Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Potters field in the heart of Burma

Thursday, September 25, 2014
On the Irrawaddy River

We left Mandalay as the sun rose behind us. We could see the payas, temples and stupas in the distance, shining through the morning haze.

Now we began to see small villages on the shore and people on the banks and in their boats. The scenes look unchanged as if a snap shot from an ancient past.

The river shows the contrast of this place, as women wash clothes on the banks, men plow fields with oxen and wooden plows while and overloaded tug brings the modern world upstream from Yangon (Rangoon) to Mandalay
We went downstream for 50 miles from Mandalay to Yandabo past a country side that was preparing to plant.Teams of oxen were pulling wooden plows while the farmers stood on them to push them into the dirt. In some cases rows of people were on their hands and knees planting.

For a while there were microwave towers and occasional water pumping stations, then all vestiges of the modern era were left behind. We became time travelers, moving through an ancient subsistence time. There were a few anachronisms, such an engine on a dugout or plastic bags or maybe the shirt the farmer was wearing over his Longyi (traditional wrap/skirt).

In Yandabo we came ashore to the usual heat and humidity. We walked by walls of pots waiting to be transported to market. This was a town whose economy was built on potters and it has the wealth to have a school and 5 teachers. We met one teacher and later I ate some salad and some chick peas at his house. 

We saw a young man mixing clay and sand with his feet. His family is the clay supplier for all the potter.

Next we watched a woman skillfully throw a pot while a man pumped the potter’s wheel with his feet. Here is a video of the woman making a pot: 
Woman making pot in Yandabo Myanmar
They do not make pots in the rainy season, but that season is ending. There are 30 potter families in the village, each making their specialty items and they all share the spot where they fire them. It is not exactly a kiln but a carefully made pile of straw wood and dirt a layered over the pots.
For the larger community kiln they gather around 3000 pots, perhaps the work of a few days for the village although I am not sure, and build a pile of straw and wood. Each family contributes to the pile. 

The pots they make are for utilitarian use but the ones we saw had a grace and appeal. They are dark gray but turn terra cotta when fired. The mistakes are use to build fences and to make cooking places.

Here are a couple of videos of the children singing: 
School Children singing in Yandabo Myanmar
School Children singing Brother John in Burmese

The children were released from school for lunch when we arrived and a group of them sang to us, a traditional song and Brother John in Burmese. We sang it back to them in English. It has become our group’s go to song since the orphanage in Mandalay.

The children first learn about pottery by making small animals. They an to show us the ones they were proud of. One young boy brought his copy book in which he had written two English words, leg and camp. I read them back to him and praised him. He was so proud. This town was not in our guide book and there were no beggars, no store, no vendors. Although there were lots of cute little pottery animals, the concept of selling them was not in their culture. We had been asked not to give them anything because they do not want to turn them into the beggar/vendor culture that had become part of Mandalay. I hope they can stay open and innocent. I think the novelty of our visits will wear off. I am afraid it will change them.

 We walked to the boat and left Yandabo.

 From Yandabo we continued downriver to Bagan. At one time the English called it Pagan, but it was changed back to Bagan. the map above shows the route we will take.
Back on the boat we learned how to tie a Longyi and apply Thanaka. It took practice to get the Longyi to stay up. The Longyi is a long tube of cloth. You fold it on one hip and tuck it in on the other. The trick I learned was to roll down the top so that it would stay tucked in.
After a long couple of days and a good dinner we had an unfortunately long and boring lecture on Bagan. The speaker was a professor from Bagan, English was not her first or second language, and everything she said, which was said in a quiet soothing voice, was already in our guide book. I did not fall out of my chair, but almost.
Mengala ba

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Time Traveler

Wednesday, September 24, 2014 
As I type, three young monks bathe and play in the river. Their language is unknown, but the sound of children at play is universal. They are swimming down the rope that ties us to shore. Now the city wakes and I hear boats and horns and the cars and buses move about. A splash below me as a young monk dives in. Joy in the morning.

After breakfast we boarded a bus and headed to a metal works where we saw them making fine silver items.

 The bus took us to Ava where we caught a ferry across the river.
At the other side an old lady  was washing clothes as we disembarked. 

From there we took a horse cart to Mae Nu Oak Kyaung Monastery. We were surrounded by venders as we got in the carts and they rode bikes alongside us alogn the road. 
 Along the way we had a first glimpse of the countryside and an idea of the world we would be seeing. The primitive wood plows pulled by oxen were a scene that has played out for a thousand years.

The vendors were persistent, but we did have a chance to see the ruins of the Mae Nu Oak Kyaung Monastery. It was a ruing, but there was beauty in the light an colors.

