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Once Upon A Time in Burma: Leaving on a Jet Plane

By John Herlihy

Lake Inle. Courtesy: Creative Commons

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.

Fisherman on Lake Inle. Courtesy: Creative Commons

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.

Photo Courtesy: John Herlihy

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.

Photo Courtesy: John Herlihy

*

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.”

Photo Courtesy: John Herlihy

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.

Click here to read Part one of Once Upon a Time in Burma

Click here to read Part two of Once Upon a Time in Burma

Click here to read Part three of Once Upon a Time in Burma

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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Travel

Once Upon a Time in Burma: Of Babies and Buddhas

John Herlihy takes us through more of Myanmar with his companion, Peter, in the second part of his travelogue through this land of mystic Buddhas

My friend Peter had slept poorly, the reason being that he had spent much of the night visiting the inner sanctum of the toilet. Alas, the revenge of the spices from last night’s adventure was finally exacting its heavy toll. While I remained free of any stomach trouble, poor Peter had fallen victim to the age-old trials and tribulations of those with no experience with the culinary delights of Asia. We had gone to “the best restaurant in town” according to our Google advisory and indeed, it had turned out to meet our expectations when compared to the mosquito-infested nightmare that Peter had experienced the night before; the swarms of mosquitoes hadn’t condescended to touch, much less bite me. For the cost of about $6 or 9,000 kyat (a tidy sum if you live on the local economy), we were wined and dined with an array of fabulous foods.

The restaurant actually employed a system that I quite liked, namely, that the diner ordered a main course, and an array of side dishes was brought to table, including soups, breads and spicy sauces. I ordered lamb casserole in a creamy, curried dahl (lentils) stew baked in a pewter pot that was utterly delicious and Peter followed my lead in figuring out the best selection from local menus letting me order for both of us. The waiter brought on a dazzling array of sides dishes and a delectable soup that we both wolfed down in various gulps, being hungry after the long day’s trek and the far distance of the hotel breakfast. We tasted everything from curried chickpeas to braised eggplant seasoned with garlic, tomatoes and pine nuts. We need more, I thought to myself as Peter and I fought for the meager remains, but there was no need. The waiter quickly refurbished the little bowls with ample tidbits to last a lifetime, much less the evening meal. Peter, of course, had ordered an extra bowl of rice, two bowls in fact, in addition to the one he had. I had warned Peter about the little sauces served up in small dishes that were intended to be added drop by precious drop to the food to enhance the flavor with a hint of hot chilli. But Peter, in his traditional style, put heaping teaspoons into his food as if he would never taste these things again and needed to remember their flavour. I noted he begrudgingly scooped up the last remaining kernels, the fieriest part of the hot pepper, on his plate at the end of the meal. Indeed, now he was recalling their exotic flavours in unexpected ways.

The next day on our busy tour, we were scheduled to visit the Mahagandayon Monastery, but first we made a quick stop at the local market to find a remedy for the gentle giant’s diarrhea and dehydration problem. “Sticky rice,” Swun immediately said when I mentioned the problem to him. These local remedies can be quite effective; I knew from my own past experience on other trips. I had recommended doses of fresh lemon juice that had worked for me; but Peter wasn’t having it. When Swun suggested the sticky rice by saying, “I know just the place where we can get it,” I thought, yes, the perfect solution. Peter trudged along behind at a reduced pace through the hectic market until we found Swan’s contact standing before a large vat of sticky rice, nearly empty at that hour of the morning. The woman dolloped out several heaping spoonfuls of the steaming mass of rice in a plastic bag sealed with an elastic band. Not exactly pharmaceutical splendour, but it promised to do the job. Swun’s smile concurred as I laughed myself content. We returned to the car and insisted that Peter swallow the heaping brew which he gulped down quickly making grimacing faces that would scare the hand-carved gargoyles we saw earlier in some of the temples.

