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Burmese Days Part 3, Mandalay

For the Temple-bells are callin’, an’ it’s there that I would be —

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ lazy at the sea;

            On the road to Mandalay. R Kipling

We did not take “the road to Mandalay” we flew. This time I think it was Asian Wings Airline, another start-up with two planes. Same process as before including the cool little stickers you had to wear in the waiting room.

Mandalay (which avoided the name change fad) is a port city on the Irawaddy River which starts in the Himalaya and runs the length of  Burma. Although it is a bustling city, it retains a certain charm, maybe it is the name.

This is a view from atop Mandalay Hill, which of course has another temple. You can see the busy port and part of the city. However, Kipling’s poem is an example of artistic license, you cannot see the sea. In other verses of the poem he says China is on the other side of the river. Well, not yet anyway.

Mandalay has a thriving Jade business.  We went to the Jade cutting area of town, which is three big square blocks and busy as a county fair on the 4th of July.

The jade, all mined in Burma, arrives in big blocks that look like normal old rocks to a guy like me.

These stones then get sawed into more manageable sized pieces. Big operations like this were all over the area, not just this one.

Then the pros go to work. They take a long time with high intensity lights and other vision enhancement tools to decide if a stone is worth further work, and if so where to cut it. Jade has relative values according to color and they work hard to get a part of a stone with pure dark green isolated for the best jewels.

Some jade beads in process.

Garbage jade! This where they dispose of the parts of the stones they do not want. I asked the guide if they would mind if I took a piece. He laughed and told me to go ahead, it is garbage. So I rooted through the pile and came up with a nice jade soap holder for the bathroom. I think that when tourism picks up in Myanmar, that will be harder to do!

Another Mandalay must see is the largest monastery in town.

We got there on laundry day. There were monk’s robes hanging out to dry all over the campus. I say campus because this is not just a monastery it is also a school.

It is a place where young novice monk in training go to learn the lessons of the Buddha before they can wear the maroon robes. There is a very big ceremony in a family when they send a son off to become a monk. Family, freinds, neighbors all come and give gifts. But some of the kids just do not make it. I have had at least three guides who lasted as little as two days, or a couple weeks. They could not take the long periods of fasting. In this picture they are standing in line for lunch with their bowls.

It is a very longline. This is a big complex. Women come from other parts of Manadaly and cook the meal in a huge kitchen. All the food comes from money donated by the community This is the place where the military government killed a bunch of monks, which set off the revolt that resulted in a democratic government.

The Source!

In the last few years of extensive travels in Buddhist Asia, we have seen more Buddha statues than it would be possible to count. In  Mandalay we saw something that I never expected to see.

Our guide, wh0 by now had tossed the itinerary away because he knew we wanted the bizarre stuff took us to a BUDDHA FACTORY!

The Buddhas are carved without much detail and without faces, until someone buys them and specifies what they want. Of course I was irreverent enough to ask our guide “If I bought this guy here, could I have MY face carved on it? ” I was not sure what the look on HIS face meant.

Then he pointed at this Buddha as if to say “put your face on this one.”

Mandalay Gold

Gold leaf is a very big thing in the Buddhist world. It is a common offering to Buddha statues to apply gold leaf to them. Now we got to see how it was made.

Of course you start with real gold. This was from a mine in the north of Myanmar.

Then the gold is melted, formed, pounded, stretched, pounded and pounded again until it is thinner than newspaper. It is then cut into squares about 2×2″. That little piece of gold from the last photo makes dozens of these sheets used for offerings. You can see them in this photo. The value added to the gold is probably five fold.

OK, that is it for this post, but we are not done with Mandalay yet. Next post we visit Mignon which is a community across the Irawadddy river which has among other things, the world largest brass bell! Stay tuned, share this with a friend, and thanks for reading.

Happy Spirits in Bhutan

This post will cover the two most spiritual things I have ever experienced. I was deeply moved by both of them. Bhutan is a deeply Buddhist country. I have mentioned before that if I ever decided to convert, as if I were disciplined enough to try, it would be in Bhutan. I found that the Tantrayana sect of Buddhism appeals to me for some reason I cannot fathom. Maybe it is just that it seems unspoiled by outside influences, much like Bhutan itself.

On the longest touring day in our itinerary we drove through beautiful mountains.

Prayer flags for our loved ones.

Our drive took us to a  place called Punakha Dzong located at 3050 meters.

These are the Bhatan version of Stupas called Chortens. They were located on top of a hill at the 3000+ meter elevation.On a clear day, you get a great view of the Himalaya from here, but this was off season, so the weather was off as well. There were 108 (an important number) of these Chortens. They were built by the fourth Queen of Bhutan. Next to them is a temple the current King uses on certain ceremonies.

Each Chorten has an identical portrait of the Buhdda.

I climbed to the top of the hill for the view, and to sneak a smoke. Across the road I noticed acres of prayer flags strung from tree to tree. Prayer flags are just that. Little flags with prayers printed on them that certain sects of Buddhists hang where the wind blows so that the prayers are carried away to be answered.

