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…..

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

U Bein's Bridge, Sagaing and Inwa. Part 8 of Myanmar, Land of Gold

There was an earthquake during the night, an aftershock of the more serious quake the week before. It did no more than rattle the crockery, but as there was no crockery in our room, we slept through it.

In the morning we again drove south through Amarapura. Just before leaving Greater Mandalay we paused at U Bein’s Bridge.

U Bein was mayor of Amarapura in 1850 when the capital of Myanmar moved there from nearby Inwa (and before it moved on to Manadalay). Using teak from Inwa’s redundant royal palace he built a bridge across Lake Taungthaman which, at 1.2km, is claimed to be the longest teak bridge in the world.

On U Bein's Bridge, Amarapura

It is an important passageway for locals, but also a major tourist attraction. The first 100m were packed with a couple of busloads of tourists and lined with beggars. Beggars are relatively uncommon in Myanmar but a dozen women, some with children, most with disfigurements or impairments to their hands or feet sat along the bridge. To my untrained eye their problems looked like the effects of leprosy. In 1995 the WHO estimated there were between 2 and 3 million people in the world permanently disabled by leprosy. There should be none; cheap and effective treatment has been available for over sixty years.

We distributed a few small banknotes. We know this does not solve the problem, but maybe it made somebody’s day a little easier - and it salved our consciences about being members of a society that allows such unnecessary suffering.

We did not have to walk far to lose the bus tours. After a couple of hundred metres our guide worked out that we intended walking all the way across and elected to sit and wait in one of the shelters. 

Boats on Lake Taungthaman

Lake Taungthaman was a clear light blue and as flat as a mirror. Fishing boats were dotted about in the hazy distance while beneath us there was dry(ish) land. The water level rises and falls with the seasons, and in November it was low enough to allow a man with a buffalo to plough a field that would later be submerged.

Ploughing a temporary field
U Bein's Bridge, Amarapura
Ducks are also farmed in great quantity, and below us a young duckherd was moving his large and noisy flotilla.

On the Road to Mandalay
Where the old flotilla lay
Duckherd under U Bein's Bridge, Amarapura

By the time we reached the far side there was only us and a few locals who were using the bridge as old U Bein had intended.

Taking home the shopping
U Bein's Bridge, Amarapura
Some of the 1086 teak pillars have been replaced by concrete, some are clearly no longer capable of doing the job they were designed for but, by and large, the bridge is structurally sound and largely original.

On our way back we stopped at one of the shelters where a painter was working. We liked his watercolours so we bought a couple, agreeing a price of 2000 Kyat each (£1.60). He then suggested we take 3 for 5000. We could not resist. [update Oct 13, they are still rolled up in cardboard tubes waiting for us to do something with them. One day…further update July 16, they are on the wall!]

Painter. U Bein's Bridge, Amarapura
Leaving Amarapura we crossed the Irrawaddy on the 1.7km Yadanabon Bridge. Unlike U Bein’s bridge this is a product of 21st century engineering. The Ava Bridge, 600m downstream, built by the British in 1924 is not capable of carrying heavy modern lorries.

The temple city of Sagaing sits on the west bank of the Irrawaddy some 20km from Mandalay. It was capital of the minor Sagaing Kingdom in the 14th century, and had a brief spell as the royal Burmese capital in the 1760s.

We started our visit not at a temple but at a pottery run by a cheerful group of people in a yard surrounded by storehouses of woven bamboo.

A cheerful group of people in a yard surrounded by storehouses of woven bamboo

The potters’ wheel has been around for 5000 years, and although we now expect them to have electric motors, they have been turned manually for most of their existence. Here the potter propped her wheel on a couple of bricks beside a pile of clay and squatted in front of it. Her assistant squatted opposite and turned the wheel by hand. We were watching pottery as it might have been done a thousand years ago, but the result was as good as anything produced on a modern wheel.
Throwing a pot, Sagaing

Another employee was making a large water jar of the type we had seen by the roadside in Yangon and Bagan. Starting with a hollowed out ball of clay she beat it into shape using a paddle, which also left a decoration on the surface. It may lack the magic of throwing a pot on a wheel, but there was remarkable skill in taking something so roughly made and giving it form.

Beating out a water pot, Sagaing

The potter’s assistant then showed us her party trick - carrying six water jars at once. Large, unwieldy and heavy as they are this was quite a feat, though how far she would have got with them is another matter.

