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…..

Sunday, 18 November 2012

The Road to Mandalay - The Reality: Part 6 of Myanmar, Land of Gold

Next morning we set out with Tin to drive to Mandalay. Mandalay is less than 200km northeast of Bagan, but it would take all day as we intended to detour via Mt Popa, the home of the Nats.

We travelled through lush green countryside on well-maintained roads which may not have been wide, but were more than ample for the minimal traffic. We passed people working in the fields, some ploughing with oxen, we saw cattle, each cow attended by its own personal egret and we overtook bullock carts.

Hoping to catch passing tourists, several villages have set up small enterprises beside the road. We stopped at one and watched a man making peanut oil.

Grinding peanuts near Bagan

The ox plodded round and round with a resigned tread, the pestle ground and creaked in the mortar, and the oil dripped out, slowly but steadily.

Grinding peanuts near Bagan

As we watched man and ox, we were in turn watched by a small boy, his face smeared with thanakha as protection against the sun.

We were, in turn, watched by a small boy, his face smeared with thanakha...

Peanuts grew all around, we had seen the crop before but never realised what it was. Uprooted and ready for processing it is clear why the peanut is not a nut at all despite its name.

Recently uprooted peanuts

At this point a tour bus arrived. A large man with an even larger camera started distributing balloons to the assembled small children, hoping they would smile happily for his camera. This sort of behaviour  is unwise and destructive, leading children to expect, and then demand gifts from passing foreigners, but at Myanmar’s current state of tourist development the children looked at the floppy brightly-coloured rubber with bemusement. The man did not get his picture.

The peanut grinder abandoned his ox and shinned up the nearest palm tree. Slicing the bottom from the flowers he hung earthenware containers beneath them to collect the sap and returned to earth with full containers from his previous climb.
Collecting palm sap

He delivered them to his fellow villagers who had set up a small factory and shop under a palm-leaf roof a few paces away.

Two things can be done with palm sap. Giving it a vigorous boil while stirring with equal vigour drives off the liquid leaving a brownish mush.

Boiling and stirring

This is jaggery – basically unrefined sugar – which is balled up by hand and made into sweets either on its own or mixed with coconut or tamarind. We tasted them, and they were lovely, the jaggery giving a depth of flavour not just sweetness. We bought several bags, some went home as presents, others did not get so far.

Balling the residue into sweets
The other possibility is to pour it into large jars and let it ferment.
Fermenting toddy

The result, toddy, can be drunk as it is or distilled into a spirit which they were selling at 30% alcohol.  I have previous with home distilled spirits (most recently rice ‘wine’ in Vietnam) and consider myself a connoisseur. This one was clean, gently flavoured and just a little too bland; perhaps better at 40%, I thought.

Distilling toddy

Snacks had been laid out in lacquerware bowls, and we helped ourselves to peanuts, beans, shredded ginger, and pounded sesame. In the centre was a tangle of leq-p’eq, fermented green tea leaves. It sounds unlikely, looks a mess, but is basic Burmese comfort food.

Snack with fermented tea leaves

Some local favourites remain local and you have to be a local to enjoy them. Examples include the Tibetan staple, tsampa (roasted barley enhanced with yak butter to give it the flavour of rancid sawdust), Mongolian sun-dried cheese (the consistency of a potsherd and the taste of a herdsman’s socks) and good old Marmite. Others, like Egyptian kushari (a mixture of noodles, rice, lentils and caramelised onions with a spicy tomato sauce) and Vietnamese pho (noodle soup with chicken or beef) are immediately attractive.

Fermented tea sounds and looks like it should come in the first category, and we tasted it apprehensively. It was, though, delicious, a richly savoury accompaniment to the nuts and fried chick peas.

Leq-p’eq - fermented tea leaves centre stage
The bus party had now reached the handicraft and jaggery stall. There was a mild commotion as the stallholder declined to accept a proffered banknote. The French tourists, their guide and several Burmese villagers stared at the note in turn but seemed unable to work out what it was. I joined in and being able to read Cyrillic (as fluently as a primary school child) I was able to tell them that it was a 500 som note, worth about 15p in Uzbekistan and diddley squat anywhere else.

It had been given to a French tourist in change elsewhere, though how it came to be in Myanmar is a mystery. I had been unimpressed with the scam attempted on me in the restaurant the previous night, but here someone had passed a note that was the wrong shape (it was obviously squarer than kyat notes), the wrong colour (clearly different dyes had been used), on the wrong paper (it felt different) and written in the wrong alphabet. I was impressed by their cheek – and worried by the stupidity of the person who had accepted it.

