty, revealing tight black briefs which are now grey with cement dust.  Now we know what the Burmese working man wears under his longyi. I’ve got my eye on a small hill on the other side of the village.  It has a cluster of ruined stupas (I like a ruin or two) on top and promises a good view. It’s long abandoned and I can overlook the village and temples further up the hill. Just at the bottom of this hill a brand new monastery has been built right next to a group of abandoned stupas.

Reclaimed by the forest
Reclaimed by the forest

I find the other guys and order lunch even though I’m not hungry and think that my stomach could do with a rest. When they forget my order, it’s no big deal. John has made a purchase and is very excited. He lays out a beautiful quilted picture on the next table – a good buy. Garry and Mark have to go back up the hill to complete their purchase by VISA. We wait for them in one of the boats while the other one goes ahead. Suddenly they arrive with a stall holder in tow, clutching a large plastic shopping bag containing the purchase. Unfortunately there was a misunderstanding as the other stall did VISA so they need to borrow cash from us. Between us we almost have enough, so the woman has to decide. She accepts what’s offered and the guys have a bargain. I’m almost cleaned out of cash but figure that I’ll get paid back soon enough.

Elephant carving - still stunning
Elephant carving – still stunning
Buddha has lost his head
Buddha has lost his head
Entry to stupa - carving still great
Entry to stupa – carving still great
Overtaken by Forest
Overtaken by Forest
Headless Buddha
Headless Buddha

Going downstream on the way back is almost like shooting the rapids if you close your eyes and imagine. We collect our luggage from the hotel and set off up the lake to Nyuangshwe.

New Monastery -old Stupas
New Monastery -old Stupas
New building in the village
New building in the village
The Village
The Village
Hilltop pagodas
Hilltop pagodas
Shwe Inn Tain up the hill
Shwe Inn Tain up the hill

We pass fishermen as featured on postcards, casting their nets and using a leg to drive the paddle.

Fishermen on Inle Lake
Fishermen on Inle Lake

There are also boatmen employed to weed the lake.  Using a long bamboo pole, they hook up the weed onto the boat, creating improbable mountains for the size of the boat.

Weeding the Lake
Weeding the Lake

Clearly this is and always has been a highly managed environment – not exactly an ecosystem.  It’s comparable to the so-called ‘natural’ beauty of the English countryside, which has been farmed/gardened/managed for over five hundred years. There is little doubt that left to itself Inle Lake would just silt up. The English countryside might take longer to revert to forest.

Managing the lake
Managing the lake

Back in Nyuangshwe we are re-united with Priscilla and Richard is trying out a new hotel with the significant name of Cherry Queen.  Now, if you are a Japanese tourist, this will resonate with your Cherry Blossom festival. If you are a gay man, the association will be entirely different … we like the name.

Retail Opportunities on Inle Lake

Shopping expedition with Suu at the front
Shopping expedition with Suu at the front

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.

Village-on-the-lake
Village-on-the-lake

There are signs of progress with iron roofs and walls employed on new houses or renovating old ones.

New build - traditional style
New build – traditional style
New house with Iron cladding
New house with Iron cladding
New house on poles
New house on poles
High street - on the lake
High street – on the lake
Melting Silver
Melting Silver

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.

Boy making fish earings
Boy making fish earings
Peter models fish earings
Peter models fish earings

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:

 

Boy mounting cut glass in silver rings
Boy mounting cut glass in silver rings

‘For your wife?’

‘I have no wife.’

‘For your sister?’

‘I have no sister’

‘For your mother?’

‘My mother is dead.’ All true answers.

Pandung Women
Pandaung Women

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.

Pandaung Women weaving
Pandaung Women weaving

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.

Cutting Lotus stems
Cutting Lotus stems

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.

Hand looms could be from pre-industrial Revolution times
Hand looms could be from pre-industrial Revolution times
Cheroot makers
Cheroot makers

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.

Cheroot maker
Cheroot maker

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.

The Golden Buddhas
The Golden Buddhas

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.

A party of women in their regional dress -
A party of women in their regional dress –

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.

The ladies leave
The ladies leave

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.

Hydroponic farm
Hydroponic farm

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.

Hydroponic squash
Hydroponic squash
Hydroponic beds
Hydroponic beds

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.

Hydroponic Farm
Hydroponic Farm

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.

Suu with bag. Oo playing with kitten
Suu with bag. Oo playing with kitten

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.

How does it keep afloat?
How does it keep afloat?

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.

loaded boat powered by women
loaded boat powered by women

Buddha in Caves and the road to Inle

 

Shwe Yan Pyay
Shwe Yan Pyay

Morning reveals that the late-stayers, John & Nev had an adventure getting back from the bar.  Nev has a local sim card and does the sensible thing by engaging his Sat Nav app to navigate.  Unfortunately he was so busy looking at the app on his phone that he failed to notice a ditch and fell right into it.  John remembers saying, ‘You fit quite nicely in that ditch.’  He’s covered in mud, scratched and bruised and causes quite a stir at the Hotel reception.  He appears at breakfast with just about all his toes sporting sticking plaster

Shwe Yan Pyay
Buddha Caves

Not far out of Kalaw there are caves full of Buddhas.  This place is very curious as the small statues are placed in niches along the rock walls.  Many are cloaked and most lit up with fairy or LED lights.  Someone tells me that the far cave is very dirty and slippery and contains bats.

Shwe Yan Pyay
Buddha Caves

I’m keen to see them, having only witnessed one solitary bat flying over my London garden on summer nights.  The first thing I notice is the smell of ammonia, its bat shit.  There’s a cry as I enter, which may or may not be a bat warning the others.

Buddha bling in cave
Buddha bling in cave

Several shadowy shapes flutter silently away from me and I quickly dismiss irrational fears and gain confidence – they have no intention of attacking.  Because it’s a temple, I’m again walking bare-footed in shit. I have to hold on to the walls of the cave and in some places crouch to get through the passage way.  Bats continue to flee silently and where space above permits they escape back over my head. It becomes quite magical, in spite of the shitty wet floor.

Outside the caves
Outside the caves

Outside I find a trench of stagnant water surrounding a Buddha and think he won’t mind if I wash my feet. Back near the entrance there’s a tap to give them another rinse. John decides to explore this cave just as we are about to leave. I warn him about the shit and danger of slipping – we don’t need any more accidents. I’m just about to go looking for him, when he’s spotted emerging from behind a row of Buddhas, safe and sound.

Shwe Yan Pyay
Shwe Yan Pyay

As we near Nyaungshwe we stop at Peter’s request at the famously photographed Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery.  It’s unusual for its oval windows and looks entirely deserted.  We go in and peeing through a doorway behind the Buddha statue see a few boy monks in a very untidy dormitory with no beds, so they must sleep on the polished wooden floors.