Our first stop was the Mahagandayon Monastery where more than a thousand monks live and study. A large group of tourists had gathered under the morning sun to see hundreds of monks return from their morning trek through the village with their begging bowls seeking food for the main meal of the day. Security police and a few senior monks, curiously chubby looking, created order of the disarray of Chinese tourists of every size, shape and colour behind police barriers, clear of the roadway where the returning monks would be walking. A hush and then a rumble of whispers announced that the monks were approaching down the street from the distance of the nearby village, walking briskly in a single file, holding their begging bowls, now filled or filling up fast with the charity offered to them. People from the sidelines approached with fruits, packages of biscuits, and the like, and even money, a thousand khat here and there which actually represents less than a dollar, but in local terms meant something; and given the size of the crowd could add up to a reasonable hoard. I took note of the soft, youthful faces of the young monks, their heads shaved clear and wearing the traditional orange wrap-around robes that we have become familiar with in Thailand. Some of the monks were very young indeed, children, eyeing the onlookers impishly and seemingly ready for flight. My friend Peter had a clear advantage as his giant stature afforded him the luxury of towering over everyone in sight to have an unimpeded view of the procession of the monks into the monastic enclosure. The monks soon disappeared into the surrounding buildings where they would have their one and only late morning meal of the day.

U Bein teak Bridge. Photo Courtesy: John Herlihy

A short, pleasant drive down lush tree-lined streets soon brought Swan, Peter and I to our next destination, the more than 100-year-old U Bein teak bridge, built in 1850, the oldest and longest teak-wood bridge in the world. The 1.2 km bridge spans the Taungthamam Lake near the ancient royal capital not far from Mandalay to an island nearby that could service the local villagers who wanted to get to the mainland across the broad lake to sell their crops. It features 1,086 pillars that stretch out of the water. Though the bridge largely remains intact, there are fears that an increasing number of pillars are becoming dangerously decayed. Damage to these supports have been caused by flooding as well as a fish breeding program introduced into the lake which has caused the water to become stagnant.

Of course, the old kilometer long bridge represented a challenge to Peter who was anxious to “make tracks” across the waters in his traditional swaggering style, leaving nothing behind in the wake of his hurried footsteps but a gentle wind. I also valiantly followed in his footsteps; but soon lost him as he made his way ahead into the thickening crowd. The local Burmese, many of them villagers and many of them in groups of families who were tourists, were making their way across the bridge as they have done for hundreds of years. I was prepared to put up a brave front and make my way across without complaint under the cool winter sun, but as I tripped my way forward across the creaking wooden planks, I became increasingly more uncomfortable. A kind of phobia took hold, as one might experience in confined spaces or riding shaky elevators. The truth was the bridge looked none too stable. The wooden planks were aged, chipped and broken throughout; gaping holes yawned where planks had broken through.

I took note of the fact that the bridge itself was fairly narrow, wide enough for three or four people, but there were no guard rails, just a gaping chasm on either side and a sizeable drop several hundred meters down to the murky waters below. I made my way forward nearly to the halfway point, where I saw Peter up ahead towering over the crowds of people, waiting for me under a make-shift wooden structure with the traditional pointed roof that marked the halfway point. Other elderly people had the same idea as I had; time to rest and take stock. “You go on ahead and make it to the other side,” I told Peter. “You can tell me about it when you come back. I’ll wait for you here.” And my valiant companion was off without further coaxing.

I tucked myself into a shady corner of the narrow bridge, which at that point was extended a little to accommodate the wooden structure marked there as a resting point in the river crossing. It was time to rest, to be alone for a few minutes, to gather myself into my own space and reconstruct the blessings of solitude as the crowds of people made their determined way back and forth across the age-old bridge. It was a cool mid-morning with a gentle breeze under the warming light of the winter sun. At my feet sat a local Burmese woman, with her jet-black hair collected into a wooden hair clip and adorned with a cluster of wildflowers. Her pudgy face held an eternal smile that matched the smile she held in her eyes. At her feet were the goods she was selling to the tourists and other local travelers crossing the bridge, as women have probably done for the last several centuries since the bridge was built. She had a good business for all that, seasoned sticky rice, spicy noodles, and a variety of fruits, all sold for pennies and packed into a little plastic sack and tied with an elastic band for safe keeping. I wished I could understand her chatter; but contended myself with the bird sounds that the Burmese language sounded to me as I listened.

