By John Herlihy
Kalaw was tourist hub at the edge of Inle Lake, with its attitude of holiday resort and its air of clean crisp quality. The indigenous Shan people live predominantly in four main cities around the lake, including Kalaw where we were staying, in the numerous village along the lake’s shores, and on the lake itself. The last two days of our stay along the way to the former capital Rangoon gave us the opportunity to enjoy what the lake had to offer. For our two-day excursions on and around the lake, we boarded a long, narrow hand-made boat of teakwood, painted black and powered by a small motor in the back. The lake itself was quite large, covering nearly 45 square miles, giving ample opportunity for long, leisure rides in the early morning and late afternoon, while in between, we spent much of the day visiting the local sights on the lake itself.
The first morning on the lake took us on an extended ride deeper into the expansive waters. You can see local fishermen fishing there. They live on the lake. The local Burmese fisherman are known for practicing a distinctive style of rowing. They stand on one leg on a small platform in the stern of their long fishing boat, similar to the boat we were riding in, while they wrap their other leg around the single oar as they steer and make their way along. Together with the tubular distinctive fishing nets that lay along the bow of the boat, the fisherman, dressed in their sand-coloured baggy pantaloons tied at the waist with a rope and their white cotton/linen shirts and triangular straw hats that provide mercifully ample shade, offered a picturesque sight as we sped by in our own boat on our way deeper into the interior of the lake. I couldn’t help but think when I saw them again on the way back into Kalaw late in the afternoon just before sunset, that it must have been a long, tedious day indeed, alone out there on the waters, rowing in slow motion with their single foot and finding what fish they may that would provide them with a livelihood for them and their families. I was touch by the nobility, the simplicity, the hardship of the scene, a stolen glance into the lives of others that exotic travel sometimes provides.
Further glimpses into the local culture and way of life as we stopped around noontime at a textile factory that stood in the middle of the lake surrounded by other houses, all built of teakwood and bamboo and rising out of the waters on stilts. Throughout our journey overland heading south from Mandalay on the way to Yangon, we had a number of opportunities to visit handicraft and textile shops in order to gain a deeper insight into how these handicrafts are born and worked by the local people. I would like at this point to focus on the textile industry, but before going into the details, let me make passing mention the intricate and incredibly fine and detailed work done by the local people in creating woodcarvings, lacquerware and silverware. The wood carvings are traditionally made from the softwood teak, a high-quality of wood found in abundance throughout the country. The unique art of this craft is handed down from father to son.
I stood in wonder before these young men and women sitting cross-legged on the floor as they meticulously and with great care carved scenes of mythical creatures, deities, fruits and flowers on panels, frames and doors as if it were second nature to them. Such focus and patience that called for these artisans to work throughout the long day from eight in the morning until five in the evening with breaks only for tea and lunch was amazing. They worked with such intimacy between the mind, the hand and then applied to the texture of wood. To watch them work gave an insight into how a work of art is born through not only sheer skill, but also with the devotion and love for the craft that has been handed down generations. Similarly, I went to a lacquerware factory where individuals sat in rows working through the various stages of production of the cups, jewelry boxes, vases and combs, all constructed from bamboo and horsehair, that make up an exquisite repertoire, all finalised in the colourful intimacy of hand-painted scenes from the sap tapped from varnished trees into works of art with all the delicacy of lace.
I am not that interested in precious stones and wear no jewelry, but if you are, then exotic Burma is the place to go. Rubies and sapphires are popular, but jade is the stone most abundantly available. One can easily pick up an exquisite bracelet or necklace for under $10. Of special interest were the beautiful parasols that are so characteristic of old Burma. The parasol is considered a necessity when heading out onto the street to protect oneself from the sun. In Myanmar, many still favor the traditional style, made with bamboo (for the frame and handle) and cotton, which is stretched over the bamboo frame and then decorated with a hand-painted traditional Myanmar design. It is very common to see monks carrying an orange version of the parasol as they go through the streets on their morning rounds with their begging bowl in hand.
As much as I would like to describe in meticulous details all the handicraft shops I visited while in Burma, I will focus my efforts on my experience visiting those textile shops where I climb the wooden stairs from off the dangerously swaying, hand-crafted boat that led up into the inner sanctum of the textile “factory” standing on proud stilts upon the waters of the lake. I place the word factory in quotations marks because it was like no other factory ever visited or ever will visit.
You hear the looms that create these fabulous textiles before you see them — the clear, punctuated sound, the steady beat, the rhythmic sense that something is happening, something is being made. Then the door opens to looms, row after row, casting thin shadows in the late afternoon winter sunlight. The wooden structures seem primitive, skeletal, and yet they are designed to perform and in performing produce minor miracles in the shapes and textures of cloth which are vibrant enough to take on a life that is born of pure art. It took me some time to understand for I had never seen a loom up close before. The spinning wheels of fairy tales were a part of my imagination, but never a part of my reality. Now I stood in the midst of mythical looms from which the fabric of the universe has been created, at least in principle, a loom that could have been in the distant halls of the Greek gods.
