Tuesday’s excursions (October 15) were split – one beginning at 8:30 and the other at 3:30, with a three hour break for lunch and relaxation on the boat.
In the morning we were taken by bus to the Ada River, which joins the Irrawaddy (on which we will be cruising) here in Mandalay. Here we boarded a small ferry boat to take us across the relatively narrow crossing. There had been a heavy downpour (we are still in the monsoon season) earlier in the morning so the approach to the ferry was a little muddy. However, this was mild when compared with the inches deep mud that we had to negotiate on the other side as we made our way to our waiting horse-drawn cart! Each cart took two tourists (based on other modes of transportation we have seen, I suspect that at least 20 natives would normally be packed in) on a 15 minute ride through mud and water to the Mae Nu Oak Kyaung monastery.
This monastery is one of only a few built of brick rather than the more normal teak wood and had been built for the king (and his personal monk) when the capital of the country was here – approximately the 300 years preceding the move to Mandalay and the palace we had seen yesterday. It wasn’t clear whether the main building simply housed the king and his entourage when it was first built but it certainly was an impressive building. It was built on three levels (all Myanmar temples and other important structures are an odd number of storeys) and, when it was painted in its original pale yellow it must have been even more spectacular. Now it is blackened with the rain and humidity and only a few areas have been given an attempt at re-painting but apparently it doesn’t stand up very well.
From the monastery we walked to a nearby village where we saw the bamboo homes (and one or two “colonial” brick structures). The living quarters and infrastructure were very primitive (no electricity, a common well for water and who knows what for sewage) and we visitors would classify it as very poor or even uninhabitable. However, everyone seemed to be comfortable with their lot and it seems were well fed and clothed. Certainly the dozens of young girls trying to see trinkets and accompanying us the entire time) were very happy, had beautiful teeth and clean clothing (obviously their feet today were caked in mud – but so were ours!). One girl who latched on to Molly and I at the dock and rode behind the cart on her bike claimed to speak several languages and indeed said a few words that we recognized in French, German and Spanish.
Our afternoon excursion took us to Ananampura and a silk and cotton weaving workshop (emphasis on “shop”) and to the biggest monastery in Myanmar, Mahagandayon. This is a working monastery with 1500 monks on site so we were able to get a glimpse into their daily life. As was mentioned earlier, 85% of the population is Buddhist so it is as much a way of life as it is a religion. There are 850,000 monks in the country’s 60 million population and (although I am not certain on this point) I don’t believe that includes those (especially boys, but girls also) who serve some time (from weeks to years) as monks as part of their early life before joining a different workforce.
Actually, the monks are not strictly a part of the workforce as they hold no jobs (perhaps they do some tasks within the monastery) and twice a day they go “door to door” to be given donations of food for their two meals. Apparently many people (perhaps all?) prepare something for a monk as part of their own meal preparation and, indeed, set it aside, rather than giving the monk the “leftovers”. In the huge monastery we were now visiting, going out to get meal donations was not necessary as the locals provided donations directly to this important and prestigious place – which in turn is a major source of schooling for boys of all ages.
Our final stop of the day was at a small lake where we were taken out in rowboats to view the setting sun. Another feature of this area is a 1.2 Km teak bridge, built across the lake from the wood available as the capital was moved from Ananampura to Ada. It seems to be holding up very well after a few hundred years and was packed with tourists and locals alike. It was a very pleasant way to end another busy day.
After the hectic pace of the first three days, Wednesday was much more relaxing. We had one short (but very hot) shore excursion to see terra cotta pottery being made using the traditional potters’ wheel methods and the rest of the day was spent relaxing as we cruised the Irrawaddy River to our next destination. The scenery was interesting but somewhat monotonous as the river is in the center of a huge flat plain where farming and fishing seem to be the way of life. The only color (other than green of the land and trees and the yellow sand bars) was provided by gold-domed pagodas which seemed to dot the countryside at frequent intervals.
On Wednesday we set sail from Mandalay down the Irrawaddy River to our next stop for two days in Bagan. On the way we made one stop to visit a local terra cotta pottery factory where everything was made by hand. Women worked in 100F temperatures and 80%+ humidity in the open air. We felt like we were in a sauna just watching the process and were thankful not to be there when they fired the clay in huge bonfires!
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