A Travellerspoint blog

February 2013

Royal Mandalay

sunny 36 °C

The one-time capital of the Kingdom of Burma still has the expansive Royal Palace at its core, but it’s a shadow of its former self and is now simply a collection of garishly decorated unfurnished buildings surrounded by a massive military base. More interesting is the overlooking pagoda that sits atop Mandalay Hill and houses an enormous golden Buddha. This sycophantic icon is supposedly pointing the way to the Royal Palace and the King…
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But the King was deposed by the British Empire in the late nineteenth century and he died in exile in India. Mandalay may have been a glorious capital in its day but it is now a scruffy third world city which lacks the old colonial charm of its southern counterpart, Rangoon. However, it’s not lacking in monasteries and other religious edifices. Nearly one thousand eight hundred stupas each house a page of the world’s largest book – with the words of Buddha cast in stone…
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And there is a fascinating all teak pagoda which was at one time covered with gold and turned into a royal palace…
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Burmese teak is world renowned for its strength and longevity and this 1.2 kilometer U Bein bridge proves the point…
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Across the Irrawaddy River lies the foundation of the world’s largest pagoda. This pile of millions of bricks, shattered by an earthquake last November, was destined to be just the base of a pagoda that would rise higher than the surrounding mountains…
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The building may have been a touch over ambitious, but the bell designed to hang at its peak was equally gargantuan. It survived the earthquake and is now the world’s largest un-cracked bell, weighing in at ninety tons…
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Mandalay’s drab and dusty streets are livened by masses of colourful monks and pink-robed nuns and we visited a school run by a monastery. The Burmese government spends just 2% of its annual budget on health and education combined, (and more than 40% on its military), so education is largely left to clerics and foreign volunteers. Buddha, on the other hand, receives a great deal of financial support – especially in gold. Male worshippers, (women are forbidden), have plastered so much gold leaf onto this Buddha that he is now worth more than the Greek and Italian governments combined…
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We have now left Asia for Provence, France, but stay tuned for a final look back at the wonderful Burmese people.

Posted by Hawkson 01:31 Archived in Myanmar Comments (4)

The Road to Mandalay

sunny 36 °C

Rudyard Kipling’s famous 1890 poem ‘On the road to Mandalay’ paints a dreamily romantic picture of the ancient Burmese capital. It begins:
“By the old Moulmein Pagoda, Lookin' lazy at the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin, and I know she thinks o' me."

And ends;
"On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin-fishes play,
And the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay."

Although Kipling had lived in India and Burma for 7 years when he wrote this poem it seems that he may have been geographically challenged. Mandalay is nowhere near the sea, it doesn’t have a bay, and if it did, China wouldn’t be ’crost it. However, on the plus side, there is a road to Mandalay. In fact there is a smart new toll-highway that runs nearly four hundred miles straight from Rangoon to Mandalay. Motorbikes, bikes, pedestrians and all forms of animal drawn vehicles are prohibited from using it – which probably explains why virtually the only vehicles using it are motorbikes, bikes and ox-carts – often travelling against the flow. But travelling on any road in Mandalay is quite an adventure. Traffic officially drives on the right. However, as most vehicles are imported from Japan, Thailand and Malaysia, (where they drive on the left), Burmese motorists are frequently on the wrong side of the road.

Motoring laws in Burma are an absolute joke, (assuming they exist), and the roads of Mandalay are totally chaotic. With only two sets of traffic lights and one traffic cop in a city of a million people – it’s a free for all…
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No one has right of way at any intersection – there are neither Stop nor Give Way signs - so everyone plays chicken, and many of the vehicles are dangerously overloaded…
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And there are plenty of clapped out trucks that are at least 50 – 60 years old…
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Motorbikes, bikes and bicycle rickshaws weave recklessly in and out of traffic and we cannot imagine how many accidents there must be. The most dangerous looking vehicles are the minibuses where dozens of passengers precariously sit on the roof and cling to the sides…
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Rickshaws are still a major form of transport, often carrying loads that would be excessive even for a small pickup truck...
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And there are still plenty of horse carts and ox-carts...
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Traffic on the river is equally chaotic and the banks of the Irrawaddy in Mandalay are jammed with decrepit boats being loaded and unloaded…
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So – the Road to Mandalay: Not in the least romantic and nothing like Kipling’s poem, but it is certainly interesting, As for the rest of Mandalay – time will tell.

Posted by Hawkson 02:20 Archived in Myanmar Comments (4)

A Burmese Folk Tale

sunny 36 °C

Once upon a time in a faraway place, the women of the remote jungles of southern Asia decided that their menfolk would find them even more irresistible if they could make their necks as long as giraffes’. They pulled this way and that, as hard as they could, but nothing worked – they had short stubby necks. Then, one day, while they were frantically tugging at a young girl’s head they dislocated her vertebrae. Now they could stretch her neck as long as they wanted, but with a broken spine the poor girl couldn’t hold up her head. So the villagers braced her neck with golden rings…
The menfolk were in such awe of the long-necked beauty that the other women wanted to stretch their daughter’s necks as well. And soon it became a dangerous and disfiguring custom that is practiced to this day...
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Now, while the giraffe necked women were stretching their necks to catch their men, the men of Inle Lake were trying to catch fish to impress their women. The most successful fishermen caught the most beautiful women and some soon discovered that it was best to use both hands to pull in their nets – which meant they had to row with their legs...
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Now all this happened thousands of years ago, but when time stopped still at Inle Lake the people just carried on fishing as they had always done. Some used gill nets…
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Others used hook and line and some threw their nets, while many used baskets to trap the fish which they could spear using multi-barbed harpoons...
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Even the women learned to row with their legs...
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But perhaps the most unusual fishing practice at Inle was to fish the farmer’s fields…
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Yes – you read that right (and a catchy title for a book it could be: “Field Fishing in Myanmar”).
But how to fish in a field?
Most of Lake Inle is only a couple of metres deep and the surrounding arid hills are unsuitable for crops needing constant irrigation. So, instead of trying to take the water to the fields, the farmers decided to bring the fields to the water…
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The shallow warm lake, naturally fertilized by the people and animals that live in and on it, is a veritable incubator for weeds, and many, like the water hyacinth, have floatation bladders to keep them on the surface. By gathering together huge rafts of floating weeds and anchoring them to the lake bed with long bamboo poles the farmers of Inle create floating fields which can be dressed with mud dredged from the intervening channels. Crops like tomatoes, cucumbers and beans are planted on the floating mud banks and thrive in the waterborne environment…

