Welcome to the blog of the sailing yacht Sea Bunny.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Mandalay - 24 to 27 September - posted from Rebak

Travel from Bagan to Mandalay was by train.  Fortunately we were “Upper Class”, which meant we had large soft seats rather than the wooden ones in "Ordinary Class" essential for a 7-hour journey, except for Susan who always feels travel sick if not facing forward, as all the seats faced aft! When she arrived in Mandaley she was feeling pretty grim.  Mostly the scenery consisted of flat farmland interspersed with rural stations filled with people willing to sell food. The open windows provided air conditioning and the restaurant car facilities comprised numerous vendors walking up and down the train selling snacks or more substantial meals.  The ladies' skill in balancing a tray of food on their heads while walking down a swaying train was very impressive as we felt nauseous even trying to get to the loo!  On arrival at Mandalay trasnsport for the short distance to the hotel was by tuk-tuk.  In the evening we walked several blocks to a recommended restaurant, which was very smokey and the food barely eatable but the football was good.  The walk there, a few blocks, in the dusk was fairly exciting with numerous cross-roads with traffic from all directions but no traffic lights or, it seemed, traffic rules plus the enevitable pot holes. People was very helpful where there were no street signs and several trishaw drivers monitored our progress awaiting for our custom.

A one-hour river trip took us to Mingun - our transport was a substantial boat, capable of taking 50 or so - just us, our guide and the crew. A relaxing trip on the river.

Mingun Pagoda, unfinished as it was abandoned on the death of king Budawpaya in 1819, would when finished apparently have been the largest in the world rising to 500 feet, three times its present size. The base was only completed by thousands of slaves and prisoners of war.  It has subsequently suffered earthquake damage but the climb gave some great Ayeyarwady views.Our guide gave us tree branches to walk on as the ground was so hot. It is a mark of respect to even remove footwear before entering all religious sites in Myanmar so the feet could become quite tender.

Mingun also claims another "world's largest" - a bronze bell weighing about 90 tons.  This King Bodawpaya planned to go with his stupa. While it is about one third the size of the world's largest bell in Moscow, it is the largest uncracked bell in the world.  For pictures click here - our photos were not suitable.

Back in Mandalay for lunch we were guided in the mystique of Burmese cuisine, rice, curry side dishes of sauces and vegetables. Mostly too spicy and sour for our tastes. We are not lovers of loads peanut oil and mountains of shrimp paste but we always find a part to eat, occassionly only the rice.

It was to be a golden afternoon.  At the Mahamuni Paya, also originally built by King Budawpaya, there is a bronze Buddha statue that has, over the years, been so covered by gold leaf applied by devotees that its shape is totally unrecognisable.  Only the head is not so covered and is washed every morning by monks.
In keeping with custom only men are permitted to approach it and apply the gold leaf. At the same temple there are several bronze images of mainly Hindu dieties, originally looted from Angkor Wat (Cambodia) but successively looted from other resting places before ending up here.

Continuing the "golden" theme we visited a gold leaf workshop.  One ounce of gold is reduced by repeated hammering, between strips of deer skin,  to 3600 pieces of gold leaf each 1.5 inches square and apparently about 1 micrometre thick, each selling (we were told) for about 200 kyat (17 pence).  With gold at over USD 1600 per ounce the arithmetic doesn't work!

There are streets of crafts in Mandalay include marble working.  We admired and opted out of close inspection because of the dust.

The Royal Palace was destroyed during WWII but the main part was rebuilt not particularly well, and apparently using forced labour, in the 1990s for the forthcoming tourist boom of 1996.  About the only thing the reconstruction does is give an idea of the scale of the original.  The reconstruction itself seems rather a pointless use of resources.  The scale is also obvious from the moat and walls.  The road trip around the outside its 12 km.  Fortunately the "Lion Throne" which was in the palace had been removed to India by the British. and on independence was returned to the national Museum in Yangon.

Another claimed world's record was the "worlds largest book" - The entire Tripitaka are inscribed on 729 marble slabs,. Each in its own stupa in the Kuthodaw Paya. In 1900 a paper edition of the stoneorigional was printedin 38 volumes, each with 400 pages.

