October 15-16, 2016
Arriving in Mandalay
As was also the case in Vietnam and Cambodia we were picked up from our hotel and taken to the overnight bus destined to Mandalay. This marks our third night spent aboard a bus over the last 5 nights. Sylvie has grown weary of the long hauls and lack of solid sleep. However I very much look forward to them. The a/c is on full blast, we get water and a treat, and around 9 or 10pm we always stop for a 30-minute meal at a large roadside bus stop. We have been very fortunate that, despite arriving around 4am in many cities, each of our hotels have allowed us to check-in. In the states we would surely be charged for an extra night. Our hotel in Mandalay was a delight—Internet worked…ish and it was close to western standards. The fastest Internet available in the country is still a far ways off from any other country. Try to think of 1998 AOL dial-up speeds. Imagine trying to download your emails and your mother picks up the phone rendering your Internet connection broken. Oh, we love you Myanmar!
Stuck with Dirty Clothes
We set out into the sweltering heat without a plan other than getting laundry done and visiting a market. Around the world the norm is to charge per kilo. For some odd reason both of the two places we tried to get our clothing cleaned had a different tactic—they charged for every item. What would have cost $2 anywhere else would have cost $8 here. We stuffed our stinky clothes, still damp from getting caught in the raid two days prior, into our day bags and refused to fork over the dough. It looks like we’ll be hand washing our clothes yet again.
The Zay Cho Market
We first found ourselves lost in an enormous muggy indoor market. I tried to buy a new pair of flip-flops but soon realized I they only sold wholesale in bulk. We ventured outside and around the block to find ourselves in the thick of the largest market we’ve seen in a long time. The wholesale market as well as this outdoor market is all one of the same, the Zay Cho Market. We bought some sticky rice which had dark purple rice mixed into the typical white rice rendering the entire concoction a deep purple. We observed crowds of people buying and selling various wares, food items, and clothing. The streets where hectic, horns were blaring. There were men hauling large wicker baskets filled with food on their backs while many of the women carried things on their heads. Cars, motorcycles, trishaws, trucks, and people all navigated the same single lane road. The people in Mynamar continue to astound me with their friendliness. We saw some people buying what looked like Turkish delight and we tried to buy a few pieces ourselves. The vendors refused all our attempts to pay and smiled as they shoved the free food into our arms. They told us it was a gift. Besides taxi services we found that prices for us are inline with local prices—Quite refreshing not having to always be negotiating.
An Unplanned Days Turns Exciting
Of the dozens of men that asked us if we needed a taxi we took one up on their offer. We had been walking for a while and I humored the cabbie, asking him to take us to one place. After a short discussion we had agreed on a private tour to various places around the city, transport to the U Bein Bridge for sunset, and then a return ride to our hotel. We ended up using his services for 6 hours and it cost us 15k ($12 USD)
Gold Leaf Workshop
We stopped into a workshop where gold leaf was produced. They did not use any electrical machines and pounded the gold out by hand using large stones. While the men made the leaf, women cut and packaged the leaf in the back rooms. They sold the loos leafs all over the country, as well as in their store.
Our next stop was to see a workshop where men hand carved large wooden figures. There were statues, wall hangings, doors, etc. spread out over several very large show rooms. However the rooms were probably more for inventory than for retail.
Brass/Bronze Metal Workshops
I emphasized that I wanted to see where gongs were made and the driver took us to the street where bronze/brass objects where made. He asked around to a few locals and finally located the spot he was looking for. The residential house had a couple fires in the backyard with men huddled around all holding various metal tools. Gongs were being fabricated right here, in the back of this man’s house. Ash-covered men banged the glowing hot bronze gongs into shape and each man seemed to have their own job. Some kept the fires alive, others formed the rims, while yet others struck the gongs and tuned them with evermore whams from large hammers. Sylvie and I both were impressed with the finesse and time spent on the gongs.
Travel has hardened us a bit and we’ve become a bit jaded from learning that almost all souvenirs we’ve seen around the world are mass-produced in China. It was refreshing to see local craftsman making gold leaf, carving wood figures, and fabricating authentic Burmese gongs. I asked our driver if there were any other places that made gongs, as I wanted to buy a larger one than this particular place had to offer. In the next 2 hours and after a couple of short motorcycle rides from friendly locals we saw two more places that would us gongs.