A little boy, probably about one-and-a-half years old, sat at her sandaled feet. He sucked contentedly on a tangerine rind and half dozed with heavy eyelids as if he sat on the fringes of heaven and not on the fold of the wrap-around longyi (the Malays call it sarong famed for its batik cloth) of his young mother. I watched the child as he sat in dreamy splendour without a care in the world as if woken up by the breeze, or perhaps the chatter of the passers-by sounding like river stones. He now looked around as if interested in everything. It wasn’t long before his infant gaze fell upon me, an old man on a journey, lost in his own trance. Children are like cats; one doesn’t like to intrude on their space without alarming them; but leave them to their own devices and they will make their own way. I sat there contentedly; it was enough to rest my weary bones and take in the colour of the local life. I do love children, especially infants, and can sit and watch them for hours, their antics, their inventiveness, their curiosity, their sweet, angelic innocence remind me of another time and another place. I also wonder from where they have come and where they might be going.

When suddenly, the infant’s random glances fell upon me as I sat on the bridge resting. I pretended not to notice, not wishing to interrupt the rhythm or the intensity of his gaze. Indeed, children can come to us uninvited, as if they have known or are wanting to know. They do not bring with them all the excess baggage that we carry around as adults, who seldom look into the eyes of another, and if or when we do, we feel uncomfortable. The child looked at me with intense interest, as if he were remembering something and was still lost in thought. I smiled at him, and he immediately smiled back. I scowled backed him and he immediately scowled back. We seemed to be on the same wavelength. Some inner harmony had struck its chord. The years dissolved and the miles between disappeared as he threw the tangerine rind aside and began to crawl on all fours. His mother was distracted by a sale and was stuffing mango cubes and their sweet juice into a plastic container, selling the pulp for pennies to the taste.

The determined little fellow made his way over as I sat on a low stool. When he reached my legs, he extended his arms as if reaching for the open sky. No doubt, I looked to him like a grand patriarch with my thick mustache and bone-white beard. He soon found his way onto my lap, where he again sat content as if lost in reverie to the surrounding lake and countryside just as I was lost in sweet reverie, so unfamiliar to me, so familiar to him. “Found a friend, did you,” my companion Peter asked with a broad smile. “Children sometimes like me,” I mumbled embarrassed. The mood was broken, the happy child returned to his mother with a longing, backward glance and this is my backward glance to him in the only way a writer knows how, in the love and beauty of words written down on the page in sweet remembrance that will never die.     

We met our guide Swan after breakfast the next morning. Oh yes, a word (or two) should be written about our delightful buffet breakfasts that both Peter and I had come to look forward to. We had established a routine of a solid breakfast, followed by a full day of activity and touring the countryside, but no lunch or snacks of any kind, until evening time, when we took pains to find a nice place for dinner. By now, Peter was well over his stomach trouble, the sticky rice acting effectively as a sealant that put him to rights. We knew he was feeling much better at breakfast the next day. We would rise early, to get the jump on the waves of Chinese tourists that seemed to appear, especially in the breakfast room to lay waste the buffet table like hungry locusts.

I usually went to the egg station as soon as possible to get my order in. “Two eggs,” I whispered timidly, “Over easy,” I said, showing with an upside-down wave of the hand what I wanted, and then sliced down dramatically, “and cut the yoke.” The last thing I wanted were runny, undercooked eggs. The eggs were made in buttered splendor – they actually tasted like real eggs – and not the tasteless fare that we usually get in most modern metropolises. I skipped over with my plate of eggs to another table to pick up my freshly made toasted brown bread awash in melted cheese and butter.

“That should take care of me for the day,” I thought happily, when suddenly I heard a booming voice from the egg station. “Six eggs, please,” Peter cried, holding up a handful of fingers, plus one, to make sure the cook knew how many he meant. He returned to our table with a stack of untoasted bread to wash down the eggs in great gulps. Not to be outdone, I tiptoed back to the cooking station and asked for a crepe. I had seen the cook making a feather-light and thin pancake served up with Burmese honey and fresh cream that was cooked to perfection; but Peter had the final word with his stack of six pancakes dripping in honey and assorted jellies.