It is obligatory to take in the view from Mandalay Hill at sunset which would have been good, if it hadn't been for the smoke haze!

 It is expected that a boy will join a monestary for a month at about ten years old and again for a shorter while in his late teens.  The parents see this as an honour and a time of great celebration.
In Amapura, briefly the capital  before it moved to Mandaley, we visited a monastery housing 1,000 monks. . Rather than all 1000 descending on the local population with their alms bowls each morning the donors for that day come to the monastery and the monks form a queue, collect their food and other donations - toothpaste, soap etc - before eating in the refectory.

Another "world's largest" - the U Bein bridge across Taungthaman Lake- at 1300 yards the longest teak wood bridge with over 1,000 teak posts.  Somewhat restored in places with concrete footings but impressive nevertheless.  We walked across and took a boat back to savour the ambiance.

After a ferry trip across a tributary of the Ayeyarwady a horse-drawn cart along some pretty rough tracks took us to Ava and  Bagaya Kyaung, a old teak wood monastery, where monks were teaching young children in the cool dark interior.

In leafy green Sagaing where even more monasteries abound we visited a nunnery where it was apparent that Buddhist nuns are expected to do much more for themselves than are monks - they were busy preparing breakfast for the next day and are not constrained by the same amount of rules.

The Mustache brothers cabaret show is a Mandalay attraction - at least for foreign visitors.  We decided to walk the few blocks to it as taxi drivers were reluctant to take us. Half way a tuk tuk picked us up and promised to bring us back. You have the feeling that the locals know of the preformance in a front room at a certain time of day.  There are three brothers, of whom one speaks good English, together with their wives and sisters.  The show has an expected dated flavour comprises satire, song and dance and is based on traditional folk opera.

Myanmar style football
A local football game is played by two teams of three players; the objective being to keep the ball in the air, with judges scoring the efforts and a running commentary being made over a PA system.  We stopped to watch this one for a few minutes, until trucks got too impatient with the slight obstruction our car caused.


Saturday, October 8, 2011

Bagan 21 to 24 September - posted from Rebak, Langkawi

With around 2600 monuments still standing of the 4400 that were constructed over a 250 year period in the 11th to 13th centuries AD it is difficult to do any justice to Bagan in a short blog page. Here are a few images to give a flavour.

View towards the river

Dhammayangi Temple

Gawdawpalin Temple
Thatbyinnyu Temple

Ananda Phaya

The monuments, stupas, temples and monasteries are spread over an area said to be the size of Manhattan Island, surrounded by the vast agricultural area of the ancient flood plain of the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy)River. The people are not now allowed to live in the monuments but still graze their cattle around them. In fact the government moved the people from Old Bagan to a peanut field in 1990 which became New Bagan.

Buddha image Ananda Phaya
A severe earthquake in 1976 damaged many of the structures, some of which have been partially restored, several with the help of UNESCO.  Nevertheless Bagan has not made it on to the list of World Heritage sites, possibly because some of the restorations not made with UNESCO help were inappropriate in choice of materials or an inaccurate representation of the original.  Many of the murals in the temples are very faded and, where they have been restored, photography is not allowed.  Many stuccos have been damaged or stolen over the centuries.  However, Buddha statues are everywhere, some quite stunning

Our visit crisscrossed the monument area, seeing many of the main sites, as well as local villages and markets. At a lacquer ware workshop we realised that that it is applied in layers up to 14, dried between, then engraved, we lashed out and purchased some coasters for Sea Bunny.  
Myoe Daung Monastery, Old Bagan
Cart by stupas (from postcard)
One of the most rememorable and enjoyable forms of transport was a horse-drawn cart that  took us on a route past some of the monuments not accessible by car and through small villages with their farms and monasteries.
Tractors are rare
The agriculture is largely carried out without mechanisation, using bullocks to pull ploughs and carts and with most activities done by manual labour.

Sorting plum stones - a year's work
In one farm we saw three women working with a huge pile of what we were told were sour plums.  Their task was to extract the stones, which are used in Chinese medicine.  While there was a machine to do the removal of much of the flesh, final processing involved passing the stones through a series of sieves of reducing mesh.  To process the whole pile would take these women a year, working 8 hours a day.

