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.

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