9 January 2013
"I am worried about you because you are foreigners, the only foreigners ever to sit down at my shop", says the serious young man who is hovering around our table nervously. "It may not be good for you. You should be careful." His rice with mango salad is delicious, but he is petrified that it will not be good enough for us or that it will make us sick. His English is excellent and so we order another tea just so that we can spend more time and chat. Another university graduate who has had to make a career of working in the family tea shop as there is no other work to be had. This is a common story here. Unless you are "connected" to someone important, you stand very little chance of getting a good job, no matter how well educated you are. The education system, the free one run by the monasteries and not the paid for government schools, is very progressive in Mandalay. It seems that everyone we have met is either a student or has a degree or even two in hand; but there are just no jobs.
the moment, the most sought after jobs are those of tourist guides or translators. With the huge swell in tourism this year it is obvious why. And, with the tourist boom there are also no rooms to be had in Mandalay so we are lucky to be able to extend our stay at the Silver Star for two more nights.
We hire bicycles and head out into the city, still with no real plan.
We decide to start our explorations at Kuthodaw Paya on the north eastern corner of the "square" but we get distracted by back ways and canals and end up in a small market near the red canal. I can't resist the urge to walk through and steal some photos of people doing what people do, and so fate draws us in.
Minutes later and we hear a familiar Americanesque voice: "Don't you remember me? Where are you going? This is where I live!" It is Ye Htut from Mandalay Hill. "Come and see my house!" The sincerity of this offer is disarming. "We are only poor, but come in and see. This is my mother; this is my classroom
Ye Htut & Friend
In the English classroom at Ye Htut's house
( a concrete patio on the front of the palm and bamboo house, which has a row of desks and a white board). My grandmother lives across the street with my cousin. My father is a doctor. He has a Burmese traditional medicine shop." And so we meet his family. His cousin is sitting in front of a sewing machine embroidering a piece of silk. I go over to admire it. "Do you like this? There is a home industry next door. The ladies embroider celebratory longyis. Would you like to see?" Does the Pope wear dresses?
He runs next door to check that it is okay and we are invited in to see the works. In the front room is a massive embroidery machine working away; but in the back room are 25 ladies embroidering by hand. The concentration is palpable and the buzz of their machines and the clicking of the wooden embroidery rings on the tables is the only sound. We cause a bit of a stir. "Yes it is ok to take photos," they smile shyly and get back to work. This is a good job. The girls earn about US$5 a day.
They specialise in celebratory longyis for the Mandalay market and I ask if I can buy one. I am allowed to choose any one I like and I choose an already completed one. They sell it to me for US$5. The embroiderer of my longyi agrees hesitantly to be photographed with me. I feel so honoured when I walk out with the "raw" longyi in hand. Now just to get it sewn up and edges finished. No problem, there is a lady in the market who does it for me in 10 minutes while we sit in a tea shop and drink sweet tea and eat Shan khaoswe ( Shan noodles in soup). Ye Htut tries to teach us some Burmese words and tells us how he would like to be a tour guide. He has passed some of the exams already, but doesn't know where to start. We do. "We would like to invite you to join us tomorrow on our walk around Mandalay." We say. "Really!?" Is the modest reply. We arrange to meet at 09h30 the next day at our hotel.
We pedal off into northern Mandalay, through Shan districts where noodles hang out
on the street to dry, children fly home made kites between the low slung power lines, and ladies deep fry all manner of fritters and dumplings in huge woks of palm oil. We emerge from a dusty lane to come across a noisy and rather ostentatious (under the circumstances) coming of age parade. These can be held for boys or girls, but most families can't afford them; and the ones who can usually reserve them for the boys. This must be a rich family. There is one real elephant involved and several dress-up elephants, as well as brightly adorned horses and oxen; and troupes of beautifully dressed ladies with hand painted parasols. It is a loud and colourful affair and attracts all the neighbourhood children who watch and clap gleefully.
We cycle on to the river bank. The Irrawaddy is massive. We must be about 1000km upstream from the mouth and the width here is still bigger than any river I have ever seen. It is a fat and slow river. Mandalay is less than 200m above sea level so there is not much gradient for it to fall from here to the ocean, so it appears
My beautiful Longyi and even more beautiful embroiderer
to be a slow and gentle giant; but from the flood marker, I imagine it can be an ogre at times. The river banks are a hive of activity. Every day is laundry day, and the dusty banks are strewn with drying clothes. Ladies in longyis scrub away between barges, ferries, fisherman and boat building operations. Barges laden with tons of massive teak logs drift by. Burma, where are all your trees going? To China?