Photo Courtesy: John Herlihy

After breakfast, we met up with our beloved guide Swan again in the hotel lobby. “Not another pagoda,” I cried out in mock dismay, but Swan was now attuned to my humour and took up the slack by affirming that indeed we would be visiting another remarkable pagoda surrounded by 845 small stupas as though in deferent tribute to the richly decorated central pagoda. Work began on the pagoda in 1939 at the start of the Second World War and was finally completed in the March of 1952. There are many buddha statues row upon row in niches along the walls, all coloured gold, a truly sublime sight filled with religious nostalgia. The entrance is protected, not by the traditional mythical lions, but by the statues of the magnificent white elephants that are sacred and auspicious in Buddhist symbolism. Thereafter, we took a short walk through the nearby banyan tree grove Boddhitataung, where a thousand Buddha images lie at rest among the sprouting banyan trees. Ah, walking through the aged banyan trees is like walking through an ancient grove associated with the mythic gods of Greece. One half expects a centaur or unicorn to come trolling through the corridors of trees in this mystical setting. The banyan trees is considered sacred in places like India and Burma and is well known for the mercy of its abundant shade. In fact, in India, the leaf of the banyan is said to be the resting place of the Lord Krishna.

But even the shade of the banyan tree faded into darkness, and it was time for us to move on, even if we did feel most welcome in the the banyan tree’s embrace. We were scheduled to go down to the river and bid goodbye to our guide Swan, as we would be making our way by riverboat down to a town further south called Bagan. We were to meet the new guide on the boat who would escort us there. It was a little sad to bid goodbye to Swan. He was such a charming little fellow, a student who would complete his university studies soon. He worked on the side as a guide and had done this for the last few years. It doesn’t take long under these circumstances to get to know and like the guide, so it was with a heavy heart that both Peter and I bid him farewell.

However, Swan was to help me through one last challenge. After bidding me goodbye, he helped me down the side of the dusty hill to a steep embankment at the edge of which lay the river boat that would take us south to Bagan. When I saw the wooden plank that I had to walk across to get onto the boat, I stopped dead in my tracks. I can’t do this, I immediately said to myself. At my age, I now know what I can and cannot do, and crossing that narrow, wooden plank sagging perilously in the middle and crossing a no-man’s-land muddy cliffs and water about 50 meters seemed an impossible task.

Swan took me by the hand and coaxed me on, not wishing perhaps to have his charge stranded along the way without any option of moving forward. Peter, of course, was already up ahead on the plank himself with his usual bravado, but he also almost slipped and was standing on one leg before balancing himself once again, preventing himself from falling unceremoniously down in the muddy waters below. I took a deep breath and mounted the plank. Mercifully, two people stood nearby, a woman on the riverbank’s edge and her husband perhaps on the boat itself holding a lengthy bamboo pole that I was able to hold onto as a kind of makeshift handrail as I perilously crossed the narrow wooden plank like an infant learning how to walk in his new toddler shoes. Once on the boat and tucked into the lounge chair, I breathed a sigh of relief that I hadn’t made a fool of myself.

Traveling on Irrawaddy River from Mandalay. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Click here to read Part one of Once Upon a Time in Burma

Click here to read Part three of Once Upon a Time in Burma

Click here to read Part four of Once Upon a Time in Burma

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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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Travel

Once Upon a Time in Burma: Land of a Thousand Pagodas

John Herlihy explores the magnificent sites of Mandalay in company of a Slovenian friend in the first episode of his quartet on his Myanmar

Mandalay overview. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Exotic journeys to far distant climes begin to take shape in the realm of the imagination. We roam verdant savannas, cut our way through savage jungles, climb into eagle’s nests on mountain crags, cross parched Mongolian deserts, and ply on ancient vessels across vast oceans, all in search of new sights and sounds, new pathways into the unknown, new visions into the future, anything that will take us far from our humdrum lives. Ah, how the imagination works overtime and takes us there, takes us where we want to go, offers up an experience we would not have savoured otherwise. The imagination opens doors for travelers to pack their bags and see other worlds not of their making, worlds that become a reality with the first step taken along the road of a fresh journey into the realm of the unknown.

