The Land of the Monks, the road beyond Mandalay

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December 22nd 2006
Published: December 22nd 2006
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Beautiful paper umbrellasBeautiful paper umbrellasBeautiful paper umbrellas

Also a commonly used ornament at the top of the pagodas
Ah, the travelling life, the trying of new foods and exposing our hyperclean bodies to the dirt and normalcy which is Myanmar. And after a wonderfully tasty Nepali meal the day before which I loved, found out that it did not love me and I spent the night in the bathroom and slept the next day away fully spent. Figured it probably fixed me up and purged my system so feeling pretty good with breakfast inside my stomach was ready to conquer life outside Mandalay.

Safe inside our little Mazda pickup truck, Kurt and I sat sideways crunched in the back for our day of touring the countryside around Mandalay, the truck hardly bigger than us! Our first stop took us to a gold leaf making factory where we marvelled in the labour intensive task of producing the thinnest sheets imaginable of gold squares to be used on lacquerware or bought by those to place on the temples to gain favour. Two men demonstrated how hard it was to pound the pieces of golden rock sandwiched between sheets of skin to produce the valuable gold. For a small square, it takes about 1 hours and a larger square package can take up to 3 hours of direct pounding with a sledgehammer! No wonder it costs $100 for 100 sheets!

And not to be outdone by the gold leaf makers, we witnessed gorgeously detailed embroidery at another shop along with puppet making and wooden carvings. The last stop along the crafts trail where you don't have to buy, just look - was where there were weaving on huge archaic looms and the noise was terrific from the machines spinning the thread. Despite the bright colours in the dim light, I figured that if I had to do any one of those tasks, I would take the sewing which is done around a low square table where you can chat with your friends and pass the day away. Anyway, you dice and slice it though, the work is hard, conditions gruelling and young children are found everywhere. Lucky are the ones in their crisp green school uniforms and white blouses skipping to school and being greeted by their parents.

The road out of the city is jammed with bikes, scooters, buses, trucks and cars on the wide, wide streets over which hang newish buildings and tons of English advertising. The film of dust begins to settle over us as another day in Mandalay and area is fully in swing. The pollution is worse than in Yangon and at night when we blow our noses, it's black, but for now we head further and further away snaking along quieter roads to the verdant green rice fields with men and women wading in the waters, conical hats perched on their heads to protect them from the ever present sun. Potatoes grow in the fields close by and workers carry heavy rocks to try to make road improvements.

Everywhere along the side of the road are black market gasoline stands where prices are at least 4X as high as that of the going rate. Gas is rationed here though, leaving anyone that really needs to drive, left with no alternative, but to purchase gas illegally. The winners in this equation, those rich enough to be able to buy old vehicles which they never use except to gain their monthly gas quota and then resell the precious black gold for much, much more than they paid.

Crossing a huge bridge over the wide Ayeyardawady River, our breath is taken away by the sight of Sagaing in the distance, so surreal with its 500 stupas with their rising towers of gold shining in the sunlight that it seems Disneyland like. But it's real! In this devotely Buddhist country, Sagaing is apparently where the stressed monks and nuns go, with monasteries aplenty to go with the pagodas, the 6000 reisdent monks and nuns have much to do.

We are dropped at Sagaing Hill and realise that once again to gain our karma, we will, like the locals, have to pay for it by climbing a steep set of stairs made a little more brutal by the noonday heat. Fortunately the Buddhists had the foresight to cover almost all of these temples staircases so that the sun is not beating down directly on us. At the top we are treated to a view over the River and the view of stupa after stupa after pagoda after paya. It is almost hard to believe that there could be this many, but we know that this is also only a warm up for Bagan where there are even more.

The whole area is covered in tiny footpaths that connect pagoda to pagoda and allow for days of quiet, contemplative meandering, but we are pacing ourselves to avoid temple burn out so we enjoy the view and then come down with the locals to head on to Amarapura.

As the last royal capital, Amarapura has seen its share of history. Only 11 km south of Mandalay it feels further except it is being impacted by tourism as only a place in such close proximity to a major city can be. When we go to see the monks lining up to get their morning meal where they are supposed to sit in silence, the hordes of camera snapping tourists holding lens close to the monks faces are just too much to take. We have dubbed it tourists behaving badly and are to see much of it here in Myanmar.

The same feeling is present at U Bein's Bridge. as the most photographed place in Myanmar, at 1.2 km, it is also the world's longest teak span. Build over 200 years ago at the height of the teak trade, it used the highly prized teak logs, but now, as now it earns its keep in tourism. As you drive up you are beseiged by vendors who try to sell you the endless round of postcards and other trinkets. The shoreline of the lake is covered in vendors stalls and restaurants dot the shoreline during tourist season when the waters are higher.

If you come well before sunset you will have the place to yourself and you can stroll across this incredible bridge which truly is photogenic listening to the birds sing and watching the farmers across the delta work the fields with their waterbuffalos. But should you decide to stay for the pinkish hues of a perfect sunset, you will be mobbed by tour bus after tour bus after tour bus of package tourists who have their 1 hour stay there and where the vendors knowing the schedule will pursue you relentlessly thinking that you will escape back onto your air conditioned bus within minutes. Taking a picture becomes challenging as you are constantly being interrupted by the tugging of small arms and the familiar refrain, "tourist, where you come from? Buy postcard. 1000 kyat."

But we came early and strolled to our heart's content, lounging at the rest points, trading smiles and hellos with the locals and being trailed by curious little girls with their white patched of sunscreen on their faces still fresh 'til we left the last plank of the bridge's many teak paths for the shore and to our driver who would whisk us back into the city. Well, not quite whisk as to cover 11km would take almost 40 minutes over rough and congested roads, but this is progress some say and Mandalay is growing and developing.

We were left with thinking about those ethical dilemmas of the effects of tourism and it will haunt us during this entire trip, like no other trip we've taken because tourism is young here and quickly developing. To a country like this, it is both good and bad and we recognize the double edged sword. But as the night falls over Mandalay we can debate this with locals in the restaurant and think about their words. We will do this throughout the country and consider what the Myanmar have to say.

But now now we need to pack our bags and get ready for our 5:30am wake up call because we are off to Bagan, the mother of all temple areas.

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