One place was a monastery that had the largest gongs I’ve ever seen. Some were over 8 feet tall! All the gongs were painted black and had elaborate designs on them. I learned that the gongs were tin, as opposed to Bronze, and that they sold for only a quarter of the price. I wasn’t interested in gongs that were not Bronze. Tin does not make for a great sounding bell. Bronze is a warmer sound, with much more sustain, and is what authentic gongs are made from.
The next place was a ‘merchant’ according to our taxi driver. They did not make the gongs there and they had an inventory that seemed to be in the hundreds. They had hundreds of shiny brass Buddha statues all over the place. Although they had a large variety they were very strict on their prices. After testing various gongs I found one that had a very nice sound to it. They went in and weighed it and provided me a quote. Apparently gongs are sold by weight, nothing else. This was also the case for singing bowls in Nepal. Not surprisingly Kathmandu is a large clearinghouse for gongs in addition to singing bowls. The price was 350k kyat ($275 USD). I tried hard to negotiate and my final offer was 350k, but the guy didn’t budge. I said no and after 2 hours of looking all over town for the perfect gong I left empty-handed. As I walked away I felt a little sad, but all was well again since I went back to the first workshop and bought a gong there. I felt better buying from the first place since they actually made the gongs there, whereas the last place simply bought and sold gongs. The weight of the larger gong I had wanted was just over 5 viss (18 lbs) while the one we bought was 3 viss (10.8 lbs). I got the price down from 180k to 165k, which is still $130 USD. I found it quite shocking to learn that no one knew how much the gong weighed in lbs or kgs—they knew how much in viss but had no idea of any other units.
A Note on Myanmar Units
Myanmar is 1 of only 3 countries that has not yet adopted the SI-system of measurements. Where other countries, such as Canada and the UK, have adopted the SI-system and are just not 100% there Myanmar, Liberia, and the United States of America have their complete other system of units. As of 2013 Myanmar has announced they will begin to adopt the SI-system.
U Bein Bridge/Sunset
We drove down to catch sunset over the U Bein Bridge, a 1.2-kilometre (0.75 mi) bridge built around 1850 and is believed to be the oldest and longest teakwood bridge in the world. We enjoyed a beer while witnessing a beautiful sunset. On our walk back over the bridge we stopped to talk with a few monks. What a lovely way to end a perfect day that was completely unexpected.
Full Moon Festival
On our second day we walked around to the various Pagodas in the city. We hadn’t done any research about the different temples and were shocked by the splendor of one particular pagoda. There were thousands of people crowing their way down a few streets, which led to the Sandamuni Pagoda. Carnival games, live music, street food, families holding hands, face painting, and women carrying baskets on their head made for a festive scene. All was in preparation for the full moon festival that evening. The festival is the largest of the year.
Meeting an American Expat
We went to several travel agencies to book a bus ticket to Hsipaw but learned that they were all closed because of the full moon. We stopped at a western-style bar for a drink where we met a nice American expat who has been living and working in Myanmar for the last several years. She’s been living in Asia for over 12 years now. It was interesting hearing her story. She had worked for both Intrepid and G-Adventure tours for a handful of years. She even knew my old tour guide, AJ, from a tour I had taken in 2008. We learned that picking up strangers off the road without a certified taxi license and housing tourists without the proper permit can come with harsh penalties from the government.
That night we enjoyed our first good Burmese meal. On our walk back to our hotel we heard hundreds of firecrackers and fireworks going off all around town, echoing off the buildings. Children and adults were lighting candles all over the street and every one outside celebrating. We heard fireworks the rest of the night from inside our hotel room.
Interesting Myanmar Gesture
I have one particular mannerism quite charming here in Myanmar. When someone offers or accepts an item, they place one hand firmly under the elbow of their extended arm. This gesture is taken so seriously, even waiters at a restaurant do it before passing your plate! I've started doing it as a sign of gratitude.