A recent trip to Myanmar, formerly the much beloved and written about country of Burma of the 19th century, ended up fulfilling my wayward dreams of an adventure and experience that would take me out of myself and into another time and place. Indeed, the title of this adventure says it all, once upon a time in Burma, a country that once entered, will not leave us alone and will wrap the traveler up in its loving embrace. With all geo-political interests and concerns put aside for a moment, it is the people, the culture, the craftsmanship, the ancient land that we wish to know and experience, the lapping of lazy rivers, the sky-mirrored brilliance of expansive lakes, the shadowy curves of rugged mountains, the lush and verdant plains and paddy fields that fill the soul of the traveler to such exotic lands with the peace and serenity of its ancient way of life. Regimes, corruption, injustice, indeed political leaders come and go; it is the land that endures and the spirit of a people that will never die.

Whose heart will not be stirred by the name of Mandalay, immortalized by the British poet, Rudyard Kipling, whose poem, “Mandalay” still echoes resoundingly down through the corridors of time with its lush verses of charm and enchantment. It is this memory that leads me bravely onward as I plan my well-earned winter holiday in a brief respite from my duties as a writing professor at a new university on the outskirts of Kuwait, a city of sky-scraping towers wishing to be iconic and smoky oil fields wishing to be productive. I am now, in the world of Rudyard Kipling, “on the road to Mandalay // where the flyin’-fishes play // an’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘cross the bay.”

I never tire of flying into a new country that is totally unknown to me and yet soon to be less of a mystery, soon to be known. As I gaze down upon the scene below my comfortable perch on the plane, I see that we are entering a land seemingly lost to time. The blackened highlands turn to rugged mountains with nary a tree to see. The mountains themselves seem to cradle the surrounding land like a mother cradles her child, and a sense of balance and harmony prevails as I gaze upon this landscape of primordial nature, as if lifted from some remote paradise from another planet, captured out of time for the 21st century traveler such as myself to see. Already my expectant heart begins to stir as I eagerly await our arrival.

I am once again travelling with my Slovenian friend, Peter, and a better traveling companion one could never hope for. They say that if you want to really get to know people, you have only to take a trip with them to find out what they are really like. No truer words were ever spoken. My smart, brave, thoughtful, selfless friend would never let me down, brought his own unique approach to travelling with him, took delight in planning and doing background research about a place, and was able to monitor the number of steps (my three to his two giant strides) on our daily trails with his fashionable Garnett geo-watch (when it worked!).

We entered the subdued arrivals hall in Mandalay only to realise a half-hour time difference from Bangkok where we had met up from our different locations the night before.

“That can’t be right,” Peter knowingly quipped. “But it is,” I quickly responded, knowing how he liked to impose his will on things.

“Goa, on the west coast of the Indian Subcontinent is an hour and a half ahead of Dubai.” I added as supporting evidence of what I said.

We had easily arranged e-visas done online beforehand and quickly passed through customs control without a hitch. “Let’s change money,” I suggested. “But you get a better rate in town,” Peter countered. “We won’t get into town without local money,” I murmured, knowing he couldn’t counter-argue that. Indeed, at roughly 1,500 kyat to the dollar, after changing a mere $100, we walked away with 150,000 kyat. Hmm, that should get us into town, I thought to myself.

I won’t belabour the point, but the exchange rate of the currency turned out to be an interesting element in our economic calculations. When you are dealing in the thousands of any currency, it can be confusing. We all know what a dollar or euro values at, but what about 150,000 kyat and how much would it buy locally. Seems like a lot, yet it is only ten dollars in value, about the price of a sandwich and a zero coke on the streets of Manhattan. Now through immigration and customs and with local money in hand, the ever-intrepid researcher, Peter, marched over to the information booth to inform himself about getting into the town center where we had booked our hotel. While there were traditional taxis available for about 15,000 kyat (roughly $10), we learned that we could take a local bus outside the airport terminal that would take us directly to our hotel for about 3,000 kyat for the two of us (roughly a dollar each!). That won’t break the bank, I chirped to Peter. He agreed with a toothy grin and off we went on our great adventure.

