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, 15 November 2012

Across the Yangon River to Dala: Part 3 of Myanmar, Land of Gold

We were up early and at the Pansodan Ferry terminal before 8.30. It was already hot and our wander round the impromptu street market lasted just long enough to notice the huge piles of quails' eggs before the heat drove us into the shade of the terminal building.

The ferry ride to Dala was very brief but the boat, when it arrived, was surprisingly large. Several hundred people disembarked and we were part of a similar sized crowd waiting to board. The lower deck was full of people carrying heavy loads or pushing bicycles so we climbed to the upper deck. Here we found stacks of the small plastic stools that are only seen in infant schools at home. At their best they are flimsy but many were broken and held together with metal staples. I selected a couple of relatively intact stools, gave one to Lynne and carefully lowered my bulk on to the other. I have previous with cheap plastic chairs.

The crowd disembarks, Pansodan Jetty, Yangon
The Yangon River is a tidal estuary and has no natural connection with the Irrawaddy Delta (although it is linked by the 35km long Twante canal) and there is not a lot of of river upstream. The fast flow was, I presume, largely tidal.

The river is deep enough for coasters to dock at Yangon, the ship nearest the camera being from Haiphong in northern Vietnam – not a huge distance as the crow flies, but a long sea voyage away round the southern tip of the Malayan peninsula.

Coasters docked at Yangon

Dala is directly opposite the ferry terminal so although we ended up less than a kilometre from our starting point the current required us first to chug upstream and then be carried downstream  as we turned to make the crossing.

We disembarked into a scene of chaos. People pushing bicycles and bearing burdens threaded themselves between motorbike taxis and trishaws, while minibus drivers stood on the edge of the crowd shouting out their destinations.

We walked a little way up the road until Swe lighted on three likely looking trishaw peddlers. After a small negotiation we climbed into the seats, at least Swe and Lynne did, but the seats were poorly designed for the more generously built and I did not fit. My peddler laughed and folded down the back cushion. With two cushions below me, my backside was above the sidebars and the problem was solved – though it was not a particularly comfortable solution. Still, I was more comfortable than the poor sod doing the peddling.

Lardy-arsed foreigner almost fits on trishaw
Dala Township, Yangon
Although not actually in the delta country the land was still low lying with an abundance of drainage canals and ponds. Houses and shops were approached by footbridges, some over fishponds, others over waterways clogged with weeds.

Shop, Dala Township, Yangon

My peddler had little to say, but Lynne’s chatted away continually in a language he seemed to believe was English, pausing every so often to lean over the other side of his bike and spit a thin stream of red betel nut juice onto the road. Passing a building bearing the scarlet banner of the National League for Democracy even my taciturn peddler could not resist pointing and saying ‘Aung Sang Suu Kyi’ with the reverent tone that all Burmese seem to adopt when pronouncing her name.

Lynne proceeds in comfort
Dala Township, Yangon
We turned off the main road and followed a smaller and less well surfaced road, stopping where a crowd was milling around outside a market. ‘That,’ said Lynne’s peddler, pointing to a large and well-built house set back from the road ‘is the house of the man who owns these trishaws.’ I knew that rickshaw men were generally among the poorest of urban dwellers, but it had not previously occurred to me that they did not even own the battered bicycles they pilot for a living.

We wandered over to the market entrance. A policeman, or perhaps just a security guard, accosted Swe. ‘You may,’ Swe translated, ‘photograph market produce, but not any of the people.’ We shrugged and entered.

The crowd milling around outside the market
Dala Township, Yangon

It was a small market, dirty and crowded, the produce laid out on rickety wooden tables. Lynne raised her camera at some decorously arranged betel leaves and immediately the security man was upon us. ‘No photograph!’ he shouted though whether because the image would steal the leaves’ souls or because betel leaves were the government’s secret weapon in the war against the northern insurgents we never discovered. The security man followed us, hovering on our shoulders past vegetables, fish and meat. Maybe nobody had told him about recent liberalisations, but he was clearly a man who relished his job – being angry is a vocation for some people. He amused us, bless him, even if we have no photographs to prove it.

Back on the trishaws we were peddled to the intersection marking the centre of Dala Township which, although administratively part of Yangon, is actually a series of straggling villages. The ‘town centre’ is no more than a rural crossroads with a tatty wooden tower.

