19 April 2016
Knowing by now that the heat is insufferable between 12 and 3 pm, we got up early and after breakfast (this time I indulged in some noodles) we took the bikes once again and headed to the train station to purchase our tickets. Although there was nobody else at the counter, it was still a rather time consuming process, as I expect the “system” is about the same as it was a hundred years ago when the railway was built, with much stamping and scribbling. We received a very elaborate piece of thin paper, covered in Burmese bubble script with our details filled in.
The price was an absurd 6600 Ky for the two of us, the equivalent of about 6 USD, and were told to arrive at quarter to four next morning. Thus equipped, we decided do to a small tour of Mandalay’s arts and crafts. We rode through the nearby market area, loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables, and entirely abuzz with people.
After gawking at the mangoes and other goods, we soon found King Galon, one of the many gold leaf shops in the city. It is a custom for believers to apply gold leaf to the countless Buddha statues and similar monuments across the country. Some of the older statues have received so many layers of gold that they lose their original shape and turn into balls of almost pure gold. And the vast majority of this gold leaf comes from Mandalay, with the raw material coming from the mines in the northern regions of the country. And it is almost all done by hand. The gold is initially machine rolled into relatively thin sheets. These are then cut into small pieces and placed between wafer thin sheets of bamboo paper (also often made by the shop itself) and subsequently beaten in several stages (in total for up to 7 hours or so) until it is thinner than a veil. We watched the young chaps pounding it with a simple wooden hammer, over and over and over.
The most delicate (yet routine) works comes afterwards, when the ladies trim the pieces into perfect little squares, and then layer them between equally trim square of paper. In order to make it easy to pick the individual paper squares up, the women take a neat stack and with swift motions of the hand, twist it so that the corners are exactly spiralled. An indescribable feat! They sit in a closed off part of the shop, as a mere breath of air could send the paper and gold flying. It was amazing to watch them create small piles of 10 gold leafs in various sizes, then individually placed in tiny plastic sachets stapled into sets of 10 and sold in the adjacent shop. I could not resist and purchased a small packet. I have no idea what to do with it, as women are actually not allowed to touch or approach the Buddha statues directly, and applying the gold leaf is a privilege reserved for men. On the other hand, it is rather a unique souvenir.
We then rode on towards the southern part of the city towards the stone carving workshops. The guidebook always provides approximate instructions, but getting lost actually let us discover a different craft – wood carving. We stopped to ask directions at a shop dedicated to creating very elaborate teak wood “thrones” which are often gilded and set with (presumably fake) jewels and placed in shrines and pagodas. Miniature versions are made for household purposes.
The stone carving workshops, however, proved to be much more interesting. Blocks of marble are shaped into all sorts of statues, with a vast predominance of Buddhas and cylindrical units that look a lot like missiles (actually used all around shrines and pagodas as balustrades). The people working the stone use none of the “standard work safety equipment” for which I often translate pages of regulation – no goggles, no masks, no gloves, no nothing.
They just sit there covered in white dust doing the rough cutting, while others hone down the finer features and yet others do the delicate work of sanding and polishing until the resulting statues shine like pearls.
The same area is also home to craftsmen who make all the shiny gold coloured decorations for pagodas in an array of splendid animal forms and geometric patterns, and tiny bells that tinkle when the wind blows. We observed one man with a large bronze bell, etching some script into it by hand. Burmese writing is all rounded and squiggly, but this man traced the pre-drawn lines with the precision and speed of a laser. It is a wonderful thing to see people using traditional techniques with such skill!
It started to get hot while cycling back along a busy side road. At 11 am the streets really begin to sizzle and it’s the perfect time to stop at a beer station. This one had no English menu at all, but the beer was cold and there was the extra bonus of… pasta making! The young fellow at the back of the room was making fresh noodles and it made our Thursday pasta making look just a little bit amateur by comparison. The base was precisely the same: a huge sack of wheat flour and countless crates of eggs were evidence of that. He had huge thick slabs of dough which he gradually thinned out using exactly the same type of machine we use, albeit on a rather larger scale and electrically powered. On the other hand, he had to adjust the thickness manually by tightening the screws holding the cylinders together. Somehow, his sheets of dough were perfectly regular and came out of the machine is soft ripples. Then he set them into the cutting section and pulled out bundles of delicate noodles a metre long. Fascinating! Obviously it was essential that we try these noodles, and were given two huge dishes with vegetables and (to Dany’s chagrin) miscellaneous pieces of meat, most of which seemed to be offal. Awful. We disposed of these bits in the bowl of murky “side soup” served with the meal, and enjoyed the noodles with the veggies alone.
Having learned from the previous day, we returned to our hotel shortly after noon, and rested in the cool room until later afternoon, for which time we had booked a scooter to drive on our own to Amarapura, a town on a lake that features one of the best sights in the region – U Bein bridge, the world’s longest teak bridge that spans 1.4 km across the lake. It is most commonly viewed at sunset, and indeed there were flocks of people when we arrived, most of them locals.
We strolled along with them over the bridge, which is really only interesting when considering its history. The wood came from the timber used to roll the capital (i.e. royal palace) from one place to another, as it moved back and forth several times over the centuries between Mandalay and Amarapura to Innwa. There are no rails to speak of and it’s all somewhat rickety, but quite charming, with little shady pavilions along its course where people sit and watch the sun go down over the lake. The afternoon sun shone golden over the water, where lake people fished and rowed boats and finished off their daily labours.
One wizened old monk (with the best ears ever) suggested that we go down to a small island in the middle of the lake and watch from there. As he walks the bridge every single day (presumably for decades), we trusted he would know the best little spot and indeed descended some stairs from the bridge, avoided the beer shack and found a grassy patch on the shore right next to a small dwelling – the home of a duck farmer. As the red disk sank to the horizon, an old man standing in his wooden canoe herded his ducks towards the bamboo house, and so we shared the romantic sunset with a flock of poultry rather than flocks of human visitors. It was lovely.
The ride home was fun, going with the flow of other scooters in the dusky streets from countryside back to the city. Dinner was at a real restaurant this time, which served up rice with an array of little bowls as side dishes, and a meaty main course of mango pickle pork, which was very nice indeed. Of course, the one time the meal was really colourful and pretty was the one time neither of us had any form of camera. I wish I had been feeling better, as it seemed like a great place to eat, despite the barely teenage staff that pervades every dining and drinking establishment in the country. We figured that it’s probably because of the school holidays, which span the three months of the dry hot season, and it’s never too early to start working and earning some money.
At the hotel, we packed (leaving the large backpacks at the hotel, which we would return to in a few days) and tried to sleep a few hours before heading for the train station in the wee hours of the morning. I’m not sure I’ve ever got up at 3 am to go somewhere before (although I have been up at 3 am returning from somewhere many times).