Shwe Yan Pyay
Shwe Yan Pyay
Shwe Yan Pyay
Shwe Yan Pyay
Shwe Yan Pyay
Shwe Yan Pyay

Across the courtyard is a revelation – an arched complex houses tributes to all the people who have historically supported the monastery. The effect is stunning.  This artistic financial acknowledgement I‘d noticed back in the temple with printed lists on the walls – the most recent are written on a white-board – so up-to-date.

Shwe Yan Pyay
Shwe Yan Pyay
Shwe Yan Pyay
Shwe Yan Pyay

For families, it is an honour to have a son in a monastery as this is a good way for them to get an education and it’s an ambition of every family to have at least one son to find his vocation here.

 

Oo
Oo

Oo tells me that he spent four years as a monk.

‘You like?’ I ask.

‘Yes,’ he nods and smiles.

It’s clear that Buddhism is central to the national psyche and has sustained them through years of trouble. I think it will also be important in their future.  The other way to be educated is to join the military.  All through our travels we pass elementary schools with kids in white shirts and green longyis in the school play grounds or walking to and from their homes. Education is a noisy affair and the sounds of reciting can be heard from the road.

Shwe Yan Pyay
Shwe Yan Pyay
Shwe Yan Pyay
Shwe Yan Pyay
Mark at Shwe Yan Pyay
Mark at Shwe Yan Pyay

Priscilla drops us in Nyaungshwe and takes Ray for more medical attention.

Nyaungshwe Market
Nyaungshwe Market

We can explore the market – relatively free from hawkers, but I choose to try a local barber.  Peter advises that I wait and check out what the guy currently being done looks like when finished.  He looks fine and goes on to have a shave.  The bib looks a bit grubby but I think I can cope with that.  I get a quote, it’s 5000Kt around $6 NZ so even if that is tourist rates, its OK. There are several other locals sitting outside on the seats and I think there might be a queue, but no, they are just sitting and passing the time of day, so I’m next. The first thing the barber does is get out a freshly laundered bib, which is a bit of a relief. I manage to convey what I want with sign language and off he goes.  It reminds me of the methodology used by the barber in my home town as a kid – the short-back-and-sides method.  He asks if I want a shave (I need one) and I agree.  I’ve actually never been shaved by anyone else before.  He makes a great show of putting in a brand new blade into his cut-throat razor and I try not to think of Sweeny Todd.  He’s very gentle, but he’s used to sparse Burmese beards which are mostly confined to a few hairs on the chin and upper lip.  He has to work a bit harder for me.  Peter returns and I pass muster.

Nyaungshwe Jetty
Nyaungshwe Jetty

Priscilla, the bus, drives us through Nyaungshwe to the river where we say goodbye and clamber into two boats – luggage in front – for a one hour journey down the lake.  It’s quite shallow and is in danger of being choked up with water Hyacinth, which floats around in clumps.  The boat has a short propeller shaft, presumably so they can be reached easily and de-fouled. The water is, especially in the busy channels, muddy from being churned up.  We pass signs proclaiming ‘conservation of the biosphere’ – this might indicate an understanding of the connectivity to the rest of the planet, but I think it’s about retaining the lake as a place to live, fish and sustain the tourist trade.

Inle Lake
Inle Lake

Left to its own devices the floating weed would silt up the lake leaving a river of sorts. Already agriculture has reclaimed strips of solid ground where corn is grown.

Inle Lake from our Hotel
Inle Lake from our Hotel

Our Hotel, on sits to the side of the lake, is charming and I’m sharing with Peter for a few days.  He’s fun and full of anecdotes and giggles. Once again it’s cool enough to do without the Air Con and mosquito nets are provided. Richard C has arranged for most of us to have rooms facing the lake.

Inle Lake one of our boats
Inle Lake one of our boats

It’s great at 5.30am standing on the balcony, but rush hour begins early here and the noise of the boats, small and large carrying produce, commuters and tourists becomes ever present and loud.  We get used to it along with the variable wifi all over the country.  It’s mostly too weak to hook up to on a lap-top and I spend hours trying to up-load the blog. Mobile phones cope much better and it’s worth noting that Facebook, Grindr and my Guardian Apps work OK on low connectivity. Power-cuts don’t help either and these are frequent.  I point out here that they are common at home on Waiheke Island so it’s not just a third world problem.

Forging Frontiers in the Mountains of Kalaw

Kalaw is fairly high up so temperatures take a welcome dip.  This means we can turn off the air con and leave a window open. The full extent of Ray’s injuries have surfaced.  He’s got badly bruised ribs and has to sleep sitting up. Fortunately there is a pharmacy in the town with a good supply of pain-killers.

Hike to a mountain village
Hike to a mountain village

I take up the option of a four hour hike up to a mountain village with veteran hikers  Nev and John – who did the Outside the Square’s Milford track – plus Mike and of course our leader Richard C.  Our guide is a small, compact and very fit young man called Tenzing.  We all get very excited on hearing his name and ask him if he’s Nepalese.  He doesn’t know. He thinks he’s Burmese.  The British brought Gurkas and Sherpas here to build the railway but never returned them.  It was more cost effective not to use local labour, which might at any time decide to go home. We are convinced that

Tenzing looks serious while Mike does a dance
Tenzing looks serious while Mike does a dance

Tenzing looks Nepalese although none of us have a clear idea of what that might look like.  I ask him if he’s heard of Mount Everest. He has. I explain that we come from New Zealand, Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing were the first to climb Everest and that they are heroes in our country. His eyes light up – he’s pleased.

We drive for twenty minutes in a taxi to a rough road which has obviously taken vehicles of some sort, but we only see motor scooters – the workhorses of South East Asia – passing occasionally.

Dragon fruit cactus
Dragon fruit cactus

We’re walking through market gardens on the edge of the mountain forests. Fields of Dragon fruit (a cactus), coffee trees growing under the forest canopy, taro, random bananas, corn and greens on the flatter areas all grow splendidly.  Oranges are one of the main crops, covering the steep hillsides.  I walk with Mike for some of the way.  He’s a keen gardener and works in a garden centre in Auckland, so he knows a lot about plants.  We’re able to share observations and identify some species.  One discovery is that teak trees have huge leaves and we have been looking at new plantings all along the mountain roads we travel on.

Fields and shack Kalaw
Fields and shack Kalaw
A hillside of Orange trees
A hillside of Orange trees

John, who knows a lot about NZ forest giants can’t believe that teak would have large leaves, but it’s confirmed when we actually see a huge tree with its distinctive trunk. I develop a theory that the large leaves have evolved to beat the creepers which choke the forest. Large leaves cover the smaller leaved creepers, depriving them of light. John agrees with my theory.  We’ve seen logging trucks on the road and carefully labelled logs stacked along the way, but very few mature specimens. It looks as if some of the denuded rain-forest is regenerating and young teak trees are being planted everywhere.

