2016 - Trip to Myanmar

11 January 2016   Thailand to Mandalay, Myanmar
Having hauled Alba out of the water at Boat Lagoon in Phuket, Thailand, we spent the night in a room in the Marina’s hotel.  

The alarm clock woke us up at half past four; we caught a cab and were in the airport at the ungodly time of half past five.  There was a little bit of confusion at the immigration desk because I had documents saying that I was signing off a boat as crew, but we were soon politely escorted into a small office where it was all sorted out with smiles.

The flight to Bangkok was only about an hour long and, because we had a connecting flight with the same airline, we were escorted from the arrival lounge to the departure lounge and processed through a special fast track immigration desk, which worked well, but we felt a bit like unaccompanied minors.  

Alba safe in a boatyard

The Myanmar currency is not available outside Myanmar and apparently ATM’s are as common as rocking horse droppings, so we were advised to take US Dollars.  We had $500 on board Alba, but needed another $500 and couldn’t obtain any US dollars in normal Thai banks - we were told that the only place to buy US dollars was at the airport.

So, once we were in the departure lounge, we went to one of the many money changers and were told that we couldn’t get US dollars by using a credit card.  There were no ATMs in the departure lounge, so we couldn’t even get Thai Bahts and change them.

We went to an information booth and they confirmed that there were no ATMs this side of the security and we couldn’t go outside unless we cancelled our flights.   Hmmmm!  We kept asking the same questions in different ways and eventually found out that one of the banks had a small money changing desk and they might give us cash from a credit card.  Fortunately, that all worked out and we managed to get our $500US, but were stung for a handling fee PLUS a pounds sterling to Thai Baht exchange rate PLUS a Thai Baht to US dollar exchange rate.  At least we’ll have enough money eat in Myanmar.

The flight from Bangkok to Mandalay was only two hours long and we breezed through immigration and customs.  A lovely guide called Moe Moe was waiting for us at the arrivals gate to take us to our hotel, but we first stopped off at a money changer to get some Myanmar Kyats.  The exchange rate is 1,289 Kyats to 1 US dollar, so for 500 dollars, I was given 645,000 Kyats.  The largest denomination that they had was a 5,000 Kyat note, so we ended up with a one inch wad of cash.

Mandalay Traffic

Moe Moe chatted almost non-stop on the one hour drive from the airport to our hotel, bombarding us with history and interesting facts about Myanmar, so we didn’t get much chance to do much staring out of the window, but my first impressions are that there are a LOT of Buddhist temples around – there was always at least one golden Pagoda in sight, glinting in the sun. 

The Yuan Sheng Hotel is at the edge of downtown Mandalay and is nice.  Our room had an en-suite bathroom, air-conditioning and wireless internet, so it’s not as backward as I feared.  We arrived at the awkward time of 14:30, so we ordered room service meals, which were tasty and spicy and only cost $3US per meal.

After chilling out for a couple of hours, we went for a walk around the local area.  Mandalay is a bustling Asian city, teeming with motorbikes and cars.  Pavements are few and far between, so we hugged the side of the road and kept eyes in the back of our heads, watching out for the motorbikes that all seemed intent on killing us. 

We walked down 78th Street, which has some modern glitzy stores dotted amongst the rougher local shops and, as we usually do in new town, we popped into a supermarket to what sort of things they were selling.  It was a very flashy modern supermarket with a good selection of food and also a large range of clothes.  I bought a bottle of Myanmar rum for 1350 Kyat ($1US), which was 45% proof.  It tastes okay, but will probably cause premature blindness.

After our consumer fix, we headed west going past the railway station.  Here we saw a seedier part of Mandalay life with very poor families living at the edge of the railway line in shacks – filthy kids running around in rags with bare feet, while their parents sort through piles of plastic bottles and aluminium cans.

Beating Gold Leaf

Back at our luxury hotel, we cracked open a couple of cold beers from the reasonable mini-bar fridge and had dinner in the hotel restaurant, where we watched a traditional puppet show.

12 January 2016   Mandalay, Myanmar
It’s very unusual for us to be on an organised holiday, but Glenys has arranged a custom tour package with a company called Santa Maria Tours (www.santamariatours.com).  Normally, we’d arrange everything ourselves, but things are relatively cheap in Myanmar, so the 20 day holiday comes out at $1,475 USD per person including transport, guides and hotels.  

