Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Baking in Nuang U

When the sun beats down on the pagodas of Bagan, it's time to see shade. On my first trip I stayed inside the temples, but this time I was smart, or so I thought. I planned to spend the hot noon hours in a cool, air-conditioned internet cafe uploading photos and notes. The Myanmar government, seemingly aware of this situation, decided to thwart me by cutting power to the town every day during the daylight hours. So, instead of sitting in front of a computer, I was forced to explore Nuang U. I'm glad it worked out that way.

The town is not particularly big, but being stretched out along two main roads, it takes quite a while to explore. The buildings, like so many in Myanmar, have a dusty pastel color. Most of the structures were built since the 1980's and the older ones suffer from obvious structural defects (like massive cracks in their foundations). The trees themselves are heavy with dust in the dry season.
The market, at the intersection of the two main roads, is the town hub.

After a couple days in Bagan, I fell into a routine: watch the sunrise over the pagodas, then back to the guest house for a leisurely breakfast on their rooftop restaurant. While not one for routine, I really appreciated the hot omelet breakfast. What's more, I delighted in the opportunity to have the kitchen staff sample the English tea I brought along. Unfortunately, they were not quite as excited by the experience as I'd hoped, but the effort was certainly appreciated. I'd then take to the street, being careful to stay in the shade. A two-liter bottle of water would get me through the morning, but inevitably, I'd end up buying another in the afternoon. Dry season is so named for good reason.

From a tourisitic perspective, Nuang U has few distractions beyond the market and restaurants. There are some interesting shops, and some of them are also workshops.

My favorite was a lacquer shop at the end of town. The front is a typical tourist shop with rows of shelves stocked with crafts, but head to the back yard and you can see the wares being created. The workshop employs at least a dozen people mixing lacquer, weaving bamboo into baskets or boxes, etching designs and applying finishes to a wide selection of products. They sit in the shade on bamboo mats or low wooden stools, painstakingly applying their trade. Even having a stranger photographing them didn't distract them from their tasks. They were so intent that I didn't want to disturb them with questions. The youngest work on projects that require little skill, like mixing the lacquer. As their skills progress, they learn to make the boxes and baskets then how to decorate them, the most detailed work.

Up at the northern end of town is something referred to as the port or the dock or the terminal. What it really is a riverbank where boats stop. I never saw any proper port facilities outside of Yangon, so it was very nearly state of the art. This area has a few restaurants with nice views of the river, however. It's a comfortable place to while away the afternoon drinking gin or beer. It's also a good place to watch sports on TV as at least one of the bars usually has a generator going. My attention was drawn to the boats. Now, I know that the British scuttled every boat they could find before abandoning the country to the invading Japanese, so I knew that there were almost no boats older than 1945. It was interesting to see that boats arriving after the war were fitted out as steam boats. Note the short smokestack. Although now converted to diesel, once upon a time, these boats operated with coal or wood.

Further downriver, I had another surprise, an honest-to-god paddle wheeler! Much to my disappointment, it was no longer in operation, but I did get a tour of the ship. An old fellow, who might well have grown up working on the vessel, showed me the paddles and the boiler. I wandered around on the huge boat for some time, wondering what it was like when it first plied the river. I made note of the registry, it was built by Yarrow and Company in Glasgow. A bit of research revealed that it was one of three ships. Accoring to the Clydebuilt database, it was either the Minlat, the Mingalay or the Minthamee. These three ships were built by the Yarrow yard and sent to Burma in 1947. I'm sorry I could not find the exact name, it would have been nice to update the database accordingly.

A lot of people travel to and from Nuang U by boat. This is a particularly good choice for tourists going between here and Mandalay. Life on the river is picturesque. While there are daily flights to the town, most people go by land transportation. That would either be by rickety old bus or by simply loading into the back of a truck. Whatever works!

Nuang U gets a lot of tourists, but the kids are still fascinated by foreigners and are more than happy to pose for a photo.

The local school was always a good place to find interesting compositions. Every morning, the kids line up for role-call and announcements before going to class. Sometimes they perform synchronized calisthenics.

One morning, walking past, I saw a man leading his daughter from the school grounds. She was dressed in an elaborate dance costume with hair and makeup done and lots of jewelery. Neither father nor daughter could speak English so I was unable to ascertain the purpose of her costume. I could see no other children thus garbed and could only surmise that she was on her way to an event of some sort. Her dad encouraged her to demonstrate her dance skill. It wasn't until the next day that I figured out what was going on.

One of the features of life in Myanmar is a tiny truck with one or more over-sized megaphones mounted on top. These roll through the streets and blare out announcements of some sort. Even if I could understand Burmese, I doubt I could understand the message it's so badly distorted. So, when I heard one of the trucks, I didn't pay any attention. I did note, however, that everyone else was. That was very unusual. I headed out to the street to see a small convoy of trucks moving slowly down the street. These carried any number of children dressed in the fanciest costume, many with money pinned to their attire. Now I knew why the girl I met the day before was dressed up. She was undoubtedly part of whatever celebration was taking place.

The truck would stop every so often and music would issue forth from the speakers. The kids would then perform a dance routine on the back of the truck.

Some trucks carried what could only be described as little beauty queens. Their parents either road in back with them or walked alongside administering water to the kids as needed.

It took the better part of an hour for the procession to move down the street. Traffic, meanwhile, backed up behind them. Fortunately, the parade gave them room to pass.

There is an enormous pagoda complex just outside of town. In fact, only Yangon's Shwedagon Pagoda tops it. There are two rather dramatic entrances to the site; through covered passageways.

Unfortunately, one is expected to walk barefoot and I was not eager to remove my boots just yet. I elected to walk along the outside of the corridor. Up ahead, I spotted a few women talking among themselves. I thought nothing of it until they spotted me and started heading my way. It soon became apparent that they were all souvenir vendors. They each wanted to give me a gift, but I declined saying I had no gift to give in return. I knew exactly what they were up to; if they give me a trinket, I would be expected to give them money in return. The gifts they were offering were butterflies: three tiny pieces of thin painted cardboard, cut to a butterfly shape, wired to a safety pin. I kept refusing the gift and they kept insisting I accept and that they didn't want a gift in return. I finally agreed and they pinned the trinkets to my shirt. "OK," I told them, "I know a gift I can give you." I paused for dramatic effect. "I will give you each a kiss!" They laughed at this and waved their hands in reproach. I, meanwhile, was digging around in my bag and pulled out four hard candies. They were wrapped in plastic with the word "Kiss" printed above a set of lips. I handed them each a kiss and was rewarded with laughs.

The golden pagoda is stunning under a mid day sun.

Although my main reason for being in Nuang U was to use the town as a rest spot between trips to the plain of Bagan, I found plenty to keep me occupied, amused and fascinated.

See more photos here.

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