Sunday, May 12, 2013

Myanmar Part 6 - Mawlamyine and surrounds

Unfortunately, though the Cinderella Hotel was very comfortable and had great reviews (all worthy), there is one component that didn’t live up to the hype – the bed. Now, we travel a lot and can put up with some pretty tough or hard beds. But not ones that feel like they have wooden planks running along them, or maybe like a mattress base without the mattress top. So we didn’t have the best sleep. Breakfast made up for it with pancakes, eggs for J, toast, fresh fruit and local specialty sweets; one was a fruit-based, agar-agar jelly-ish slice (which J  affectionately calls ‘bllllurbbabbah’ spoken with a bubbly kind of sound affect); the other was semolina cake – both really nice. Oh and great coffee!
Kyaw picked us up around 8:30am for a new day of sight-seeing. Before we got underway, he suggested a wonder through the local market area. It was spread over a few blocks around Thanton Tadar street not far from the hotel. One street sold mainly fresh fruit and veg, and some meat and poultry, including some poor ducks and chickens being held under large baskets awaiting their fate. But the rest of the ‘market’ was more like a set of close-set shopfronts selling all sorts of goods; clothes, hardware, tyres, pots & pans, the Myanmar version of a shopping mall really. On one corner, we found a little oasis of green. A plant nursery was selling a array of plants potted in large plastic bags, with colourful display of orchids hanging from simple baskets.

Still in Mawlamyine town was our next stop Gaung Se Kyun or ‘Shampoo island’. From what I’d read, the name comes from the Myanmar language term for ‘head medicine’. Hundreds of years ago, royal hair washing ceremonies were performed using a natural spring that flowed on the island. Kyaw organised a long-tail boat to take us over from a small stand on the river bank, almost under the huge Thanlwin bridge, the longest road bridge in Myanamr, that spans the Thanlwin river.

The small island is very peaceful with many tall palms and trees shading many stupas and shrines dotted all around. From the little jetty, we walked in a circular circuit around the island, stopping to look at all the stupas and statues. A rough concrete path provided the route among the trees with many view points over the wide yellow-brown river. Under one small tree, a diorama depicted Buddha’s first teaching to the five ascetics that he had travelled with before his enlightenment. In front of the monastery was the largest zedi (Sandawshin) where we met some locals and nuns out with their dogs. 
There was one very unique and interesting shrine on the island: the Earth, blue sphere with gold-painted continents, sitting upon a five-petal lotus flower, topped with a little stupa and hti.

After exploring for a good half hour or more , we took the little boat back to where the car was waiting. We were happy to be back in his air-conditioned car with a cold drink. The day was already scorching hot and in the high 30s. “Now we see big sleeping Buddha”, chuckled Kyaw, driving off. Passing through some scenic countryside, with some rocky mountain outcrops along the way, we reached Win Sein Taw Ya, the largest reclining Buddha in the world. It rests at the foot of some green hills. A plaque at the entrance proudly proclaims it to be 400 cubits, which is about 560 feet or 180 metres long. He was enormous!

Near the carpark, the entrance was a open building supported by columns with a series of stairs leading to a bridge to access the giant Buddha. Beside it, local kids were splashing around having fun in a large pool full of unwelcoming brown water. J an I made our way to the entry to the Buddha. Inside, we walked through the slightly bazaar interior that was set out over a couple of floors and corridors containing many separate displays, each depicting a story of the Buddha’s life and the six realms of the Buddhist cosmos, as well as scenes from the life of Myanmar’s royalty. Kind of like a museum with plaster figures, brightly painted in fine detail. Many families and groups of teenagers were wondering around. Once again, we were drawn into photos with the locals keen to have their photos with us foreigners. “Mingalabar. Hello”, much smiling and giggles.