A driver called Win met us at the hotel reception and drove us all over Mandalay during the day.  He spoke enough English to be able to tell us where we were going next, which was good enough.  Our guide Moe Moe wasn’t with us for the day, but she had had already given him a list of places to visit, which covered more than we were expecting.

Our first stop was at a gold leaf workshop.  Buddhist believe that they will progress towards enlightenment by gaining “Merit” which can be obtained by doing good things; and a good thing to do is to donate food or wealth to a monastery.  Over thousands of years, the practice of plastering gold leaf onto statues of Buddha or famous monks has become a popular way to gain Merit.  So gold leaf production is big business.

They start by putting a one-inch wide strip of gold through a mechanical rollers.  This makes the gold thinner, but also work-hardens the metal, so they roll the gold into a coil and put it into a charcoal fire for a minute.  Using a pair of tongs, the gold is removed and plunged into a bowl of cold water, which quickly cools it and makes the metal soft again.  They continue to roll the gold thinner and thinner until it’s only 0.025mm thick.

Putting gold leaf on a Buddha

The long foil ribbon is then cut into small one inch square pieces and stacked with a piece of bamboo paper between each piece of foil.  A half inch stack is placed on a thick steel plate and the whole package is hammered with a sledge hammer, wielded by fit young men, for 30 minutes.  This causes the gold foil to spread out to 3 inches in diameter and become thinner.

The foil pieces are cut smaller again and the process is repeated with six hours of manual hammering until it becomes a piece of gold leaf about four inches in diameter and only 0.0001mm thick.

The gold leaf is then carefully placed between squares of bamboo paper and then placed into small plastic bags for sale.  We bought a small package of eight, 5cm*5cm squares of gold leaf for 6,000 Kyat ($6US).  Not only do they make the gold leaf, but they also make their own bamboo paper which involves soaking bamboo fibres in lime & water for three years.

Having purchased our gold leaf, we were taken to the Mahamuni Paya, which is one of Myanmar’s most famous Buddhist sites.  It’s visited by more locals than tourists, so the approaches to the main temple are more like a market bazaar than a religious building.  Nevertheless, we had to remove shoes and wear respectable dress – no short shorts or armless shirts allowed.  Glenys put on a Balinese sarong and I went to one of the many stalls to buy a traditional Myanmar “Longhi”.

The Mahamuni Paya temple is famous for a 4 metre high bronze Buddha believed to be 2,000 years old.  The statue was installed in the inner shrine in the late 1700s and, since then, hundreds of thousands of devout Buddhists have applied gold leaf to it.  The base of the figure is coated with over 15cm of solid gold.  

Traditional Stone Carver

Only men are allowed close to the Buddha, so Glenys stayed below with the ladies, while I climbed the steps and applied one patch of gold leaf – I won’t get much Merit, but it was interesting to do it at the side of a Buddhist monk and watch his technique.  The monk must have applied 20 or 30 pieces in a couple of minutes and will have gained much Merit.

We were taken to the Stone Carvers quarter of the city, where scores of small businesses create Buddhas and other carvings from white stone (which I think is local marble).  The whole area is covered with a fine white dust and the air appears foggy as the dust is raised in clouds as traffic sweeps past.  The carvers use hand grinders for the roughing-out work, but then resort to hand chisels for the finer work.  Ladies sit on the floor in pairs, hand polishing the completed statues with emery paper.

Workmen in the city gather together in various “quarters” – gold leaf makers, stone carvers, wood carvers, etc.  Our next stop was at an area that specialises in bronze casting.  Being an ex-Production Engineer, I was fascinated to wander around the outdoor foundry watching men casting using a “lost-wax” technique.  They work in very basic conditions, but produce beautifully detailed and polished statues.  

The process starts with a rough clay model of a Buddha around a metal frame – typically a couple of metres high.  On top of the dried clay, they place a 6mm layer of wax and then carve the wax to have all the fine features of the required statue.  Another layer of clay is placed over the wax and held in place by strong metal bands.  