New house in the mountains
New house in the mountains

The English language paper reports that illegally harvested teak logs have been seized.  Police and the forestry department found three tonnes of logs worth $506 US – they are still looking for the culprit.  Of course regeneration is a problem for the farmers here who have to constantly weed their crops and reclaim farm-land. Tenzing says that these hill farmers are better off than most Burmese because they work harder.  This might be partly true as new grander houses are being built here.  There is still no strategy for rubbish collection in the countryside (parallels with rural NZ here) as time and again I see plastic near rivers; when the Ayeyerwady River floods, much of this will end up in the Indian Ocean.  In these hills, as everywhere else, rubbish is tipped at specific locations, often in a gully at the start of a stream.

The Village
The Village

On close inspection, it’s entirely packaging: empty plastic sachets once containing laundry powder, body lotions or snacks.  Everything these days is packaged – for our convenience, but eighty or even thirty years ago everything on these tips would have been biodegradable.  Is this progress?  In the west, this rubbish might not be visible, but it’s still around, in land fill.

A grand new house. Elderly woman with grandchild
A grand new house. Elderly woman with grandchild
Richard with fallen Jack-fruit, a greatly undervalued nutirionous food
Richard with fallen Jack-fruit, a greatly undervalued nutirionous food

What price is Myanmar paying to so eagerly join the global market? There’s also evidence of ‘roundup’ use in places – suggesting that the Monsanto giant has already planted its influence. Provided you don’t look down the track banks, the scenery is lush and verdant and the walk, good exercise for my legs.

Weeding the crops
Weeding the crops

In the village we stop for a prearranged cup of green tea from flasks and palm sugar snacks.  The house is dark and rustic, belonging to an elderly man – all the other villagers are out working in the fields.  Tenzing reveals the origin of his fitness. disappointingly this is not tramping in the mountains but attending the Gym.

The afternoon is to catch up on writing and sorting out photographs before I forget what happened.  The others go into town as its market day and reputed to be vast. It’s still light when we walk into the centre for dinner, dressed as has become our custom in longyis.

Kalaw Mosque
Kalaw Mosque

There’s a bar the others have sussed out in the afternoon where pool is being played and we stop to have a pre-dinner beer. We pass one of the few mosques I’ve seen so far.  There’s quite a controversial standoff between Buddhists and Muslims in some part of the country and foreigners are still restricted from travelling to these areas.  Once again the English Language paper comes to my aid, reporting that the UN has sent a Human Rights Reporter to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi about the situation for Muslims of Bangladeshi origin in Rakhine State.

After dinner at a Burmese restaurant, some of us go to what claims to be the smallest bar in the world.  It’s a horseshoe shape and six of us join conversations.  Two American girls (one German born) are looking at us from the other side.

Temporary Gay bar in Kalaw
Temporary Gay bar in Kalaw

I own up. ‘Yes we’re all gay.  By just walking in, we’ve just turned this bar gay.’ It turns out that the girls are lesbians so the place is at least LG.  The Polish couple talking to Peter are probably not gay and there are two locals, one of them very drunk.  He’s talking very loudly to the girls but there’s a gap in the conversation, so I jump in.

‘What should we call the people of Myanmar.’

‘Bama,’ is the short reply.  He then launches into a lecture about how the country used to be called Bama before the British.

‘We know about that,’ I say, but he expands his thesis that the British liked to put ‘ese’ on the end of every country: Chinese, Siamese etc.  I don’t mention that there are quite a few countries which escaped this treatment, like Cambodia, India, Nigeria etc.

‘So do we refer to the people as just Bama or Baman people or Baman?’

‘Just Bama.’

He’s too drunk to go on and I hear the barman say, ‘Actually we’re just Burmese.’

Further research suggests that Bama is the old name for the Bagan area.  By now I’ve finished my whiskey – not at all sure that it can be called Scotch but it’s good and the trouble is that I always want one more.  I decide to be sensible and some of us go back to the hotel.  Fortunately Richard C has brought a torch and there’s always the trusty mobile phone to light my way.

Palm Sugar and Poppa

Day Eight

Palm tree line the fields
Palm tree line the fields

We’re on our way to the hills, passing through more prosperous looking farm land.

Everywhere there are palm trees bordering the fields and clustered around the houses.  These are the Sugar Palms, not to be confused with the Palm trees grown for cheap palm oil which encroach on vast areas of rain forest in places like Indonesia and Malaysia.  The male and female fruit are tapped for the sweet syrup they contain.

Climbing the Palm
Climbing the Palm
Heading for the top
Heading for the top

We stop to look around a Palm sugar ‘factory’ where an elderly man climbs up one of the trees to collect clay pots which hang under the fruit.  We are shown the process of reducing this liquid to a sticky syrup and eventually crystals.

Oo helps to grate coconut
Oo helps to grate coconut
clay pots of sugar syrup
Clay pots of sugar syrup
Alcohol Still
Alcohol Still

Large woks sit in a row on a clay oven and the liquid is moved from the cooler end to the hot end.

Peter Nev & Mike have tea
Peter Nev & Mike have tea
immaculate thatching with Palm leaves
immaculate thatching with Palm leaves

There is also a fermentation process, which produces a spirit from crude stills.

The Palm Sugar shop
The Palm Sugar shop

At the end (shop) are some delicious snacks to be purchased.  Palm sugar lumps with plum, grated coconut or tamarind.  We stock up for our journey, finding that palm sugar is not sickly sweet like cane sugar – ideal.

Peanut oil produced by primitive method
Peanut oil produced by primitive method

On the journey to Kalaw, we pass Mount Poppa, home of The Nats.  These are ancient deities who pre-date Buddha.

Mount Poppa
Mount Poppa

The Bagan ruler who brought Buddhism from South India, cleverly found a place for them in the new religious hierarchy.  The Nats, number 37, and although only four are special to the Mount Popa region, all can be worshiped, usually by the offering of fruit or money.

The lower Nats
The lower Nats
More lower Nats
More lower Nats

They originate from people who suffered particularly violent deaths- usually at the hand of some despotic ruler.  Mount Poppa is a volcanic plug, formed when a volcanic core cools very fast and is much harder than the surrounding ash.  Erosion revealed the mountain, so there’s a climb of 777 steps to the Monastery perched on top. Richard C has warned us about the monkeys – we must leave any food on the bus to avoid invasion.  They are abundant, being fed by the faithful and tourists who purchase newspaper cones of small nuts from the sellers.  When the cones are thrown, there’s a monkey fight and the successful ones scamper to a safe place to tear open the paper, discarding it after eating the contents.