Back towards the entrance a monk was leading a prayer session in a small shrine room. Removing my shoes, I took a moment to pay my respects and still my mind after all the activity of the day. J wondered out to see the construction site. Though open with lots of displays completed, the Buddha’s feet were still in progress and I’d say maybe about two-thirds of the interior displays were finished. Outside on one of the terraces near the Buddha’s face, we caught a real feel for the scale of just how huge He was – I couldn’t get his face into a single photo. It also provided a great view of the other stupas and statues that dot the hillside, some of which were also built on a large scale.
As we were leaving, Kyaw stopped at the entrance where statues of hundreds of identical monks lined the road. I hadn’t even seen them on the way in as I was so overwhelmed by the huge Buddha. The day had become more overcast, but even from behind the clouds, that burning sun was still intensely hot. Honestly, watching the countryside go past from a moving, air-conditioned car was just perfect.
It was a good hour or so drive to our next place Thanbyuzayat, the town that lay at the end of the Thai-Burma railway. J and I were keen to pay our respects to the many soldiers that had died constructing the railway under brutal Japanese forced labour during the second world war.
The town was quite a large town, bustling with people selling and buying good from all the many shops. Not far from the main centre, the ‘Death Railway’ memorial sat in a overgrown, roadside clearing that you would drive past if you didn’t know it was there. Down a small path set amongst trees was a large green and black locomotive sitting on a hundred metre section of rail. It was kept in great condition and looked almost new. Beside it, a decrepit monument with almost unreadable inscription stated, “Myanmar Thailand Japanese death railway starts here 1942-1943”. Along the preserved track were some crumbling concrete statues of men depicting the POWs, but they had fallen into complete disrepair and barely recognisable. Still, we felt the area had been kept respectfully to remember those poor souls who suffered so much to build that track.
A bit further up the road was the war cemetery. The grounds keeper met us at the entrance, enquiring where we were from. “Australia”, we replied. “Oh. Many here”, he pointed out to the rows of plaques. Before us were rows and rows of identical (barring the inscriptions) headstones. Each was accompanied by a flowering shrub. The large grass field was mowed to perfection. The grounds and graves are maintained through funds from the commonwealth government and a team of groundskeepers were employed to ensure it was kept immaculately. Near the centre stood a white marble monument shaped like a small wall with a simple and poignant  statement, “Their name liveth for evermore”.
At the entrance, a large plaque read, “Hundreds of thousands Asians, many from Myanmar toiled for 13 months in appalling conditions, building the infamous railway by hand. The railway that stretched from here to Nong Pla Duk Thailand was operational for only 21 months. This plaque records over 80,000 Asians, 6,540 British, 2,830 Dutch, 2,710 Australians and 356 Americans died during the railways construction and it is dedicated to their memory. It commemorates the suffering and fortitude of all who worked on the railway.”
Under the protection of my trusty new umbrella (which was an absolute must under the ridiculous heat), I could only imagine the horrible conditions the POWs suffered. Here I was feeling baked alive just walking amongst the gravestones; hammering iron pegs into the parched ground and laying the track under constant cruelty would have, with no doubt, been hell on earth. J and I read many of the inscriptions on the headstones. Several had the same simple message, “With the setting of the sun, and in the morning we will remember”, others truly touching and personal messages including details of families left behind and love lost. Returning to the entrance, another very Aussie memorial plaque took my eye and had tears welling in my eyes:
“Although many years have passed, since those fatal days of war.
My feelings of pride shall never grow small.
To all those men and women that gave so much,
I only wish we could keep in touch.
War should not be glorified, 
but to all those that fell and fought so well,
did not do so in vain,
 as I for one will always remember them.
Signed, a
 young and mighty bloody proud Australian”.
The plaque also marked a time capsule that had been placed there by surviving Australian ex-prisoners in 1994 entrusting it to the people of Myanmar, with the hope it is opened in 2042 to commemorate 100 years since the beginning of the construction of the Thai-Burma railway.
Back in the car, Kyaw asked whether we had family that fought in the war. Neither J or I did, and it was a bit interesting trying explaining that in fact the country of my family background was on the other side of the allied forces. Despite the fact we had no personal connections, we were still Australian and felt compelled to pay our respects here at this notorious sight. It was one of the reasons why I actually wanted to visit Mawlamyine from Yangon in the first place. A truly moving experience and worth the long drive there and back.