After the monastery we walked through a nearby village and saw a bit of how the people live. 

Primitive kitchens, simple houses with dirt floors. 
We saw them weaving bamboo rattan for roof shingles and later for a fence. 
 There was a bar that had a television, and a betel nut shop where they showed us how a "chew" is prepared. People chew it throughout Asia for its narcotic effect. Their stained teeth are a sure sign of a user. There was also a travelers water stand, a sight we would become used to throughout the country.

We went back to the boat thinking about the country and people we had seen. It felt like we were in a place that was lost in time, it seem as though it would have been almost the same 100 or 1000 years ago. At lunch we talked about how it felt like walking in the past, which led to a discussion of where we would go for time travel. I have trouble deciding, but Kathy’s point about Paris in the 20’s seems good. I think America in the 40’s might be exciting. I don’t think I would want to be in a century or place where women are possessions.

After a rest we went to see the cotton and silk weavers and I bought a scarf.
Next was a quick trip to the Mahagandayon Monastery. The monk spoke English and told us about his life. Classes, meditation, and for the young ones a sneak into town for coffee after their last meal at noon, when they were hungry. Lightening cut our visit short and we took the bus to Taungthaman Lake and the U Bein Bridge.  

It began to rain and we waited in a tea house where I tried Burmese coffee. Condensed milk and an odd taste.. it will not be repeated.  The U Bein Bridge is the worlds longest teak footbridge. We went out in the boats and took pictures, but the clouds obscured the sunset which is said to be beautiful. As we came in it began to rain and the skies opened up as we got on the buses. 

It was dark when we boarded the boat. Our landing on the Irrawaddy had been improved during the time we were there in Mandalay. They whitewashed the wall and added metal handrails the last day. I think Viking will continue to improve it, but as long as the residents use it for a dump, it will still remain a little rustic. 10 years from now perhaps there will be a dock, although that may not be practical in a flood plain river.

After dinner a local group of two guitars, percussion and two singers played 60’s music. Shall we dance, YES. I danced more than I have in years. One of the waiters was quite the dancer and he took me up with him. For the rest of the trip the crew referred to me as the dancer.

My sleep was restless as I am still adjusting to the time and the heat. Tomorrow, a day traveling the river.

Mengala ba

Monday, December 15, 2014

On the banks of the Irrawaddy

Sagaing, South of Mandalay
Tuesday, September 23, 2014.

We are anchored on the banks of the Irrawaddy which is actually called the Ayeyarwady, in Sagaing, South of Mandalay. We have an all day excursion to Mandalay today. This morning the sun rose as I drank my Latte on deck. The people on the banks began their day washing in the river and brushing their teeth. The women did laundry and the thwacking of the clothes against a rock had a comforting rhythm. The first light of day is the only time the temperature and humidity are bearable, but this does not last long.

We went by bus through Mandalay. The road by the river was lined with small huts, the temporary homes of farmers who will move them when the water level goes down after the end of monsoons.
Our first stop was went to the Shwenandaw Monastery that had been part of the Royal palace, but had been moved. Because of fires that destroyed the Royal Palace, it is the only remaining part of the original structure.
It was a teak structure with intricate carvings that showed the effects of years of a hot humid climate. Our Texan told them they should pressure wash it. I had visions of the intricate carvings being blown away. There was a gilded Buddha and an Ivory Buddha there. Throughout Myanmar we would find them everywhere. Because this site has not been dramatically altered, it has a chance to become a World Heritage site.

Next we went to the Kuthodaw Paya and Sandamuni Paya, which are called the biggest book in the world.

They contain the entire works of Buddha transcribed from manuscripts written on dried palm leaves. Their compilation was the work of a committee of over 200 monks convened by the King in 1860 to preserve the teachings of Buddha. The LED lights around the Buddha's head is part of the continuing modernization. I suppose it is much like the moving of the stained glass windows from my old church to the new one. Places of worship, that are in use, get changed.


It took over 2000 monks eight years to carve the entire teachings of Buddha on stone tablets which are placed in a structure called Dhamma ceti.

They were filming a commercial and I had my picture taken with two Myanmar movie stars. They were gracious and the young woman spoke beautiful English.

We ran into a group of children who were excited to see western tourist and gathered to pose for a picture. One girl was wearing thanaka, a paste made from the ground bark of several trees that is used for cosmetic reasons, but also to prevent sunburn and heal various skin aliments.

Our next stop at the Myanmar Buddhist Monastery Orphanage came during lunch on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is based on the lunar calendar and is usually on a Monday or Tuesday.

