Fraser’s Octemberfest 12

You think that's a stupa? This is a stupa. (Crocodile Dundee)

You think that’s a stupa? This is a stupa. (Crocodile Dundee)

October 27 2016

Because the number one attraction in Myanmar is looking at pagodas, temples and monasteries, the visitor quickly becomes overwhelmed by them.  Even as we glide down the Irrawaddy river, stupas arrive and fade along the banks, or sit like random gold jewellery cast into the low, green hills. When the schedule announced the platoon would visit to the Mya Tha Lun Pagoda in Magwe yesterday, the general reaction was ‘so what?’ An added disincentive was trishaw transport, where the seats would be too small for the average platoon member’s buttocks and the peddlers might expire trying to reach even walking speed. Moreover, if we did arrive at the base of this pagoda there were more than 100 steps plus intermittent slopes to be traversed in bare feet. The platoon, however, is toughening up. There was not one defector as we mounted our trishaws and the peddlers gritted their teeth.

Once at the temple compound, we de-shod and commenced the long climb, with the Kommendant stopping every so often to get his own breath while explaining something about the endless array of myths and merchandise we were passing, including local cures for superficial complaints, and a fortune teller for more serious life problems.

At the top we found a massive tiled terrace which looked out over the Irrawaddy River where the AIM was moored. I realised that this was not a river in the accepted sense, but a series of elongated, connected lakes. While the view was impressive enough, behind me stood the most magnificent, commanding stupa I had ever seen or imagined. Immensely tall, beautifully proportioned and perfectly maintained, it was covered in gold leaf, blazing defiantly back at the sun in the sinking afternoon light.

On the way back we stopped to look at chinloe, a game played in Myanmar and nearby Asian countries. Using a hollow cane ball, two teams must keep the ball from touching the ground while using only their feet to keep it moving. A variation is to put up a volleyball net and kick the cane ball over it into the opposing court. Before dinner that evening a famous cane ball foot juggler entertained the platoon on the pool deck with some remarkable acts of balance and foot-ball skills.

There was a man I hadn’t noticed before, standing by the toaster this morning. I could see by the way he was peering under it that he knew his hotel toasters. He introduced himself as Derek Breadchamber, hotel toaster critic for The New York Times. This was a great honour for me to meet him. I told him I’d read some of his books, the best known being: When Hotel Bread Becomes Toast: a Modern Miracle, now into its third edition. Derek has been invited to give a talk this afternoon and I won’t miss it. He agreed with me that the Burmaburner maritime model had the best surprise delivery system of all hotel toasters.

Another talk was given mid-morning by the Kommendant’s tour director colleague, Gareth. He outlined the process whereby a boy becomes a monk. Most remain novices until they turn at least 16, when they can be confirmed as monks. At that point they are expected to obey 227 rules which deny every pleasure I can think of, plus some I wasn’t even aware of, such as acknowledging flavour in food. What goes in the gob is for nutrition only. No saying yum-yum. At meal times the monks don’t talk or look at each other. They’re not allowed to sit in a comfortable chair or sleep in a reasonable bed, but instead retire to a mat on the floor. They renounce all worldly possessions. Upon acceptance into the monkhood they are issued with three dark red robes and a bowl for alms and food. While they may be given an umbrella and thongs, they are not supposed to use them. Rough ground and rain are good for spiritual well-being. If there is the choice of sun or shade they must stand in the burning sun. They must void peeing in long grass in case they drown an ant. They cannot be in a room alone with a woman, or sit next to a woman in a bus. Even ordinary people trying to faithfully follow Buddhism are denied many pleasures we take for granted in the west, like having it off with somebody at the office Christmas party. One of the few good things about passing years is that I’m too old to become a monk. I’m also too old for adventures at office Christmas parties.

Gareth said there were over 400 million Buddhist monks currently in the world. Then there are many other religious orders that have monks as part of their systems. Although some orders teach and do community work, the principle occupation of monks is studying teachings and praying – for which they are supported by their communities. Certainly in Myanmar they rely on donations of food for their two meals a day and I think it is the same in Thailand. Monks are undoubtedly good people, but one wonders at the validity of denouncing worldly goods and then relying for support on those who are working to attain those same goods.

Since, by default, we occupy one of the two AIM suites with large front balconies and other privileges such as free laundry and my bottle of Billecart, we decided to exercise our right to hold a private dinner party last night for four person. We gave our two guests, a fun couple from Wollongong, a choice of anything on the exotic menu, to which I added a bottle of champagne. What we all wanted, it turned out, was change – which manifested itself in four hamburgers. Adding to the down-to-earth evening was the place along the river chosen by the captain for an overnight stop. Of all the quaint villages and tree shaded sandy banks where we could have tied up, we found ourselves tethered overlooking a rubbish tip, with white plastic bags fluttering in the humid breeze. At a certain point in the drinking of champagne, rubbish tips, along with everything else, seem of little importance. We raised a glass to our fortunate lives, the place where we live and the era into which our birth landed us.

