A Burmese Christmas

On December 18th, I left my Nashville condo at 6 a.m. to return to South East Asia for the Christmas and New Year holidays. A few days earlier my business-class upgrade came through, so the 17-hour American Airlines flight to Hong Kong from Dallas was far more comfortable than otherwise would have been the case with the economy fare ticket that I had purchased. Just before midnight on the 19th, my Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong touched down at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, and after clearing immigration I grabbed a taxi to my Bangkok hotel where I arrived in the wee hours of the 20th.

I spent two days in Bangkok visiting with some friends, ordering some new clothes from my tailor, and taking care of some other errands. On the 22nd, I went to Don Mueang, Bangkok’s second and older international airport, to start my nine-day journey to Myanmar (Burma). My travels took me to Yangon for two days, to Bagan for three days, to Inle Lake for two days, and finally to Mandalay for two days. I returned to Don Mueang on New Year’s Eve in time to celebrate the arrival of 2015 with friends in Krung Thep.

Yangon

Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, was the political and commercial center of Burma after the lower portion of Burma was colonized by the British at the end of the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852. Rangoon remained the capital after the nation achieved its independence in 1948, but in 2005 the military government built a new capital city, Nay Pyi Taw, 200 miles north of Yangon.

Yangon is far less developed than other capital cities in S.E. Asia because of both internal and external factors. In the early 1960s, the military government implemented a policy of autarky that effectively cut off trade with most of the world through the late 1980s. In the 1990s, the U.S. and other western nations imposed economic sanctions on Burma in an effort to force the military government to improve its human rights, move toward democracy, and take more aggressive measures to stop opium traffic. While sanctions were eased in 2012, the impact of 50 years of isolation shows in the city’s relatively poor infrastructure and public transportation, the absence of almost all multi-national hotels, retailers and banks, and the overall lack of direct foreign investment.

The lack of large-scale development, however, means that the city still has some beautiful, albeit not necessarily well-maintained, colonial structures including Myanmar’s Supreme Court Building, Yangon’s City Hall, and the Customs House. More important to the locals, however, are the Buddhist shrines and pagodas found throughout the city.

Yangon City Hall

Yangon City Hall

Supreme Court Building

Myanmar’s Supreme Court Building

Colonial Building

Colonial Building

Padonmar Restaurant

Padonmar Restaurant

During my day and a half in Yangon, I visited the Sule Pagoda, the nearby Maha Bandoola Garden (home to an obelisk surrounded by five columns and five brass lions that was built to commemorate Burma’s independence from the British Empire), the Bogyoke Aung San Market, the Chauk Htat Gyi (six story) Pagoda (home to a huge Reclining Buddha), the Nga Htat Gyi (five story) Pagoda (home to a large Sitting Buddha), Kandawgyi (Royal) Lake (home to Karaweik, a re-creation of a traditional royal barge), and the stunning Shwedagon Pagoda.

Independence Monument in Maha Bondola Gardens

Independence Monument @ Maha Bondoola

Sule Pagoda

Sule Pagoda

Reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda

Reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda

Head of Reclining Buddha

Head of Reclining Buddha

Feet of Reclining Buddha

Soles of Reclining Buddha

Sitting Buddha at Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda

Sitting Buddha at Nga Htat Gyi Pagoda

Karaweik Barge on Kandawgyi Lake

Karaweik Barge on Kandawgyi Lake

The Shwedagon Pagoda was the highlight of my trip to Yangon. Built atop Sanguttara Hill, the golden pagoda dominates the city’s skyline, particularly after sundown. According to legend, the pagoda dates back to around 600 B.C.E., when the King of Okkalapa (now Yangon) had a 66 foot-tall pagoda built to enshrine eight hairs from the Gautama Buddha that he was given by two brothers who brought them back from India. Shwedagon means “Reliquary (container of relics) of the Four” since it houses not only the hairs from the Gautama Buddha but also relics from the three other Buddhas of the present era who attained Enlightenment — the staff from Kakusandha Buddha, a water filter from Koṇāgamana Buddha, and a robe from Kassapa Buddha. Over the centuries the pagoda has been rebuilt and regilded to its present height of 326 feet. The pagoda complex contains not only the large Shwedagon pagoda but also hundreds and hundreds of smaller stupas, temples, statues, and bells. The terrace upon which these structures reside covers 14 acres and there are another 100 acres around it.

The Shwedagon pagoda has ten unique sections — the edged terraces at the base, a set of circular bands, the bell, the ovolo moldings, the inverted alms bowl, the ornamental lotus flower, the banana bud, the golden umbrella, the golden weather vane, and the Diamond bud on the very top. Hundreds of gold plates cover the pagoda starting at the bell section; the broader terraces and circular bands at the bottom are covered in gold leaf. Unfortunately, the pagoda was undergoing maintenance when I visited so the upper portion was covered with bamboo scaffolding for the workers. However, under the night’s lights, the gold shone brilliantly. The actual amount of gold is not known, but estimates that I have seen range from 10 to 60 tons! The umbrella on top of the pagoda is 43 feet tall and over 15 feet in diameter, and weighs five tons; it alone contains 84,000 pieces of jewelry donated by the public, 4,000 gold bells, and over 1,000 pounds of gold. The four-foot long and two-foot tall gold weather vane above the umbrella is encrusted in jewels and precious stones. The two-foot tall diamond orb contains 4,351 diamonds totaling 1,800 carats with a 76 carat diamond at the apex.

Shwedagon in late afternoon

Shwedagon in late afternoon

Shwedagon at dusk

Shwedagon at dusk

Shwedagon after sunset

Shwedagon after sunset

The umbrella, vane, and diamond orb

The umbrella, weather vane, and diamond orb

King SIngu's Bell

King Singu’s Bell

Inside one of the temples

Inside one of the temples

Another temple in the complex

Stylized replica of the Maha Bodi

Another temple in the complex

Small pagodas surrounding the Shwedagon

Another temple in the complex

Another temple in the complex

On Christmas Eve morning, I flew from Yangon’s Mingaladon international airport north to Nyaung-U, the airport that serves Bagan. Although Myanmar is relatively poor, there are typically four or five local carriers competing for business on each route, more than we now have on almost all routes here in the states. Myanmar’s airports are small and almost everything is done manually, e.g., no printers to print boarding passes and luggage tags, no conveyor belts to move luggage from the check-in counter, and no tractors to pull luggage carts on the tarmac to and from the planes.

Luggage delivery at Nyaung-U

Luggage delivery at Nyaung-U

Check-in counters at Yangon's Mingaladon airport

Check-in counters at Yangon’s Mingaladon airport

Departure lounge at He Ho Airport

Departure lounge at He Ho Airport

Golden Air Myanmar plane at He Ho

Golden Myanmar Airlines plane at He Ho

Bagan

The taxi ride from Nyaung-U to my hotel in Bagan took about 30 minutes and cost US$12. Along the way, I had to stop to pay for my Christmas morning hot air balloon ride since the off-shore, third-party vendor that was supposed to process my credit card months earlier was unable to provide this service. While the balloon company informed me that I should stop by on my way in from the airport so that we could settle up, the office was unable to get the internet connection it needed to process a credit card. So a couple of employees came with me to my hotel to see if they could use the hotel’s wi-fi. This did not work, so they then took me to a nearby ATM machine where I was able to withdraw 300,000 kyat (about US$300) all in 1,000 kyat notes — the stack of money had to be at least 1.5 inches thick!

After settling my bill and checking in to my hotel, I went out for a walk. There are not many cars in this area, so I quickly realized that my options for getting around were (a) walking, (b) biking, (c) riding an electric bike, or (d) hiring a horse cart and driver. Neither of the first two seemed very appealing and on the way in from the airport I had seen several people pushing their electric bicycles (battery range issues, I would imagine), so I opted for the horse cart and driver. The driver and I negotiated a rate of $5 per hour and off we went.

Local truck made from a tractor and a homemade cab

Local truck made from a tractor and a homemade cab

The horse and cart that I rented (driver with me)

My rented horse cart (driver with me)

From 1044 to 1287 C.E., Bagan was the capital of the Pagan Empire that ruled most of what is now northern and central Myanmar, primarily along the Aye Yar Wady (or Irrawaddy) River valley that runs north and south throughout most of the country. During this period, the rulers and wealthy citizens built over 10,000 temples, pagodas, and monasteries over 40 square miles in Bagan. Invasions by Kublai Khan’s Mongol army in the last quarter of the 13th century ultimately brought down the Pagan Empire. Historians and archaeologists, however, conclude that the invaders did little damage to these religious buildings but many did fall into disrepair over the ensuing years. Bagan is in an active earthquake zone with over 400 quakes in the 20th century alone, and the last major one in 1975 damaged or destroyed many of the temples. Approximately 2,500 or so remain today.