Lunch was at a local street side stall that Kyaw recommended. “Very good food – clean” he smiled leading us to some simple wooden seats. I can’t be sure, but the locals could not believe us westerners at their little local eatery. We were met with wide eyes looks, which were mostly friendly and welcoming. Embarrassingly, the owner came out and tried to find cushions for us to sit on and swept around where we sat. I asked Kyaw to please tell them that we were OK and there was no need. J asked Kyaw to order him whatever he recommended, and of course I asked for ‘ta-ta-lut’ or no life. The food arrived in minutes flat, having come from large pots simmering at the back. It sure smelled great, but mine was not strictly vegetarian with a few shrimp and fish like meat among the veggies and lentils. J shared bowls of pork and fish curries with Kyaw that were heartily enjoyed. But there was one mistake – the cups which we drank fresh water had been washed in not so clean water and I only felt the repercussions a day or so later…
Heading back to Mawlamyine, Kyaw asked if we wanted to see a little place with a very famous temple. Of course I said yes. We took a turn off on our right along a narrow and bumpy country road. It was like many windy roads of country Victoria through rolling hills surrounded by farmland with sweeping corners and many scenic vistas. Descending from the hills, the road flattened, and straightened out, and we were surprised to find ourselves driving along a palm-lined boulevard, not unlike the famous avenue of Beverley Hills just without the million-dollar houses and expensive shops.
The charming town of Kyaik Ma Ya had typical stalls and shops. Through some residential streets of cute wooden houses, we finally came to the local temple that dates back to 1455. A huge gong-like sculpture stood before a green, multi-tiered building. Next to the entry, a stone inscription displayed, “A brief summary of Buddhism”, in English and Pali on one side, and in Myanmar script on the other.
Inside, shady, tiled corridors circled the main shrine room that held a large white Buddha. Distinctive from others, the Buddha was seated as if sitting at a dining table rather than the traditional cross-legged pose. Locals call it ‘western style’, informed Kyaw. 
Surrounding it, a hundred or so golden-robed, white skinned Buddhas sat and reclined. The soaring walls were covered in gold guilt with intricate embossing. A path circled the main Buddha so you could walk all the way around and behind it, so J and I spent a little time looking at all the various mudras and poses of all the Buddhas.
Walking around the grounds, we met a group of monks preparing for afternoon prayers. They were clearly not used to seeing foreigners, laughing and speaking in a highly animated way. 
A bit further around, a young monk with a nasty limp and glass eye approached us shyly. Then, in surprisingly good English, he asked if he could talk with us. From behind him, four younger monks approached. “My students are learning English and have never met people who speak English”. Of course, J and I obliged and we chatted for quite a while about where we were from, what we do for work, families, and then Dharma, which surprised them that foreigners were also interested in Buddhism. The teacher translated for the most, as well as took photos of us with his students on his smart phone. As we walked away, there was much giggling as they examined their images taken with us.
Near the exit, a table was set up with various religious objects for sale. The teacher monk came over and explained that they were raising funds to complete the tiling on the outside corridors and monk’s quarters. Behind the table was a pile of large ceramic tiles, which were the same design as the tiles on the floors around the temple. “People buy to donate for the work”, she explained, “1000 kyats each”. Though we didn’t feel pressured, J and were more than happy to make a small donation. The woman filled out a very official looking receipt book and thanked us profusely as we purchased a half dozen tiles. I wished them well with their fund raising and building works, and we left.
Our last stop(s) of the day were back at Mawlamyine, and the small hills overlooking the town. On the main ridge, a dozen or so monuments, temples and monasteries were spread out along the road. First was U Zina Paya, a huge golden stupa, so named after a famous monk who dreamt of finding gems at the very place it was built. He then proceeded to dig there and sure enough dug them up and sold them, using the proceeds to build this temple. A large, gold adorned clithe stood at the stairs leading to this impressive zedi. From the platform, you could see way out to the mountains to the south and the surrounding countryside.
Nearby, we stopped in from of U Khanti pagoda, another impressive looking temple, with the ‘official’ view point in front that afforded excellent views to the city and river beyond. Locals were relaxing on the circular seats that ringed the large trees. A cool breeze blew providing relief from the afternoon heat. Further along was the Bamboo thread Buddha. It was a unique statue, made from woven bamboo threads (hence the name), painted and draped in gold robes. Housed in a very simple temple, we found it fascinating. A photo board provided background into how it was made, which looked to be quite a very labour intensive and time-consuming task.

