Thursday, April 6, 2017

Avalon Waterways - Myanmar - Part VI (Kya Hnyat to Kyauk Myaung)

Today, Day 6 of my Avalon Waterways’ Avalon Myanmar river cruise, was focused mostly on understanding more about Buddhist ritual and religion.  Myo, Avalon Myanmar’s guide, is doing a masterful job of providing just enough information about Buddhism and artfully repeating concepts so that its importance in the cultures of Myanmar (not just the Burmese culture) is developed.


One other aspect of historical Burmese culture, though not as prevalent (but still existing) today, is the reliance on astrology.  There are numerous major decisions, from whether to continue to build temples to moving Myanmar’s capital, that have been made based upon the advice of astrologers.  It makes me wonder how the balance between spirituality, blind belief, and corrupt politicians/astrologers is established and the fate of this country filled with beautiful people with an ugly past (and hopefully bright future) is decided.

Another thing to consider is this, and I cannot think of how to say it in a way that Westerners might better understand:  While Myanmar has been a very closed society for decades, it is not North Korea.  The food is plentiful, the people are healthy and happy (so far from what I have seen) more focused on their next life rather than this one (Buddhism) and, to date, there is no sense of dire struggle.  While I am sure my observations will change as we travel downriver, at least for now I can state that Myanmar is not what I expected and trying to measure it with Western values and views is just not appropriate.


What there is a heavy reliance on Chinese products from automobiles to mobile phones.  They are considered cheap, but functional; good enough, but wanting better.  And, of course, in these present political times, I can so many lost opportunities for American interests in Southeast Asia that start economically and then follow on socially, etc.  But, again, Western perspectives are very different...and don't let any t-shirts with American slogans or UK football teams lead you to believe otherwise.

So with that….

With a late morning start, we passed through the small local market to visit the monastery Kya Hnyat.  While observing the more senior monks having lunch I also had a chance to see some of young novice monks being, well, normal kids teasing and joking with me.  Others were, of course, more serious.



We then presented alms to the younger monks


before visiting one of the ceremonial areas of the monastery, viewing a virtual library of chairs used to carry the young soon to be novice monks in the celebratory parade.

Ritual Chairs used to carry soon to be novice monks
in a celebratory parade

The detail in the older ritual chairs is incredible.
While we were there, Myo took some time to explain the two different types of Buddhism:  Theravadan and Mahayana.  In advance of this, the night before Avalon placed on our beds a page that generally explained the differences; a small, but worthwhile, touch.

Layering our lessons on Buddhism and also how this religion/culture has bound the people of Myanmar together through an incredibly violent and conflicted history, Avalon Waterways showed a documentary “They Call It Myanmar” the previous evening and the movie, “The Lady” about Aung San Suu Kyi, the current effective Prime Minister (State Counselor) of Myanmar after spending 21 years in jail or house arrest.

But all is not serious on this journey.  In the afternoon, as we cruised down the Irrawaddy River on the Avalon Myanmar, there was a 30 minute discussion (as there fairly frequently) on something Burmese.  For example, we have had a language lesson (with Myo providing some humor), but today was on Thanaka (the yellowish cosmetic worn by many Burmese) and how to wear a Longyi (the traditional and ubiquitous skirt). 

As I mentioned in another article when visiting Myanmar’s Mergui Archipelago, thanaka is made from grinding a particular tree and was originally used as a sunscreen (lighter skin is associated with being more posh – not working in the fields), but as become more of an individual fashion statement.  You see people with everything from a fully covered face to a dot here or there.  Of course, grinding some up at home is considered best, but small jars of it are readily available for less than US$1.00 and come in scented and unscented varieties.

The longyi is a circular cloth that surrounds you and is then tied.  Men’s versions are simple patters or solid colors while women’s versions are far more colorful and with interesting, usually floral inspired, patterns.  They are generally quite inexpensive, though beautiful fine silk versions can cost over US$2,000.  Myo warned us that the US$3.00 versions are referred to as Three Generation Longyi:  You wear it once and, after you wash it, it shrinks, so you give it to your son.  Then he wears and washes it and it shrinks again, so you give it to your grandson.  Three Generations!

Because we are traveling downstream, and thus not fighting the strong current, we have more time for exploration.  So, we visited an orphanage and monastery in the village of Kote Tate, where we tied up for the night.  We received a very warm welcome as Avalon Waterways has sort of adopted this orphanage; focusing not only on providing needed supplies, but also teaching them that “Litter is only for the Lazy”; hence they have started a grassroots movement to teach the Burmese youth not to throw plastics and other garbage into the river or on its shores.

