Thursday, December 31, 2009

Up into the hills to Pyin U Lwin

Pyin U Lwin started out as a military outpost. It took off when a rail link from Mandalay was established and the British colonial government of Rangoon moved to the town during the annual hot season. It was originally called Maymyo after Colonel May, the commander there in the late 1800's. Today it is home to a mix of local Shan people with Indian and Nepalese left over from colonial times.

Walking around the town has a peculiar British feel to it. Though many of the buildings are of a more practical Asian style (i.e. not particularly interesting), there are still remnants of right-proper English architecture. Off the main street you see numerous mock Tudor houses with metal roofs and surrounded by determined shrubbery. I kept expecting to see a lady with a parasol and a gentleman with a cane walking along the dusty road. Of course the presence of all the tropical foliage throws off the effect.

The main street possesses one of my favorite buildings in the country. Whether the pastel color scheme, the Indian influenced architecture, or just my love for value and cheapness, I'm always drawn to this magnificent general store.

Looking down the street, you can just make out the tower clock. Purcel Tower was built in 1936, not long before the Japanese took over the country. After all the stupas of Yangon, it felt odd not to see any in this part of the country. It did not seem odd, however, to see mosques. This one, just down the road from the general store, shows it's Mogul heritage.

The first thing you notice about the town is the unusual form of transportation. There are cars and trucks, of course, and the number of motorbikes are quickly gaining on the number of bicycles, but there is something unusual about the colorful horse-drawn carriages of the town.

When I first laid eyes on them, I was convinced they were weird replicas of old wild-west stage coaches. I imagined a British soldier giving a drawing or photograph of a western coach to a local craftsman who then started a trend in the town. I kept looking for evidence to support this theory, but I must admit that the real story is probably much less dramatic. The coach design is undoubtedly based on a standard English coach, which the British would have brought to Burma. The bright colors are likely the influence of the Indian aesthetics.

The coachmen take great pride in their carriages. When not carrying a fare, I often saw the men carefully polishing the brass fittings or cleaning the dust from the brightly painted wood.

The amount of workmanship that go into these things is astonishing. As they're the best way to get around town, I had a chance to see many of them up close. They are decorated with tiny designs, decals and pinstripes everywhere. Some of the fittings are downright ancient. My only complaint is that the carriages are simply too small. While I could sit myself inside comfortably, my head was pressed against the thin wooden roof. Although the roofs had been raised slightly, the frame was such that I could not see outside the carriage unless I hunched over.

The town is the home of a traditional botanic garden with an impressive collection of orchids. Although it is well maintained, I can imagine how beautiful it must have been back in the 1930's. A few years ago, a tower was built on the hill on the western side of the park. From it, you can watch the sun set. Today is it sadly run down. It seems that the government enters into ambitious projects with great promise simply does not follow through with maintenance.

Pyin U Lwin, in keeping with the original military purpose, is home to one of the government's largest military schools. Young soldiers, dressed in chemical-green uniforms, congregate around the school entrance in the south west. They tended to be a bit leery of foreigners.

It was the people of the town who interested me most. Pyin U Lwin has a very diverse population given it's size; but that is to be expected given the influence of the British and their Indian troops. The mix of Indian, Shan and a few Chinese are seen everywhere. It also makes for more variety when it comes to eating. I found an Indian restaurant on a side street that served a most delicious meal for
paltry sum. Everything was cooked while I waited - and watched Indian TV programing beamed in by satellite.

The big appeal for some travelers is the railroad. The line from Mandalay is very unusual in that it uses switchbacks to zig-zag up the hill. Rail aficionados can't miss this attraction, but it means leaving Mandalay at 4:30 in the morning!

The train from Mandalay arrives not long after sun rise. Local vendors arrive just after dawn to offer food and drink to the passengers continuing on to the towns of Hsipaw or Lashio. Flowers, particularly chrysanthemums are also offered to the travelers. Train enthusiasts, fresh from their switchback experience on the way up, remain on board to visit the impressive Gokteik Viaduct spanning a gorge further up the line.

With the train is in the station, I had amble time to wander around and get photos of the passengers and attendants. it's an excellent time to meet people and take photos. There are plenty of families on board, of course, but I was pleased to see that the few soldiers going home after studies were much more friendly (although English is certainly no longer on the curriculum).

Just before the train pulls out, passengers scramble aboard any way they can!