Turning right we soon arrived at another market, where there was no irritating security man, indeed no security man at all. The market was larger and even busier, but nobody minded if we photographed the betel leaves......

Betel leaves, Dala Township, Yangon

.... the herbs and vegetables.....

Herbs and vegetables, Dala Township, Yangon

...... the dried fish.....

Dried fish & chilli, Dala Township, Yangon

....... or the thanakha logs.

Thanakha, Dala Township, Yangon

Thanakha is rubbed on a moistened abrasive stone to produce a clear oily liquid which women and girls smear onto their cheeks. To avoid a Crime Against Masculinity I could only put it on the back of my hand. It disappeared for a while, but then dried to leave the smooth ochre coloured swirls that can be seen on the faces of many local women. It does not look very pleasing but feels good and is supposed to nourish the skin and provide protection against the strong sun.  

By the entrance I came across a stall selling an unfamiliar fruit - ‘Custard apples,’ Shwe told me. I bought a couple for a few pence. Green and roughly spherical they split open to reveal brown seeds surrounded by whitish pulp. They may not have looked much like apples, but the flesh did taste remarkably like custard and was very pleasant, though a lot of spitting out of pips was necessary. They have since arrived in our local Morrisons. We have not bought one fearing that, like much tropical fruit bought in England, it would be under-ripe and overpriced – a single custard apple costs considerably more than a kilo would in Myanmar
Lynne eats a custard apple, Dala Township, Yangon

Continuing down the road, a pond lined with statues of the Buddha indicated that we had reached Moe Goak Monastry. The monastery runs an orphanage and a school and when the monks and novices go out begging, as they do every morning, they beg for food not just for themselves but for the children in their care.

The entrance to Moe Goak Monastery, Dala Township, Yangon

In April 2008 Cyclone Nargis cut a swathe across the Irrawaddy delta leaving at least 138 000 dead - the government stopped counting at this figure. The initial response by the then very secretive regime was seriously inadequate and they stubbornly refused international aid for over a week. As the authorities failed, Buddhists monasteries stepped in to provide most of the local relief efforts; the majority of those cared for at Moe Goak were orphaned by Cyclone Nargis.

We removed our shoes and walked (very carefully) over the rough concrete and gravel to the school block. It was not lesson time, but several children had jobs to do and were brushing the classroom floor, others played with toy cars and several small girls dedicated themselves to watching us. I am unsure if the school serves the village as well as the orphanage, or whether all the children were orphans, but they behaved like normal happy seven year olds.

There are no chairs - the children kneel on the floor (that is the Burmese way) and what appear to be benches are actually their desks. Several of the girls had thanakha on their cheeks and on the white board was an English lesson: “Where is the apple? The apple is on the plate….”

Classroom, Moe Goak Monastery, Dala Township, Yangon
The teacher arrived and after a few words with her we went off for our interview with the abbot.

A man in his late fifties in terracotta coloured robes, he was kneeling on the teak floor of his office, books stacked in piles behind him. Swe knelt down in obeisance, but we settled for a small bow with our hands together. Invited to sit, we folded our stiff western bodies down onto the hard floor.

After we had been provided with peanuts and water he wanted to know where we come from. Everyone from England is presumed to live in London, but we do not and, not expecting him to know Swynnerton (pop 600) or even Stafford, we mentioned places like Birmingham and Manchester. It is, of course, impossible to say ‘Manchester’ anywhere in the Far East without somebody, even the abbot of a monastery, adding ‘United’. As we have observed before, Manchester United have fans everywhere (except, of course, Manchester). We discussed Aung San Suu Kyi’s recent visit to England and he spoke of her with a combination of warmth and reverence. Then he turned and pulled a newspaper off a pile of books opening it at a full page photograph of Barak Obama who was due to visit in the next few days. If Aung San Suu Kyi is ‘The Lady’ and represents the hope for Myanmar, Barak Obama represents hope for the rest of the world.

When we had finished Swe made a pre-arranged donation on our behalf. Having been impressed by the abbot and his monastery we doubled it. ‘You don’t have to do that.” Swe said, but he seemed pleased. It was not a huge sum; a little money goes a long way in Myanmar, particularly when applied to the right place.

We were peddled back across Dala. Some of the road was new and smooth...