We received quite the welcome from the orphanage at
the village of Kote Tat
The school actually has about 260 students, but since it is summer break pretty much only the 45 or so orphans were present.  And, of course, since the teachers were not there Myo took over a short class with two songs and then having the children say our names using the Burmese alphabet.  It was adorable.


After our school lesson, we were invited to have green tea and snacks with the monk, but only three of us did so (disappointing).  As we sat there enjoying our tea, dried beans, cashews and cookies, the children lined up to receive toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and other essentials.  Meanwhile the Monk, with his charming smile, looked on and oversaw the operation before sitting with us to share some tea.


That evening we stayed tied up next to the orphanage.  I enjoyed watching the older children play volleyball, sounding like kids anywhere, and then, finally, the silence when the generator shut off.  (Spiritual Serenity seems far easier to come by then Sound Serenity in Myanmar!)

A stunning sunset while enjoying a complimentary Gin & Tonic
tied up to the shore at Kote Tat
The next morning we visited the pottery factories of Kyauk Myaung.  This experience reminded me to keep one’s mind open and to really observe, as my mind went from, “This sounds touristic and boring” to “I will never look at a pot without thinking of what the people creating them have to endure yet how elegant they are in spite of same.”

Avalon Myanmar at the pottery village of
Kyauk Myaung

Early in the morning I saw an old ox cart with wooden wheels going back and forth, past hundreds of large pots destined for hotels and office lobbies around the world, to the river’s edge being loaded with driftwood that is used to fire the village’s kilns (it does not burn as hot as regular firewood). 


After walking through the dusty street of Kyauk Myung we turned up a dirt road. The first thing I noticed was an old man breaking up rocks with an old small hammer.  


We were guided into an open shed where there was a kiln with a woman glazing some of the pots before putting them into the kiln.



But what caught my attention were young woman placing two different colored hard clay stones into large bamboo baskets with a hoe, then having the one next to them assist putting it on her head and then carrying this heavy basket up a hill to a grinding machine.  While it was harsh enough to bring thoughts of jail-like hard labor, somehow these women were clean, elegant and, in fact, almost regal in stature.

A striking woman toiling in the hot sun hauling clay in Kyauk Myaung
Next was a shed where an old man was creating clay by combining water with the ground materials and kneading it with his feet.   His hands and feet were oversized in proportion to this body from performing this task; obviously for many years.

From there we visited a potting shed where it was so dark, as pots were being thrown, that they literally had to open the bamboo windows to allow enough light in for us to see.  As one woman spun the wheel with her foot, another formed a pot, while a third sat holding here very young baby who was sleeping.


 It was then up a short, but steep and uneven path, to a larger pottery works.  (Many of the Avalon Myanmar guests could not make it up the path so they headed back to the ship…and this was the first time I heard the dreaded (to me) words, “You can stop at the souvenir shop on the way back.”  Fortunately, the shops were just bits of pottery and nothing like was I am sure is yet to come.

Anyway, for those of us that did we were able to walk into a kiln that had recently been fired and then stroll through another part of this pottery village.


We strolled further seeing a man in the blazing sun applying the black glaze to giant pots


and then a line of women carrying newly formed pots to a shed


As we finished our walking tour I saw some pretty expensive homes.  They belong to the pottery brokers.  You see these hard-working people only get paid about US$20 a large pot, but do not have the means to ship them downriver to Mandalay or Yangon, so the broker does it…and as you know, the middleman makes the money.  Disheartening.

It was then back onto the ship for a bit of reflection and then a quiet afternoon; well, almost quiet.  After a late afternoon talk on traditional medicines, I felt it was my obligation (purely for research purposes) to have a massage.  I went with the 60 minute Traditional Myanmar Massage at an incredibly reasonable cost of only US$45.  It was, without a doubt, the best massage I have ever had.  (And, as a bonus, I did not know I could bend like that!)  Note:  I figured I would have to be sore the next day, with all the pressure points, kneading, bending, etc., but Nope.  I have signed up for another massage…and I have never found them to be worthwhile.  I would not sign up for this river cruise because of its spa facilities, but suffice it to say, if you get the opportunity to have a massage of any sort, it is well worth it.

That evening we tied up at Mingun in advance of our next day’s experiences.  After a whiskey and a cigar in the open-air Observation Lounge (I seem to be the only person who enjoys the evenings outdoors), reflecting on what was a very moving day for me, it was time for bed.