There was a seat before the loom and the weft and the warp were drawn by strings up and down and across, moving threads cast in coloured dyes that could have been spun by black forest spiders or perhaps sea snakes from the deep blue. How I loved the whole business of it! I stood there spellbound, unconscious of Peter, the guide, the light and shadows of the room, the wayward dust motes in the air, only this vision of infinite patience. The rhythms of the multiple looms created an exotic and mesmerizing melody of perfected industry. The simplicity and skill of the crafted machine came together to produce a lasting image. There it was, the smell of the wood, the shush of the shuttle, the satisfying way that weft stacks upon weft and the waft intermingled to create this single unity of fabric.
As I said, a simple wooden seat stood before the loom and upon the seat sat a simple Burmese woman, middle-aged bending forward with slight elegance as if in protection of her loom. Her hair jet black and oiled were pulled together into a bun with a wooden hair clip. The hands of the woman steady and sure, the mind of the woman focused and clear, the face of the woman detached and enduring. This was a labour of love in its finest moment. I stood there — spell-bound, conscious of the moment that would pass, but to be forever etched in my mind as a lasting memory, a moment in time that will never fade. Later, we saw the finished products, filled with colour and light, as though cast down from the rainbows of heaven to shine of glory in their own right. I took away with me a piece of fruit of the loom, in the form of a lotus scarf, made from the thread-like sap drawn from the stem of a lotus flower, a valued treasure that I will keep until my end of days.
In 2006, the Myanmar government established the modern capital of Nay Pyi Taw, north of the former capital Yangon, formerly more commonly known as Rangoon. We reluctantly left the serenity of the Lake Inle and Kalaw for the airport for a short flight down to Yangon for the final several days of our trip. In the heart of downtown Yangon lay the remnants and reminders of the old 19th century colonial style city that has come to be known in the former British colonies. The British seized Rangoon and all of Lower Burma in 1852-53 during the Second Anglo-Burmese War. On the afternoon of our arrival, after checking into our hotel, Peter and I were able to take advantage of enjoying the look and feel of colonial Rangoon as we walked through the spacious parks and lakes, the old colonial buildings, the Parliament and the old Railway Station. The city name, meaning “the end of strife” was once called “The garden city of the East.”
On our last full day in Yangon, we took the opportunity of visiting the famed Shwedagon Pagoda, the Golden Dagon Pagoda, a gilded golden stupa that dominates the skyline in downtown Yangon. Built upon a hill in the center of the town, the golden umbrella dome atop the stunning pagoda shone brilliantly in the crisp winter sunlight. Conveniently, we rode multiple escalators up to the citadel at the Eastern Gate to the enclosure. The most sacred Buddhist Pagoda in Myanmar, it is believed to contain relics of the four previous Buddhas of the present kalpa (an extended cycle of time). Not surprisingly, the extended area in the shadow of the golden dome was crowded with people, tourists mostly from Asia, especially China, and locals from other parts of Myanmar who come to visit as a pilgrimage. The place was also crowded with monks draped in their signature orange monastic robes. I enjoyed how much they seemed to like taking group photos of each other, pushing and shoving just as all young people do everywhere in the world.
At this point, I was perhaps suffering from pagoda-fatigue, sitting image and reclining Buddha fatigue, and yet one cannot help but be caught up in the drama, the sacredness and the mystery of the moment, walking through the grounds that have survived wars and pestilence across the millennia. Historians and archaelogists suggest that the pagoda was built by the Mon people between the 6th and the 10th centuries. However, according to legend the Shwedagon Pagoda was built more than 2,600 years ago, making it the oldest pagoda in the world. The stupa’s pedestal is made of bricks covered with gold plates. Above the base are terraces that only monks and other males can access. Next is the bell-shaped part of the stupa, followed by what is called the turban, then the inverted alms bowl, the inverted lotus petals, the banana bud and finally the umbrella crown. The brown is tipped with 5,448 diamonds and 2,317 rubies. Immediately before the diamond bud is a flag-shaped vane. The very top – the diamond bud – is tipped with a 76 carat (15 g) diamond!
After strolling around soaking in the exotic ambiance that has endured for centuries across the ages under the light of the sun and moon, we finally made our way over to an elaborate enclosure that housed a monumental bell, many times the size of Peter, reminding me of the cracked Liberty Bell on view in Philadelphia! The Maha Gandha (lit. great sweet sound) Bell, a 23-ton bronze bell cast in 1779, was carried off by the British with the intention of shipping it to Kolkata, but because of its abundant size, it fell into the river instead. When the British failed in their attempts to recover it, the local people offered to help provided it would be restored to the stupa. Divers sent down and tied hundreds of bamboo poles underneath the bell and floated it to the surface where the massive ornate bell was safely return to the stupa and now sits in all its glory in a pavilion in the northwest side of the pagoda platform.