We head south along the river road, passing a huge fun fair which is open but eerily empty. It has an entrance fee, and not many can afford the luxury.
As we travel further out of town the neighbourhoods become even dustier (if that's possible!) and poorer; and the size of the heaps of rubbish dumped on the riverbank become larger. A friendly government official who may or may not be taking bribes from the trucks he is pulling over, points us in the direction of the lakes. It is a relief to get off the very busy main road and away from the beeping traffic for a little while as we meander between the water gardened lakes dotted
with monasteries. But the tranquility is short lived, it is rush hour and the Mandalay traffic can be fierce!
We happen upon the rear fringes of the stone carvers district, and watch in awe as men carve huge Buddha and elephant mages from blocks of white marble. Their skill is amazing. The style is the same everywhere, softly rounded with sensual lines. I especially like the way they depict the folds in the drapery of Buddha's robe at the sleeve.
By this time we have achieved a new level of dustiness (on our bodies and up our noses. Mandalay is definitely no place for anyone asthmatic! ) so back to the Silver Star for a shower before egg pancakes at Karawek which sets up on the pavement on the corner of 83 and 26 every night.
The confidently cheeky boys who waiter here are aged between about 10 and 16 but some could be younger. It is the same in most of the tea shops in Mandalay. This particular "restaurant" only operates in the evening, so some of the boys probably go to school during the day, but most probably don't. We debate
in our self righteous and self conscious western way whether this is right or wrong. Consider this: one has to pay to go to a government school, right from primary upwards. Most families can't afford the fees. These boys are learning a trade while bringing home a desperately needed income for their families. And it's not like mom and dad are doing nothing but sit around and live off their children. Everyone has to contribute to survive around here. Hospitals and clinics are also paid for, and so very expensive that most people can't afford them either. The only options open to most people for medical assistance and education are the monasteries. Can we really bring our own lofty ideas of human rights to bare fairly here?! It is a difficult thing to come to terms with. If education was free to everyone, you could argue against this, but the government is, to put it bluntly, screwing its people.
Spot on 09h30 the following morning Ye Htut is outside our hotel. Our first stop has to be the brand sparkling new KBZ bank to change currency. It is Monday morning and we have been waiting for the
bank to open. This would have been impossible three months ago. Burma is changing fast. Ye Htut has never been inside a bank before and he is 26 years old. He and I wait outside for Andrew to do the business and then we stroll off into Mandalay downtown.
First stop our favourite tea shop. We pull out our map and plan a route. We would like to visit the gold leaf production district and the jade market, everything else is "Ye Htut, show us your city". He does an excellent job.
We start by crossing the railway lines where a market is in full swing. They are obviously not expecting a train this morning. The vendors are surprised to see us here, but happy to sell us fried corn and rice cakes and smile for the camera.
We turn onto a main road in what Ye Htut describes as the Chinese District. new buildings, with bright shops line the street. Then we duck into an alleyway and the sound of rhythmic hammering emerges from the shadows of a bamboo and palm house. Ye Htut goes ahead and asks if we can visit.
"Yes" says the father and invites us into his workshop behind his house. He is packaging thin sheets of gold leaf between sheets of waxed paper while his sons beat gold as if by metronome beat, into flat sheets. The process is laborious and takes days to complete. A small piece of gold is beaten by hand with a 7 pound wooden hammer into a paper thin sheet and then cut in half and beaten some more until it is a two inch square, delicate foil-thin piece of gold leaf. These are sold to temple goers who offer the tiny pieces to be stuck to, usually, their Buddha image. (Some Buddha images have up to 25cm of gold leaf layered on them, which distorts their shape and size). Many temples are also decorated with gold leaf and the intricate patterns and workmanship involved are really quite awesome. We watch the pounding for a while and then get chatting. The sons don't really want to do this job, but their father insists that they follow in his footsteps. It is a highly specialised and respected career. And besides, I think, those well defined torsos will attract any girl, so two birds
Girl matching pagoda
note the dirty feet!!
with one stone? They offer to give Andrew a go and he reluctantly accepts. Not quite the same as playing squash!!