Yet more Nats
Yet more Nats

The monkeys can also be observed opening plastic water bottles to drink and one nursing mother grabs a can of sugary fizzy drink, removes the straw (that’s too sophisticated) and drinks the dregs.  Sticky drops fall on the baby, who promptly moves from underneath Mum to her back.  The consequence of all this is rubbish, which, with an abundance of monkey shit, has to be cleaned off the steps so that we can climb bare-footed. Volunteer cleaners station themselves all the way up with brooms and mops. Their buckets contain black water, so I can’t help thinking that the monkey shit is just getting moved around and our feet are covered in it.

Fruit stall in constant danger from marauding monkeys
Fruit stall in constant danger from marauding monkeys

Each cleaner asks politely for a ‘donation for the cleaning’.  It’s advisable, for the sake of your conscience to have lots of small notes about you.  I gave my last 200kt (less than 20cents) to the first cleaner at the bottom and had to shake my head and apologise to the rest. I’m thinking that the solution to the monkey shit might be to stop feeding them, then; they would go away and live in the forest.  On reflection this would mean that the nut sellers would loose their living and so would the ‘volunteer’ cleaners.  In terms of ecological economics, it’s best to put up with the shit and being a farm boy, I’m used to it. Along with the usual families and a few western tourists risking the monsoon threat, there’s a school party visiting today, so there’s lots of teenage drama, especially from the girls who are protesting about the climb.

Nats at the top wearing money
Nats at the top wearing money

There are displays of The Nats at the bottom and the top – they are astonishing. Their representation by 21st C manikins and dressed in clothing of mixed vintage means I now have to invent a new category – Buddha Kitch – wondrous.

View from Mt Poppa
View from Mt Poppa

There’s a great view from the top but the main attraction is us.  The school kids are fascinated; they try out a few words of English and cuddle up to us for selfies on their mobile phones.

Peter, unusually embarrassed by attention of serious students
Peter, unusually embarrassed by attention of serious students
Richard C shares a joke. Translation please.
Richard C shares a joke. Translation please.

Nev and Peter manage to get surrounded.  Nev’s boys are all style conscious like many young men here – vain about their looks – a streak of bleached red hair and trendy camouflage trousers.  These boys in their school uniforms, are not quite at that stage, but one of them is wearing a red scarf with confidence and doesn’t seem to know that red is an unlucky colour to wear up on this mountain.

Nev has the attention of boys, a girl and a monkey
Nev has the attention of boys, a girl and a monkey

Garry has had to change his top, so we try to tease the boy about it.  Not sure if he got it though.

Boy with red scarf
Boy with red scarf
Tastefull detail
Tasteful detail

I

The girls are demure
The girls are demure

seem to attract the girls who boldly ask to be photographed with me, one at a giggling time.   There’s no opportunity to wash feet before putting on my sandals and getting on the bus. Hopefully, nothing nasty has stuck.

 

A few more temples and other stuff

Whitewash with rusty corrugated iron roof
Whitewash with rusty corrugated iron roof

Its day seven and I can see by the map of Bagan that there are potentially hundreds more temples and stupas to see.  We start off with a whitewashed temple which houses murals and then we stop in the middle of three options.

Murals or Murials?
Murals or Murials?

It’s very hot and Richard points to Tayoke pyay.  That’s where we are going.  So I set off ahead but no one follows. It’s small and elegant, worth the walk.  When I get back to the bus, everyone has gone to another temple.

Paya T
Tayoke Pyay

I’m too hot to walk over and cool down inside Priscilla. Just to break things up, we’re visiting Minnathu Village. It looks very basic, houses made from bamboo screens.  We have a girl who guides us and the new electricity supply is pointed out.

Minnathu Village
Minnathu Village
Minnathu Village - blue corrugated iron roof
Minnathu Village – blue corrugated iron roof

Street lights are dotted around and we are shown a large television and other electrical goods in one of the houses.  Last year, Richard tells us, the village had only just got electricity and they kept turning things on and off in wonderment.  It all seems incongruous amongst these shanty type dwellings and primitive shelters for animals.  The tethered bull is aggressive but the gelded steers are docile.

The Bull
The Bull
Minnathu Village - kitchen
Minnathu Village – kitchen

We are shown a single cotton plant with the raw material for weaving protruding from a pod.  This house has a crude loom and our guide sits down and does a few rows.  So many rural Burmese live in houses like this – walls of plaited bamboo, roofs thatched with leaves of the Sugar Palm tree and cooking on wood fires.

Minnathu Village the loom
Minnathu Village the loom

It does appear that the people still live here though in five years, this might be a model village with the people busing in for the day.

Minnathu Village - electrical gadget bedroom
Minnathu Village – electrical gadget bedroom
Minnathu Village baby and firewood transport
Minnathu Village baby and firewood transport
Minnathu Village Aung San Suu Kyi calendar.
Minnathu Village Aung San Suu Kyi calendar.
Minnathu Village. New house with iron roof
Minnathu Village. New house with iron roof

Next up is Dhamma-ya-za-ka with its golden spire is unusual for being pentagonal – most Bagan pagodas are square.

Dhamma-ya-za-ka
Dhamma-ya-za-ka
Dhamma-ya-za-ka
Dhamma-ya-za-ka
Dhamma-ya-za-ka
Dhamma-ya-za-ka

 

Lacquor Works working with bamboo
Lacquor Works working with bamboo

Heading south we visit a lacquer factory in New Bagan and observe the process, starting with the shaping of bamboo strips into the required shape. Sanding the bamboo then applying lacquer is a time consuming process. Each coat of it has to dry before proceeding.  Some cups are made on a base of horse hair woven between bamboo spines; this gives them great flexibility.  Between each layer of lacquer the items are rubbed down by very bored looking boys and finally painted with intricate patterns by girls.

Lacquor Works. Youth with mobile phone tucked into his longyi
Lacquor Works. Youth with mobile phone tucked into his longyi
Lacquor Works. Girls do the painting
Lacquor Works. Girls do the painting

They all sit cross legged on the floor or raised platforms.  We are assured that they are all over eighteen and get around $4US a day with the painters getting $6US.  Astonishingly, this is enough for the purchase of a mobile phone.  The young people of Myanmar are thus connected to the rest of the world … in theory … provided they can get wifi.

You guessed, it’s shopping time and there’s some beautiful things which tempt me sorely, but I don’t need any more stuff – maybe a set of chopsticks? They are unadorned black and I can’t find two of the same length.  Others are buying and the Americans are contributing generously to this economy.  Mark buys a fabulous lacquered chest with red legs.  I don’t ask how much he paid as furniture takes months and even years to make.  He’s getting it shipped home and plans to use it as a filing cabinet.  Nice, I think. Garry mutters a few words about keeping files in the cellar, but don’t quote me.  ‘What are you like?’ is the ‘northern’ expression I keep saying to them and they roar laughing.