During the afternoon my guide drove me by many of the temples and we ultimately ended up at a less crowded one that we could climb to watch the sunset. After the sun went down, he dropped me back at my hotel where I got ready for the Christmas Eve gala dinner party. Despite being in a country that is about 80% Buddhist and under 10% Christian, Christmas is widely celebrated, although mainly as a secular holiday, e.g., Christmas trees, Santa Claus, etc. Indeed, after some caroling by the hotel staff, Santa arrived on a palanquin carried by four men dressed in what looked like speedos and carrying torches — a unique Asian twist on reindeer and elves.

Christmas Eve sunset over Bagan

Christmas Eve sunset over Bagan

Santa Arrives at the Aye Yar River View Resort

Santa Arrives at the Aye Yar River View Resort

The highlight of my trip was the Christmas morning hot air balloon ride over many of the temples. I woke before dawn for the scheduled 5:30 a.m. pickup by one of the Oriental Ballooning’s vans. After a couple stops, we arrived in the field where three companies — Balloons Over Bagan, Golden Eagle, and Oriental Ballooning — were preparing at least twenty balloons for flight. The companies offered their customers a light breakfast of tea, coffee and pastries, and then assigned everyone to a pilot. The pilot indicated the balloon in which we would fly and she provided some pretty basic instructions, e.g., sit down when I tell you to and don’t climb onto the outer edge of the basket, as we waited for the balloons to inflate.

Inflating the balloon

Inflating the balloon in which I would ride

Upon a signal from our pilot, we climbed into our basket, and at a few minutes after 6 a.m. we were off the ground just as the sun was coming up. As the sun rose, the air warmed and the low mist, which covered some of the ground and temples, dissipated. During the course of the flight, the pilots spoke over the radio informing each other of their positions and their intentions to either go higher or lower. The flight lasted just over an hour and covered about six miles.

My balloon had a small basket that held our pilot, the sole female aviator, and eight passengers. My pilot had arrived in Myanmar a month earlier from Perth where she also flew hot air balloons but where it was now the low season. She knew the names of the large temples that we flew over or could see, and she maneuvered the balloon expertly so that everyone had a chance to be in the front for a portion of the flight.

Balloons floating over Bagan

Balloons floating over Bagan

A small temple

A small temple

Htilominlo from the hot air balloon

Htilominlo Temple with Aye Yar Wady River in the background

A bell-shaped pagoda

A bell-shaped pagoda

More temples from the air

More temples from the air

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Sulamani Temple

Another Bagan temple

Another Bagan temple

Another bell-shaped pagoda

Another bell-shaped pagoda

Dhammayan Gyi from the balloon

Dhammayan Gyi Temple in the foreground with other temples in the background

About half a dozen balloons, including mine, were blown on a slightly different course than the others. The pilot communicated with the chase team below, and they arrived at the field a bit before we landed. After our touch down, she broke out the champagne and we celebrated our successful flight while the support team disassembled the balloon and basket and put them away for the next day’s flight. When we were ready, the staff drove us back to our respective hotels.

Balloon landing

Balloons landing

Post-flight champagne

Post-flight champagne

Deflating the balloon that I rode in

Deflating the balloon in which I rode

On Christmas afternoon, my horse cart driver took me to the Golden Cuckoo, a small, family run shop that produces and sells high-quality lacquerware. The process begins with the preparation of raw bamboo into strips that can be woven to form the basic objects, e.g., bowls, plates, boxes, trays, cups, etc. Larger objects are also made from teak while smaller ones can use woven horse hair as the base. The lacquer — a resin from the Melanorrhea usitata tree — is applied over the raw base. The coated piece is then placed in a humid cellar to dry for one week after which it is washed and smoothed. A paste made from lacquer and ox bone ash is then applied, and the piece is returned to the cellar to again dry. The dried object is polished with a rough stone and this process is repeated several times until it is smooth. Next, up to twenty coats of lacquer are applied with one week in the cellar to dry after each coat. Once the last coat has dried, the object is polished with a teak wood charcoal to reduce the high gloss.

An artist next uses a sharp knife or needle to etch designs into the polished object. After the design is complete, the piece is coated with a mixture of colored powder and lacquer. After drying for several days, the piece is washed with a water containing rice husks that remove the surface color but leave the color within the etchings. The process is repeated for the other colors. The natural colors are red from cinnabar, yellow from orpiment, green from orpiment mixed with indigo, and orange from orpiment mixed with cinnabar. The final step in what can clearly be a six month to year-long process is polishing the finished object with a petrified wood powder. You can see a highly informative (but kind of long — 35 minutes) YouTube video of the Golden Cuckoo’s process at this link.

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Souvenir from Golden Cuckoo

Women etching design into lacquerware

Women etching design into lacquerware

I spent the rest of Christmas Day and most of the following day visiting many of the major temples and landmarks in Bagan.

Tharabar Gate

Built around 1020 C.E., the Tharabar Gate is the lone surviving gate into the old walled city of Bagan. On the inner side of the gate are shrines of two guardian Nats (Spirits), Min Mahagiri and Hnamadawgyi. The legend is that the Nats were once a brother and sister, Maung Tint De and Myat Hla, who were killed by the king and then became evil spirits in a tree. The tree was ultimately cut down and thrown into the Aye Yar Wady River where it floated down to Bagan. The Nats offered to guard the city if they were given a place to live. The Bagan king took them up on their offer and they were enshrined on the sides of the Tharabar Gate.

Therabar Gate with Spirit Hnamadawgyi in the left shrine and Spirit Min Mahagir in the right shrine

Tharabar Gate with Nat Min Mahagir in the shrine on the left and Nat Hnamadawgyi in the shrine on the right

Spirit Hnamadawgyi (or Royal Sister) she was sister of Maung Tint De and was known as Myat Hla when she was alive

Nat Hnamadawgyi (Royal Sister), formerly Myat Hla, Maung Tint De’s sister

Spirit Min Mahagiri (Lord of the Great Mountain)i who was known as Maung Tint De when he was alive

Nat Min Mahagir (Lord of the Great Mountain) formerly Maung Tint De

Ananda Temple

Ananda Temple

Ananda Temple

Built in 1105 C.E. by King Kyanzittha, Ananda is the first of Bagan’s great temples and it provided the inspiration for subsequent kings and wealthy citizens to build the other temples. Ananda is arguably the prettiest and most inspirational temple in Bagan. Like many temples, the layout of Ananda is in a cruciform design along the North-South and the East-West axes. On top of the temple are four receding terraces that lead to a golden pagoda that is topped by a gold umbrella.

There are four entryway and each contains a large standing statue of one of the first four Buddhas of the present kalpa (the fifth and final one has yet to arrive.) My driver explained that the statues in the North and South entries were originals while those in the East and West were replacements for the originals that were lost to fire or vandalism. Each statue is about 30 feet tall, carved from solid teak, and covered with gold leaf.

Kakusandha, the first of the five Buddhas of the present kalpa. Original statue in North facing entry.

Original statue of Kakusandha, the first of the five Buddhas of the present kalpa, in the North entry

Konagamana, the second  of the five Buddhas of the present kalpa. Reproduction statue in the East facing entry

Replacement statue of Koṇāgamana, the second of the five Buddhas, in the East entry

Kassapa, the third of the five Buddhas of the present kalpa. Original statue in the South facing entry.

Original statue of Kassapa, the third of the five Buddhas of the present kalpa, in the South entry

Gautama Buddha,the fourth (and most recent) of the five Buddhas of the present kalpa. Reproduction statue in the West facing entry

Replacement statue of Gautama, the most recent of the five Buddhas, in the West entry

The Chinthe -- a Burmese Lion standing guard

The Chinthe — a Burmese Lion standing guard

Outdoor statue

Outdoor statue

Large teak door

Large teak door

Passage way between inner and outer corridors

Passage way between inner and outer corridors

That Byin Nyu Temple

Built around 1150 C.E. by King Sithu I, That Byin Nyu is the tallest temple in Bagan at 201 feet from the base to the finial. My horse cart driver took me by, but we did not stop to visit this temple.

That Byin Nyu Temple on Left

That Byin Nyu Temple on Left

Dhammayan Gyi Temple

Built between 1167 and 1170 C.E. by King Narathu, Dhammayan Gyi is the largest temple in Bagan, with each side measuring about 250 feet in length. When the Bagan temples were built, the bricks were held together not by mortar but rather by a natural resin compound. Narathu was reputedly a stickler for perfect brickwork — if he could slip a pin between the bricks that a mason had laid, he is said to have cut off that mason’s hand.

Narathu took power by killing his father, King Alaungsithu, and his older half-brother who was heir to the throne. He also murdered his wife and his son; some speculate that he built this temple to atone for these murders. Narathu was assassinated in 1170 C.E. by relatives of the wife he had killed, and the temple was never finished. While the floor plan for Dhammayan Gyi is similar to Ananda, the innermost passages were filled with construction debris and bricked over so only the outer corridor is accessible.

Dhammayan Gyi from the ground

Dhammayan Gyi

As is typical of temples built in a cruciform design, Dhammayan Gyi has entrances on the East-West and the North-South axes with a Buddha image in each of the four. The West facing entrance is unique in that it contains side-by-side statues of Gautama, the fourth Buddha, and Maitreya, the fifth or future Buddha.

