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Published: December 27th 2012
Looks very high and a bit wobbly
Trains move along this extremely sloooowly in case it collapses
Our train to Mandalay was only twenty minutes late. By Burmese standards this can be considered extremely punctual. Some fellow travellers had faced a delay of EIGHT hour a few days before. I was lucky enough to have a window seat, but this turned out to be a mixed blessing. There was only one train per day along this line, which was not frequent enough (or fast enough) to carve a proper path through the surrounding foliage. The windows were open, so at lower speeds, you were slapped around the face by the occasional leafy branch. At higher speeds, the trees and bushes were sheared off, and so you were sprinkled with a flurry of leaves, flowers, insects and twigs. An hour into the journey and I was covered with bushy shrapnel, looking as if I was wearing a badly-fitted camouflage suit.
One of the highlights of our journey was to cross the mighty Gokteik Viaduct. It is an immense structure that was constructed in 1901, and was once the world's second highest bridge. It spans the Gokteik Gorge at height of 320 feet and a width of 2,200 feet. Before we reached the viaduct, the train came to a
Hurtling through the jungle towards the Viaduct of Doom
Watch out for branches! Stick your head out at your own peril
grinding halt in full view of the gorge-spanning beast we were about to cross. Maybe we stopped for dramatic effect. Or perhaps it was to allow the driver to pluck up courage for the crossing. Or possibly to wait for the wind to die down to avoid wobbling the bridge. Or even a combination of all the above. To me, the bridge was an impressive sight, but it also appeared as if someone had constructed it from a giant Mechano set. Being over a century old, there were definitely some structural concerns, and apparently the bridge had been "strengthened" back in 1990. Trains still cross at a snail's pace, to avoid putting undue stress on the structure. With a sudden lurch, our train started it's bumpy journey towards the Viaduct of Doom. First we went through a tunnel carved into the mountainside, and our carriage was plunged into pitch darkness. Everyone was completely silent, and all you could hear was the clanking and bouncing of the train. It reminded me of the moment of suspense on a roller coaster when you are climbing upwards before the first drop. We emerged from the tunnel to reveal the bridge in it's full
What's the collective term for a group of monks?
A "Meditation of Monks?" Crossing the World's longest teak bridge
splendour. The view across the valley was amazing, and looking down to the ravine below gave a feeling of giddiness. As the train slowly rumbled across, I could mentally hear bolts popping out, and the tortuous creak of metal bending out of shape. But that was just a brief moment of disaster movie daydreaming. In reality it was as safe as houses, and none of us were actually worried. We were more in awe of an awesome piece of engineering, combined with a picture-postcard view.
Later in the journey I sat cross legged on the seat and suddenly felt a stab of pain on my foot. I thought I'd sat on a sharp stick thrown in from outside and adjusted my position to check. Just then, Zena jumped in her seat and exclaimed "spider!" Sure enough, there was a spider scuttling across the train. A spider which had just bitten me. It wasn't huge, but it wasn't small either. It was a hairy bundle of menace which I didn't like the look of. Armed with the Lonely Planet, Zena chased it up the wall and then batted it out of the window. Was it poisonous? Flipping through the guidebook,
Buddha Warehouse Sale
Get your Buddhas here!
I discovered that Burma has the highest death rate in the world for poisonous snake bites. Spiders were not mentioned. I consoled myself with the thought that if I died, at least the book would be updated for the next edition. In the meantime, all I could do is wait and find out. My foot started to shake slightly, and my leg felt weird. But it didn't swell up, and as time passed, I realised I was just being a nancy boy, and my "symptoms" were probably all in my head.
The train stopped in the colonial Hill Station town of Piu Oo Lwin. This was a designated stop of nearly two hours, to allow unloading of the cargo coach at the rear. Most passengers disembarked for an escape route to Mandalay by road. The train would take a further five hours, whereas travelling by road would take two. We chanced upon an eight-seater tuk-tuk which was half laden with cargo and promised to deliver us to Mandalay for the princely sum of three dollars.It was a bumpy ride sitting on wooden planks in the back, but after weeks of travelling we had buttocks of steel, and were accustomed
Can you see the snake?
Curled up around Buddha's fancy helmet
to such terrain. By evening we entered Mandalay, and I noticed a few amusing names of places in English. Such as Dressy Fashion, Dumbo Cakes and my personal favourite, a pub called "Beer Rain".
We had one day in Mandalay, and wanted to visit the Snake Temple. This was so named because two snakes had slithered down from the mountains in the 1970's, found the temple and curled up around the Buddha statue. The monks grabbed the snakes, wrapped them up in cloth and took them back out to the countryside. But they kept coming back. They soon brought a mate along too, which made three snakes that had to be removed each day. The monks got fed up with this, and decided to let them stay. Now the three snakes are treated like royalty, being washed and fed each day at 11am. We left our hotel in search of a taxi, and were approached by a handsome smooth-talking dude with a pony-tail. His name was Koo-Re and he told us in perfect English that he was recommended in the Lonely Planet. We flicked through, and sure enough he was! He offered us his services as a motorbike taxi
The dirty and ripped robe of a monk lies abandoned on the steps of the empty monastery
guide, and promised us an adventure to places that "aren't in any guide books." We agreed on a price, and his friend magically appears out of nowhere with a second motorbike. We were given the unprecedented luxury of crash helmets, which was a first for us in Asia. Zena climbed behind Koo-Re, I jumped behind the second driver and we sped off through the busy streets of Mandalay.