See more photos here!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mandalay Pole Climbers

The way to get around Mandalay is by pedal cab, the three-wheel sidecar rickshaws are everywhere. If you have to get any great distance, it's worth hiring a cab for a few hours. A cab, I should point out, is actually a small truck with a covered bed. It can hold six people squeezed in tight. I hired a guy from my hotel and we agreed on a price of seven dollars. He wanted more, naturally, but I made sure to check the prices with a few other travelers and with the hotel. We agreed on the spots where we would stop and and where I would end my journey. I've learned to spell things out with such vendors to avoid confusion and, far too frequently, from being ripped off.

Near the end of our journey, the driver asked if I would mind if he made a short detour. I didn't mind. He stopped near a sort of village near the river. A group of locals were up to something near the road. I suggested I would have a look and he could collect me when he was ready.

What I saw was a large group of people gathered around a polished wooden pole (bamboo?) sticking a good five meters into the air. From the top, connected by a pulley to the ground so it could be raised and lowered, was a ring. From the ring fluttered pieces of paper.

As I approached, a group of boys were trying to climb it. They were unable to do so individually, but they soon figured out to form a crude pyramid ladder. This allowed a couple of boys to get closer, but still not close enough. On the ground, someone lowered the ring to encourage a few more to try to climb harder.

The boys wore shorts, but the one who wore a longyi wrapped up close soon found himself in a awkward position. As he clung to the pole, the longyi came loose. He couldn't let go to fix it. Meanwhile, other boys were scrambling over him. By the time he got clear of them and started down, he was completely compromised. What would have mortified me as a boy didn't bother him one bit. He laughed as he got redressed and laughed along with everyone else.

Eventually, one intrepid climber made it to the ring and grabbed an envelope.

Now it was the young men's turn. They were better climbers, but they quickly organized a pyramid. The ring had also moved higher up the bamboo pole. Standing on shoulders and heads, they climbed over each other to reach the ring.

One very clever fellow used a spare longyi and twisted it around the pole. A tight twist enable him to use it as a sort of climbing base. Loosening it, he could slide it up and tighten it again to climb a bit higher. In this way he made it to the top and swiped an envelope.

When he arrived on the ground, he opened the envelope to reveal his prize. It contained a coupon. Some one took the coupon and returned with a new longyi! He was genuinely pleased with the reward and everyone cheered when he held it aloft.

My driver showed up at this point and we went back to the cab. He took me a few hundred meters down the road to a restaurant by the river, telling me it was a good place to see the sunset. I reminded him that we agreed on a different destination, about two kilometers up the road. He insisted this was a good spot, but I held firm. He begrudgingly drove me to my destination.

I got out, counted seven dollars out of my wallet and handed it to him as I put on my camera gear and organized my tripod. He held the money in his hand and looked at me with confusion. I returned the confused look. “Seven dollars” he said. I nodded. He fanned out four bills. I short changed him? Huh! I pulled out three dollars and gave it to him. He got into the cab and drove off as I put away my wallet.

How could I have have miscounted four as seven? I could not recall ever miscounting with so few bills. Miscount one bill? Maybe. Miscount two? Unlikely. Miscount three? I opened my wallet and started counting back my purchases of the day. I could account for every expenditure but three dollars. The sneak palmed three bucks and managed to con me into giving him three more. I vowed not to get distracted when making any sort of payment. I knew there were rip-off artists in Yangon, but I had become too trusting of the regular folks in my travels that I let down my guard. Lesson learned.

See more photos here.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Monastic City of Sagaing

In a bend in the Irrawaddy, just downriver of Mandalay, a ridge of hills rises along the western bank. Upon these hills is the city of Sagaing. The landscape is crowded with large trees and even larger pagodas, temples, stupas and other religious shrines, for this is the monastic heart of the country. There are a few proper roads through the area, but the cobbled trails, dusty paths and covered walkways entice any visitor to explore.

The city was built in the early fourteenth century, not long after the Mongols sacked Bagan. It remained the capital of the kingdom for fifty years before moving to another city, in the typical Burmese tradition of moving capitals. Today the city is home to thousands of monks, novices and nuns — and hundreds of ancient monasteries to support them.

The path to the highest point, Sagaing Hill, is a covered stairway running up the steep sides. From this radiates numerous other paths, some leading to nearby religious buildings, others leading off to distance locations and other hilltops. Climbing the stairs, monks and workers make their way to prayers and chores.

While it provides shade — and shelter in the rainy season — the canopy also blocks the view of the countryside. Ducking out from beneath offers glimpses of vistas.

The top of Sagaing Hill sits the magnificent Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda, its accompanying stupa and the magnificent tile-work that surrounds it.