When the clay has hardened, the whole assembly is placed in to a pit in the ground and molten bronze is poured into it.  The clever bit is that the hot metal melts the wax, so the bronze flows into the gap between the two layers of hardened clay and makes a 6mm thick bronze casting with all the fine detail of the wax carving.  They repair any defects by welding, then grind and polish the final statue – very skilled.

Sorting Charcoal

I love to take pictures of people doing everyday activities, which are unusual to our western eyes, but mundane to the eyes of local people, so Win was surprised when I suddenly asked him to pull over to the side of the road.  

Charcoal is used by many households for cooking on “smokeless” stoves, similar to the ones that we’ve seen at many places on our travels.  I’d spotted two elderly ladies squatting on the side of the road, sorting charcoal from large sacks that they’ve had delivered from outside the city. They were grading it into different sizes, for resale in local shops.

We had lunch at a traditional Myanmar restaurant called De Daw Lay May on 73rd Street between 27th and 28th Street.  It was excellent, but a little different to anything else we’ve seen.  On arrival, we were asked to choose a single dish each – I had a Mutton Curry and Glenys had Pork with Dried Mango.  Once seated at a table, we were brought many small bowls containing other dishes including a bowl of soup, green bean curry, lentil curry, hot sauces and a plate of stir fried vegetables.  The meal covered the table, was tasty, filling and only cost 10,000 Kyat ($10US) for both of us including drinks.

We were driven to the Mandalay Palace was built in 1857 by King Mindon Min and was a walled city within the main city of Mandalay.  Unfortunately, the British invaded and captured the city in 1885, so its glory was short lived.  Then the Japanese controlled Mandalay for much of the Second World War and the palace was burnt down in 1945, amidst fierce fighting as the British and Indian forces advanced – only the 12 kilometre long, tall brick walls surrounding the palace survived.

The central crimson and gold palace and a large number of surrounding buildings were reconstructed in the late 1990s.  Unfortunately, the building work was done by prison and forced local labour – most of the young men in Mandalay were forced to contribute one day’s labour every month.  It’s pleasant enough to wander about, but it looks too clinical and new to be of much interest.  Mostly because of the forced labour, the locals avoid the place.

Kuthodaw Paya

We spent the rest of the afternoon looking at various temples.  The golden topped Pagodas and the golden Buddha’s that they contain are beautiful to look at and interesting, but it’s the small differences and local customs that strike me.  

At the Kuthodaw Paya, there are 729 marble slabs, each in its own little white painted Stupa, which hold the entire 15 books of the Tripitaka (Buddha’s teachings).  It’s an amazing achievement to build the place and it’s very photogenic. 

We came across a large group of young nuns who had just finished their Initiation Ceremony.  Most Myanmar people spend at least seven days in a Monastery or a Nunnery.  It’s a tradition to do this before they are married and the majority go through the process before they are eighteen.  The Initiation Ceremony takes between 3 and 5 days and involves inviting relatives and friends around for snacks to meet the young person.  

On the last day of the celebrations, the novice’s hair is shaved off (both boys and girls), they don their robes, pick up their begging bowls and go off to the Monastery or Nunnery, where they may stay for the minimum seven days or their whole lives.  The Nuns are very picturesque in their pink robes.

Novice Nuns

Buddhist Monks are everywhere and are both photogenic and fascinating. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve started to stalk them.   In their purest form, Monks are supposed to own nothing apart from a robe and a begging bowl, but many have flashy mobile phones and I’m trying to get a picture of one taking a “selfie”.  Also, I think that it’s interesting when they are doing normal things like smoking or reading a newspaper – Buddha help them if I see one heading for a toilet.

By the end of the day, we’d visited lots of temples and we were grateful for the opportunity to stretch our legs and walk up the 230 metre high Mandalay Hill.  There’s a series of steps that wind up the side of the hill, passing vendors selling drinks and snacks.  At several points there are shrines, on which has a huge standing Buddha pointing down at the city of Mandalay – Buddha apparently visited Mandalay Hill and predicted that a great city would be founded below the hill.

At the top of the hill is another temple, where hundreds of tourists flock each day to watch the sunset.  There’s a car park 50 metres below the hilltop and most tourists are driven there, then take an escalator up to the top – we’re glad that we walked.  It was mildly interesting to watch the tourists, but the sunset wasn’t the highlight of my life. 

We had a full-on day and we were all templed-out, so we had a quick meal in the hotel and had an early night.