Party piece, Sagaing Pottery

We moved on to a silversmiths’ arriving at the same time as a tour bus. Disappointingly, they seemed more interested in sales than demonstrating their craft, but we bought a few presents to take home anyway.

From the silversmith’s we drove up Sagaing Hill. The hill is studded with temples, many of which can be visited by slogging up the covered walkway which climbs its eastern flank. We took the easy way and soon arrived at Umin Thounez, literally ‘30 Caves’ but actually a brightly-coloured, crescent-shaped colonnade.  Entering through the door marked ‘IN’ (the other 29 ‘caves’ have metal grilles across them so we were unlikely to make a mistake!)……
Umin Thounez, Sagaing

 ….. we found ourselves faced with a crescent of 45 gold painted Buddhas.
Umin Thounez, Sagaing

Ten minutes in the car took us to Soon U Ponya Shin Temple on the southernmost peak of Sagaing Hill. It is the most important temple in Sagaing and, as the Lonely Planet guide reports, was reputedly ‘built in a single night by the King’s faithful minister Ponya in a superhuman flurry of activity inspired by a magical Buddha relic he had found in a betel-nut box.’ Or maybe it wasn’t.

Inside there is a ‘wish-fulfilling Buddha’…..
'Wish Fulfilling Buddha', Soon U Ponya Shin Temple

……while in the courtyard is a 30m high gilded stupa originally built in 1312.
Stupa, Soon U Ponya Shin Temple
From the terrace there was an excellent view over the Irrawaddy with the new Yadanabon Bridge in front of the older Ava Bridge.

Yadanabon (front) and Ava Bridges over the Irrawady from
Soon U Ponya Shin Temple, Sagaing
There were, as usual a few stalls around the terrace. As I had been struggling with my broken sunglasses, this seemed a good moment to replace them. I did not think I could match the £4 ‘genuine’ Raybans I bought in Ho Chi Minh and broke in Bagan but I found a reasonable pair and asked a price. ‘3000 Kyat,’ the girl said (£2.40). Only after I had paid did I realise they, too, were ‘genuine’ Raybans. I must go back to Ho Chi Minh and tell that bloke he ripped me off.

It was now lunch time and we would have been happy to eat in Sagaing, but our guide was adamant that we should move on to the ‘very good’ restaurant at Inwa. Against our better judgement we agreed.

We left Sagaing, crossing back over the Irrawaddy on the old Ava Bridge and then leaving the main road and descending to the bank of the Myitnge River which joins the Irrawaddy a little downstream. We took a small boat across to Inwa, which sits on an island formed by the digging of a canal between the two rivers.

At the Inwa landing station a crowd, a couple of hundred tourists and dozens of horse-drawn carriages and their drivers, milled about.

A short walk took us to the restaurant where several tour groups were settling down to eat at long tables. One of the advantages of not being part of a group is that you can avoid these tourist feeding stations. We had successfully made this point yesterday, but now our guide chose to ignore us. Regardless of what we said, this was, she was sure, where we really wanted to eat. The vast majority of guides listen to their clients and try to provide the sort of experience they want. Just occasionally we encounter one who believes they know what we want better than we do; they have met a lot of foreigners and they know what foreigners like. Our other guides in Myanmar, the young, enthusiastic Swe in Yangon, the thoughtful, well-informed Tin in Bagan and the charming and entrepreneurial Sue we would meet later in Heho, were all excellent in their different ways. Here we had one who confused being foreign with being stupid and knew that foreigners are best treated as children - in our case, rebellious and naughty children.

Rant over. I must admit that it was an attractive restaurant, the tables set out in a pleasant garden shaded by trees sporting paper ornaments. The problem remained that it was still mass catering and, worse, it was mass catering for foreigners – we did not go to Burma to eat pizza. Having crossed the river there was no way out, so we settled for Shan noodle soup.

On the Road to Mandalay
Where the flying fishes play,
Ornament in tree, restaurant, Inwa
Inwa, also known as Ava, was our fourth former capital of the day, and the sixth of the trip, though we never did get to Naypyidaw, the current capital. Inwa was the capital for 360 years on five separate occasions between 1365 and 1842, and Burma/Myanmar was known to Europeans as the Kingdom of Ava until well into the 19th century. Largely deserted after a series of major earthquakes, it now consists of a couple of villages on a rural, swampy, stupa-dotted island.

Horse and cart is the only way to get round the island which did not please me greatly, my eyes had only just returned to normal after their allergic reaction to the horse in Bagan. This time the guide sat at the front and I sat as far away from the animal as possible – I am glad to report I just about got away with it.