Georgie and family
Georgie and family

We return to our café for lunch.  It’s roasting and we rush to find a table next to the giant fan.  Bursting with food, we stop to visit Georgie’s family shop where we sit down to green tea and a range of nibbles.    We meet his heavily pregnant wife, his young son who is very shy and his Mother-in-law, the owner of Priscilla the bus. Georgie will not be with us for the next part of our tour as he is needed with to be around for the birth.  Photos are taken and we force ourselves to eat something, particularly the mango. We notice very old photographs on the wall of Aung San – hero of early Burma (1920), during and following the British.  He is the father of Aung San Suu Kyi.  The frames, high up on the wall, look as if they have been gathering dust for decades and have escaped notice.

Thatbyinyu
Thatbyinyu

Thatbyinyu inside the area of Old Bagan, is the largest of the temples. Built by King Alaungsithu (1113-1163) to atone for his sins, it was never quite finished before he died. Its whitewashed walls, stained with age lend it a sinister atmosphere.

Thatbyinyu
Thatbyiny

 

Reclining Buddha
Reclining Buddha

By the time we get to Manuha temple, it is raining hard and we scurry with umbrellas into a long building to marvel at the size of a reclining Buddha. Having left sandals and umbrellas at the other end of the building, it’s a dash back to retrieve them.

Shwe San Daw
Shwe San Daw

It’s still raining by the time we reach our sunset Pagoda – Shwe San Daw.  It’s a clamber up the steps with camera slung over my head, clutching umbrella in one hand, and a hand-rail in the other, this feels like an adventure.  I’m wearing my longyi today, so have to tuck that in to avoid treading on the hem.  Rain and sunshine pour down, but the light is amazing.

Shwe San Daw
Shwe San Daw
Shwe San Daw
Shwe San Daw

Peter thinks this view is better than the modern tower (some of the guys went there early in the morning) as everything is much closer.  We’ve become photo buddies, looking out for the best shots and angles.  Peter’s results on his ipad are breathtaking and I get to use it to take a few of him.   We are both raving about the rain washed light shining on the pagodas to the East.

Shwe San Daw
Shwe San Daw

It’s too early to see the sunset, so we indulge looking the other way, while everyone else huddles under umbrellas looking west.

Shwe San Daw
Shwe San Daw
Shwe San Daw
Shwe San Daw

The sun strikes the golden stupas one by one on its journey behind the hills across the Ayeyerwady River.

Shwe San Daw
Shwe San Daw

After dark, with hints of rain still in the air, we visit a functioning temple lit up as if it was Christmas.

Evenng bling
Evenng bling

There is water lying everywhere – just as well I’m bare-footed, though Ray is not so lucky and ends up having a nasty fall.  I don’t find out about this until the next day when his bruised ribs come to the fore. Onwards to our restaurant which tonight is Burmese and delicious with great service, so no obvious drama at the end of the day. Ray is being stoic and cheerful as ever.

Evenng bling
Evenng bling

A free day in Bagan

 

We have the option to explore on our own today.  Richard suggests hiring electric scooters or using the free bicycles from the hotel and investigating more temples.  I anticipate more temples tomorrow, so think I’ve done quite well on the that front so far and don’t want to be ‘templed out’ just yet.

Mark & Garry with Richard C @ Amazing Bagan Resort
Mark & Garry with Richard C @ Amazing Bagan Resort

The Californains, Garry and Mark, who are turning out to be such fun, with Peter (now recovered from a dose of flu), hire a car and driver for the day to see more temples.  Mike and Ray say they are going to chill out.  My plan is to visit the Archaeological Museum in the morning, so it’s a swim before breakfast.  On my way to the pool I check out the free bicycles – they are very old.  One has a completely flat tyre and the others need pumping up.  I take a couple of test rides and check at reception if they have a pump.  They triumphantly produce a huge plunger type, which unlike the bikes, looks brand new.  I trot off to the pool where the water temperature is almost acceptable and decide to lower the risk by hiring one of the brand new electric scooters – foreigners are not allowed to drive petrol ones.

Great Hall Archaeological Museum
Great Hall Archaeological Museum

All goes well and I find the Museum, a hideous modern building attempting to copy features of the beautiful Ananda temple.  No cameras are allowed, but mobile phones are ok – all the locals are photographing stuff on their phones, so I don’t see the point.  Eventually I follow suite. On first glance the vast central hall looks gloomy, but a series of bronze statues, imagines four of the 55 Pagan Kings of Bagan

One of the Bagan Kings
One of the Bagan Kings

King Anawrahta 1044 – 1077

Kyan Sittha 1088 – 1113

Alaungsithu 1113 – 1160

King Kyaswa 1235 – 1249

This Dynasty unified Burma and brought Theravada Buddhism to the country to create a golden age.

 

A short history of Burma – not up to date but clear at https://newint.org/features/2008/04/18/history/

Representation of wood carvers
Representation of wood carvers

These statues represent strong rulers and although one holds a spear, not all are military.  One sits with one leg crooked in a ‘thinking’ pose.  I imagine at in 1998, the Generals who ruled, were flattered by this work and they are in any case great fans of this period of Bama imperialism.  There are also ancient statues of Buddha from his life and reincarnation.  To one side of this hall is a crudely cast group ad dancing people.  The inscription reads ‘People of Bagan who are always in happy mood by singing and dancing’. This room feels a bit more like a promotion than archaeology.  The Museum doesn’t seem to be air conditioned and in one room an attendant opens a window creating a welcome draft.  I nod my appreciation of her effort.

Comparison of the Myanmar alphabet
Comparison of the Myanmar alphabet

There’s an interesting comparison showing the evolution of the modern Myanmar alphabet as seen on tee shirts.  The origins are traced back to South Indian and Brahman scripts.  Various rooms reconstruct life in 11th Century Bagan and the allegedly caring nature of the rulers is explained.

Marble inscriptions on modern carved marble plinths
Marble inscriptions on modern carved marble plinths

There’s a whole room of inscriptions carved on marble slabs, stone pillars and paper.  These seem to be complicated historical narratives.  Suddenly there is an air conditioned room – delicious.  Upstairs I run into John and Nev who have also hired the electric scooters.

Buddha
Buddha

Here there is a room full of carved Buddha’s from temples, all seated on identical carved seats of teak.  The three of us decide to lunch together, so Nev and I go ahead, turning right outside the museum.  I look behind – being the only one with rear vision mirrors – as there is no sign of John.  We stop and eventually he speeds out the gate, turning left and not seeing us.  I race off after him, stretching my scooter to its limit at 50km/h all the while tooting loudly.

