Myanmar, or Burma as was.
We visited Burma for 5 days in early July – purportedly our last significant (long) weekend away from Bangkok before our departure from Thailand. This trip was largely my choice, as I was enraptured by the thought of “The road to Mandalay”. Trish bought into the idea when she realised that a trip on the Ayayerawady (Irrawaddy) would include a stop in Bagan which is the Burmese equivalent of Angkor. Anyway, no regrets from either of us on our return; except perhaps we needed a little longer in each place.
The itinerary was as follows:
Early flight to Yangon (was Rangoon), and a day and night there;
Early flight to Mandalay, and a day and night there;
Early boat (public ferry) on the Irrawaddy to Bagan – a 9 hour trip;
Two nights and one day in Bagan;
Morning flight back to Yangon and ½ day site-seeing before returning to BKK.
Quite a hectic journey, and way too many early starts (and I do mean early – 4:30 one day), but that was the necessity in order to cram it all into the 5 days.
Trish will probably write-up the gory details of all the temples, which were the main feature of the trip, but here are a few brief memories.
Monks wear Red robes (Vs Saffron in TH) and Lady Monks (?) wear pink – neat eh?
Yangon/Rangoon should be renamed RAINGOON. It rained (almost) all day that we were there, and we paddled around the marble floor main temple courtyard in about 1/2” of water, which was quite slippery as you can imagine. Yangon has little air conditioning (mainly hotels – who have back-up power, which is a necessity in Myanmar), and it is very hot and humid/damp, which means the buildings all look pretty decrepit as they are covered in mildew. Actually, there are some fabulous old colonial buildings, but they are in desperate need of someone to adopt them and take care of them. Nothing but cars (though not many) on the road as bicycles are restricted to back streets and motorcycles are completely banned: this latter because the big General (Dictator) got upset one evening because his cavalcade got buzzed on its way home one evening by a bunch of over-exuberant young (privileged) kids resulting in people being given until their licence ran out to remove their motorbike from the city (not just take it off the road)!
Mandalay is a lovely place; very low rise, and containing all forms of transport, including horse drawn. This city is not so run down as Yangon, as the climate is generally dryer. We saw some famous buildings here from the days of Orwell (who spent some years in Burma in the Colonial Police Service), though we didn’t “touch” them due to the lack of time. More than one day is needed for Mandalay. We visited a gold leaf maker here – what a treat that was (below).
The Irrawaddy is a wide and quite fast flowing river, though in fact there is not much to see (for 9 hours), though it is a very relaxing way to travel from Mandalay to Bagan. Dawn over Mandalay was interesting, but not spectacular. The most interesting part of the journey though was when a monsoon rain storm blew up and the boat “hove-to” for about 20 minutes in mid stream as visibility was reduced to a few yards, not even being able to see the river banks, and with the river whipping up quite a choppy surface. There is hardly any river traffic however, so not much danger there.
Bagan was very interesting. Transport there is mostly horse and cart, and there is approx 40 sq km of flat plain covered in 100’s (possibly 1000’s) of temples. The majority of the town is single story wood/rattan huts, and there is very little lighting, so the night sky is fabulous. This place is all about (and only about) temples. Night life is none existent, and since we were out of season one of the nights in our hotel saw us as the only guest – a little flattering (the exclusive service) but a little disturbing too (too much attention). The horse-cart ride through the town’s (village’s) mud streets was memorable; as especially was the visit to the lacquer-ware producer (below).
Not so early the next day – but early enough, and we were off back to Yangon on the way to Bangkok. That gave us a ½ day in Yangon to experience a tea shop, do some shopping, and to visit a family run glass maker (below) – again very interesting.
We arrived back in Bangkok quite late, then home to bed, exhausted. My only problem was that I had to go to work the next day – but who can complain after an experience like that?
Now, about those interesting little diversions in Burma.
The process of making Gold Leaf by hand is a long, and backbreaking, one. Starting with a small piece (nugget size) of 24 ct this is flattened by hammering between wooden blocks. It is the cut into pieces, and the process of hammering continues, using layers of the gold between bamboo papers between the wood again, with increasingly heavy hammers. After several hours of such hammering the final pounding is with a sledge hammer on some 20 slices, again in bamboo paper. This hammer is so large that the workers stand leaning backwards in a frame and swing at the target between their legs (hence the backbreaking). The resulting product is some 100’s of slices of gold leaf from the original nugget.
The longer part of this process is making the bamboo paper. This is a somewhat traditional process, except that the bamboo is shredded and then soaked in some concoction for 3 years before they pulp it, grain it, lay it on the frame and dry it, the, yes – you guessed it – pound it (actually, beat it) again on a slightly circular stone using a stick shaped a bit like a pestle. This beating occurs in a small below ground cellar like room which is damp (over water) to create the right atmosphere to finish the paper. It is a hell hole though because of not only the conditions, but the noise form the beating. We imagined many of the workers in this “factory” have a somewhat restricted working life!
This was not such a worker unfriendly environment as the above, but still had its moments due to all the raw materials being used. Starting with bamboo strips, and possible horse-hair as weave, a shape is built. It is then filled with the resin that is the lacquer, using brushes and building up layers. The layers are smoothed as they are built using sand papers and stones to produce the lacquer product. These are then carved to embed the designs, one colour at a time, then dipped in the colouring and polished before carving the next layer / colour – all of this by hand. The final wash and polish reveals the finished product.
Most lacquer-ware is solid, but we bought some dishes that were sort of rubbery; this was the bamboo frame weaved with hair design. I had to push Trish out of there before I ended up having to rent a container to take stuff home (but it WAS gorgeous).
This place was a real surprise. As you enter the place it looks like a junk yard of broken glass. Only when you get up close to the piles do you realize that these are mountains of finished, hand made, products. We watched the glass blowers make several of the popular pieces, and then the finishing of these; firing and de-burring, before visiting the show room (sort of). There you could select things you were interested in and the owners would fetch samples from the “storage” for you to select from; or in fact you could browse said storage yourself if you wished, with someone helping to carry the selected items.
Most interestingly though, this was a family business run by 5 sisters and 2 brothers, most of whom had PhD’s – the sisters being a very charming set of old ladies who wanted to chat (and smile) with us throughout the buying process. The daughter of one of them was there and she was studying for her PhD in Archaeology, actually studying at the table there until we brought her into the conversation!
We bought a few things here and by this time I was starting to get carried away and Trish had to push me out – though the old ladies rewarded us with a few freebies as a thank you in the end. We were, unfortunately for them, their only customer that day (low season strikes again).
So that was Burma – no doubt, if (when) it ever does truly open up, all of this will be lost; so we are glad to have seen it when we did.