Floating fields cover thousands of acres of Inle lake and all of the fieldwork and harvesting has to be done by canoe, but at least no weeding is necessary between the rows. Here's a farmer's wife taking the crop from the 'field'...
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But all work in this watery world is done by boat...
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...even housebuilding...
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Now, before we move on to Mandalay, some answers to reader’s questions…
Dotted around Inle Lake are resort hotels built on stilts, just like the natives’ houses. But, unlike the locals’ hovels, our thatched cottage was beautifully furnished with all mod cons including a large flat screen TV, (showing BBC and many international channels), a full bathroom with constant hot water, air conditioning and a mini bar. Our cottage is the one on the extreme left…
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The resort had an excellent restaurant, and throughout our visit we had a private long boat to ferry us around the lake.
Two worlds exist side by side in today’s Burma. It is one of the most undeveloped and poorest nations on earth and average wages are about two dollars a day. We spend much more than that each day. We fly from place to place in modern European aircraft, (even if the airports are somewhat rudimentary); we are chauffeured around in air-conditioned cars; (and have ridden in ox-carts); we stay in stylish hotels and eat in excellent restaurants – and we hope that the money we spend ends up helping the lovely people who have made our visit so enjoyable.

Posted by Hawkson 19:01 Archived in Myanmar Comments (7)

Inle – the Land Time Forgot

sunny 37 °C

Three thousand feet above sea level in the central Burmese Highlands there is a forgotten world; a land and a lake where time stopped a thousand years ago.
Cut off from the rest of the world by mountains, jungles and deserts, the peoples of Inle Lake carried on with their simple, though austere, life, unconcerned that the world was advancing without them. They built bamboo huts on stilts in the shallow lake so that they would be near to their food and safe from tigers and other wildlife…
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The lake supplied them with all their of needs: It was a watery highway for their narrow wooden boats and it provided fresh water for drinking and bathing…
And for washing clothes and dishes…
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It was also their sewer, (but least said about that the better).
The lake bed gave them clay to throw pots on rudimentary stone wheels…
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While the surrounding forests provided wood for their fires and kilns…
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This is a wood-fired pottery kiln circa 987AD which should be in an anthropological museum...
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And here are the pots being loaded in canoes to go to the market...
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The lake’s lotus plants gave them fibres from which to spin yarn and weave cloth on bamboo looms, and, of course, the lake provided them with an abundance of fish and shrimps…
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All in all, a thousand years ago, the residents of Inle Lake had a life that was little different from many agrarian communities around the known world – it was a hard life with a short life span and little hope of anything better...
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We are spending several days visiting the folks who live on and around Lake Inle and soon we will introduce you to the giraffe-necked women, the famous leg rowers, and the farmers whose fields actually float on the surface of the lake – and if you think that any of this is to entertain us tourists…think again.

We are now trapped in a time warp where despite our best efforts we have had great difficulty getting the steam powered internet to download our photos. We are searching for a way back to the 21st century and will resume blogging as soon as possible.
Stay tuned for a peek into an ancient world that will truly amaze you...
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Posted by Hawkson 18:31 Archived in Myanmar Comments (5)

A Bagan Day

A photo blog of daily life in Burma

sunny 36 °C

Every day we take hundreds of photos of exotic scenes and fantastic monuments while all around us local folk are going about their business seemingly incognizant of their incredible surroundings. So, with few words, here’s a look at life for ordinary people amongst the spectacular ancient monuments of Bagan.

A young monk and his dog set off at dawn in search of alms…
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…while a watermelon seller prepares for a day at the temple…
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…and an elderly lady waits for the bus driver…
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As the morning mist clears this farmer works in a scene straight out of the middle ages…
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…these goat herders shake fruit from the trees for their animals in a biblical montage…
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...and this little boy watches ladies fetching water from the well…
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There are no supermarkets or grocers here, so vegetables come from the daily market…
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…and fish from the fishmongers…
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As the day wears on men, women and children unload rocks by hand from the barges…
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….while ladies launder hotels' sheets in the river…
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…and children play outside their meager thatched hovels on the riverbank…
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Today is a special day when young boys, novitiates, are introduced to Buddha for the first time. They are dressed as princes and ride to the temple on horseback…
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…while the more affluent ones are carried on elaborately decorated ox-carts...
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As we journey across Burma we are constantly reminded that we, in the west, enjoy a standard of living that these people cannot imagine in their wildest dreams. Yet, wherever we go, they smile at us and welcome us to their ancient land with a “Mingalabar”…
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Mingalabar to you from the lovely people of Bagan.

Posted by Hawkson 22:39 Archived in Myanmar Comments (3)

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