Buddha on teak seat
Buddha on teak seat

 

We decide to re-visit the afore-mentioned café for lunch.  It’s in the village near the hotel and I think I know the way.  We set off to the north, finding the village, which seems to go on forever. We stop several times to ask the way but to no avail. Eventually, John asks a taxi driver who gives us precise instructions.  As we approach the turn-off, he’s waiting, having driven ahead to make sure we get it right – such fantastic kindness.  You’d pay for a London cabby to lead you to an address.

11th C Buddha with added mirrors
11th C Buddha with added mirrors

Over lunch, we engage in conversation with a Danish couple – she’s white and his parents are South Indian.  They offer us the felt pens to write on the wall.  We decide on a kiwi, but who can draw one? We have several try-outs to get the shape right.  In the end I get to do it and I’m not known for my drawing skills.  This is Nev’s idea and the symbol = has to go in the middle of the Kiwi. He recons it’s too obscure for any military official to interpret.

John cools off in front of a giant fan
John cools off in front of a giant fan

 

 

To me it’s obvious that = means equality but just to make sure that my crude drawing is recognised, he ads NZ = underneath.  I’m not sure that we have equality in New Zealand, but why not dream of the possibility?  If you get here and see this motive on the wall, low down towards the front, you will know the name of the café.

I leave the others to explore and set of back to the hotel with the intention of catching up with the blog, swim and chill out.  No such luck as I take a wrong turn and have to turn around and stop to ask a monk sitting at a bus stop, showing him on the map where I want to go.  He assures me that turning right at the T junction ahead is the right way to go – this takes me to the river and no exit.  A woman asks if I want a boat. No I don’t want a boat and have to go back again, ending up on a parallel road and almost back in Old Bagan when I spot a map outside a temple.  It has ‘you are here’ on it and I’m able to work it out.  The place is flat like Florida, another part of the world in which I’m prone to get lost. By dodging across on some minor roads I manage to get on track, but not without getting very hot and bothered and sunburnt knees.  I’ve put sunblock everywhere else.  It’s too hot to swim I just shower and flake out on the bed.  It turns out the lunch café is only five minutes away by taking a side road near the hotel.  We went a very long way round.  As we gather in Priscilla for the evening ride to dinner, everyone reports on their adventures.  Mike and Ray, who were supposed to be chilling, decided to walk to the very tall viewing tower which appears to be close to the hotel.  It is close, but they go the long way ending up walking seven kilometres.  They enthuse about the view and for the 5000kt ($6 NZ) entrance fee, get a drink at the top.  Richard C has been reluctant to include this in previous tours, maintaining that it was just funding the generals, plus it’s a modern construction out of place amongst antiquity. He has a change of heart and offers an optional visit the next day on the basis that the government has changed and the economy is to be encouraged.  John and Nev sort of got lost finding their way back but more worryingly, the batteries on their scooters rand down and they only just made it, trailing at snail pace towards the end.  Richard N decided to risk the bicycle and made reasonable progress until he had a flat tyre.  He didn’t make it to the museum and had to ‘bribe’ someone to give him and the bike a lift back. Richard C nobly took all our laundry into the village launder-o-mat, saving us a few dollars on the Hotel prices. Garry, Mark and Peter had a drama free day.

Over 50 wigs showing women's hair styles from the period. + 4 for men.
Over 50 wigs showing women’s hair styles from the period. + 4 for men.

Tonight the bus takes us to a Burmese restaurant in the village and the service is incident free and the food delicious.  It’s worth noting that Burmese food can be hot and spicy and the first plate of food is one of ‘mixed condiments.  A dish of chopped chillies in fish sauce is guaranteed to liven up your meal.  There’s also a tea salad made from fermented fresh tea leaves which can be quite hot.  Fried beans, which look like peanut halves, are delicious and crunchy and then you get a ginger salad.  Everyone gets their turn at ‘the runs’, particularly those who like their food hot and spicy.  It’s due to the over use of chillie which reacts in a gut, unaccustomed to this food – I remember this from China 5 years ago – It’s not actually a bug.  Some in the group are brave enough to order salads at restaurants and seem to get away with it.  Richard tells us that everything is washed in bottled water and that Burmese people, unless they are very poor, don’t drink water from the tap – it’s so cheap to buy – in plastic bottles.

 

 

 

 

 

To Bagan the temple town

Dhammayagyi
Dhammayagyi

It’s an early start as we will travel most of the day.  Madalay has been enchanting, but there’s a puzzle in that no one can quite remember who wrote the song ‘On the Road to Mandalay’.  Noel Coward is suggested, but it turns out to be Kipling’s Poem, written in faux cockney and set to music by Oley Speaks and sung by many, including Sinatra.

It seems clear to me that Kipling never came to Burma, because his geography is quite wrong.  A British solider is dreaming of his Burmese lover.

By the old Moulmein Pagoda lookin’ lazy at the sea.

Mandalay is about two thirds of the way up the country, miles from the sea. Only the Ayeyerwady here.

But looking closer, Moulmein is on the coastline sweeping south to Thailand.  It faces west, and is where the Burma Girl waits for him, or so he believes. So why does he want to go back to Mandalay?

On the road to Mandalay

Where the flying fishes play

I believe that flying fishes are salt water creatures. The muddy Ayeyerwady might not be freshwater, but it ‘aint got any salt in it.

Sunset over the Ayeyerwady
Sunset over the Ayeyerwady

An the dawn come up like thunder oute China ‘crost the Bay

Maynmar shares a border with China to the North, a direction from which I’ve never known the sun to rise, though with a bit of imagination you might see the Bay in one of the bends in the Ayeyerwady.

The landscape from Mandalay to Bagan is unremarkable.  We travel south through poor undeveloped farmland.  Fields seem to be fallow or being tilled, ready for planting in the age old method with a cow pulling a wooden plough.  I spot one rotary cultivator suggesting some progress is being made.

Climbing the steep steps for the view
Climbing the steep steps for the view

The Bagan area is flat and packed full of temples from an era of the Bagan Kings roughly spanning the 11th – 13th Centuries.  It has now sadly lost its’ UNESCO world heritage site status due to unacceptable restoration, modern sized bricks, rough pointing and the use of concrete to fill gaps.  In addition a tourist hotel has been built by the river in old Bagan within the heritage site area.  Some years ago the Government forcibly moved all the people from Old Bagan to clear the area for tourism. New Bagan, several kilometres south seems to now be a thriving area for the lacquer ware industry.  It’s hot here, so we’re desperate to jump into the fifteen metre swimming pool at the Amazing Bagan Resort.

Temple detail with view
Temple detail with view

I’m also keen to do some training as this is the only swimming pool on the tour.  The water is hot, around 26-28 degrees so I have to stop every four lengths to cool down and only last twenty minutes.  We gather in the evening to visit the first of many temples – Pya Tha Da.  We climb up the steep steps using hands on steps above for balance as there is no handrail.  There’s a great sunset view and a group of young monks are colourful in their saffron robes.