13 January 2016   Mandalay, Myanmar
Moe Moe met us in the hotel reception and insisted on showing Glenys how to prepare Thanaka, which is a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark.  It’s a distinctive feature of the culture of Myanmar - most women & girls have it applied to their faces and sometimes their arms.  It is also used by some men and boys. 

Making Thanka Cream

Thanaka cream has been used by Burmese women for over 2000 years.  It has a fragrant scent somewhat similar to sandalwood.  The creamy paste is applied to the face in attractive designs, the most common form being a circular patch on each cheek, nose, sometimes made stripy with the fingers or patterned in the shape of a leaf, often also highlighting the bridge of the nose with it at the same time.  

Apart from cosmetic beauty, Thanaka also gives a cooling sensation and provides protection from sunburn.  It is believed to help remove acne and promote smooth skin.

We were driven down to the Irrawaddy River, where Moe Moe led us on-board a 50 foot river boat, which, to our surprise, was just for us.  The trip up the river to Mingun took over an hour and it was very cold, which we weren’t really prepared for.  On the way, we saw huge rafts of bamboo being floated down the river.  Moe Moe said that they sometimes have illegal teak tree trunks hidden beneath the bamboo.  Another enterprise on the river is digging sand from the river banks and transporting it back to Mandalay for building materials. The river is part of life with ladies washing clothes at many places along the river bank.

The main attraction at Mingun is a huge stupa that King Bodawpaya started to build in 1790s - it was intended to be 150 metres high.  He used thousands of slaves and prisoners of war and the local people were taxed heavily to raise money for the massive project.  The work halted in 1819 when the king died.  They had only completed the rectangular base to a height of fifty metres and it is massive.  We saw a replica of what it would have been and it would have been very, very impressive.

The remains of the Mingun Stupa

Unfortunately, an earthquake in 1838, put large splits in the structure and it’s now a little unstable.  We walked around the base which is about 100 metres on each side and then arrived at a set of steps with a very large notice forbidding everyone from climbing to the top of the structure.  In a typical Myanmar contradiction, the steps next to this forbidding notice are very well maintained with a gleaming stainless steel hand rail.

Of course, we just had to go up, leaving Moe Moe at the bottom guarding our shoes – one always has to go bare-foot when entering religious places.  It was a steep climb and we were surprised to find about a hundred other intrepid law breakers at the top including a large group of Buddhist monks.  There’s a great view from the top of the surrounding Temples and Stupas.

For your edification: A Temple is a place to meditate that may have Pagodas or Stupas within its compound.  A Pagoda is a building, often with an odd number of overlapping roofs and often contains a Shrine.  A Stupa is a solid structure often with a pointed top; some contain Buddha Relics or other religious artefacts.  A Buddha Relic is a part of Buddha’s body, which was taken after his death - examples are hair, teeth and bones.   A Shrine is a small a holy place dedicated to Buddha (or a Nat) at which they are worshipped or venerated.  A Nat is a spirit – not really connected to Buddhism, but most Myanmar people believe in Nats and have shrines in their homes.

We were taken to see the world’s largest “uncracked” bell – apparently there is a larger bell in Moscow, but it is cracked… Further along the road, we visited a Shrine/Temple which commemorates a monk who could recite the whole Tripitaka (Buddha’s teachings) from memory.  I guess that the monk is venerated in a similar way that the Catholics treat their saints.

Hsinbyume Paya

We visited a large temple called the Hsinbyume Paya, which is an impressive white-washed building with seven wavy terraces.  This is supposed to represent the seven mountains around Mount Meru (the mountain that stands at the centre of the universe.) It’s very photogenic.

After a slightly shorter (and warmer) boat ride back to Mandalay, we had a meal at a restaurant called Mingalabar on 71st street between 28th and 29th streets.  It was similar in that we had lots of Myanmar dishes, but it was more touristy and the food wasn’t as good as yesterday. 

Moe Moe took us to her Aunt’s house, which is the sandal making district.  It was a nice simple wooden house with two stories - jam packed next to other homes.  Moe Moe showed us the two family shrines – one for the Nats (spirits) and one with a statue of a Buddha.  