Buddha image in Dhammayan Gyi

Buddha image in entry

Double Buddha in Dhammayan Gyi

Gautama and Maitreya,the fourth and fifth Buddhas

Sulamani Temple

Sulamani, which means ‘Crowning Jewel’, was built in 1183 C.E. by King Sithu II. Sulamani marries the height of That Byin Nyu with the mass of Dhammayan Gyi. A vaulted interior corridor runs around the temple with sitting Buddha images placed on all four sides. Sulamani is renowned for its archway entrance, for the high quality of its brick work, and for the frescoes on the interior walls and vaults. Some original glazed tile and carved stucco can be seen on the temple’s exterior walls.

Sulamani from the ground

Sulamani

Entrance into complex

Eastern archway entrance into the complex

Entrance to Sulamani

Entrance to Sulamani

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Elephant fresco

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Buddha fresco

Buddha on pedestal in Eastern recess

Buddha on pedestal in Eastern recess

Buddha on pedestal on Southern wall

Buddha on pedestal along Southern wall

Buddha on pedestal on Western wall

Buddha on pedestal along Western wall

Buddha on pedestal on Northern wall

Buddha on pedestal along Northern wall

Original glazed tiles

Original glazed tiles

Carved stucco

Carved stucco and renowned brick work

Maha Bodhi Temple

The Maha Bodhi Temple was built circa 1218 C.E. by King Htilominlo, the last of the great temple builders. He also built the Htilominlo temple (there is a picture above that I took from the hot air balloon) and he finished Gawdawpalin, the second tallest temple in Bagan at 180 feet, that his father, King Sithu II, had begun.

This temple has a distinctive design for Bagan since it was modeled after the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya, India, where Gautama Buddha attained enlightenment. The pyramidal tower is highly ornamented with over 450 niches each containing an image of Buddha.

Maha Bodhi Temple

Maha Bodhi Temple

Nat Taung Kyaung 

Constructed in the 18th century, Nat Taung Kyaung (also known as Myoe Daung) is a Buddhist monastery that is still in use today. The monastery was constructed out of teak on a raised platform that provides ventilation as well as protection from snakes and animals. Intricate woodcarvings decorate both the interior and exterior of the monastery.

Nat Taung Kyaung Monastery

Nat Taung Kyaung Monastery

Carved wooden doors

Carved wooden doors

Exterior wood carviing

Exterior wood carviing

Inle Lake

On the 27th, I took a short flight to He Ho from Nyaung-U followed by a 45 minute, 20 mile taxi ride to Nyaung Shwe, a small city just north of Inle Lake. The lake is located on the Shan plateau at an elevation of about 3,000 feet; it is about fifteen miles long and about five miles across at its widest point. Inle is Myanmar’s second largest lake; Indawgyi Lake, located about 300 miles further north, is the largest.

I arrived at my hotel about 2 p.m., and when I registered, I asked the hotel to arrange for a boat and guide to take me out on the lake in the morning. Nyaung Shwe is small — about 1.5 miles from East to West and three-quarters of a mile from North to South — and it clearly caters to tourists, primarily Europeans. The streets are built on a grid pattern, so it was easy to walk around without getting lost despite the fact that the signage is mostly in Burmese. There are very few private cars on the local roads, but the large trucks that went by kicked up a lot of dust and dirt. As I went through the town, I saw some workers putting up what I believe is the first traffic light in the area.

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Street in Nyaung Shwe

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First traffic light in Nyaung Shwe

Mingalar market and temple in Nyaung Shwe

Mingalar market and temple in Nyaung Shwe

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Cows roaming in the street of Nyaung Shwe

Longboats on the Nyaung Shwe canal

Longboats on the Nyaung Shwe canal

Shoppers at the Mingalar market

Shoppers at the Mingalar market

At 8 a.m. on the 28th, my guide picked me up at my hotel and we walked about one-half mile to a nearby canal where he kept his boat. We motored through the Nyaung Shwe Canal for about five miles (about 20 minutes) before we reached Inle Lake. About 70,00 people live in the cities and villages along the lake and in houses built on stilts directly over the lake.

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A community built over the lake

Golden Kite Restaurant over Inle Lake

Golden Kite Restaurant over Inle Lake

Not surprisingly, the locals primarily uses boats to get around. The Intha men stand on one leg on the very back of their boats while wrapping their other leg around the oar that they then use to propel and steer the boat. With this leg rowing technique, they are able to see over the reeds in the lake as well as use both of their hands for fishing or working. I had read about this in guide books and it was the main reason why I wanted to visit Inle Lake.

Leg rowing on Inle Lake

Leg rowing on Inle Lake

Fisherman on Inle Lake

Fisherman on Inle Lake

Women paddling on Inle Lake

Women paddling on Inle Lake

Inle Lake is also known for its hydroponic fruit and vegetable gardens. The farmers use weeds harvested from the lake to make beds and they anchor these beds to the lake bottom with bamboo poles. As in many parts of Asia, seasonal rains can cause huge fluctuations — five feet or more — in the lake’s water level. Since the gardens float on top of the water, they do not flood but rather rise and fall as the water level changes. According to my guide, over 80% of the tomatoes sold in Myanmar are grown in these fertile floating gardens.

Floating gardens on Inle Lake

Floating gardens on Inle Lake

Farmer tending crops

Farmer tending crops

During my day on the lake, we stopped at several craft shops where we saw local weavers, silversmiths, jewelry makers, metal workers, carvers, and cheroot rollers. A cheroot is a hand rolled cigar made from a combination of tobacco, honey, rice flour, tamarind, banana, and anise. The weavers produce not just silk but also a cloth from lotus plants that is primarily used for robes that are placed on Buddha images throughout the country.

Woman extracting fiber from lotus stems

Extracting fiber from lotus stems

Women rolling cheroots

Women rolling cheroots

Men hammering hot metal

Men hammering hot metal

Handmade knives and scissors

Handmade knives and scissors

After reaching the southern tip of the lake, we entered a small river that we took west for about six miles to the village of Indein. Along the river are small bamboo dams with a narrow spillway in the middle that allows the longboat to continue up-river.

Longboat going through spillway in small dam

Longboat going through the spillway in small dam

Men building a drainage ditch

Men building a drainage ditch

Men unloading dirt from a longboat

Men unloading dirt from a longboat

There are two ancient pagoda complexes, Nyaung Ohak and Shwe Inn Thein, at Indein. Upon disembarking from the longboat, we first arrived at Nyaung Ohak where it appears that none of the pagodas has been restored. While many are crumbling and others have trees growing out of their tops, ornate stucco carvings of elephants, peacocks, nagas, chinthe, and devas abound, some of which are in remarkably good shape. Nyaung Ohak was reminiscent of the temples reclaimed from the jungle at Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Pagoda at Nyaung Ohak

Pagoda at Nyaung Ohak

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Ancient pagoda at Nyaung Ohak

Tree growing through pagoda roof

Tree growing through pagoda roof

Deva carvings on pagoda at Nyaung Ohak

Deva carvings on pagoda at Nyaung Ohak

From Nyaung Ohak, the second group of pagodas is a one-half mile uphill walk under a covered walkway. Shwe Inn Thein has over 1,000 pagodas, the oldest dating back to the 13th century, but most from the 17th and 18th centuries. Some appear to be either fully restored or else recently constructed. At the very top of the hill is a pagoda that contains a small stupa donated by King Thiri Dhammasoka, who lived from 273 to 232 B.C.E.

Pagodas at Shwe Inn Thein

Pagodas at Shwe Inn Thein

Unrestored pagodas at Shwe Inn Thein

Unrestored pagodas at Shwe Inn Thein

New or restored pagodas

New or restored pagodas at Shwe Inn Thein

Mandalay

On the 29th, I took a taxi back to He Ho Airport for my 30 minute flight to Mandalay on Air Bagan. A second taxi whisked me from the airport to the city center and I was checked-in to my hotel by 2:30 p.m. While Mandalay is not as big as Yangon, it is also not as small as Nyaung Shwe, so to make the most of my time here, I hired a car and driver to show me the sights.

During the afternoon, we visited the Mandalay Royal Palace and the Kuthodaw Pagoda. The day ended on Mandalay Hill watching the sunset over the city. On the 30th, we traveled to the Maha Myat Muni Pagoda, the U Pein Bridge in Amarapura, and the U Min Thonze and Soon U Ponya Shin pagodas in Sagaing.

Mandalay Palace

The Mandalay Palace was built between 1857 and 1859 by King Mindon Min following the Burmese defeat in the Second Anglo-Burmese War. Mindon Min and his son, King Thebaw Min, were the only two rulers to live in this palace since Great Britain made all of Burma a province of India at the end of the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885.

Mandalay palace sits in the center of a four-square kilometer (1.5 square mile) citadel that is surrounded by a 22 feet tall brick wall with 48 bastions or turrets. Sixty feet outside the wall is a moat — 210 feet wide and 15 feet deep — that was originally crossed by three bridges on each side. Tourists enter the palace grounds today by the center bridge on the east side. The facility is an active military base and visitor access is restricted outside of the restored palace.