It was behind this stupa that I heard the plaintive mew of a kitten. I discovered a skinny wretch of Siamese huddled among a pile of constructions supplies. When I came close, it wailed louder. The pitiful thing was clearly starving. I walked back to a food vendor I had passed some minutes earlier. The only meat they had was a soft candied jerky of some sort, about half the size of a traditional hot dog. I bought one and headed back to the forlorn feline. I handed the meat to the hungry cat who started chewing it immediately. Satisfied I had earned some Buddhist merit, I glanced around for more things to photograph. The kitten was mewing again. I turned back and saw the empty plastic bag that held the food. I fed it less than a minute ago. I concluded that a bird must of have swooped in and grabbed the meat. I walked back to the vendor and bought two more pieces of meat. I laid them out for the kitten and watched the eaves for marauding avians. I glanced down to see the last bit of the first meat strip disappear into the staving cat; the second followed less than a minute later. A bird had not snatched the meat, the kitten was that hungry. I was rewarded with a purr that nearly shook the ground upon which I stood.

The whole top Sagaing Hill is a colorful complex of terraces, covered areas, areas to meditate and areas to take in the fantastic views of the river and the city.

In addition to the monks and occasional nuns, local pilgrims spend much time on the hill. It took a bit of coaxing to get these woman to break from their formal countenance and give me a smile.

Despite the few tourists the country receives, enough of them make it to Sagaing that locals are not at all surprised. Westerners typically stick to well-traveled paths in Sagaing. Exploring the back streets opens up plenty of possibilities for meeting the people. I passed countless monasteries and schools. The schools were the most fun because the children in the yards run to the gate to say hello and goodbye, the only two English words they had know.

The back ways also provided access rarely visited stupas and to some of the lower hills with their seldom-scene views.

The hidden monasteries always provide at least a few monks eager to practice their English ... and who are more than happy to pose for a photo as well.

See more photos here.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Mandalay Artisans

Mandalay is the artistic capital of Myanmar. While you can find artisans at work all over the country, the greatest concentration is found here. In addition to gold beating, there is a marble carving, bronze casting and tapestry making.

The most noticeable of the craft shops is an entire area of the city devoted to stone carving. Buddhas and Nat deities carved from marble, line the small road on both sides, some ready for shipping, some still incomplete. While most of them are lifesize and slightly smaller, a few tower three meters or more in height.

Workers squat beside their statues. The sound of electric grinders drown out the tapping of the chisels as the carvers prepare the marble.  A surprising number of statues are completely carved except for the face. This remains as a rough block of stone. Presumably, a more skilled artisan would complete the face. Perhaps it requires some customization such as to carve it into the appearance of the buyer?

The whole area is covered in marble chips and dust. The ground near the carvers is a gravelly beach of marble rocks and sand. The air, too, is full of marble and it takes only a few minutes to start accumulating white dust on clothes and hair.

The artisans work in small teams, each person specializing in a particular technique or a particular part of the sculpture. Men do the actual carving while the women generally do the polishing and finishing. The statues are nearly all Buddhas and the local Burmese deity, the Nats. They all take a similar form, the traditional poses of "The Enlightened One." The Nats are a bit more novel as the finished version is usually given some paint highlights.

Not far from the marble carving area is the bronze foundry area. A dozen small shops cast everything from souvenirs to prayer bells to larger than life bronze Buddhas. There are few statues on display here; probably because the work is created to order. There are, however, plenty of brown clay models and molds.

Most shops use an in genious makeshift apparatus for polishing the metal. The device consists of an electric motor turning a cable inside a stiff hose. To the end is attached a wire wheel or whatever abrasive/polishing device they need. Sometimes they'll take the electric motor, pop a polishing wheel to the end of it and just use the whole contraption by hand. While not as powerful or versatile as a regular grinder, it gets the job done cheaply.

Tapestries are also big in Mandalay. Small teams of women gather around wooden frames stretched with red fabric. By the light of the window, they guild threads of bright color and gold through the cloth.

The complete tapestry is a rectangle about one by two meters. It contains Hindu and Buddhist scenes from history or allegory.

See the larger images here.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Irrawaddy Riverbank Life

Compared to Yangon, Mandalay is laid back and peaceful. However, to see some organized chaos, you have but to wander down to the river.
The sandy banks are practically overrun with bamboo huts. I'm tempted
to call them makeshift, but many of them have a feel of semi-permanence
about them. I'm sure a lot of them survive the wet season when the
Irrawaddy swells. Others are rebuilt year after year.

The banks of the Irrawaddy are lined with boats for as far as the eye
can see. There are no dock facilities, no jetty, just boats pressed
against the shore - and to each other.

While quite a few are used as informal houseboats, most are in the process of unloading cargo.

Finished goods arrive from Yangon while raw materials, mainly wood, travel downriver from various places. When it's time to unload the vessels, everyone pitches in. Baskets are the prefered way of moving smaller items.