We had a walk around the local area, looking at people manufacturing sandals by hand.  Whole families work for each business, with some businesses making the finished product while other families concentrate on making components such as straps and even shoe boxes.  There’s a nice feeling of a community that helps each other.

We were driven to Amarapura, which used to be the royal capital of King Bodawpaya, (the guy who started building the huge Stupa at Mingun.)

Our first stop was at a weaving operation where they make silk longhis.  The looms are all hand operated and the women get paid when they complete a longhi, which for the more complicated ones may take three months.  They produce some beautiful material and a hand woven silk bridal outfit can cost $1,000US.  Thankfully, Glenys restrained herself.

U Bein Bridge

U Bein Bridge is one of Myanmar’s most photographed places.  It’s a 1.2 kilometre long bridge over the shallow Lake Taungthaman, and it’s completely made of teak.  After 200 years, most of the 1,000 teak poles supporting the bridge are original.  The bridge is famous for the saffron robed monks who wander back and forth between the two monasteries on either side of the lake.  However, now-a-days, it’s 2,000 tourists who wander across the bridge each day and I suspect that the monks that we saw were all tourists as well.

It was a pleasant place to stroll and I did some productive Monk-stalking.  Just before sunset, we hired a small boat and along with a hundred other boats, we jostled for position to take the perfect sunset shot.  Thank goodness we took a cold bottle of beer with us because it was a long wait on a hard wooden seat.

I’m starting to come down with a bad cold and we were both feeling a bit weary, so when we got back to the hotel, we ordered room service and had an early night.

14 January 2016   Mandalay, Myanmar
We have been woken each morning to a faint, irregular, but persistent chink-chink-chink, which sounds like a badly made clock.  It’s take us a couple of days to find out that the noise is the sound of people hammering gold leaf in the streets behind the hotel.

Breakfast here is an odd, but pleasant affair.  There’s normally a cauldron of Mohinga, which is a soup made from fish and is the traditional breakfast of Myanmar.  Dotted around the cauldron are small bowls containing rice noodles, chopped hard boiled eggs, lime and an assortment of other titbits to spoon into the soup - it’s delicious.

Monks queue for their breakfast

In addition, there are a range of noodle dishes and curries and, for western tastes, scrambled eggs and tomatoes.  There’s bread, butter and jam, but the bread is very sweet and only suitable for the “dessert” after the rest of the huge breakfast.  It all tastes so good that I find it hard to stop and, combined with the huge meals at lunchtime, I expect to be 16 stone by the end of our holiday.

Moe Moe and Win picked us up at nine o’clock and whisked us off to a monastery in Amarapura called Maha Ganayon Kyaung.  This monastery is home to 1,500 monks, half of whom get fed every morning in dining rooms where the public is allowed to watch.  The monks form two lines at 10:15 precisely and then slowly walk along a road and into the dining area.  

The poor monks have to walk past hundreds of tourists with huge cameras, who are all trying to get the best photo of a Buddhist Monk.  I found it very intrusive and felt sorry for the monks, but it did give me some marvellous opportunities in my Monk-stalking.  The trick was to try to get a picture without any other tourists in the frame and I managed to get a few good ones.  

We were driven to a small ferry across a tributary of the Irrawaddy and climbed on board a horse and cart to be taken around the sights of the old city of Inwa, which was the capital of the Bamar people from 1364 to 1841.

A little history is needed here.   Myanmar is a collection of ethnic groups and tribes that have been in both harmony and conflict with each other for thousands of years (in some regions the local indigenous people are still fighting the government army).  The main ethnic groups are the Bamar, Shen , Chin, Kachin, Kayin, Kayh and Mon, these are further split into hundreds of tribes, many with their own customs and language.  

Inwa Region

The most powerful group is the Bamar, who live on the flat lands from Yangon to Mandalay and the current military government is mostly Bamar. The other groups tend to live in the outlying mountainous areas of the country and are fiercely proud of their heritage. When the British invaded and colonised the country, they focused on the Bamar controlled regions (hence “Burma”) and left the other groups manage themselves because they were too difficult to control.

Our horse and cart trundled around various temples, stupas and pagodas.   Bagaya Kyaung is a lovely monestary made from teak; and Maha Aungmye Bonzan is an impressive brick and stucco monastery built by a queen in 1822.  There’s no sign that this was a major city, it’s lovely country side with rice fields and small villages in between the old monuments.  Water buffalo and oxen are used to plough the land and oxen pull carts to transport the produce.

