There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Pindaya, Heho and the Five Day Market: Part 9 of Myanmar, Land of Gold

Mandalay’s airport may be new  - it opened in 2000 - and may boast the longest runway in southeast Asia, but the arrangements for domestic flights were as 1970s as those at Yangon.

Heho is a short hop away, 40 minutes flying time, but the road journey would have been lengthy indeed. The airport – originally a World War II airbase used (and bombed) by both the Allies and the Japanese - is tiny, just a runway and parking place for planes from where we walked to the airport building. There were no baggage carousels; a man pushed a trolley into the arrivals hall and we grabbed our cases.

We were met by Sue and her driver and set off on the hour’s drive westward to Pindaya.

The real mountains start east of Heho, but we were already over 1000m higher than at Mandalay. The humidity was much lower and, despite the brilliant sunshine, the air was cooler, though still warm.

Again we noticed something strangely English about the countryside. The patchwork of small fields reminded us of England before the hedgerows were grubbed up. As in English upland areas the lower slopes of the hillside are cultivated while above the land resembles open moorland - at least from a distance. The colours were right, too, the brown of a ploughed field was just the right shade and the bright yellow sesame was easily mistakable for rape. I could go on about distant stupas rising like church spires, but I do not want to push this too far.
Between Heho and Pindaya

We stopped for a late lunch in another restaurant in a garden, though this one had a nursery and garden centre attached. Maybe earlier it, too, would have been crowded with tour groups, but at three o’clock we had it to ourselves.

The chicken with cashew nuts and ginger was pleasant, if uninspiring, but it was a relaxing place to sit and chat. Sue was young, elegant and attractive, though as she talked we steadily revised her age upwards. She was married, she said, and her husband worked in a managerial position in one of the Lake Inle hotels. She also had two children, the older being 10. She was a breath of fresh air after our Mandalay guide as she not only spoke openly and expressed opinions, but also listened to what we said in reply.
Between Heho and Pindaya
Brown earth, yellow sesame and stupas like church spires

I asked her about the (rather unEnglish) vineyards I thought I had seen. ‘We have two wineries,’ she said, ‘one makes French wine, the other German.’ I must have looked quizzical because she quickly explained that one has a French and the other a German winemaker.

We continued to Pindaya, the road becoming smaller and more basic as we neared the town.

Nearing Pindaya
Many years ago an evil Nat in the shape of a spider captured seven princesses and imprisoned them in a cave. Fortunately a gallant prince heard their cries and came to their rescue, killing the spider with an arrow. ‘Pinguya,’ he shouted (‘I have taken the spider’) and the event is commemorated with this Disneyesque artwork.

Over time, Pinguya was corrupted into Pindaya and the cave – now known as the Golden Cave - became a place of pilgrimage. The cave entrance lurks behind the Shwe Oo Min Pagoda high on a limestone ridge overlooking a small lake and the modern town of Pindaya. As so often in Myanmar there is a covered walkway for pilgrims to climb from the valley, and as so often in Myanmar, we drove up the road in comfort.
The covered walkway and the lake, Pindaya

We had been expecting a cave full of Buddhas, but that did not stop an involuntary gasp when we actually saw it. The cave extends over 150m into the hillside and along the paths, up the cave sides and in every recess and on every ledge there is a Buddha, some 8054 of them (I did not count, I am taking Sue’s word for it).

Inside the Golden Cave, Pindaya
Some are large, some are small, some old, some new. Many bear the donor’s name and the date of donation. The earliest date is 1773 and although some may be older, they are not thought to be more than 20 or 30 years earlier.

The Golden Cave, Pindaya

New ones are still being added, so 8054 may already be out of date. Modern Taiwanese donors seem to prefer the higher ledges and although most plaques are written in Burmese, not all are. We found one Buddha donated by a family from Burnley.

The Golden Cave, Pindaya
I still doubt that this is what the Buddha himself wanted, but it does make an impressive sight and even this old cynic found the level of devotion involved surprisingly moving.
The Golden Cave, Pindaya

A short drive from the foot of the hill is a paper factory. As darkness fell we watched the pulp being pounded by hand…..

Pounding the pulp, Pindaya paper factory
A smile is the default expression for most Burmese - but not all
….. and leaves and flowers being added…..