The moat around the palace from the east looking north to Mandalay Hill

The moat around the palace from the east looking north to Mandalay Hill

The moat and two bastions at night

The moat and two bastions at night

The palace grounds were used by the occupying Japanese army as a supply depot during WWII and, with the exception of the watch tower and Royal mint, all the palace buildings were destroyed by Allied bombs. In the 1990s, the palace was rebuilt using both traditional and modern techniques and materials.

Great Audience Hall

The Great Audience Hall

The Watch Tower

The Watch Tower

The Royal Palace grounds as seen from the Watch Tower

The Royal Palace grounds as seen from the Watch Tower

Kuthodaw Pagoda

The Kuthodaw Pagoda was built at the southeastern foot of Mandalay Hill when Mindon Min relocated the royal capital to Mandalay. Kuthodaw, which means “Royal Merit”, is referred to as “the world’s largest book” since it contains 729 marble slabs on which the entire 15 books of the Buddhists scriptures are inscribed in Pali. The tablets are each five feet tall and three and one-half feet wide and the scriptures are carved into both the front and back sides. The carving began in October 1860 and it took until May 1868 for the carvers to finish. Each tablet or page is housed in its own white stupa.

One page of the inscribed Buddhist scripture

One page of the inscribed Buddhist scripture

Stupa housing Scripture

Stupa housing Scripture

After the British annexed Mandalay in 1885 and sent Thebaw Min into exile, British troops were billeted at this pagoda. Queen Victoria ordered them to leave the religious sites in 1890, but the troops had already looted the complex stealing the gold and silver as well as the diamonds, rubies and other precious stones. The troops vandalized the statues, images, and stupas and they even scrapped out the gold ink from the 729 marble slabs.

Kuthodaw Pagoda

Kuthodaw Pagoda

Stupas with Scriptures inside

Rows of stupas housing the Buddhist Scriptures

Mandalay Hill

Mandalay Hill is northeast of the city and rises 800 feet above the plain on which the city sits. Several temples are located on the hill and there are four covered stairways that lead up. Fortunately, there is also a road that my driver could use to get close to the Su Taung Pyai Pagoda. At the end of the road are an escalator and an elevator to get visitors up to the temple. The temple provides panoramic views of the city below and it is a very popular location for locals and tourists alike to witness the sunrise and the sunset.

Two chinthes guard the entrance to main covered stairway up Mandalay Hill

Two chinthes guard the covered stairway entrance

A tower on Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

A tower on Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Entrance to Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Entrance to Su Taung Pyai Pagoda

Monk chanting

Monk chanting

View North ? from Manadalay Hill

View west from Mandalay Hill

View North ? from Manadalay Hill

View of Mandalay Jail (semi-circular complex)

Maha Myat Muni Pagoda

The Maha Myat Muni Pagoda was built in 1784 and it is the holiest pilgrimage site for Buddhists in Mandalay. The pagoda houses the Maha Muni (“The Great Sage”) Buddha image that weighs 6.5 tons and that is adorned with diamonds, rubies and sapphires. The story is that the statue was cast in 554 B.C.E. when Gautama Buddha visited Dhanyawadi, the capital city of Arakan, an area in northwestern Myanmar near the border with India. The king and affluent noblemen donated gold and silver for the image, and seven drops of sweat from Buddha were added to the molten metal before casting.

Male (not female) worshipers can apply gold leaf to the nearly 13 foot tall image to gain merit. Over the years, however, so much leaf — up to 6 inches by some estimates — has been added that the original shape is very distorted.

Exterior of Maha Myat Muni Pagoda

Exterior of Maha Myat Muni Pagoda

Interior columns

Interior columns

Decorative archway

Decorative archway

Pavillion

Pavillion

The head of the Maha Muni Buddha image

The head of the Maha Muni Buddha image

Worshipers applying gold leaf to the Buddha statue

Worshipers applying gold leaf to the Buddha statue

Children dressed for a religious ceremony  with their parents

Children dressed for a religious ceremony with their parents

U Bein Bridge at Amarapura

Amarapura, which means “City of Immortality”, was the capital of Myanmar from 1783 to 1821 and again from 1842 to 1857. At the end of the Second Anglo-Burmese War, the new king, Mindon Min, moved the royal capital about 8 miles north to Mandalay. Short of funds after the war, the king had little choice but to dismantle the palace at Amarapura and transport the materials to Mandalay where they were used in the construction of the Mandalay Palace. Even the city walls were taken down for re-use.

The primary reason to visit Amarapura is to see the U Bein Bridge. The bridge was built between 1849 and 1851 by U Bein, the mayor of Amarapura, with wood that had once been part of the Royal Palace at Inwa. Inwa, the capital of the Ava Kingdom, was destroyed by earthquakes in 1839 and this lead to the relocation of the royal capital back to Amarapura. The three-quarter mile long bridge spans Taung Tha Man Lake in an east-west direction, and it is reputedly the oldest and longest teak bridge in the world.

The bridge was designed with a curved shape to be more resistant to pressure from both wind and water. 1089 teak posts support the 482 bridge spans, two wooden approach bridges, and four wooden pavilions along the bridge. To insure stability, these posts were hammered seven feet deep into the lake bed. In order to accommodate large boats and barges, the floor can be lifted at nine places along the bridge to allow them to pass.

When I visited, the bridge was about 15 to 20 feet above the lake water. In the rainy season, the water will rise markedly but will not submerge the bridge.

For 165 years, locals have used this bridge since it is such a huge short cut for them (see map below). There is some concern, however, about the strength and structural integrity of some of the aging teak support posts. Various governmental agencies are coordinating plans to repair and stabilize the bridge; for the sake of the local citizens, I sure hope that their government is more responsive (and responsible) than ours!

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A portion of the U Bein bridge including two pavilions

 Sagaing

Sagaing is located about 15 miles southwest of Mandalay on the opposite bank of the Aye Yar Wady River. Sagaing was the royal capital from 1760 to 1763 but it known more for the large number of pagodas and monasteries in the nearby hills. We visited the U Min Thonze “Thirty Caves” Pagoda and the Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda.

The main hall at U Min Thonze is located in a cave on the side of Sagaing Hill, and a crescent-shaped colonnade contains 45 Buddha statues. While the initial impression is that the Buddha images are identical, a more careful examination shows that each statue is unique. The easy ones to spot are those whose size is different but even the similar-sized ones have some differences, e.g., facial expressions.

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View from outside looking in

Line of Buddha images at U Min Thonze

Line of Buddha images at U Min Thonze

Several of the Buddha statues

Several of the Buddha statues

Exterior of colonnade at U Min Thonze

Exterior of colonnade at U Min Thonze

The Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda is a short drive from U Min Thonze. The views from the top of the hill are spectacular. As with Mandalay Hill, there are covered walkways for those who travel on foot. Very few locals have cars and while motorcycles are slightly more common, most people appear to get around by bus, by bicycle, or on foot.

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Soon U Ponya Shin Pagoda

Panoramic view from the terrace of Soon U Ponya Shin

Panoramic view from the terrace of Soon U Ponya Shin

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Note the covered walkway up the 800 foot tall Sagaing Hill

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Buddha image in the pagoda

I flew back to Don Mueang from Mandalay around noon on the 31st. I was able to meet up with friends for a New Year’s celebration that evening and I stayed in Thailand until I flew back to the U.S. on January 6th.

 A very belated Happy New Year to all!

Chei-zu tin-bar-te and Kop Khun Krab

© 2015 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.

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905 Days

My two and one-half years in Thailand will end this Thursday morning when I leave Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport for a 25+ hour journey to Nashville. As anyone who reads this blog can tell, I have had a marvelous time in the Kingdom and on my travels throughout South East Asia.

  • I have visited 42 of Thailand’s 77 provinces mostly on business, but I have also vacationed in five of them — Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai in the north and the seaside cities of Phuket, Ko Samui, and Krabi — and had day trips to several others.
  • I have traveled to nine other countries in the region — China, Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam (2x), Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore (2x), Brunei and, most recently, Australia. While I regret not making it to Myanmar (Burma), this just gives me another good reason, if I really need one, to return to this corner of the world.
  • I have accompanied my customers on two trips to five European nations — Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, and Hungary — and I have taken two trips back to the U.S..
  • I have spent time with eight sets of visitors from the states, several who were friends or relatives of friends. I have fond memories of all since I enjoyed sharing travel stories and experiences with them.
  • Of the more than 24,000 photographs that I have taken during the past thirty months, I have posted what I think are the absolute best ones in this blog. In case you are wondering, this is my 127th posting.

Blue Mountains

On my last full day in Australia, I took a Gray Line tour out to the Blue Mountains, a mountain range whose foothills begin about 40 miles west of downtown Sydney. The day trip began with the bus crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The bus’ first stop was at the Featherdale Wildlife Park in what was once a farming community but that is now part of suburban Sydney. The tour continued to Echo Point, which provided fabulous views of the Three Sisters rock formation, and then on to Scenic World. The day ended with a boat cruise on the Parramatta River back to Sydney Harbour from the site of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Park Wharf.