The ride into town was uneventful, but long, leisurely and fascinating. I was beginning to experience the sense of laid-back calm and serenity that would follow me throughout my days of travel through this exotic, ancient land. In the distance, through the myriad lush and wind-blown trees that lined the side of the make-shift highway into town, a rough patch of roadway if there ever was one, we could glimpse the golden spires of pagodas upon hilltops extended clear to the horizon, a vision that would become the iconic characteristic to mark the bucolic setting of this rural landscape with its timely sense of spirituality.

“The trees,” I kept remarking to my friend Peter, “look at the variety and lushness of the grand, old trees. Have you ever seen the like of them?” Over an hour later in a place where time really had no meaning but that it could be filled with miracle and wonder, we were deposited at our more than adequate three-star hotel where we were greeted with timid smiles, folded hands and a humble bow.

Once unpacked and his geo-watch turned on, Peter exulted, “Let’s explore the town, the old palace isn’t far off.” I have traveled before with Peter and have come to realise that “not far off” doesn’t mean the same to him as it does to most other people. Nevertheless, I was game and still do my own 8-km run three times a week to keep fit and, in the running, as it were. Once outside, Peter tends to walk ahead in great strides, and I follow three steps to his two; but I didn’t mind. He faced the brunt of the chaotic traffic that came up, down and toward him in every which way, including the ever-present motorbikes that never follow the rules and seem to have license to come and go as they please. “Remember Peter,” I shouted to him over the din of dust and horns, “they drive British-style here, on the other side of the road, so take care where you look to cross.” Yet Peter strode confidently onward, like a giant amid pygmies, ready to brush aside any vehicle or motorbike that may dare to come his way. Indeed, the traffic seemed to have a rhythm of its own, despite the noise, and flowed like a river around his colossal bulk.

Well forward at the end of the main street of the town, again lined amid the grand cacophony of shops and workshops with multiple trees blocking the pathway along the side of the road and forcing us time and again out onto the perilous danger of the streets, we beheld the inner sanctum of a walled palace surrounded by an extensive, medieval moat. Up close, when we finally arrived at the historic premises, we gazed across the extensive mote nearly a half kilometer in width at the heightened red brick wall, periodically adorned with brick latticework and towers featuring ferocious fang-filled mouths of animals out of which lotuses hung out like tongues. On the Google map, the palace walls that now house the military Myanmar government formed a perfect square. From where we stood, we could hardly see to the end of the first line of wall that we stood before. Undaunted, Peter started to walk the outside of the moat for about a kilometer until we found a little embellished wooden 19th century bridge that led across the extensive moat up to the face of the outer wall of the former palace that now up close towered over us, even over Peter.

Mandalay Palace. Courtesy: Creative Commons

The Mandalay Palace itself was constructed between the years 1857 and 1859 and housed the last Burmese monarchy, in honor of King Mindon’s founding of the new royal capital city of Mandalay. The palace itself was the center of the citadel and faced East. Built of teak wood in the traditional Burmese design, it rested inside a walled fort surrounded by a moat. The complex ceased to be a royal residence and seat of government in 1885 when, during the third Anglo-Burmese War, the British entered the palace and captured the royal family. To this day, the Mandalay Palace stands as the primary symbol of the once enchanted city of Mandalay, in another time and in another place now gone by.

As we perilously neared the gate to the military enclosure, a guard slumped on a metal chair in the shade of an awning looked up at Peter towering over him as he pointed his finger in the opposite direction and shook his fist to make his point. “Oh hello, my little friend,” Peter said ingratiatingly in a sugar-sweet ironic tone that the poor fellow would never pick up, even if Peter thought he might. I cringed and headed in the direction where the soldier was pointing, so as not to offend. The guy was smiling and trying to be friendly. “But I want to go there,” Peter asserted glancing in the opposite direction, as if looking at a tidbit. “We need to go this way,” I shouted back to Peter over my shoulder, “Where the restaurants were indicated on the map.” That did the trick and at the thought of food, Peter was soon striding far in front of me, like a giant panda intent on his destination, his money (and mobile) belt tightly secured around his waist. No one was going to come near that!