Adding flower petals, Pindaya paper factory
…… to make heavy duty decorative paper used for parasols and lamps.
The paper is taken for drying
Pindaya paper factory

In the same factory the frames are turned on a lathe powered by foot.
Making a parasol frame
Pindaya paper factory

Our hotel was barely a kilometre away. Welcoming and helpful staff led us to a cluster of single storey buildings where the rooms were basic but clean and comfortable. Sue was staying in the same hotel and when we asked for advice about local restaurants she suggested the three of us should walk to a restaurant beside the lake.

Some finished products
Pindaya paper factory
The Green Tea Restaurant was a twenty minute stroll away. We sat in bamboo chairs at bamboo tables on a bamboo terrace beside Pone Taloke Lake. Across the water was a floodlit golden stupa and, later in the evening, a firework display. Lynne wanted a light meal, so settled for lentil soup but I thought fish in peanut sauce promised to be an interesting local dish. It was fine, if not as exciting as I had hoped. The setting was idyllic, but enjoyed by only four foreigners and a handful of locals. The restaurant was clearly set out with the tourist trade in mind, but few foreigners stay in Pindaya, most visiting the Golden Cave on bus trips from the Lake Inle resort hotels.

At breakfast next morning Sue was given a fried egg on a pile of chick peas and rice while, without consultation, we were brought the sweet, flaccid bread and dubious spread that passes for a ‘western breakfast’ throughout East Asia. Our request to take it away and bring a proper Myanmar breakfast was met with incredulity. Surely we cannot be the first foreigners to object to this assumption about our preferences. A little gentle persistence eventually produced the required result.

We checked out and drove down Pindaya’s main street. Much as I enjoy, dirty, sweaty cities like Mandalay, I thought at the time that if I had to live in Myanmar (a strictly hypothetical musing) I would chose a small town by a blue lake surrounded by rolling green hills, in other words Pindaya. Lynne’s photograph, taken through the car window, makes the town look scruffier than I remember, and  the camera is probably more accurate than my memory.
Main street, Pindaya

We drove the direct route back to Heho, which may be shorter but takes longer as the road is unsurfaced. Twice we were held up by ambling herds of cows; some of their human companions gave us a cheery wave while others stared as though we had two heads each. For over an hour we wound between the fields and around the gentle green hills, the only other traffic being the occasional bullock cart. For those in no hurry there can be few pleasanter roads to travel.
The only other traffic the occasional bullock cart
Pindaya to Heho

Despite its airport, Heho is only a big village and 80% of the time is of no great interest; for the other 20% it hosts the regional Five Day Market, so called as it moves round a circuit on a five day rotation. Today was Heho’s day.

I love walking round cattle markets - obviously I am in no position to buy anything - but I do like to see a fine beast looking at its best. This local bull impressed me….

A fine bull in the Five Day Market, Heho

…. and so did this handler’s hat. Would I look a prat in a hat like that? Probably.

A fine hat in the Five Day Market, Heho
We left the cattle and crossed the road to the produce market. We bought tea from this stall, from the big white sack. We kept a little and gave the rest away as gifts.  I now know that it tastes like something curled up and died in the sack, but nobody has said anything. I expect the recipients merely raised their eyebrows to the ceiling and quietly threw it away.

Tea stall, Five Day Market, Heho
Fruit and vegetables of high quality were on display in vast quantities.

Fruit and veg, Five Day Market, Heho

Pao women, dressed in black with bright checked headdresses, red shoulder bags and big baskets to carry their purchases come to the market from the hill villages. Some come on their own….

Pao woman, Five Day Market, Heho
….others arrive in groups.
A group of Pao women arrive at the Five Day Market, Heho

The market has inevitably become a tourist attraction, and several foreign faces can be seen in these pictures. For the moment, though, it is a place where local people sell to local people, nothing is specifically aimed at tourists. With more visitors every year, stalls of tourist tat will almost certainly start to appear and that, in time,  will be the end of the Five Day Market. Tourism is for ever condemned to kill the things it loves.

Armed with tea and peanuts we returned to the car and set off for Nyaungshwe and Lake Inle

Myanmar, Land of Gold

1 comment:

  1. You were lucky-when we went to the caves all the lights went out when we were nearly at the end and didn't come on again! We stumbled behind an enlightened (groan!) tour member who had a torch. Hilary