The Blue Mountains take their name from the haze, a result of dust and dirt particles within the atmosphere interacting with ultraviolet radiation from the sun, that gives the range a bluish tint. The area was named as a World Heritage Area by UNESCO in 2000.

Blue Mountains

Blue Mountains

The Three Sisters, a rock formation formed by erosion, towers above the Jamison Valley and is one of the area’s major attractions. The legend is that three sisters — Meehni, Wimlah, and Gunnedoo — were turned to stone by their father or a tribal elder to protect them. However, the person who cast the spell was killed and no one else was able to reverse it.

The Three Sisters

The Three Sisters from Echo Point

The highlight of the trip was Scenic World, a recreation area with a funicular railway, a cableway, a skyway gondola, and several adventure walks. Visitors can travel into and out of the Jamison valley via the railway or cable way. The gondola carries passengers between two of the mountain peaks and provides a fabulous view of Katoomba Falls along the way. The views throughout the park were spectacular.

Skyway Gondola

Skyway Gondola

Funicular Railway

Boarding the Funicular Railway

Katoomba Falls

Katoomba Falls from Skyway Gondola

Funicular Railway Track

Funicular Railway Track

Walkway in Jamison Valley

Walkway in the Jamison Valley

Cableway out of the  Jamison Valley

Cableway out of the Jamison Valley

Cruise on the Parramatta River back to Sydney

Cruise on the Parramatta River back to Sydney

Manly

Manly is a suburb of Sydney and a tourist destination. It is a short walk from the ferry terminal at Manly Wharf through The Corso (the downtown commercial and business district) to Manly Beach on the Pacific Ocean. Numerous restaurants, bars, and cafés line the waterfront. Even in the Australian winter, dozens of surfers, most but not all in wetsuits, were patiently waiting for a good wave.

Manly Wharf

Manly Wharf

The Corso in Manly

The Corso in Manly

Trying to catch a wave

Trying to catch a wave

Finishing his ride

Finishing his ride

Happy Labor Day!

Kop Khun Krab

© 2013 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.

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Sydney

In 1770, Captain James Cook became the first European to set foot on the Australian continent at what is now Sydney. Eighteen years later, eleven British ships arrived at Botany Bay to establish the first British settlement and penal colony in Australia.

Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, is arguably the most well-known city in Australia. With nearly 5 million people, it is the nation’s largest city and its airport is the country’s key international hub. Sydney, however, is perhaps best known for its iconic Opera House and the nearby Harbour Bridge.

For a large city with towering skyscrapers, Sydney has lots of parks and green space including Hyde Park, the Royal Botanical Garden, and The Domain, a park that dates back to the city’s founding. The Parramatta River flows into Sydney Harbour and a large fleet of ferries provide frequent and inexpensive travel to 40 destinations.

I found it easy to get around in Sydney; I walked throughout the central business district and to the waterfront and I used trains and ferries to travel to more distant locations, including to and from the airport and out to Manly. My self-directed, multi-day walking tour took me through the parks (points A, B, and C on the map below), to the Opera House (D), and then out to the waterfront (E, F, and G).

Parks

The Royal Botanic Garden, The Domain, and Hyde Park are a chain of parks that stretch from the Opera House south into Sydney’s Central Business District. Collectively these parks provide 200 acres of green space; at 40 acres, the rectangular Hyde Park is the smallest of the three.

At the southern end of Hyde Park is the ANZAC War Memorial (point A on map above), a monument to the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps who fought in World War I including at the Battle of Gallipoli. Completed in 1934, the Art Deco building is clad in pink-toned granite with a white marble interior. On the 85 foot tall domed ceiling are 120,000 gold stars, one for each of the troops. Below the dome is a sculpture representing a dead soldier lying on top of his sword and shield that are held aloft by his mother, his wife, and his sister.

ANZAC War Memorial

ANZAC War Memorial

 Rayner Hoff's bronze sculpture

Rayner Hoff’s bronze sculpture Sacrifice

Domed Ceiling

Domed Ceiling

Close up of stars on ceiling

Close up of stars on ceiling

There are several statues in Hyde Park including one of Captain Cook. The Archibald Fountain, which commemorates Australia’s alliance with France in WWI, sits at the northern end of the park. Apollo, the son of Zeus and god of light, truth and the arts, stands on a pedestal in the middle of the fountain; on his right is Diana, goddess of the hunt; on his left is Theseus, founder of Athens and slayer of the Minotaur.

Captain James Cook

Captain James Cook

Archibald Fountain

Archibald Fountain

St. Mary’s Cathedral (point B on map above), the seat of the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, sits between Hyde Park and The Domain. Constructed of a golden sandstone sourced locally, the 350 foot long Gothic structure has twin towers in the front and a large bell tower above the intersection of the nave and transepts.

Entrance to St. Mary's

Front entrance to St. Mary’s

St. Mary's Cathedral

St. Mary’s Cathedral

Immediately north of St. Mary’s is The Domain, a large park that initially served as a buffer between the governor’s residence and the penal colony. At 84 acres, it is the largest of the three parks. The Sydney Mint, Sydney Hospital, Parliament House, and State Library are on the western border of The Domain; the Art Gallery of New South Wales (point C on map above) is located within The Domain on its eastern edge.

State Library

State Library

Parliament House

Parliament House

Sydney Hospital

Sydney Hospital

Art Gallery of New South Wales

Art Gallery of New South Wales

The Art Gallery was established in 1880 but most of the collection burned in the Garden Palace Fire in 1882. The current Neo-Classical building was opened in 1897 and today it houses a collection of 30,000 items, about half by Australian artists. To the left and right of the museum’s main entrance are two sculptures of horsemen created by Gilbert Bayes in 1923 entitled Offerings of Peace and Offerings of War.

Gilbert Bayes' Offerings of Peace

Gilbert Bayes’ Offerings of Peace

Gilbert Bayes' Offerings of War

Gilbert Bayes’ Offerings of War

The Royal Botanic Gardens is the oldest botanic garden and scientific institution in Australia. As can be seen on the map below, the gardens are surrounded by The Domain on the east, south, and west sides and by Sydney Harbour on the north. Signs throughout the gardens encourage visitors to “Please Walk on the Grass”; pets, however, are not permitted. About 30 sculptures and memorials have been erected on 74 acre site.

The Domain and Royal Botanic Gardens

The Domain and Royal Botanic Gardens

An entrance to the Royal Botanical Gardens

Royal Botanical Gardens Gate

Memorial to the poet Henry Kendall

Memorial to the Australian poet Henry Kendall

Sculpture in the  Royal Botanical Gardens

Sculpture in the Royal Botanical Gardens

Monument in the  Royal Botanical Gardens

Monument in the Royal Botanical Gardens

Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge from the  Royal Botanical Gardens

Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge from the Royal Botanical Gardens

Sydney Opera House

The Sydney Opera House (point D on map above) must be among the most readily recognized and most photographed sites in the world. I know that I have probably 100 pictures of it including close-up shots, pics from the ferry boats, and photos from across Darling Harbor. The Opera House was conceived in the early 1950s and an international design competition was announced in 1955. In 1957, the design from Jørn Utzon, a Danish architect, was chosen from the more than 200 entries. The government’s initial estimate was that the Opera House would cost $7 million and take six years to build; it should surprise no one that these estimates were wildly of the mark. The project ultimately cost $102 million and took 16 years to complete. (Far be it from me to draw the likely parallels with Obamacare!)

The roof sails posed the biggest construction problem since no one knew the best way to make them. Ultimately, Utzon and his team found the solution: to cast all fourteen sections from a sphere of 75.2 meters in radius. This meant that the exterior shells would have a uniform curvature and, more importantly, arches of various length could be fabricated on the construction site from one common mold. The sails are covered with over one million white and cream color tiles that are cleaned solely by the rain; only 40 to 50 tiles need replacement each year.

The facility houses seven performance venues: the Concert Hall with nearly 2,700 sets, a 10,000 pipe organ, and home of the Sydney Symphony; the 1,500 seat Joan Sutherland Theatre home to Opera Australia and the Australian Ballet; and the smaller Drama Theatre, the Playhouse (formerly a cinema), the Studio (formerly a library), and the Utzon Room; and the open-air Forecourt. The complex has five rehearsal halls, four restaurants, six bars as well as about 1,000 offices.

From outbound Manly Ferry

From the outbound Manly Ferry

From inbound Manly Ferry

From the inbound Manly Ferry

One sail

One sail

White and cream tiles on sail

White and cream tiles on a sail

Interior lobby

Interior lobby

Interior stairway

Interior stairway

Circular Quay, The Rocks, and Darling Harbour

These three areas are located on the waterfront just north and west of Sydney’s central business district. Residents and tourists alike flock to the bars, restaurants, museums, and other recreational venues located here. I had dinner al fresco at one of the many restaurants along the waterfront every evening. While the temperatures were a bit cool, the restaurants all had portable gas heaters to take the chill out of the air.