Yangon 19 to 21 September - posted from Rebak, Langkawi

On 19 September we flew from Langkawi to KL to Yangon at the start of a 2-week tour of Myanmar (Burma).
This post, and others that will follow, about our trip has had to be delayed until after our return to Malaysia as access to the Blogspot site to upload appears to be blocked in Myanmar.  Also blocked was access to our Gmail account using Outlook (but possible by logging in direct) and access to news from the UK Telegraph online site- but the BBC was OK.  The blocked sites just show a red banner “Access is Denied”. 
One of the first things we noticed at Yangon airport was that most people including officials smiled a lot.  This was especially true of the immigration officials - very rare!
Met at the airport by our guide and driven to the Yusana Garden Hotel, public rooms very musty, very dated but the staff very friendly and helpful.
Payphone kiosk - Yangon
Collected, when refreshed the next morning, we went on a short walking tour of the city centre. The two first things that we noticed was that the country has not been taken over by outside clothing influences, the longyi (sarong) is worn by all with either shirt or blouse and that ground tree bark was worn on the face of the women to protect anainst the sun.
There is a noticable amount of old colonial architecture, some restored but much of it very drab and in a poor state of repair like the roads. 
Most of the city excaped major structural damage from cyclone Nagis in 2008.

Street sellers abound, including telephone stands consisting of a kiosk or just a table with several telephones connected to a nearby building where, for a fee, you make your call.  Mobile telephones are very expensive, apparently about USD 2000 for the phone and USD 500 for the SIM card.
From the centre we went to the Botatung Pagoda, built to contain some strands of the Buddha’s hair.  All the internal walls and the stupa are covered in gold leaf.  In fact the amount of gold leaf used in Myanmar’s pagodas and temples is incredible. The Myanmar peoples prize gold. Gold paint, gold leaf and gold jewellery. 

Manual unloading of rice from the delta
At the riverside we noticed that the longtail boats used as cross-river ferries differ from the Thai version by having fixed engines and a rudder, as well as oars for close quarters manoeuvring.  There were several small ships used for transport in the delta.  Cargo, mostly rice, is offloaded on the backs of workers each carrying a stick that is placed in the counting pile on delivery to the truck.  Some of these boats also take passengers on the overnight trip.  Each passenger is allocated a marked-out area of deck – no seats.  Food is provided from a cooking area at the stern – rather like a street stall 
Street  market scene - trade gives way to traffic
A street market in a narrow road was visited.  Some of the sellers place their goods in the centre of the road, with cars and trucks passing over them.  The main, Scott’s, covered  market was more organised with some 2,000 stalls, with some excellent cane weaving, wood carving and lacquerwork on offer.  We decided to postpone any purchases until after visits to Bagan, where lacquerwork is a speciality and to Mandalay which is a centre for wood carving.

Shwe Dagon
A highlight was an evening visit to the Shwe Dagon –the most sacred of all Buddhist sites and visible from all parts of Yangon.  The gilded central stupa is spectacular and topped with jewellery donated by the faithful including a 76 carat diamond, all left high and open to the elements. Around this mighty stupa are a facinating assortment of smaller stupa, temples, shrines and pavillions. We sat for some time absorbing the atmosphere and active reverence of the people. The rain cleared in time for us to view the sunset light refracted through the diamond, all colours of the rainbow seen by moving a few inches.
The highlights of the national museum include the gilded Lion Throne from the Mandalay Palace, which survived WWII because the British had removed it to India from where it was returned on independence. It seemed  lacking until we realised that a throne in Asia is not a special chair but a raised seating platform.  The royal regalia on view, however, does not really live up to its Lonely Planet billing as being more spectacular than the British crown jewels or, indeed, the treasures recovered in Ayutthaya (Thailand). We suspect there must be a lot more that is not on general view.
Our onward trip to Bagan was somewhat longer than expected as a problem with the aircraft led to us boarding and disembarking twice before departing some four hours late on a different aircraft, leading to a late arrival in Bagan.