We let the bus depart, inspected the crops and photographed each other among some impressive gourds. Then it was back to the road.

Among the impressive gourds
We rolled on through lush green countryside that looked strangely English, if you ignore the tropical vegetation.
The road to Mandalay  - looking strangely like rural England?

We passed a water station where a deep well had been fitted with diesel pumps to provide a plentiful supply of clean water. We are so used to water appearing at the turn of a tap that we forget how lucky we are. For the locals this is a big step forward, even if the water is ox-carted to their door rather than piped.

Filling up at the water station

A little further along, rounding a low bluff, we heard the sound of an amplified voice above us. ‘Robe giving ceremony,’ said Tin, telling the driver to stop.

The temple on a low bluff

We made our way up to the small temple from which the voice was coming. Inside a shed, albeit a shed with rich interior decorations, villager leaders were presenting some monks with new robes. November heralds the onset of winter – though not a ‘winter’ we would recognise – and monks are traditionally presented with new thicker robes to keep them warm.

Monks being presented with their winter robes

We poked our heads into the middle of their ceremony and instead of scowling at the intruders everybody smiled in welcome. Buddhists do this. Outside, volunteers were preparing to feed the whole village, building fires and filling vast pots with chopped vegetables and dismembered chickens. Everything looked fresh and wholesome and we would probably have been asked to lunch if we had lingered, but it was only ten o’clock and we had places to go.

The road rose into more hilly country and we reached a village where we paused to look round,....

The centre of Popa Village

....and photograph a butterfly.Tin said the village was Popa, but I think ‘village’ was being used as it is in Vietnam to describe an area with a number of settlements.
A common sailor, neptis hyalis, (I think) Popa

We descended into a valley, stopping on the way down to take a short walk for a panoramic view of the home of the Nats, who live atop a volcanic plug on the side of Mt Popa, Myanmar’s Mt Olympus.

The home of the Nats, Mt Popa

Continuing into the valley we reached the settlement at the base of the volcanic plug. Opposite the stairs is a room containing statues of all 37 Great Nats. When King Anawrahta introduced Buddhism into Myanmar in the 11th century there were only 36 Nats.  Destroying their temples and banning animal sacrifices created fierce opposition so he added a 37th. Thagyamin was a Hindu deity cognate with Indra, who had paid homage to the Buddha. By declaring Thagyamin ‘King of the Nats’ he effectively subordinated the Nats to Buddha. Some senior Buddhists would like to see Nat worship downgraded if not abandoned, and Tin was distinctly sniffy, but it remains important in the lives of many ordinary people.

The Great Nats, Mt Popa

We passed between the plaster elephants guarding the entrance to the stairs, removed our shoes and began climbing.

The entrance to the steps

To start with there were shrines, stalls and lots of monkeys. Slowly it dawned on Tin that we intended to climb right to the top, some 700+ steps. He decided to wait at the bottom.

It was not an arduous climb. We were shielded from the sun by a corrugated iron roof, the higher we got the stronger the refreshing breeze became. The steps were smooth – important when walking in bare feet – and we encountered many young men busy polishing them who seemed happy to take a small tip for their troubles. Generally the steps were shallow as they wound round the volcanic plug, but in a couple of places metal companionways were used on more awkward sections.

At the top was a fairly standard Burmese temple, a lot of gold painted stupas and statues. A week ago it would have amazed us, but we were now somewhat blasé.

Lynne at the temple on the top, Mt Popa
Better than the temple were the views, back to the plain we had crossed,.....

Looking back at the plain we had crossed, Mt Popa

down to the village and over the wooded hillsides, the site of every village being marked by a cluster of gold painted stupas. Surprisingly few people had made the effort to walk to the top, and few of those were foreigners, though Mt Popa is, supposedly a popular half day trip from Bagan.