Me at Pya Tha Da
Me at Pya Tha Da
Monks photograph the sunset
Monks photograph the sunset
Pya Tha Da
Pya Tha Da
Pya Tha Da
Pya Tha Da
Monks at sunset
Monks at sunset
Monks and nuns at Pya Tha Da for the sunset
Monks and Nuns in pink at Pya Tha Da for the sunset

We have a full second day here with temple visits best described with pictures.

Gubyaukgyi

Gubyaukgyi
Gubyaukgyi

Htilominlo

Htlominlo temple with Mike and Ray
Htlominlo temple with Mike and Ray
Htlominlo detail of carving
Htlominlo detail of carving

 

Ananda
Ananda

This beautiful temple, Ananda, was inspired by the  Himalayas. The architect has created white mountains of great beauty with corners guarded by marble lions which on close inspection have been awarded two penises each.  Presumably this means extra potency. The king had the architect killed on completion so he couldn’t build anything more beautiful for someone else – as they did in those days.

Ananda
Ananda
Ananda marble lion with two penises
Ananda marble lion with two penises

 

Ananda Cadet soldiers
Ananda Cadet soldiers

We are being followed by around six army trucks carrying soldiers.  They turn out to be 18 year old recruits having a day off.  they all look around 16 and we immediately remember not to photograph any of the military in Myanmar.  This is the first time we have seen any sign of them – they are more prominent in Yangon.

Ananda - soldier behind fan
Ananda – soldier behind fan

Word gets around that it’s OK to photograph these young men as they are not real soldiers yet.  As they are all bare-footed in preparation for entering the temples, even in their smart green uniforms they don’t quite look like soldiers.   Joining the military is of course an alternative way of gaining an education – of sorts – similar to, but different from a monastery.

Ananda
Ananda
Ananda
Ananda
Ananda Buddha and Bodhi tree
Ananda Buddha and Bodhi tree
Ananda deatil
Ananda deatil
Ananda
Ananda
IMGP6371Bagan Market
Bananas at Bagan Market

We stop at a local market selling fruit, vegetables, betel nuts & leaves which many of the men here chew.  All of our crew indulge and in consequence have red stained teeth. A very short woman which I initially mistake for a child follows me around touching my elbow for attention and indicating that she is hungry.  My first thought is to buy her a mango as she looks so woeful.

Betel Nuts
Betel Nuts

She has pushed some paper up one nostril to look like snot and I note that her bare feet are deformed. I escape to bargain for a dark blue Longyi, and the beggar chases the others. The hawker women here start by giving a ‘gift’ of a cake of traditional sunblock made from the pith of a particular tree ( you can buy cut up branches in the market). We are then exhorted to buy whatever they are selling and if anyone is strong enough to resist, the ‘gift’ is snatched back with a cross snort.

Besieged in Bagan
Besieged in Bagan

Waiting for the bus to collect us, we are deluged by the hawkers even though we have learned how to say no thank you in Mayanmar – Mo way boo Jezu bar.  The beggar woman is still around and Richard C works out that they guys have given her the equivalent of a week’s work and proceeds to give us a few tips to avoid being targeted. 1 don’t look at the merchandise. 2 Don’t engage in conversation with the seller. 3. Don’t ask the price unless you want to buy. 4 Don’t name a price at the start and only agree when you get to a price you want to pay. 5. Don’t change your mind after agreeing,

We go to a village to the north of this area to find a café– sort of named after a pub chain.  Nine of us pile into this open air eatery cooled by fans and sporting a white-board graffiti wall with comments from all over the world.  Richard C goes off to arrange massages for some of us (included in the tour package).  The owner of the café is intrigued and asks where the women are.  He’s guessed and we’re not shy in ‘coming out’.  It’s all fine and he admits that the place is ‘Gay Friendly’, but please would we not put anything on facebook as homosexuality is still quite frowned upon by some people.

Aung San Suu Kyi portrait
Aung San Suu Kyi portrait

Things are changing in the country, as evidenced by the bright newly framed portrait of Aung San Suu Kyi, but there is a way to go. Though this country is making great progress it’s being done with lots of small steps,  so I’m not telling you the name of the café, but if you are gong to Bagan and want to visit, I’ll tell you privately.  If you are reading the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide, you’ll find it.

The massage place is a long communal room with firm mattresses on the floor.  Four of us plus Richard have opted for this experience.  Burmese massage is quite distinctive and is done through the clothes or a towel if there is any bare skin.  It relies on pressure on the muscles and the masseurs (3) and masseuses (2) use elbows, hands, knees and feet to kneed the body.  Limbs are manipulated and it helps to be flexible as you can find your spine being stretched out by pushing legs over in one direction whilst holding the opposite shoulder in place.  The Masseurs all work methodically and seem to all be at the same stage, keeping together.  Being a bit of a connoisseur of massage, I find it’s good, and much needed after all the tramping around temples and getting in and out of the bus.

So it’s an afternoon of more temples. I undertook this tour with the expectation of being ‘templed out’ quite soon.  I have never been in a country where Buddhism is so strong and just when you think you’ve seen every temple you could imagine there’s yet another one, quite unique.

Sulamani

Sulamani
Sulamani
Sulamani
Sulamani

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sulamani
Sulamani
Pisa Stupas on the lean
Pisa Stupas on the lean

A group of stupas nick-named Pisa have tilted – perhaps an earthquake or poor foundations.  Nearby a family live in impoverished conditions selling souvenirs at this little frequented sits.  A young man puts out his wares in hope.

Leaning stupa
Leaning stupa
Pisa shack
Pisa shack
Pisa Setting up shop
Pisa Setting up shop

 

Dhammayangyi

Dhammayamgyi
Dhammayamgyi

Our sunset today is from the river.  Richard hires a boat powered by a propeller on a long extension to take us up-stream.

Our group. from L to R: John, Ne, Mike, Peter Richard N, Garry
Our group. from L to R: John, Ne, Mike, Peter Richard N, Garry

We’ve stocked up with beer – wine is expensive here and usually not very good.

Sunset River Cruise. Floating accomodation
Sunset River Cruise. Floating accomodation

We pass what look like decommissioned river cruise boats now acting as accommodation for workers.  There are a few other boats around with couples on a romantic evening out and when we all get far enough upstream, the noisy engines are cut and we drift silently downstream as the sun falls firstly behind a low cloud and then behind the distant hills.

