|We have visited many pagodas/temples during our Myanmar trip. They are lavishly decorated with 24 carat gold leaf outside and have many Buddha images inside. One temple inside a cave had over 1,000 Buddha statues that worshippers had placed on display. In one temple there lives a large python, purported to be the reincarnated daughter of a monk. The snake has been there for 13 years and was reclining on pillows when we visited. It gets fed chicken and has its own pool to cool off in when it desires. Another temple housed a reclining Buddha, 55 metres long, his lips were 2.29 metres, the soles of his feet 7.77 metres.
At another monastery a young boy who was becoming a novice monk was sitting with his family on the floor surrounded by family and friends enjoying a meal. Bizarrely he was dressed in a a stunning pink dress with make up on. (didn't quite understand that part!) Soon he would have his head shaved and put on the monk robes.
Before you enter a temple, shoes must be removed. We often have to move from one shady area to another VERY quickly as the sun heats the tiled surfaces. In Myanmar the monks are very friendly and often speak some English .
Before we left Mandalay we visited a place where gold leaf is made. It is a long and arduous process. First the 24 carat nugget is squeezed into a long, thin ribbon. A strip of about 1 cm is put between two special bamboo papers (made after soaking the fibre for 2 years) and beaten with a wooden mallet for 30 minutes. This gold sheet is then divided into 6 pieces and beaten again until it is very thin. Cards are made up with squares of gold 5 cm, 10cm or 15 cm sizes. These are the sheets that Buddhists purchase and stick on the Buddha images in the temples. Women are prohibited from doing this.
Inle Lake is at about 4,000 ft altitude, with more comfortable temperatures. We spent a whole day exploring around the lake by boat where houses are built on stilts and many industries thrive. The fishermen have a unique way of rowing their boats with one leg twined round the oar as they let out and bring in their fishing nets. Weed from the bottom of the shallow lake is harvested, dried, then layered with soil to make floating gardens, which are then staked to the lake bottom with long bamboo poles to stop them floating away. There are rows and rows of "islands" mostly growing tomatoes, two crops a year. People tend their gardens from boats. We also stopped off to see boat building, weaving, a silver jewellery workshop, black smith making large knives and farm implements, umbrella and paper work shop. We watched girls making cheroots (cigars) that many people smoke. They could roll 1000 per day for which they received $2.50.
One day in Inle Lake we rented a bike and headed off down the road. We visited a fancy resort that we had seen from the lake the previous day with bungalows built out over the water. Here a cup of coffee cost US $4 and rooms were US$120 per night. We had lunch and wine tasted at a winery. We were intrigued to see half a dozen people washing bottles to recycle, as new bottles from France were very expensive.
Betel nut chewing is a national habit in Myanmar. Special leaves are spread with lime juice, part of a betel nut and some tobacco, folded into a little package and chewed. The resulting red juice from the betel nut is spat out - wherever and whenever - the streets and sides of buildings have red stains all over. The betel nut gives an euphoric effect but badly stains and rots the teeth.
So many jobs throughout Myanmar are labour intensive. We have seen ditches beside the road being dug by hand, bricks for a construction site carried 20 at a time on a board balanced on women's heads (men loaded them on and kept track of who carried how many in a book!). Roads were being repaired with gravel and rocks being carried in baskets balanced on heads (again mostly women) 40 gallon drums of tar were heated by open fire at the side of the road and spread on by hand. In a gravel pit, the women carried baskets of rocks on their heads from a big heap to the crusher where a man tipped it in. They loaded up their basket again with the crushed finer rock and tipped this on a growing pile. We tried to lift the basket that they carried and estimated it to be about 25kg. And these tiny women do this all day, probably for a pittance.
A special place we visited was the revered Golden Rock pagoda on top of Mt Kyaiktiyo (3,615 ft) built in 574 BC. For the last part of the journey to reach this pagoda, we were packed into the back of an open truck sitting on thin wooden planks, 7 km up a winding mountain road. The Burmese sat 6 to a row, we could fit 4 to a row! From here you walk up the last steep climb, or alternatively you can be carried by four fit men, reclining in a sedan chair. Golden Rock is precariously balanced on top of another rock and many Buddhists try to make a pilgrimage there at least once in their lifetime. It has been covered in gold leaf, a male only privilege.
We had an interesting stop at a rubber plantation where we saw the cut bark on the rubber trees dripping white liquid. This is collected daily, sulphuric acid added in a dish to make it congeal, then put through a wringer to squeeze the water out and flatten it into sheets which are hung to dry and ready to be taken for processing.
We made a stop at an immaculate cemetery of 26,000 Allied soldiers' graves from World War 2. There are many pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi (The Lady) on posters, t-shirts, buses and people are just now starting to feel comfortable speaking a little about the political situation.
We fly to Bangkok tomorrow for one night, to Amsterdam for one night and then to Marrakech in Morocco. We have a few days to explore ourselves there before joining an Intrepid Travel trip around Morocco for two weeks.