After a very nice lunch by the side of the river, we were taken back to the car and onto a pottery making area, where they (errr…) make pots out of clay.  We had a stop at a lovely Nunnery, which was very peaceful and unlike the monasteries that we’ve visited, the nuns seemed to be learning something rather than aimlessly wandering about like the monks.  

After a quick look at Sagaing Hill Monastery, with scores of Buddhas lined up on a curved terrace, we lost the will to do any more.  My Man-Flu is getting worse and I was feeling very drained, so we were back at the hotel by 17:00.  I couldn’t face going out for a meal, so we had room service again – chicken sandwiches.  I must have been feeling bad because I couldn’t face even one beer.

Chrysanthemums on a Bike

15 January 2016   Mandalay to Hsipaw, Myanmar
We had an early start with our driver, Win, picking us up at half past seven.  After a restless night, I was feeling a little better, but was still suffering from Man-Flu.   We had a one hour drive to Pyin Oo Lwin, stopping briefly to look at a place where the locals gather to sell flowers, mostly Chrysanthemums.  The vendors carry huge bundles of the flowers on their motorbikes from the farms in Pyin Oo Lwin and buyers drive up from Mandalay to purchase the blooms mostly for temples.

Win dropped us off at the Pyin Oo Lwin market, which is huge.  We wandered the crowded, narrow aisles admiring the colourful displays of clothing, fruit, vegetables, steamed noodles and dried fish.  Now that we have arrived in the Northern Shan region, Glenys bought herself a nice Shan longhi.  Groups of young nuns weaved their way through the crowd chanting a song and stopping to accept donations from stall holders and the people shopping.  The town is a popular place for tourists to visit from Mandalay, and the enterprising locals operate horse drawn carriages that look like stage coaches.

We went to the Kandawgyi Botanical Gardens which were created by a couple of British people in 1915 and look like the grounds of a stately home in England.  Paths meander through wooded areas, past ornamental gardens and the central piece is a large lake complete with swans.  There’s a very good orchid house and an aviary.  It was a very pleasant way to spend a couple of hours away from the hustle and bustle of Mandalay.

After lunch at a very nice restaurant, we had a four hour drive along a very winding road to Hsipaw.  This region of Myanmar is very dry and the dust is oppressive in some places.  There are teak trees being grown everywhere and their large leaves are all covered in a thick layer of the fine dust.

As in most east-Asian countries, the locals drive very erratically, with motor bikes weaving in and out of the traffic.  The road is a major highway to China, so there are many big trucks driving along the narrow road, making it difficult to go at a reasonable speed without facing a premature death.  

They drive on the right hand side of the road and have some bizarre habits.  If a driver thinks that it’s safe for someone to overtake him, then he puts on his left hand indicator (which also means that you want to turn left across the oncoming traffic).  If he thinks that it’s impossible for someone to overtake, then he puts on his right indicator.  This is totally opposite to any other country where you would put on your right indicator to signal to someone to overtake, meaning “I am pulling over to the nearside of the road”.  

Three Monks On A Bike

We called in at a village temple for a quick look.  It was very impressive with all the walls covered with small mirrors making it shine in the sun.  While we were there I noticed that the monks around here drive motor bikes, (which seems contrary to their humble life with no possessions), so I went into Monk-stalking mode, and managed to get a nice photograph of Three-Monks-On-A-Bike.

The Nai House Resort hotel is very nice with reasonable rooms, but it’s definitely colder up here.  We went for a walk around Hsipaw, which is a dusty little town with a surprising amount of shops - I guess that it must be the main town for the area.  We stopped off at the Café Terrace restaurant for a couple of beers overlooking the river which was very nice, but a little tourist enclave. 

We had dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was good food, but expensive compared to other places.  It’s all relative of course – the sweet and sour chicken cost 5,000 Kyat ($4.50 US), but didn’t include rice, so I threatened to walk out and they quickly included the rice.  I suppose I’d been happier if the restaurant had been inside and warm.   Instead, we were outside and it was bloody freezing - I had to go back to our room and get my waterproof hiking jacket to put on top of the two thin fleeces that I was already wearing.