The boys were lined up with their metal plates being served by older boys. The boys had tried to sing Frère Jacques to us in Burmese, but could not remember the words.

We recognized the tune they were trying and sang it to them in French and then English. The boys were delighted. I remembered singing Frère Jacques it in French on a felucca in Egypt as people from several boats joined in. This simple song is a part of childhood known all over the world. I bet the boys will know it for the next group.

These boys were orphans, being raised by Buddhist Monks. They were considered lucky because they were getting an education, had a safe place to eat and sleep. Away from the cities there is no structured place for orphans.
Lunch was family style at the Royal Mandalay restaurant, with western toilets, wonderful family style food that seemed a combo of Thai and Chinese. I had coke zero. It was the only time we ate at a local restaurant while we were on the boat.

Then we went to the Mandalay Royal Palace. The walls were original, but the palace had been destroyed by the Japanese and then English bombing in WWII. You can tell from the sign that there has been a military dictatorship for some time in Myanmar.

Crushing enemies is a common theme.

The post WWII reconstruction of the palace was similar to the original, but like much of the other sites in this country, it used enhancements that were modern.

The colors and lines were beautiful.

 And we watched them filming a commercial during the heat of the day.


This has been a long day, full of movement through the city and views of many different sites.


It was hot, and we were getting tired. We had saved the best for last. Our final stop was in the craft district.

We saw the place where young men made gold leaf, by beating gold between steel plates for hours. It is a young man’s job and their bodies are used up by age 40. Here is a link to a short video: Pounding Gold Leaf in Mandalay

Young women were packaging the leaf for sale and applying it to craft items.I bought gold leaf, which is used to put on the Buddha we saw the day before and also on crafts. I bought a primitive turtle and a box. 
We walked to the marble carvers. All marble carvings in Myanmar come from this street, Jungle Street. The carvers were young thin and strong, with their face close to the marble for the fine work. A chisel and hammer was use for the rough work and power tools for the fine. The dust was everywhere and we wore masks. The workers did not and their long term fate is only now beginning to be understood.
They didn't just carve the stone, they painted the gaudy dragon and other images we saw at Payas, stupas and temples, and etched and painted the texts from Buddha that we saw at monasteries. We saw many carvings with square blank faces that were waiting for the best carver to complete.  Most sites seemed to specialize with one statue in many sizes, or a type of statue, but there were several larger places with many unique carvings.
It was a short walk to the wood and fabric craft place. There were old and new wood carvings and the ornate embroidered objects you as associate with this part of the world.
I was so tired by the time we got to the craft place that my mind could not take in all that I was seeing. I did take pictures, and if I could go back, I might buy something from the shelf above.

We bused back to the river, and walked passed the monastery by the bank, where a young monk watched us pass. A group of young boys were playing what looked like volley ball with a rattan ball called a Chilone. We went past tables of drying charcoal briquettes to board.

Before we showered we were given a short lecture about the rest of our trip, when we would leave the relatively modern area of Mandalay. We were told about safety, not touching animals, not drinking or eating food from the villages. The bigger point was to not spoiling the country by giving gifts to the people because that will create beggars. In Mandalay we were followed by beggars and they lined the shore because they understood the concept of rich tourist. In the places we will go they have never had tourist. We were encouraged to be friendly and talk to the people, some were beginning to learn English. They asked us not to teach them to beg. It would kill their way of life. 

After dinner, there was a troupe of college students and their teachers playing traditional music and dancing. We were all very tired, but our guides told us that tourists were rare and the schools teaching the traditional dances needed our support and the dancers needed to see our interest. It was a theme that would follow us through the trip as our group constantly brought aboard local craft and artists to help support tradition along the river.

The music at first seemed atonal and random, but as my ear adjusted, I began to feel it. The dancers added to the understanding. Their costumes were elaborate and beautiful, their faces were so expressive and their movements were both graceful and abrupt at the same time. The movements were rapid, the hand and arm moves seemed impossible and the point at which they paused was like a painting. It was an extraordinary physical performance and they did not break a sweat. They told the story with their faces. Their teacher and Momo, one of our guides, danced at the end and their enjoyment of the dance was a delight. 
Here is a link to a brief video of one dance: Dancers on the Boat - Mandalay .

A wonderful end to a very long day. There was so much to see that I wish this day had been two and there had been time to wander through the carvers and wood shops. But the dance in the evening and the lecture on board gave us our first hint that we would have to be more that tourists. Myanmar (Burma in my mind) has been so closed for so long that the concept of tourist is new and preservation of old ways in in danger. We will get to see a country that will change in unknown ways over the next decade. We are learning that this will be a joint education process.

Mengala ba.