The city’s main ferry terminal is at Circular Quay (point E on map above) although some ferries also serve Darling Harbour (point G). The Rocks (point F) was one of the first settlements in Sydney, but as home to many sailors, it was a pretty rough area. Between 1900, when there was an outbreak of bubonic plague, and World War II, many of the original building were demolished. From the mid-1970s, the area began to be gentrified. Today, it is a prime tourist destination not only because of the historic buildings but also because of its proximity to the Harbour Bridge and Circular Quay.

The Rocks Hotel

The Rocks Hotel

A restaurant in The Rocks

A restaurant in The Rocks

Tribute to early settlers

Tribute to early settlers

Historic Buildings

Historic Buildings

Bridge Climbers

Bridge Climbers

The Harbour Bridge

The Harbour Bridge

A Sydney Ferry

A Sydney Ferry

Approaching Circular Quay

Approaching Circular Quay

Kop Khun Krab

© 2013 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.

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Fremantle, WA

In 1829, Fremantle became the first British settlement in Western Australia. Situated at the mouth of the Swan River on the Indian Ocean, the city of 25,000 is twelve miles downriver from Perth. The city’s main attraction is the historic Fremantle Prison, which UNESCO named a World Heritage site in 2010. After 136 continuous years as a prison, the state decommissioned the maximum security facility in 1991. Public tours began in 1992 and I took one during my recent trip to Australia.

As a solution to overcrowding in British jails, the authorities sent convicts in the later stage of their sentences to Australia to help construct the Swan River Colony’s infrastructure. The first ship with convicts, guards, and their families docked at Fremantle in 1850. From 1852 to 1859, the convicts built their own prison on a ridge above the town using limestone quarried on site. Beginning in 1855, the convicts lived in the completed cell blocks while they finished the rest of the prison. Through 1868, 37 ships with over 9,500 convicts landed at Fremantle.

Gatehouse to Fremantle Prison

Gatehouse to Fremantle Prison

Chapel on left and entry to cell block

Chapel on left and entry to cell block

The inmates’ cells were incredibly small — just 4 feet wide by 7 feet long — and were lit by oil lamps. Each cell was furnished with a hammock, a stool, and a fold-down table. While water was collected in large tanks and supplied to basins in the cells, the cells did not contain toilets. Instead, the inmates had a bucket to use during the night that they emptied when the cells were unlocked in the morning. Each prisoner was allotted three, five-minute showers per week.

Cell circa 1860

Cell as originally configured

Guide with toilet bucket

Guide with toilet bucket

The cells evolved over time to address problems and changes in technology. Bug infestation was a problem from the beginning since the limestone walls provided a home for pests, so the walls were soon covered with a lime wash to remedy this issue. Poor plumbing led to puddles in which insects bred, so the wash basins were removed in the early 1860s. Later in that decade, kerosene lamps replaced the oil lamps.

In 1899, a Royal Commission recommended an increase in the size of the cells, thus walls were removed to double the size of the remaining cells. At this time, the built-in tables were replaced with free-standing tables and cupboards. Electricity was installed in 1907. It wasn’t until the 1950s that beds replaced the hammocks, and bunk beds were introduced in the 1960s.

Cell circa 1870

Cell circa 1870

Cell circa 1900

Cell circa 1900

The prison’s weekday schedule was:

  • 6:45 a.m.: Wake-up bell
  • 7:00 a.m.: Cells unlocked, prisoners can wash in outdoor yards then return to cells
  • 7:00 to 8:00 a.m.: Roll call, muster, then breakfast in cells
  • 8:30 to 11:25 a.m.: Work
  • 12 noon: Roll call, muster, then lunch in outdoor yards
  • 1:00 to 3:45 p.m.: Work
  • 4:15 p.m.: Roll call, muster, tea, then lock-up
  • 11:15 p.m.: Lights out

The weekend and holiday schedule began one hour later and did not include work details.

The prison had a whipping post where a miscreant would typically receive 25 lashes on his bare back from a cat o’ nine tails. According to my tour guide, the skin would break by the third lash and the doctor would typically stop the punishment by the 17th. At that point, the convict would be taken to the prison hospital where salt would be rubbed into his back, which increased the pain but also served as a cauterizing agent and anti-septic. Once the convict had healed, he was taken back to the post for the remainder of his lashes. The guide explained that the common sayings: “don’t let the cat out of the bag”, “not enough room to swing a cat”, and “cat got your tongue” all referred to the cat o’ nine tails. From 1888 until 1984, Western Australia’s only legal place for execution was the Fremantle Prison’s gallows.

Whipping post

Whipping post

Gallows

Gallows

After touring the decommissioned prison, I had a few hours to wander about the town before my return boat ride to Perth. The town has a variety of well-preserved buildings, many with ornate facades, that date back to the mid-to-late 19th century.

Fremantle Town Hall

Fremantle Town Hall, opened in 1887

Side view of Town Hall

Side view of Town Hall

Fremantle's High Street

Fremantle’s High Street

Ornate. limestone building

Ornate, limestone building

P&O (Peninsular & Oriental) Building

P&O (Peninsular & Oriental) Building

Former P&O Hotel

Former P&O Hotel

I was impressed by a Ford Falcon Rip Curl that I spotted on the streets. This blue specimen is powered by a 5.4 liter V8 that puts out 350 horsepower and 369 lb.-ft. of torque. I have always been enchanted by the Ford Ranchero and Chevy El Camino and I really don’t know why they are no longer sold in the U.S. I think Ford would have a hit on its hands if it could adapt this Falcon to sell in the states, but perhaps there are not enough people like me that would be interested in having one.

Ford Falcoln, Ripcurl

Ford Falcon, Rip Curl

An ecoPOP

An ecoPOP

I also came across something called an ecoPOP. This contraption takes up a full parking space; in its containers, fruit, vegetables, and herbs are planted for anyone to pick and eat; rainwater is captured and stored to irrigate the plants; and a solar collector powers the pump that irrigates the plants. I expect that these will soon be found in Cambridge and San Francisco, but probably not in Texas, at least anywhere outside of Austin.

On my way to the Fishing Boat Harbor, I stumbled upon a Ferris wheel from which I was able to get a fabulous view of the waterfront. I had an obligatory lunch of fish and chips at one of the harbor side restaurant before I continued my trek.

Statue of two Australian Rules Football players

Australian Rules Football players

Home field for the South Fremantle Football Club

Home field for the South Fremantle Football Club

Fishing Boat Harbor

Fishing Boat Harbor

Ferris Wheel

Ferris Wheel

After a filling lunch, I walked along the waterfront where I came to Arthur’s Head, the first landing-place for the settlers of the Swan River Colony in May 1829. During 1830 and 1831, the settlers built the Round House, the first permanent building and the Colony’s first jail. The twelve-sided structure contained eight cells, which could each hold up to four people, and living quarters for the jailers. A court was added in 1835 and the Round House was used as a police lock-up until 1900.

Defensive cannon at the Round House

Defensive cannon at the Round House

The Round House Entrance

The Round House Entrance

Unloading a container ship

Unloading a container ship

Maritime Museum of W.A.

Maritime Museum of W.A.

Soi Ban Baat, Bangkok

Yesterday, I took a short trip to Soi Ban Baat (point B on map below), a small alley in which several families hand craft monk’s bowls. Every morning, Buddhist monks walk the streets of Thailand with their bowls into which people put alms, e.g., incense, candles, money, food, and other necessities. In the late 1700s, King Rama I established three village to make monk’s bowls; Soi Ban Baht is the only one that remains since most bowls are now produced in factories that can make them quicker and cheaper.

A hand-made monk’s bowl is made from eight pieces of steel that are joined together. The eight pieces symbolize the Buddha’s Eightfold Path that leads to the end of suffering and the achievement of enlightenment. The joints are brazed together with copper, the bowl is then hammered into shape, and it is ultimately coated with several layers of lacquer. Because they are handmade, each bowl is unique.

Craftsman starting a small bowl

Craftsman starting a small bowl

Craftsman brazing steel pieces together

Brazing steel pieces together

Craftswoman hammering bowl

Craftswoman hammering bowl

Partially finished bowls

Partially finished bowls

Finished bowls of Khun Somsak

Large finished bowls from Khun Somsak

Finished bowls from Khun Aree

Smaller finished bowls from Khun Aree

Kop Khun Krab

© 2013 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.

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At the Zoo

It has been at least six or seven years since I last visited a zoo, but a visit seemed called for since I wanted to see native Australian animals. The Perth Zoo is just a short walk away from the ferry pier in South Perth, which itself is just a short boat ride from downtown Perth.

The Perth Zoo has over 1,000 animals from around the world, but I spent most of my time in the Australian Bushwalk portion of the park. Here I saw the native Emus and Cassowaries; Kangaroos and Wallabies; Numbats and Wombats; Quokkas and Echidna; Koalas and Dingos; and Little Penguins and Tasmanian Devils. Until I visited, I had never heard of numbats, quokkas, or echidna, but I don’t feel too bad because apparently neither has the spellchecker that I use in this blog!

Emus and Cassowaries are large flightless birds that can reach up to six feet tall and weigh as much as 130 pounds. While both birds are in the same family, I think that the cassowary is more attractive with its bright blue head. Both birds have three toes with sharp claws that they use for defense, both can run up to 30 mph, and both can swim.