My fear of motorbikes was diminishing with each ride I took. And with the reassuring safety of a helmet, I felt something approaching confidence for the first time. To start with in Indonesia, I had been clutching the driver in a reverse-bear hug, until he could barely breath. Then as my fear lessened, I learnt to let go of the person in front and cling to the rails behind with white knuckles. Then Zena and I had noticed that none of the locals cling onto anything. The ladies even sit side-saddle, both legs on one side, with a shopping bag or a baby held on their laps with both hands. As well as protecting my head, my crash helmet was radiating an aura of confidence. So I tried sitting back and
not holding on. Things felt pretty stable, and my centre of gravity was in good working order! Even as we weaved in and out of traffic, I felt balanced and secure. But then we pulled up at some traffic lights, and as they changed to green, my driver pulled onto the PAVEMENT, and started undertaking the traffic to get a head start! A few pedestrians dived out of the way, and once we cleared two trucks, he drove back onto the road. By this time my hands were firmly back on the rail, holding on for dear life!
We arrived at the Snake Temple and were ushered into the main area by one of the Snake Guardians. At least that's what I'm calling him. What do you call someone who runs a snake temple? Temple Manager? Reptile Consultant? He certainly wasn't a monk. He was just a normal guy who looked after the snakes, counted all the donations and locked up at night. The temple was a major attraction, and therefore a decent money-spinner. There were several donation boxes made of clear plastic, so you could see the generosity of others, and feel shamed into giving more. We were
He gets around a bit doesn't he?
guided into a small alcove where a statue of Buddha was shimmering away in it's golden magnificence. Curled around the statue's head was a very large python. Two more pythons lay at the side of the statue, covered in money. As I stood there, several people pushed past and placed more money between the fat coils of the python. This was a strange concept, giving money to a snake. A snake has nothing to do with Buddhism. But the event of these snakes coming down from the mountain was seen as fortuitous, and it transformed the temple's future in terms of fame and fortune. The entire temple was now dominated with giant snake statues, filling four different rooms. There was barely any room for statues of poor old Buddha. At 11am, the snakes were carried into another room and placed into a large tiled bath filled with water. Three men then proceeded to massage them and wash them. The snakes were loving it. They were then laid out on the concrete for a bizarre feeding session. The mouths of the snake were forced open, and a jug of whisked eggs were poured down. Snakes eating only eggs? Were these vegetarian
Giving Money to Snakes will improve your Life
100% proven! Donate now. All major credit cards accepted (sorry, no cheques. Slithering to the bank takes too long)
snakes? I was expecting a whole lamb, or at least a few rats. Maybe some bacon, sausage and black pudding to go with the eggs. That is a sight I would love to see. A snake tucking into a Full English Breakfast. Once fed and content, the snakes slithered back to the Buddha statue to sleep and be gawked at by more tourists.
Doing the maths, if the snakes came to the temple during the 1970's, that would make them forty years old. Even with a decent moisturiser, they wouldn't be looking as sleek and shiny as these specimens. I asked Koo-Re about this, and he said that when a snake dies, they buy a new one. So these were not the original snakes!! What an absolute swindle. I bet the original idea was a scam too. Someone came up with the bright idea of getting some snakes in, and making a fortune. I'm surprised no-one has copied this idea. The Badger Temple! ("Well, these three badgers wandered in and refused to leave")
After seeing the slithering snake superstars, Koo-Re took us to his secret place. It was a vast area in the woods, covered with dozens and
Spot the odd one out
Something doesn't belong in this picture
dozens of temples. Some of them were in decent condition, whereas the older ones were overgrown and covered in weeds and foliage. This was an area of neglected and forgotten temples. No longer visited or maintained, they were in decline and were being gradually reclaimed by nature. On the edge of the temples was an abandoned monastery, with shutters of faded paint and a ripped monks shawl lying on a dusty step. Why were these magnificent temples abandoned? Decades of effort were behind these awesome buildings. The answer lay in money, plain and simple. As well as providing a place of worship, temples are money-generating machines. People come, they worship, and they donate. A temple can be the same as any other business such as a shop or restaurant. A service is provided, but you are up against competition from others. If you choose a bad location for your business, you can suffer. And this is what happened here. The temples were simply too far out, and Mandalay built more temples that were centrally located and therefore easier to visit and worship. So the monks were forced to shut up shop and leave. Perhaps they should have got some snakes
We could barely move without bloody temples getting in our way
in! What was also surprising was that this place remained unknown to the tourist masses. We saw two other westerners with a local guide, but apart from that, we had this deserted temple wonderland to ourselves.
For our final stop we visited the Goldsmith district. The majority of stupas are covered in gold, and here is where it's made. People buy a packet of gold leaves which are super super thin. Thinner and lighter than you can possible imagine. These gold leaves are pressed onto temples to show devotion to Buddha. The process of making these gold leaves is very laborious. A tiny wafer of gold is beaten with a sledgehammer for six hours until it has become a giant flat piece twelve times it's size. This piece is then cut into smaller pieces, beaten for a further six hours, and cut again. This process is repeated until the final pieces are the product of 24 hours of beating with a sledgehammer, and will be unimaginably thin. The hammering is done by hand, and each hour is strictly controlled by a metronome. The men strike on the beat, and there are 20 beats per minute. That makes 1,200 sledgehammer
Happy after a great day of temples, snakes and other cool stuff
blows per hour, which means that the final gold leaf is produced by nearly 30,000 blows. That's a whole lotta beating, and backbreaking work for the men. Can you imagine the boredom?
(More photos at the bottom of the page)
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