Next, Kyaw dropped us in front of a whitewashed building that didn’t look too interesting, but he said to walk in to see the old monastery. It was Yadanar Bon Myint, or Queen Sien Don Mibaya, kyaung that was donated by Queen Sein Don a hundred years ago. It was originally her palace and still houses a large replica Lion throne. Inside, there are may old artifacts as well as some intricately carved ivory tusks, stunning gold and marble Buddhas, and my favourite, beautiful glass floor tiles embossed with gold and painted with colourful flowers. We spent quite a while looking through the various rooms and met an old monk keen to say hello to us. The building is starting to show its age and hopefully will be preserved before it falls into further disrepair.

We walked through a large courtyard, where monks had hung out their washing and skinny cats dozen in the shade, to a covered stairway that lead up to Kyaik Than Lan paya. Its said to be the largest stupa in Mawlamyine. Up on the platform, there was no where to escape the burning sun, but the breeze helped. The view from up there was gorgeous. Around the permitter of the terrace, rows of beach seats lined the square, with many statues of what I think were servants or guardians of the temple standing watch. We explored the various shrines around the stupa, where many locals were praying and making offerings.

As we made our way back down the stairs to where Kyaw had dropped us, a group of young monks came from behind us, their thongs clapping on the stairs. We exchanged hellos and mingalabars as they hurried ahead of us. With the stairway lit up in slanty golden afternoon light, the sight of the maroon clad monks descending made a lovely photo, one of my favourites from our entire trip.

Just up from the monastery, the last stop for the day was the Mahamuni temple. Brilliant in the sunshine, the temple is covered in mirrored tiles. The main shrine’s walls were also a mosaic of colourful glass tiles with the addition of rubies and jade. The Buddha is a replica of the more famous Mahamuni statue that is housed in Mandalay. It is said to be cast in the actual likeness of the historical Buddha, captured by artists during His visit to the north of the country in the year 554 BC. Apart from a solitary woman, praying with a smouldering stick of incense between her palms, we were the only ones there. Another stunning temple.

By this time of the day, we were hot and tired, ready to relax and chill out. The sun was sinking towards the horizon, but we couldn’t be bothered waiting to watch it set from up on the ridge. Driving back to the hotel, Kyaw suggested a local chapatti stand for dinner, which we thought sounded pretty good. He left us to refresh for an hour or so at the hotel before returning to pick us up.

The stand was at the northern part of town, a block over from the Attram hotel. A few simple tables and chairs were placed on the sidewalk. Inside the open stall, a few large pots bubbled away full of aromatic curries. The owner welcomed us warmly, clearly knowing Kyaw. Bringing drinks, he beckoned us to sit down. Kyaw chatted to the owner, before returning to us. Apologising, he explained that the chapattis were not available today. We didn’t mind and asked to be served whatever was recommended (vegetarian for me of course). Bowls of steaming yellow dhal with freshly grilled naan bread were brought, which were delicious. We had a fun chat with Kyaw over our simple but tasty dinner in the evening cool.
To finish our evening, we asked Kyaw to drop us back to the night food stand along the river where we had met that family the night before. It was only early, and J and I were ready for a cold beer with our new friends. Once there, we were welcomed like long lost friends. Beers were brought and the smell of all the scrumptious, barbequed food was so tempting that we couldn’t resist enjoying a second dinner of sorts. We returned to the hotel, deciding to take a route a few blocks over and around to wonder the dark streets of this charming city on our last night. Admittedly, we found ourselves a little off course, at one stage walking up a little residential alley almost into a local family’s lounge room. We all laughed as the one of the eldest children directed us back to the main road. Another delightful experience after a truly wonderful day.
- K

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