Emu at Perth Zoo

Emu

Cassowary at Perth Zoo

Cassowary

Kangaroos and Wallabies are marsupials that look quite similar to each other. Wallabies are smaller than kangaroos; wallabies have pointed ears (more like a deer) while kangaroos have more rounded ears (more like a rabbit); wallabies’ coats have two or three colors while kangaroo’s have one; Wallabies have shorter, more compact arms and legs while kangaroos have longer ones. Unlike most animals that are kept apart from the visitors, both the kangaroos and wallabies wandered freely among the guests in the Australian section of the zoo.

Kangaroo

Kangaroo

Wallaby

Wallaby

Numbats and Wombats are marsupials with sharp claws that live in burrows and, of course, they have similar sounding names. The similarities, however, end there. Wombats are herbivores; they are two to three feet long and weigh between 40 and 75 pounds. Numbats are insectivores who dine exclusively on termites, as many as 20,000 per day; they are twelve to eighteen inches long and weigh less than two pounds. The wombat’s pouch faces backward so its young do not get covered with dirt when the female burrows into the earth.

Both animals use their backside to block entry into their homes by predators. The wombat has a very small tail and its rear is mostly cartilage so that it is difficult for predators — dingos and Tasmanian devils — to bite them when they are in their tunnels. The wombat can also use its hard rump to crush attackers against the walls of its tunnel. The numbat has a striped body and a very long tail but with very thick hide along its backside for protection.

Wombat

Wombat

Numbat

Numbat

Quokkas are herbivorous marsupials found only in southwest Australia. They grow to a length of between one and a half and three feet and a weight of between six to 12 pounds. Like kangaroos and wallabies, they have a pouch for their young. While they look a bit like very small kangaroos, they are able to climb trees.

Echidna are small mammals with a coarse, spiny coat that helps protect them against predators. The echidna uses its long, sticky tongue to gather the ants and termites that it eats. The echidna is known as a monotreme, which is a mammal that lays eggs; the platypus is the only other egg-laying mammal alive today. Three weeks after mating, the female echidna lays a leathery egg that it places in its pouch. The baby hatches after 10 days, but remains in the pouch for six to eight weeks while it matures.

Quokka

Quokka

Echidna

Echidna

Koalas are also herbivorous marsupials that grow to two to three feet in length and weigh between 10 and 30 pounds. Koalas are like teenagers — they are typically asocial and they sleep 17 to 20 hours a day! Their sedentary lifestyle is the result of a eucalyptus leaf diet that is very low in nutritional value.

The dingo is the largest predator in Australia preying on rabbits, kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, geese, and rodents, but also livestock, primarily calves, sheep, and goats. Dingos kill by biting at the throat of their prey. Highly social animals that live in packs in well-defined territories, they will hunt large animals with coordinated attacks. Typically just the alpha male and female breed each year producing litters of five to ten pups. If subordinate females get pregnant, their off-spring are usually killed by the alpha pair. The dingo can grow to be two feet tall, five feet in length, and weigh up to 50 pounds.

Koala

Koala

DIngo

Dingo

Little penguins — and that is their name — are, not surprisingly, the smallest species of penguin, weighing around 3 pounds and standing about one foot tall. They are found on the southern coast of Australia and all around New Zealand. The ones in the zoo seemed to enjoy swimming in the current in their enclosure.

Tasmanian devils are carnivorous marsupials that both hunt prey and eat carrion, typically during the night. Its head and body can reach two feet in length and its tail can add another foot to its overall length. They, too, seemly aptly named with their black fur, loud screeching, sharp bite, and unpleasant odor. The Tasmanian devil went extinct on the Australian mainland about 3,000 years ago, most likely because of dingos, and today it only exists on the island state of Tasmania.

Little penguin

Little Penguin

Tasmanian Devil

Tasmanian Devil

While the major reason for my trip to the zoo was to see the native animals, the zoo also had an impressive collection of animals from around the world including lions, tigers, rhinoceros, zebras, giraffes, and a huge crocodile. Some of the orangutans were very active, swinging on ropes and carrying on; the one down pictured below, however, wanted nothing to do with his younger, more active counterparts. Many days, I think I know just how he feels.

Crocodile

Crocodile

Tiger

Tiger

Orangutan

Orangutan

Galapagos Tortoise

Galapagos Tortoise

Giraffe

Giraffe

Baboon

Baboon

Cheetah

Cheetah

Rhinoceros

Rhinoceros

Black-Necked Stork

Black-Necked Stork

Blue-Billed Duck

Blue-Billed Duck

Tree Kangaroos

Tree Kangaroos

Pelicans

Pelicans

Next stop: Nashville

If you have not yet heard, my time in Bangkok will end several months earlier than initially planned. I will be heading back to the U.S. on September 5th, and I will be relocating to Nashville. Another adventure awaits!

Kop Khun Krab

© 2013 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.

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Perth

Two weeks ago yesterday, I flew from Bangkok (point A on map below) across the equator to Perth (B) for an eight-day vacation in Australia. Perth is 3,300 miles south of Bangkok, about a six-hour flight. On the following Wednesday, I took a four-hour flight 2,000 miles across the continent to Sydney (C) where I spent the remainder of the week before returning to Bangkok last Sunday. Because of the trip, I did not write a blog for the past two weeks, but I now have lots of pictures and stories to share over the next few weeks.

Founded in 1829, Perth is a young city but one that clearly respects its relatively short history. Because of the mineral wealth in Western Australia — gold, iron ore, petroleum and natural gas — the population and economy of Perth have boomed. While cranes litter the skyline, the new towering skyscrapers are built in a way that preserves and even highlights the smaller historical structures. Often a new building is built above but slightly behind the older one so that the street-level view is essentially unchanged while needed retail and office space is provided to accommodate the growing city. There are many re-purposed older buildings throughout downtown.

New office over former bank, now a Canali store

New office over and behind an old bank, now a Canali store

New office over an older building, now a Hugo Boss store

New office over and behind an older building, now a Hugo Boss store

A former chemist, now a restaurant

A former chemist, now a restaurant

Old entrance on new district court

Old entrance on the new district court

Re-purposed new offices

Re-purposed new offices

The Melbourne Hotel in Perth

The Melbourne Hotel in Perth

St. George's Cathedral

St. George’s Cathedral

Wesley Church

Wesley Church

His Majesty's Theatre

His Majesty’s Theatre

Display at Jean-Pierre Sancho Boulangerie Patisserie

Jean-Pierre Sancho Boulangerie Patisserie

With a population of nearly two million, Perth is the largest city of the state of Western Australia as well as its capital. It is reputed to be the most expensive city in Australia, which is the third priciest country in the world according to the website Numbeo, a fact that I can affirm having paid US$10 for a beer, US$3.50 for a bottle of Diet Coke, and US$2.25 for a bottle of water. While the hotel’s US$35 breakfast buffet drove me away, I was delighted to find delicious croissants, pastries, and macaroons as well as fabulous coffee at the nearby Jean-Pierre Sancho bakery. To its credit, the city does provide free bus service throughout the central business district including service to Kings Park, one of the true gems of the area.

About one mile from downtown Perth, the one thousand acre park sits on a bluff, known as Mount Eliza, above the Swan River. Established in 1872 as Perth Park, it was renamed Kings Park in 1901 in honor of England’s King Edward VII. While the park contains a large botanic garden with many walking paths through it, the majority of the park is bushland (forest) full of native plants, trees, and bird species. The views back to Perth and of the confluence of the Canning and Swan Rivers are simply spectacular.

Perth from Kings Park

Perth from Kings Park

The Swan River from Kings Park

The Swan River from Kings Park

There are several monuments to Australia’s war dead throughout the park. The State War Memorial Cenotaph was built in 1929 to honor those who gave their lives in the Great War. A 60-foot tall obelisk stands near the edge of the escarpment overlooking the Swan River and downtown Perth. Beneath the monument is a crypt in which the names of all Australians who died in World War I are listed. Subsequent plaques have been added with the names of those who perished in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Across from the Centopah is The Court of Contemplation that lists the major battlefields on which Australians fought and died. In the middle of the court is a reflecting pool with an eternal flame that burns in remembrance of the war dead.

Obelisk on State War Memorial

Obelisk on State War Memorial

Crypt beneath State War Memorial

Crypt beneath State War Memorial

The eternal flame in the Court of Contemplation

The eternal flame in the Court of Contemplation

Looking from the Court of Contemplation to the  Centopah

The Court of Contemplation and the Centopah

The Botanic Garden claims to contain about 3,000 of the 12,000 species of plants that are found only in Western Australia and nowhere else on Earth. A winter visit means that few of the plants were in bloom, but the gardens were nevertheless quite impressive. The Lotterywest Federation Walkway is an elevated pathway through the treetops that provides spectacular views of the gardens and the rivers below. From the walkway, I could see the old Swan Brewery which was converted into 28 exclusive condos. A man-made water garden contains a fountain with a sculpture that honors Australia’s pioneer women, and a creek, reminiscent of what one would find in the Darling Mountains, flowing into several ponds.