On the final night of our stay, in search of our last dinner in Yangon before leaving Myanmar the next morning, Peter and I ambled down a side street in back of our hotel in Chinatown wondering where to eat. At first, the street was quiet and subdued, with little coffee shops and bars invitingly bedecked with red Chinese lanterns. We saw in the distance the street illuminated by overhead fluorescent lighting and larger crowds of people. We soon arrived to see little open-air restaurants spilling out onto porches, sidewalks and the street, with plastic tables and little stools filled with all sorts of people eating dumplings, noodles and fried rice expertly with their chopsticks. It all looked so inviting, I motioned for Peter to stop. After all, so many people couldn’t be so wrong about their choice of where to dine, especially these locals. Peter moved on, undoubtedly thinking of the days at the beginning of the trip and the nights spent going to the bathroom. But his appetite had returned “with a vengeance”!
Then I saw it, at the edge of the curb, tucked in amid the seemingly ravenous diners and pedestrians: a make-shift steel barbeque grill with six sizzling fish spread forth in abandon upon the flaming hot coals whose smoke wafted into the air as well as into my nostrils. I looked down to get a closer look, only to be met by the restaurant’s owner, making gestures of invitation to come inside and sit. I looked inside and saw an empty table amid the crowds. “Is this river fish,” I asked, thinking of the river we had walked alongside earlier in the afternoon. “Yes, yes, li-li-liver fish,” he replied eagerly, having characteristic trouble pronouncing the Western R. “How much,” I growled, deadpan, not wishing to appear the green-eyed tourist. “Six thousand kyat,” he said and smiled. You may recalled what I wrote at the beginning of this tale, that one dollar represented 1,500 kyat. A quick mental calculation told me that this glorious jumbo fish, bursting out of its skin, sizzling in its own juices and cooked to perfection, the fish skin singed to a crisp golden-honeyed brown, cost a measly $4, a bargain, a steal, by anyone’s reckoning. “Peter,” I cried, pointing to the inviting delicacy, “could anyone ask for better than this. Peter turned up his nose, sniffing: “Will it make me sick?”
“How,” I cried, “no herbs or spices, just the freshest possible fish ever.” Against his better judgement, Peter was sorely tempted I could see, and finally agreed with a resigned shrug. “Trust me, Peter, nothing will happen, and you will love this.”
We had drinks and finger snacks until our two fish finally arrived sizzling and steaming in their own juices, “Let’s take a picture,” I suggested, but Peter looked down at my fish more closely with a frown. “Your fish is bigger than my fish,” he said in earnest. “You can have my fish, Peter, no problem, be my guest. You can have the bigger fish and some of mine as well. After all, I could never eat all of this.” And that was our final night, there in Chinatown, in the backstreets of 19th century Rangoon, where people eat fresh fish to their heart’s content as pigeons sit patiently in rows on electric wires overhead as the street cats of Yangon made ready for their own feast.
Leave-taking comes far too soon. As the great leviathan of the plane responded to the lift of the wind, I looked down one last time at the countryside below. I was remembering the great rivers that I had ridden upon, that wound like snakes through the forested landscape speckled with stupas and pagodas, golden domes shining in the sun, the majestic lakes where people lived over the placid waters on stilts that rose their wooden houses with walls of woven bamboo into the blue of the sky, the black wasteland of mountains that huddled like sleeping animals wishing to be aroused into wakefulness, exuding a peacefulness to accompany the surrounding silence of the emerald forests, where only the wind could stir its silent heart with its whispers. I was remembering the people, the stoic, rounded faces, the street-smart, good-humored guides who took care of us as they would take care of their brothers. They too still whisper their greetings and their farewells in thankful gratitude that we had come to visit, and they had had the honor to lead us through the heart of their homeland.
The journey could be at an end, but the adventure of travel will never finish. It lies there within the mind and heart as a desire to escape from oneself, to let the world reveal itself, to go to places people have never gone before, from the edge of the mind to far beyond the horizon of the world. The pagodas, stupas and temples of ancient lore now a living part of a shared experience, where distant cultures come together in the same way that strangers come together to become friends. Farewell Mandalay — once the mirage of dreams, now the very stuff of a never-ending journey leading to new destinations and new climes, where the sun shines and eagles roam under ancient blue skies, where travelers like me roam across the earth under Heaven’s infinite dome.
John Herlihy, travel writer and poet, has published two collections of travel essays, Journeys with Soul and his more recent Distant Islands and Sealight, available at online booksellers and Amazon.
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