When I came back down the hill Mary Ann let me know that there was a Monk there who sold strings of prayer flags. That is exactly what I had just wished for. I do not care if I am in a Christian church, a mosque or a temple, I always say a prayer for the sole of my departed son. I really wanted to hang a string of prayer flags for him.

Each string contains flags of multiple colors.The white flag is for the sole of dearly departed. I bought a string, and Mary Ann bought one also. We tied them together, which is cool I guess, the monk did not say otherwise.

The monk and our guide accompanied us up the hill to the spot where the flags get hung. It was over 3000 mtrs high and Mary Ann got a bit winded Not me, I was too excited.

When we got to the top of the hill, the monk and our guide helped us tie up the strings. We said a prayer. I felt more assured that my prayer helped my son Neal more than lighting a candle in St. Peter’s Cathedral.

Hearing the Voice of  Buddha.

From here we drove further until we reached what is called the most beautiful valley in the Himalayas

This is the fascinating valley of Phobjikha.  This is the winter home of black-necked cranes that migrate from the arid plains in the north to pass winter in milder and lower climate. Unfortunately for us the Cranes do not visit during low season. Yet it is easy to see that Bhutan has many unspoiled and beautiful areas. Like I keep saying, the last Shangri-La.

As spiritual as beauty can be sometimes, in Bhutan you just never know what comes next

At the edge of the valley is this magnificent monastery. Because it has a name too long to pronounce it is also called the Gangtey monastery. We went to visit it. I figured, “OK time to take off the shoes again, and see another temple” I was so very wrong.

This is the entrance to Gangtey monastery. No cameras allowed inside.

What we saw inside was a very large court yard surrounded by “dorm” rooms for a considerable amount of Monks. In the middle of the court yard was a temple. It was completely full of both Monks and civilians. They were all intently listening to an elderly Monk speaking a lesson. We peaked in, but did not feel like making a scene and trying to enter the crowded floor space. The man’s voice sounded wonderful, It sounded soothing. People were paying rapt attention.

When we left, our guide said how lucky we were to have heard the voice of Buddha. He could see by the look on my face that he owed me an explanation.

He went on to explain. In the Tantrayana sect of Buddhism, at any time there are three men walking the earth who are Lamas. One carries the spirit of Buddha, one the mind of Buddha, and one the voice of Buddha. That is who we had just been listening to. This was his monastery, these were his Monks. He is in his eighth reincarnation. His first life was in 800 A.D. Apparently he has clear memories from each of his lives. This is basically how they know he is a venerated Lama.

I was feeling very privileged. After seeing something like a million statues of Buddha in the last few years, to magically be transported to a place where I could hear his voice, made me start thinking…”am I destined for Buddhism?”  Probably not, there is no way I could tolerate a mosquito biting me without killing it.

That is it for spirituality for the day. Time to go beat my wife’s cat for scratching the couch. Share with a friend, subscribe, comment, anything. Just let me know you are out there!


The Top of the World! Everest!

Everest. One word, wow. It was a beautiful clear day. Our Budha Air flight was on a 17 seat Beechcraft. This aircraft is a small tubular unit with one seat on each side of the aisle. A six foot tall person cannot stand erect in the aisle. Mary Ann dislikes small planes and she was uncomfortable at first. Once we got to the mountains, her demeanor changed.

We flew out of the domestic airport. Other airlines serving it had names like Yeti Air. They take security more serious than any airport I have ever been in. We got frisked three times between entering the airport and getting on the plane. They found both my lighters. At least two other airlines run “mountain flights”. This is a major tourist attraction, and we found out why.

We left at 6:30 in the morning and were back in the hotel by 9:00.

It took about ten minutes to reach the Himalaya range.  They gave each passenger a map which named every peak along the way. We went West to East skirting the range at about 30,000 feet. That let us see the mountains up close and personal.

This range is very different than the Andes, which I have flown over and through dozens of times. Not just because they are higher, but because they are much more “ragged”. The Himalaya are a set of very sharp peaks and deep valleys, with many rivers and even a couple of large ice lakes. They are a brilliant white, and you can see giant ice flows with well defined patterns. It left me with an even more impressed reputation of all those (especially the early ones) who have done on foot what I was doing in the air.)

And then we flew over the top of the world, the third pole. Everyone has seen photos of Everest and is familiar with the shape of this amazing mountain. When you get  so close you feel like reaching out and touching her, it is moving and thrilling .  It was a once in a lifetime experience. It was a bucket list item.

As we started flying back and descending in altitude, all I could think of was, “It’s all downhill from here.”

I’ll probably never stop talking about it, but for now I’ll post some photos in an effort to share this thrilling experience with you.

Over the himalaya

View from the cockpit Everest in front

Yes, they let me into the cockpit. Which was a good thing because my window was dirty and over the wing, so most photos kinda suck.

Awe inspiring

Top of the world!

My next post will cover the rest of an amazing day which included watching an ancient rite of cremation of bodies along a river on the outskirts of town. If you can handle it, I have photos.  I also will share with you the origin of the Kama Sutra with some “adults only” photos. Thanks for reading. Stay tuned, subscribe if you have not already, and tell a friend.

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