Part of Lotterywest Federation Walkway

Part of Lotterywest Federation Walkway

Former Swan Brewery

Old Swan Brewery and shadow from walkway

Pioneer Womens' Memorial Water Fountain

Pioneer Women’s Memorial Water Fountain

Giant Boab

Giant Boab

The 270 foot tall Swan Bell Tower stands along the waterfront in Perth. The copper and glass tower houses eighteen bells including twelve from London’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church. The bells of St. Martin’s church have rung in the New Year for nearly 300 years; for over 600 years they have marked other momentous events, such as the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 by Lord Charles Howard and Sir Francis Drake; Admiral Horatio Nelson’s defeat of the French and Spanish Navies in 1805 in the Battle of Trafalgar; the end of World War II; and, more recently, the Islamic terrorist attacks on September 11th and at Bali. When St. Martin-in-the-Fields replaced its bells with newly cast ones in 1988, the historic bells, cast between 1725 and 1770, were given to Australia to celebrate its bicentennial. The Swan Tower built specifically for these bells was opened in December 2000.

Swan Bell Tower

Swan Bell Tower

Bells ringing in Swan Bell Tower

Bells ringing in Swan Bell Tower

View of Perth from Swan Bell Tower

View of Perth from Swan Bell Tower

The Supreme Court of Western Australia and the gardens surrounding it are near the Swan Bell Tower. The gardens provide green space in the downtown area and they are the site of Opera in the Park and Carols by Candlelight during Australia’s summer months.

Statue at entrance to Stirling Garden

Statue at entrance to Stirling Garden

Kangaroo Fountain

Kangaroo Fountain

Supreme Court of Western Australia

Supreme Court of Western Australia

Aboriginal Totem

Aboriginal Totem

The Perth Mint was founded as a branch of Britain’s Royal Mint in 1899 to refine the raw gold that was discovered in Western Australia during the gold rush of the 1880s and 1890s in Coolgardie, Kalgoorlie, and Murchison. Until 1931, the Mint turned the gold into sovereigns, nominally worth one pound sterling, for use throughout the British Empire. It also minted shillings, pennies, and half-pennies from base metals. During the 70 years that the Mint was under British control, it produced nearly 1.7 billion coins, 50% of which were two-cent pieces.

The Mint is now owned by the State of Western Australia and it produces gold, silver and platinum coins, all of which are Australian legal tender, for investors and collectors. The bullion value of the coins, however, is worth far more than their value as legal tender. Inside the building, where pictures are not allowed, is the world’s largest gold coin — 31 inches in diameter, 4.7 inches thick, and with a red kangaroo on the front and a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on the backside. Made of 2,330 pounds of 99.99% pure gold, the coin has a face value of AU$1 million but a current market value of almost US$50 million.

There is also a gold bar about the size of a house brick that visitors can try to lift through an opening in the display case; however, since it weighs 400 ounces (25 pounds), it is impossible to do so. The Normandy Nugget, a 40 million year old gold nugget found in a dry stream bed near Kalgoorlie in 1995, is also on display at the Mint. This specimen, the 26th largest nugget ever discovered, is 11 inches tall and 7 inches wide, weighs 56 pounds, and is 80 to 90 percent pure gold .

As part of the tour, the Mint provides a demonstration of pouring molten gold into a mold to make a gold bar. The gold is heated to over 1,600°C (2,900 °F), and after donning protective clothing, the metalworker uses a long metal pincer to remove the lead and clay vessel that contains the molten metal. The vessel is placed on a table so that the pincers can be repositioned around its circumference. The molten gold cools rapidly, which is why it was heated well-above its melting point of 1,064 °C (1,947 °F). The worker pours the gold into a form which is then plunged into water. The gold quickly hardens and the worker is able to hold the bar in his bare hands within a few minutes. After the demonstration, the solid bar is put back into the furnace to be melted for the next show. The Mint estimates that the same gold has been melted, poured, and hardened over 37,000 times.

Main entrance to Perth Mint

Main entrance to Perth Mint

Statue of two gold prospectors

Statue of two gold prospectors

Kop Khun Krab, Mate!

© 2013 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.

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No Pix

The rainy season has arrived in Bangkok. The skies are typically overcast, and on most days there is rain, usually in the late afternoon or early evening. With weather like this, I have not gotten out much during the past couple of weeks. However, I did purchase and download the latest season of Mad Men (SD since I am too cheap to pay the extra $12 for HD); I am about halfway through it. I have also bought several books from iTunes, and I find it a better buying experience than Amazon’s Kindle store. Anyway, here is a brief update of the past couple of weeks.

Nahm

On the 4th of July, I joined several of my wine-drinking friends for dinner at Nahm, a restaurant rated number 3 in Asia and 32 in the world by the UK’s Restaurant Magazine. David Thompson, the owner and executive chef, opened his original Nahm restaurant in London and it was awarded a one-star rating from Michelin. Two years ago, Thompson opened Nahm at the Metropolitan by Como Hotel in Bangkok, a five-minute walk from my apartment.

Our wine dinner at Nahm featured wines from Bellingham, a winery that has operated in South African since 1693. We started with the vineyard’s Pear Tree White, a delightful and fresh mix of Chenin Blanc and Viognier that is a fine everyday wine and particularly enjoyable in the hot summer months. The dinner’s featured wines were Bellingham’s Old Vine Chenin Blanc and a Small Barrel S. M. V. (Shiraz, Mourvèdre, and Viognier), both from the winery’s top of the line Bernard Series.

Nahm’s tasting menu began with smoked fish with peanut and tapioca dumplings; prawn and coconut wafers with pickled ginger; salted threadfin perch with ginger, chili, and mango on betel leaves; and fresh watermelon and mango served with toasted coconut. A freshwater crayfish salad with pork and Asian pennywort and a crab soup with egg and snake gourd (a vegetable) followed the appetizers. The main dishes were a Massaman curry with Wagyu beef and sweet potatoes, grilled river prawns with okra and baby corn, and a omelette with crab and bean sprouts. Two traditional Thai desserts — sweet Thai wafers with poached persimmons and golden duck egg noodles, a treat commonly found at street vendors, and pandanus noodles with water chestnuts, black sticky rice, tapioca, and coconut cream — finished out the meal.

Buona sera e buon appetito!

Il Bolognese is a small Italian restaurant near my apartment that I have patronized regularly since I arrived in Bangkok. The head chef, Andrea Bernardi, hails from Italy and he makes absolutely the best pizza in Bangkok in the restaurant’s wood-fired brick oven. Over the past two years, the restaurant’s clientele has grown steadily and it is currently rated number 11 of the 7,300+ restaurants in Bangkok by Trip Advisor. When I visited last Saturday, I was asked whether I had a reservation, an unheard of question even a few months ago. While I did not, Andrea knows me as a regular customer so he graciously arranged a table for me and my guest. One of the restaurant’s real treats is a glass (or two) of homemade Limoncello, straight from the freezer, at the end of each meal.

Football

Despite the time difference from Europe, most Thais are football aficionados. The fan base for the top teams in England’s Premier League is particularly devoted and passionate. As part of their pre-season exhibitions, Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool as well as Spanish League champion’s FC Barcelona, are all coming to South East Asia to play friendlies against local clubs or national teams. Each of the four clubs will play a match at Bangkok’s Rajamagala Stadium against either an All Star team or Thailand’s national team. Last night, a Thai All Star team defeated Manchester United by a score of 1-0 in front of a sell-out crowd of 50,000 people. The Thais are understandably ecstatic about the outcome, but I expect neither last year’s Premier League champions nor for the Reds’ new manager, David Moyes, share this joy. On Wednesday, Chelsea will play the same All Star team at Rajamagala.

Taxi Troubles

A 51-year-old American expat who worked for Caterpillar was killed by a Thai taxi driver on Saturday July 6. Apparently the two got into a dispute over a 51 baht (US$1.70) fare. As the disagreement escalated, the taxi driver got a 12-inch machete from the trunk of his cab and slashed the American. Since taxi fares start at 35 baht, it is very hard for me to understand why an expat would seriously dispute a 16 baht ($0.50) overcharge, particularly to this degree. While taxi drivers do not make much money here in Thailand, the overreaction by the driver that left this passenger dead is also incomprehensible. What a tragedy for all concerned.

Upcoming Travel

Next weekend, I will make a long anticipated trip to Australia. I fly to Perth on Saturday morning and I will visit Australia’s west coast through Tuesday. On Wednesday, I fly cross-country to Sydney where I will stay until Sunday when I head back to Bangkok. It is winter in the southern hemisphere and Perth and Sydney are in the southern (colder) part of the country. However, at 32 to 34 degrees southern latitude, these cities are as far below the equator as Dallas, San Diego, and Atlanta are above it. Thus, I am expecting refreshing cooler temperatures that reach the mid 60s during the day and fall into the low 40s at night.

Kop Khun Krab.

© 2013 Kurt Brown. All rights reserved.

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