Peter finally found a young, presentable fellow who looked like he knew something, especially English, to ask about a restaurant. “Yes, yes,” the fellow obliged. It turned out he was actually from India but had lived in Myanmar many years. “Restaurant very good,” he affirmed. “I will be going there later with my family.”

Indeed, I thought. What a strange coincidence. Peter soon tracked the restaurant down on the map on his mobile (I still don’t have one, I am waiting for the hand-held technology to give way to something more sophisticated), a small place open to the street with tables spilling invitingly out onto the sidewalk. This promised to be our first meal in Mandalay and Peter was not taking any changes on eating unhealthy and/or getting sick with stomach trouble.

“We will eat here,” he announced although I wasn’t especially impressed and it was a little early, just around sunset, to be eating to my taste. When one travels alone, one may feel lonely, but if travelling with a companion, one has to make compromises. I did the menu test and with a quick scrutiny found little that inspired me. Also, the stools at the tables had no backs. Not exactly the leisurely environment I was anticipating for evening dinner, our one main meal of the day when travelling.

I grumbled and mumbled to no avail. Peter had already ensconced himself on the tiny stool with a big grin on his face, looking forward to eating. He expected me to extract the best of the savoury delights from the menu, and after some time was able to come up with various curry and vegetables dishes that seemed promising from the little photos that accompanied the text. The prices were also note-worthy, 2,000 to 3,000 kyat for the main courses (let me remind my readers that 1,500 kyat equals one dollar at the time of our visit!). We can afford that I chuckled to myself. As we waited in the open-air restaurant in the dust and heat sipping our cool fruit drinks, the cars and motorcycles made their mad dashes to God knows where in such a hurry, and the mosquitoes suddenly came alive in the twilight hush!

I sat there feeling tired and dreamy after the long day and the long walk around the palace walls, but Peter suddenly seemed uncomfortable and agitated. “What’s the matter, Peter,” I asked, as he swatted his hands in front of his face and slapped his naked legs. “Mosquitoes,” he cried, “they are biting me.” Welcome to the tropics, I thought, but kept quiet until I couldn’t help but launch into the story of dengue fever that some mosquitoes can transmit. Admittedly, it’s a long shot, but I couldn’t help but make fun of my friend who had been so insistent about eating in this restaurant at this time. From then on, we took much more care in planning our evening meals as we travelled throughout the country heading south from Mandalay to Yangon (formerly Rangoon).

The next morning, we were promptly met by out little guide whose name was Swan. We would later come to know that Burmese names were different and unique. Peter in particular always got a kick out of asking Swan questions, but always addressing him by name. “Swan, why do the women wear powder on their faces (a natural product to protect against the sun)? Swan, how many motorbikes are there in this town (far too many to my reckoning)? Swan do you have brothers and sisters (he had a younger brother that he spoke fondly of)?” True enough, when you travel with a guide, the guide, if you are lucky, becomes a kind of father, brother, son. They are there as a font of knowledge, the shipmaster on a voyage into the unknown, a protector and a stranger turned friend in a stranger than strange land. Swan was all of those things and much more. When we came to learn that as we moved south, he would be replaced by another guide. Both Peter and I felt disappointed and when eventually we did say goodbye to him, knowing we would never see him again, we felt sad and at a loss. When I shook his hand, the thousands of kyat I left behind didn’t seem enough.

For the time being, Swan was with us at every temple, stupa and pagoda. “What’s the difference?” Peter wondered aloud, giving voice to my own question.