We clopped off down the lane, through a village and past the heavily restored ‘Hair Washing Gate’, a vestige of the old palace and the place the king used to appear to have his hair ceremonially washed.

Village, Inwa
We soon arrived at Yedanasini Pagoda…..
Yedanasini Pagoda, Inwa
….. where an impressive if rather weather beaten old Buddha sits in the shade of a huge flame tree behind some ancient brick stupas.

A weather beaten old Buddha, Yedanasini Pagoda, Inwa
Completely open air, Yedanasini is a beautiful and atmospheric spot. At the back we found another painter. He was working in black on shiny white paper and although he had a limited range, producing the same – well almost the same – picture time after time, some of them were impressive. Two pictures for 5000 Kyat seemed a bargain, more expensive than this morning’s water colours, but larger. [As of Oct 13, these, too, are still in a cardboard roll. A shame, they deserve better July 16 - these are on the wall, too, the first thing yo see as you come through the front door.]

Painter, Yedanasini Pagoda, Inwa
A little further on the Bagaya Monastery is another teak building, this one containing a small but rather fine gilded Buddha.

Gilded Buddha, Bagaya Monastery
At the back of the monastery was a schoolroom. Four small boys had been isolated in the front row and were being berated by a kneeling monk using the quiet yet insistent ‘not angry, but disappointed’ tone beloved of primary school teachers everywhere. Two others knelt behind looking worried but grateful that whatever the mischief was, they had not been part of it. Three or four older boys lounged at the back, rather enjoying the spectacle.

Schoolroom, Bgaya Monastery

Lecture over, it was time to dismiss the class. One by one the innocent two were called forward. They knelt before the monk and bowed their heads. After a few words with each he handed over a selection from a little pile of presents, a toy car, some pencils, crayons and sweets. They scooped up their booty and scuttled happily back to their places.

The four miscreants watched, wondering when, or if, their turn would come. The monk turned his attention to the older boys who came forward one by one. Then he paused, looking at the floor; the wide eyes of the four miscreants fixed anxiously upon him. He looked up and all four leapt to their feet and moved forward at once. He sent three back.
Bagaya Monastery, Inwa
The first received a little lecture and then, to his evident relief, his presents. The second was called up, and then the third leaving only the ringleader behind, his face close to panic as his friends scooped all that was left of the pile of presents.

The last did not wait to be called, he stood up immediately and looked forlornly at the monk. He approached uncertainly, knelt and bowed, tense with anticipation. There were a few quiet words, then the monk’s hand disappeared into a box behind him and re-emerged with the appropriate presents. The relief and delight on the little lad’s face as the monk pushed the gifts towards him was memorable. He grabbed them and scuttled back to his friends, a lesson well learned.

After Bagaya we left the surfaced road and continued along rough tracks through banana plantations and round fields of millet and maize.

Through banana plantations and round fields of millet, Inwa

Eventually we reached Nan Myin, the so-called ‘leaning tower of Inwa’. The tower, another remnant of the original palace, is in poor condition and perhaps ‘staggering tower’ would be more appropriate.  Climbing it gives a good view over the surrounding island – or so I am told. After the previous week’s earthquake, not to mention that night’s aftershock, we were advised not to try.

Nan Myin, The 'Leaning Tower of Inwa'.
We continued our trundle through the swamps and lush green fields until we completed the circle. We took the boat back across the Myitnge and picked up the car for the rush-hour drive into Mandalay.

Swamp, Inwa

In the evening we walked up to the ‘beer station’ we had visited the previous night, but decided to eat at the Chinese restaurant opposite. We had sweet and sour pork and chicken with mushrooms (much of the latter and very little of the former - but what do you expect at the price). I was surprised and disappointed that they did not sell beer and we had to make do with a bottle of water.

A truck load of nuns on the way back to Mandalay
As we sat on the terrace a thin, dirty boy of about ten came begging round the tables and I gave him a little money. Just inside the restaurant a local family of six had just finished a banquet. As usual there were plenty of left overs, mainly rice but some meat and sauce. The boy stood looking at it, then plucked up his courage and said a few words. The family looked at the boy, looked at their left over food and nodded. He disappeared, returning a minute later with a plastic bag into which the family loaded the remains of their meal.

1 comment:

  1. Another trip down memory lane for me! We did exactly the same trip but our horse and cart journey had the extra frisson of being followed for a couple of miles by a girl on a bike trying to sell us brass temple dogs-ours are on display, unlike your paintings! Hilary