We continue to wander through small side streets into the area around the Mahamuni Paya. This area is packed with carpentry workshops and shops where you can buy anything you need to become a monk. The carpenters carve mostly intricate Buddha seats, decorative plinths for Buddha images to sit on with highly ornate canopies. One of the workshops has a three tier, 4m high, flower and vine entwined Buddha seat in their "showroom" and the detailing is overwhelming. I can't believe how much work goes into making Buddha images: from the stone carving of the figures, to the wood carving of the seats, and that's before final decoration. I would guess that Buddha alone employs nearly half of the Mandalay population, be it in manufacture, maintenance, education, health services or just general well being. You can't knock him.
Mahamuni Paya is huge. The main attraction here being the 4m high seated Buddha image which is believed by locals to be over 2000 years old. Only men are allowed to apply gold leaf to
this image ( a strangely unBuddha-like regulation) and the layer of blobby gold on its body only is about 15cm thick. Its face is scrubbed daily with Thanaka made on site by anyone who is willing, and so we did. Thanaka is made from the bark of a citrus-type tree. It is sometimes fragrant and is used by Burmese ladies and small boys for facial decoration. It also acts as a natural sun block. It is made by rubbing the branches of the tree on a special smooth stone with some water - in circles in a clockwise direction using both hands!! - and scraping the residue into a small pot. Some girls have these stones at home and make a fresh batch every time they reapply, with decorative strokes, their makeup.
Also in the Mahamuni Paya compound are the Hindu-Buddhist Khmer bronze figures of Shiva & Airavata (originally stolen from Angkor Wat to be taken to Mrauk U, and then by a series of other thefts ending up here). We rub their noses and throats to help ease our own allergic reactions to the Mandalay air which is thick with dust and wood smoke and plastic smoke. I
hope that a packet of Telfast 180 will fall out of a slot somewhere as I am running low, but, nothing. Ah well, I am obviously not faithful enough....
More meandering through monasteries and courtyards and back yards, with fried banana and tea stops for sustainence and we get to the famous jade market. Wow!! We are supposed to pay a dollar each to get in, but we go in through the tradesmen's entrance and skip the fare. Huge blocks of jade are being cut and polished into tiny beads, by men on equipment straight out of a history book. These small beads are then bartered and sold by traders much as stocks are bought and sold in banks. It is very serious business and fascinating to watch. The Chinese are by far the biggest buyers. Shoulder to shoulder, with magnifying lenses the buyers and sellers haggle quietly. The game is all about well practiced facial expressions and tiny gestures. There is an art to getting the right facial expression going to ensure the best price, and probably a lot of shenanigans go on here, just like in banks. Ye Htut's brother is a trader but we
can't meet him. He is too busy. The atmosphere is taut. Phew!!
Just around a couple of corners from the jade market is the beautiful and tranquil Shwe In Bin Kyaung monastery. The teak building smells wonderful when you walk in. The dark, majestic interior is covered in carvings and the grounds around are so quiet and peaceful that they induce an urge to meditate! No vendors either which is unusual for the temple complexes here. There is a sign above the well which reads " no bathing". Pity, because by now we could do with some bathing. I think we have impressed Ye Htut with our ability to walk and walk. "Most people use taxis," he says, "but you just walk!! I didn't think this was possible!" So, not to disappoint him, we hop into a taxi to U Bein for the obligatory sunset.
U Bein's Bridge is in Amarapura, a previous capital city, on the Sagaing road, now just outside of town. It is the world's longest teak footbridge and crosses Taungthaman Lake in a gently curved 450m sweep. By the time we get there it is full of mostly tourists and
Shan Noodles hanging out to dry
souvenir vendors, but the sunset light is beautiful, and it is not actually too crowded to enjoy. The water is low because it is dry season, but apparently it comes to within a few feet of the bridge surface in the rainy season. We watch as ducks are herded from a vegetable garden, across some water and into a paddock on the other side; and as fisherman, shivering in the cold water, pick fish out of a net and drop them into their rolled up longyis. The scene is straight out of a story book.
I buy some bracelets made out of water melon seeds on the way back to the taxi, and we head off to the night market in the city centre for the best noodle soup with pickle to date.
We will be very sorry to leave this city with its wonderfully friendly and generous people behind. We are booked on the ferry to Bagan at 07h00 the following morning and wish Ye Htut a sad farewell. We promise to tell people about him on that magical platform called Trip Advisor. He has helped to make our Mandalay experience a very
one real elephant
coming of age parade, Mandalay
Thank you Ye Htut!!
Thank you Mandalay!!
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