“You can enter a temple,” Swan patiently replied, as if he had never been asked that question before. Indeed, the trick of a new guide leads the tourists in his charge to believe that everything is fresh and new, questions, statements, explanations that had never been uttered before and may never be uttered again. “The pagoda is there in commemoration and as a gift or charity that could bring merit and blessing. But you cannot enter inside as it is a solid structure pointing heavenward. A stupa is a domed or bell-shaped monument traditionally used to store religious relics of the Buddha.” Whether temple of worship, stupa or pagoda, to enter its confines, we were required to take off our shoes and socks. In the land of a thousand pagodas/stupas, tourists end up taking off their shoes perhaps more than they would like. I kept silent, but Peter grumbled and complained as we wandered in and around these sacred places during our 10-day tour, Peter meticulously cleaning off his sizable feet with the moist wipes provided every time by the guide. I simply brushed off the sand and grit and re-socked my feet until it was time to enter the next temple, thinking that traveler dust is well earned.

After ambling through the chaotic fruit and vegetables markets of Mandalay, we made our way with our guide, Swan, to our first memorable site, the Shwenandaw Monastery, located at the foot of the Mandalay Hill overlooking the city and countryside. The monastery was speckled with trees, golden domes and bell-shaped towers gleaming in the winter sunlight. The intrepid guide explained everything in great detail, and perfect English I might add. I remember asking Swan how he had learned English, but never got a satisfactory answer to account for the ease with which he spoke.

The monastery was built in 1878 by King Thibaw Min, who dismantled and rebuilt the inner apartments formerly occupied by his father, King Mindon Min, believing the premises to be haunted by the spirit of his dead father. The entire structure was made of teak wood in the traditional style and heavily gilded with gold and glass mosaic work. The monastery is also known for its teak carvings of Buddhist myths, which adorn the walls and roofs in all their intricate, exquisite detail. As we roamed around the eerie premises, we came to see the commemorative preservation of a former royal way of life, particularly the colossal inner room where the king was known to have performed ritual meditation. We were even able to observe the meditation couch upon which he sat, creating in my mind dreamy reflections of a world I would never know, but had come to learn about in my travels.

The time of sunset was not far off. We made our way in the car midway up the Mandalay Hills into a parking lot and from there were able to take a series of escalators to the top of the hillside that provided fabulous views in every direction of the once enchanted city of Mandalay below, now a bustling metropolis that from the distance still held its mystical lure although up close, the 21st century left its mark of noise and pollution. The rolling hills and flattened plain leading to the city below provided the perfect backdrop for the flaming sunset that soon followed, bestowing upon the fabled city below the streaming golden light of twilight.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE EPISODE 2

CLICK HERE TO READ THE EPISODE 3

CLICK HERE TO READ THE EPISODE 4

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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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Humour Poetry

Carnival of Animals

By Rhys Hughes

 Silky Salathiel

Silky Salathiel was a travelling cat

with the taste of the Orient on the tip of his tongue.

He wandered the streets of Mandalay

enticed by the scents of ginger and lime,

where the oldest songs are sung

in the Rub-Al-Khali

he scratched at the rugs in Bedouin tents.

.

I knew him well when I was young.

We sailed the Brahmaputra in an old sea-chest,

lived in a basket in Kathmandu,

climbed the mountains of the Hindu Kush,

bathed in fountains of milk in Xanadu,

and I was the friend whom he loved best;

the oldest fish in the Caspian Sea.

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But of course I lived longer than him

(now he is gone memories are all that remain).

He was not just a cat but a travelling cat

who danced flamenco in the castles of Spain,

licked the cheese in shady Provence

and drunk the ale in the snowy Ukraine.

Silky Salathiel the travelling cat

with the taste of the East on the tip of his tongue

and the taste of the West

on the tip of

his tail.


THE CASANOVA KANGAROO

The Casanova Kangaroo
    is a bounder
       but he’s no cad
    or utter rotter
(and if he was an otter
    he wouldn’t be
fishy either). He’s not a
        womaniser
who disguises his desire
as charm. In fact
the only thing he has in
      common with
the original Casanova is
that they both wrote
      their memoirs.

       Chapter One,
‘My Early Life in a Pouch’


PANDEMONIUM

Pandemonium is
not a state of disorder
but a state ruled
by pandas. They
will try to bamboozle
you with booze
made from bamboo
shoots and seduce
you with the music
of bamboo flutes.

The capital of the state
of Pandemonium
is called Nebulosity
City but I don’t know
why. No one actually
lives there. Pandas
prefer the countryside.

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Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.