Here a family loads a local truck with bamboo brought from up river. The riverbank has quite an industry cutting and preparing these poles.

The early morning light makes for gorgeous photos. On the top of the bank, along the roadside, I tried to get a group of kids to pose as they sat on the stone wall, but they were surprisingly shy. These two girls, working at a tea shop, happily volunteered.

Just about everything of potential value is reused on the riverbank. These oil drums, for example, have been battered, beaten and repaired countless times.

The storage areas on shore also provide excellent photo opportunities.

One of the more unusual raw materials arriving at Mandalay is one that is in abundance along the river: sand. Construction projects continue in the city and sand is a vital component of the concrete. The sand from the many islands in the middle of the river are best since they are free of organic matter (unlike that on the shore where I stood). Most of the small boat operators haul the sand to the bank by the basket load, but the more technologically advanced use a water pump to draw the sand through heavy hoses. It provides the local kids an opportune place to play.

Just a bit upriver from the "commercial bank," an inlet acts a bit of a harbor. It's not deep enough to let the larger boats in, but it makes a fine place to organize an prepare floating materials such as these logs.

People walk across the log rafts as they would a sidewalk. It is quite common to see people fishing from them and it's the ideal location to wash your clothes or whatever else needs a good scrubbing.

The most interesting thing about these log rafts is that not only do people work on them, they actually live on them. I saw numerous lean-to and hut dwellings, complete with cooking fires.

There's a small village on the other side of the inlet. Several boats ply between the shores, taking people to work and kids to school. The rowers use a peculiar crossed oar method to power their boats.

As the sun sets on the other side of the Irrawaddy, I'm given one more beautiful vista to enjoy.

See the full size photos here.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Mandalay Gold Beaters

Gold leaf is one of the most common materials in a Buddhist temple. In addition to statuary and sacred items being layered in gold leaf, it's also used by worshipers. They take tiny squares and carefully apply it to statues and other items as a way of making merit. Some items, like the sacred Buddha images of Inle Lake have had so much gold leaf applied to them that they appear as shapeless blobs. Gold leaf is in demand and this particular Mandalay shop employs a large staff to prepare it.

In the final product, small squares of gold leaf are cut from a larger round piece and carefully places on the yellow paper. The squares are then stacked in a box. A box of twenty-five squares may sell for between fifteen and twenty dollars depending on the price of gold. You're not actually paying for gold so much as the labor that goes into the preparation.

The round pieces of gold have been pounded against sheets of heavy bamboo parchment. Here, the shop's top gold trimmer shows the product as it comes from the gold beaters.

The process begins with a ribbon of gold about 0.025 mm thick. This is cut into squares of about 3 cm and sandwiched between sheets of specially prepared bamboo parchment. Preparing this paper is a task unto itself and requires a few days, from soaking select bamboo pieces to pounding out the finished product. Pounding the bamboo sheets is performed by a group of women squatting in a small, very noisy, dimly lit and very humid basement room. They pound the parchment until it is the right consistency for the next phase of the process. 

Upstairs, the men go to work on the gold. Numerous squares are sandwiched between layers of parchment and wrapped in sheepskin before being tied against a large stone.

Leaning against a wooden rail, the men begin a rhythmic beating of the packages. Although they each start with their own cadence, they inevitably form a constant beat that is remarkably musical. A small bowl with a hole in the bottom is placed in a jar of water to measure the amount of time the gold is pounded. When the bowl sinks, the men reposition the packages to ensure even distribution.

Each man has his own personal hammer. He usually begins in his teens as a sort of apprentice, spending a few weeks practicing the pounding technique on packages of bamboo sheets without gold. Once the masters are satisfied with his abilities, he is given his first gold to beat. After a few years of this, they are in remarkably good physical condition.

I was granted the opportunity to try my hand at the task, with a dummy package, of course. In bare feet, I positioned myself over the stone. One of the men tied the package and showed me how to strike it. The hammer is understandably heavy, but when I hit the sheepskin-wrapped package, I was pleasantly surprised; the hammer bounced. Instead of having to physically haul the hammer back to the overhead position, I had only to maintain the momentum and start the downward swing. It was like beating a very large drum. I kept up with the rest of the crew for a few minutes until the bowl sank in the jar.

I had the guys gather for a formal portrait. It took several attempts because they could not help laughing.

As I left, I ran into one of the senior gold beaters and had him pose with his hammer. Years of work have carved him into a gold pounding machine with a physique envied by any westerner of his age. As monotenous as the job may be, I can't help but wonder if it might not be a good retirement option: move to Mandalay and get into shape by taking up gold beating.

It beats the hell out of golf, that's for sure.

See more photos here.