Swe on a smooth road, Dala Township, Yangon

.... but in other places the metalled surface was broken up or non-existent and peddling was difficult despite the flat terrain. The houses were rural in character, some of them simply made of bamboo. Lynne’s peddler pointed out some new water pumps in one village; despite being surrounded by ponds and canals, a supply of clean drinking water was a new and welcome addition.   

Rural houses, Dala Township, Yagon

We passed St Michael’s church …..

St Michael's Church, Dala Township, Yangon
….and dropped in on the wholesale fish market, but it was a little late in the day and there were few fish and even fewer people.

Fish market, Dala Township, Yangon
Eventually we reached Shwe Sayan Pagoda at the other end of the township. The pagoda is a place of bright colours, greens, blues and, of course, gold (some gold leaf but more gold paint), a place of stupas, spires and shrines, a place of geometric shapes over which organic forms loom or sometimes writhe.

The entrance to She Sayan Pagoda
Dala Township, Yangon

It is a place of brilliant light. It feels like a fantasy land, but a fantasy founded in faith and reflecting a sincerely held view of the world, not some slick commercial Disneyland.

Shwe Sayan Pagoda
Dala Township, Yangon

The prize exhibit is a monk who died 150 years ago. He clearly attained Nirvana as his body has not decayed, though you cannot see that as he is covered in gold leaf.  Ten years ago he opened one of his eyes to warn about a coming cyclone. The photographic evidence of this remarkable event is displayed beside the gold swathed corpse. Call me an old cynic if you must, but the photographs were not wholly convincing.

The gold covered corpse, She Sayan Pagoda
Dala Township, Yangon
There was a commotion as we were leaving and we had to step aside as the abbot returned from hospital. This required four people to carry the stretcher (three of them our trishaw pilots), one to carry the stand for his drip, another to carry his oxygen cylinder and a couple more to supervise. Our men returned clearly pleased, even honoured, to have been allowed to help such a holy man.

We returned to the ferry terminal and Swe paid off our peddlers. We tipped them 1000 Kyat each (80p), the recommended amount, but it seemed a paltry sum for so much hard work under an unrelenting sun. They, however, seemed pleased with the rewards of their morning’s endeavours.

Back in Yangon we drove to the Sule Pagoda. The ancient pagoda, beside the city hall…

City Hall, Yangon

…. and opposite the rather sad looking independence monument, marks the traditional centre of Yangon and was the rallying point of the pro-democracy demonstrations in 1988 and 2007.

Independence Monument, Yangon
Despite sitting on a traffic island, Sule Pagoda is of great antiquity; legend says it was built during the lifetime of the Buddha and enshrines one of his hairs. The unusual octagonal stupa is in the style of the Mon people who currently live along the coast to the south, though over the years the pagoda has been rebuilt many times and in several styles. The stupa is surrounded by stalls, which is not unusual in Myanmar, but made it feel more commercial than spiritual. Despite its antiquity it lacked the magic of Shwedagon, or the exuberance of the relatively humble Shwe Sayan.

Octagonal Stupa, Sule Pagoda, Yangon

We hid while the sun was at its hottest and then made the short journey to the packed grid of streets that form Yangon’s Chinatown. The street market sold flowers.....

Flower stall, Chinatown, Yangon

....and fruit and vegetables in great profusion and of high quality.

Fruit stall, Chinatown Yangon
(with custard apples nearest the camera)
The side streets were packed with Chinese food stalls and we stopped for a snack. We choose some skewers of tofu and mutton which were taken away to be cooked while we drank dark ABC beer, served on draught. Modelled on Guinness but rather lighter (in weight, not colour) it was refreshingly bitter and this was the only time we drank any brew other than Myanmar Beer.
A snack and a glass of black beer, Chiantown, Yangon

I consider myself an adventurous eater, but I have one blind spot. I cannot face eating insects, so although there were stalls piled high with fried grasshoppers, I did not indulge.

Fried grasshoppers, Chinatown, Yangon

That evening Lynne at last gave way to the symptoms she had brought with her from home and retired to bed early. I went out and bought my dinner from a barrow; meat balls and little bits and pieces of this and that. It cost me pence and the knowledge that I was eating the least prized bits of the least valued animals was offset by watching it fry in a wok-full of boiling oil, a process guaranteed to see off all unwanted germs. The cold chilli dipping sauce, carried back in a small plastic bag, may have been more of a risk, but it all tasted fine when washed down with a can of beer in front of the telly.

With an early morning flight next day, I too retired early.

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