Looking down on the village, Mt Popa

We counted the steps on the descent as every guide book gives a different number. We got to 673 but I have little confidence in that figure, partly because we had a debate about which steps to include (all of them when you go down and then up on the split level at the top? What about the steps through the stalls by the entrance?) and partly because we were distracted.
Lynne descends one of the companionways

One section had been heavily colonised by monkeys. Clapping your hands and marching forward seemed to be the approved technique, and it was largely successful except that one monkey leapt onto the head of a woman some way below us. My stereotyped expectation was that a tourist would scream, whereas a local would brush it off and aim a kick at its backside. Not so, the unfortunate local woman who was the victim did indeed scream and indulge in some mild panic. Fortunately there were a couple of nearby step polishers who came to her assistance. Apart from shock - and some loss of dignity – no harm was done.

We drove on, skirting the hills and stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch. Called ‘The Crown’ it had no other obvious similarity with a British pub. A wooden construction, it had a roof and one wall which separated the diners from the kitchen, and provided somewhere to pin the inevitable poster of An Sang Suu Kyi.

It was packed with locals when we arrived but we found a table for four (the two of us, Tin and the driver) on the balcony. Outside half a dozen women stood with metal trays on their heads packed with chickens, plucked, trussed and ready for the oven. It seemed a strange place to hawk chickens but Tin said the village was famous for them though we saw no sales.

We were a little late for lunch so the restaurant was emptying by the time our food arrived. As usual they brought the whole menu including pork, chicken, lentils, shredded cabbage, bean sprouts, tomatoes, chillies, caramelised onions, pickled lime, fried watercress and chicken soup. We also ordered two bottle of beer to share between the three of us who were not driving, but it was the driver who pointed out that tokens inside the crown corks offered prizes. Our first bottle won a free bottle, and our second 1000 Kyat off the meal. The third - the free bottle - was a loser, but we had to leave something for the other punters.

Lunch at 'The Crown'
Me, Lynne and our helpful (if sadly nameless) driver

Shortly after lunch we reached the main road through the central plain from Yangon to Mandalay via Naypyidaw (the government moved the capital from Yangon to this purpose built city in 2005). As we would soon discover, almost every city in Myanmar has been the capital at some stage.

We had the well-built four-lane duel-carriageway to ourselves and quickly finished the last and longest section of our journey.

With or without Kipling’s intervention, the very name 'Mandalay' conjures up images of the romantic and exotic. It is in fact a large sprawling city with dusty streets, tatty low rise buildings and sweaty people (maybe I am just speaking for myself, but it is a hot and humid place). We arrived at rush hour, which created some difficulties, but again we noticed how orderly Myanmar’s traffic is – at least by East Asian standards.

Zegyo street market takes up a huge chunk of central Mandalay. There is also a covered section and our hotel was above it, the entrance seemingly just a lift door in the middle of the market. The staff, though, were welcoming, the room clean, the bed comfortable and the shower functioning - what more could we want? We opened the curtains and found our room looked straight out on Mandalay’s central mosque. Clearly we would have no difficulty hearing the dawn call to prayer. Mandalay has a sizeable Muslim community, mainly Bengalis who were either brought here by the British raj or came here to exploit opportunities created by the raj. If we were woken early we only had ourselves to blame.
Mandalay Central Mosque from our bedroom window

We said goodbye to Tin and the driver who were heading straight back to Bagan, went for a stroll to orientate ourselves, took a shower and then it was time for dinner.

Having spotted nothing particularly attractive during our stroll, we consulted the Lonely Planet and decided to head for Nay a restaurant promising curry snacks and fresh chapattis. It has no sign - or even premises - setting out its roadside tables as darkness falls. Close to the address given in the guide book we came across a double row of tables on the pavement and at the end of it a large bearded man frying chapattis on a mobile cooker.

He seemed delighted to see us and showed us the contents of his huge pots. We chose mutton curry, a piece of chicken and, inevitably, some chapattis. His co-owner (smaller, no beard, some English) conducted us to the only free table and shortly a boy brought a pot of green tea. We turned over the cups on the table and sat drinking tea until the lad returned with the food. He was then joined by a younger child and the two of them stood and stared at us as we ate. After a while the smaller man (their father?) shooed them away, apologised and asked if we liked the food. We said that we did and he could not have been more pleased – and it was good, too.

When we had finished the bill came to almost nothing and the genuine pleasure of the owners at having entertained some foreign diners made it feel strangely special. As we left the younger boy took away our plates while the older one wiped the table with a greasy rag. Then he tipped out our unfinished tea and replaced the cups upside-down on the table.

As we walked back through the dark, warm, night we wondered if we had been wise. There were, however, no repercussions and I would recommend Nay to anyone – just take some water and wash your teacups before putting them to your lips.

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