Sunset River Cruise John & Peter with rainbow
Sunset River Cruise John & Peter with rainbow
Sunset River Cruise - Bath time for the family
Sunset River Cruise – Bath time for the family
Sunset River Cruise -Romance afloat
Sunset River Cruise -Romance afloat
Sunset River Cruise pagodas at sunset
Sunset River Cruise pagodas at sunset

The light on pagodas back-grounded by threatening monsoon clouds is fantastic.  So far, in what is supposed to be the beginning of the monsoon season, we’ve been lucky.

Sunset River Cruise Pagoda at the landing
Sunset River Cruise Pagoda at the landing

The bus takes us to an Indian Restaurant.  The tables are outside with mood candle light.  It’s great for a young couple but it’s a bit dim for most of us ‘older chaps’ to see the menu, so being resourceful we turn on our phone torches.  Someone has come prepared with a real torch.

Sunset River Cruise. Boat boy showing off
Sunset River Cruise. Boat boy showing off

The Kitchen struggles to deliver for ten guests at once and the main dish arrives before the rice.  Some of our party forget what they ordered so waiters are standing with an unclaimed dish.  Garry and Mark have ordered extra garlic Nan bread while poor Nev, who ordered a salad (no cooking needed) is served last.  Worst of all his Nan bread has got forgotten in the deluge of garlic Nans further up the table. Nev is stoic and indulges us in our bread jokes.  Even though some of us have taken to wearing longyis to dinner, the mosquitoes are out and some have forgotten to put on repellent.  They don’t buzz, are smaller than Waiheke Mosquitoes and the bites don’t seem to swell up much. Just as well most of us are taking anti-malarial tablets.

To Mandalay

 

Sandamuni Pagoda
Sandamuni Pagoda

The first Impression, flying in to Mandalay from Bangkok, is of bright blue roofs.  Closer to the ground green roofs emerge from the surrounding foliage. It’s not significant, just a change from orange, red or grey. The airport itself is new – a runway in the middle of a field – we are the only plane at the terminal. It’s reminiscent of the early days of Ryan Air and Easyjet in Europe, who flew into provincial upgraded airstrips two hours away from where you wanted to go.  Tour guide Richard and owner of Outside the Square  (almost independent travel for Gay men and their friends) is there to meet me.  There are others to arrive on a later flight so there’s time for coffee – a pale late – and to get cash out of an ATM. Two or three years ago there was only one in the whole country, now there are two at this airport and they pop up in the cities and Hotels.  Myanmar is gearing up for a future of tourism, so it’s good to be getting in before the rest of the world.  Mike and Ray, both from Auckland, emerge with damaged luggage.  Ray’s wheelie rucksack has a gaping compartment exposing all his pills and potions.

Priscilla interior
Priscilla interior

He’s cheerful enough about it and has brought along needle and thread to re-mend the tear. John and Nev, both from Christchurch are also on this flight so now we are six and the next introduction is to a bus nick-named Priscilla – after that camp Australian movie with Terrence Stamp in drag.  The Windows are adorned with a scalloped pelmet with mauve tassels.  Red and white fairy lights and lacy antimacassars on floral seats complete the picture. Priscilla (not her real name) belongs to the Mother-in-Law of our local guide, Georgie, who employs a driver and assistant Oo.           We galumph along a rolling dual carriage-way into the city at a sedate pace.  Myanmar is both a very ancient civilisation and an emerging country.  Ruled by strong in kings the 10 – 12th centuries, the country was subsumed by the British in the exploitative way of Empire.  The Japanese drove out the British in WW2 and were in turn defeated by the allies.  For decades now, the country has been ruled by Generals.  All the while the patient Burmese have continued, sustained by their Buddhist faith.  Their reward has been a democratically elected government lead by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Sandarmuni P)agoda
Sandarmuni P)agoda

We are staying at MaMa’s Guest house, owned and run by a woman called Sue.  She’s clearly looking to the future, preparing for the influx of tourists, (visas, previously issued for seven days, now last for twenty-eight) and she is building an extension. A new ground floor reception/dining room is complete and workmen are building two floors above for accommodation. Mark and Garry from San Francisco arrived the day before, so after sorting rooms and bags we 8 set off in Priscilla to the Sandamuni Pagoda.

Sandarmuni Pagoda
Sandarmuni Pagoda
Inscribed tables
Inscribed tables

The central stupa is surrounded by fields of small white stupas, each housing a marble tablet inscribed with the writings of Buddha.  It’s been described as a temple surrounded by the world’s larges book.  Richard has provided us each with a lungyi, the all purpose garment worn by men and women.  We’ve had instruction on how to tie them, a cause of much hilarity and varying degrees of success.  Basically it’s a tube of material and you have to step into it, draw one end up to waist level, hold it out on each side with your hands. There follows a movement best described as lifting and drawing together so the front stays up and the sides are brought to the centre, twisted around each other and tucked into either side of the centre tail which ends up looking a bit like a codpiece – cue more hilarity and size envy – as one might expect from a group of gay men old enough to know better.

Wearing of the Lungyi
Wearing of the Lungyi

We adopt the lungyi to visit the temples, mainly for respect. Though we are all wearing longish shorts there’s a chance of revealing a knee.  Shoes of course have to be removed, so I think we are going to get tough soles on this tour.  The Burmese of course have the most beautiful broad feet, un-spoilt by narrow fitting shoes.  This temple complex continues down the road, where preparations are being made for a celebration.

Terracotta dishes line the path
Terracotta dishes line the path

Terracotta dishes are being lined up along the paths, filled with oil, wicks added ad lit.  People are arriving in their finery and we learn that it’s Aung San Suu Kyi’s 71st birthday.  710 lamps have been lit.

filling the lamps
filling the lamps

A young man has a drone overlooking the scene.  We decide to stay on, postpone the next temple and rearrange our dinner time.

San band
San band
Sand band and dancers
Sand band and dancers

A band from the San area is playing and men dance in mock fights, one with gold painted wooden swords.  Aung San Suu Kyi is much revered and now her birthday can be celebrated more openly. It feels like an

Red Cross boys look to the lamps
Red Cross boys look to the lamps

honour to stay and share it with the people, who are so welcoming and accepting. The security guard and the Red Cross Brigade insist on being photographed with us. We as westerners are

Curiosities
Curiosities

curiosities but also a link to the rest of the world, although none of this is spoke … yet.  I just wonder what they would make of the extraordinary politics happening on the other side of their world at this moment.

girl with plate of food on head
girl with plate of food on head
The Pagoda lit
The Pagoda lit

Mama’s is cooking us dinner tonight and the last of our party, Richard from Titirangi and Peter from Perth arrive from a few days in Yangon, in time to eat: Chicken Burmese style; Spicy Aubergines; stir fried vegetables and tea salad (hot and delicious) and rice washed down with local beer. We sit around the table and introduce ourselves one by one.  Life stories are exchanged, questions asked and laughter shared. It’s a good start and it’s going to be a good group of people who have lived full and busy lives.