Friday 29 October

This is our last full day of moving serenely along the Irrawaddy River. I seems that the cruise is suffering from enough places of interest to visit. Away from the few big cities, this is still a primitive country and there are limits as to how much stimulation the platoon can expect from seeing more bamboo and thatch houses and more stupas, temples and monasteries. Mud also has a repetitive quality about it. Yesterday I forsook a buggy ride to a nine-hole golf course with a tin shed clubhouse of claimed historical importance in favour of another game of chess with Robert. This time I hung on to my queen and was doing quite well when Robert’s wife whisked him away on the golf course excursion. I sat staring at my promising position on the board when one of the crew, a dull looking lad who had been watching us from a respectable distance, offered to take Robert’s place and let me finish him off. Of course I accepted, my ego bristling for a boost. “I have played before,” the boy murmured as he made what looked like a mistake with a rook. Ten minutes later he’d mated me. My king glared up at me as I was putting him back in the box. “You should never lower yourself to play chess with the crew,” his majesty said.

Early in the morning we will be brought back to earth with a seven-hour bus trip to Yangon and another platoon will replace ours, the Kommendant will puff up and begin his introductions, the new platoon will ask silly questions and AIM will blow its horn and edge out into the river. We’ve had a good crowd on this voyage, but I get the feeling that we’ve seen enough to get a reasonably rounded impression of Myanmar. We’ve got two more days back in Yangon at the Shang where we’ll no doubt look at more pagodas and markets and temples – plus carbon monoxide and exciting traffic.

 

 

 

Fraser’s Octemberfest 11

Fraser’s Octemberfest 11

layla

One of the blights of exploring developing countries is the endless teams of vendors thrusting clothing and handicrafts under your nose when that’s not what you’ve come to see. But every now and again someone stands out from the vendor crowd – without trying to. Someone like Layla. We didn’t want her bangles but were taken with her vivid  personality, awareness and command of English. I was curious to know more about her. We passed her as we were preparing for another horse and buggy ride, this time around the township of Bagan. I told Layla that we would be back and that I wanted to speak with her. She replied, with a huge white smile, that she would be waiting. Peter Dawson sang ‘The Road to Mandalay’ in my head.

On our return, with the Artist’s Impression ready to sail, I sat down with Layla on a rough wooden bench and found out that she was 11 years old, had left school, but was obviously a good student because that’s where she learned her English. She was now a full time bangle vendor to help support her family. She had three sisters and one brother. Her father was a boat driver on the river and her mother looked after the family at home. They lived in a village not far from where we had docked. I asked her what she wanted to do with her life. Most 11 year olds just shrug their shoulders, but Layla immediately replied that she wanted to be a tour director. Time had run out and the AIM captain was eager to cast off. I had to leave Layla with so many questions unasked. I gave her some money and Michelle and I both want to find a way to help her to pursue her dream. She asked our names and, as our ship pulled out from the bank, called out, with perfect articulation, ‘goodbye Michelle and Fraser’. Layla is going to make it.

Between our two meetings with Layla, the program provided a highlight of our cruise. After a short bus ride we came to a waiting line of horse and buggies. Having done something similar recently I dreaded the experience ahead of hard wheels hitting potholes that change the location of ribs and backbones. We walked along the line, trying to select a horse that looked big enough and strong enough to pull along our combined weight plus that of the driver and the buggy. Because we were last to arrive at the line, we had no choice but to clamber into the last buggy, with a small horse – which we believed was now about to make its last trip. The driver, however, was reassuring: “small horse, yes, but strong horse. No problem with this horse. Guarantee good horse.”img_4224

If this were England, we would have been trotting down country lanes, with waving grassy fields and magic trees taken from children’s story books. The only difference was that dotted throughout this idyllic landscape were stupas, temples and monasteries – in their thousands. Nowhere else in the world would you see this. Once finished with a coating of plaster, these variously sized buildings now stand denuded in their brickwork – adding to their uniqueness in a world where religious buildings and monuments are invariably built of stone. It is worth mentioning that a number of the very old temples and monasteries in Myanmar are built in teak, and are quite susceptible to fire.

The captain of the AIM who, even with his official hat on, looks as though he’s been plucked prematurely out of high school, invited the platoon-curious for a wheelhouse tour. There is no wheel to be found in the wheelhouse, only two rotating handles that control the dual 600 horsepower diesel engines. Top speed is 12 knots when going with the current or four knots against. There is no rudder because the thrusts are directed for steering. The ship and its engines were made relatively recently in China – although one of my more cynical platoon colleagues thinks the AIM might be a refit because he found a grasshopper in his bathroom. Refits, he said knowingly, always leave gaps for bugs to get in.

The AIM is well equipped with radar, sonar and satellite navigation. Even then, it takes a local pilot aboard who knows sandbars and currents that may not show up on the electronics. There may be an element of superstition in this, too.

Many Asian countries produce lacquerware but, according the Kommendant, each does it in a different way. Burmese lacquerware begins with weaving bamboo or horse tail hair into the shape of the finished product and then coating it with layers of natural resins, after which it is rubbed back and painted either in tiny intricate patterns or gold leaf. Teams of workers, mostly women, sit cross-legged carrying out the various processes. The finished products are more than quaint handicrafts; they are important value added exports for Myanmar. Lacquerware factory workers must do three years training at a college before they are employed. From the asking prices of the huge range of bowls and other household items I’d say they should have been comparatively well paid.

Now in Salay the Kommendant took the puffing platoon on a walking tour of the village. It seemed peaceful and orderly, with muddy streets and bamboo houses, schools and a fire station. The fire engine stood ready to go in its shed. It had no ladders visible, but instead a water cannon mounted on the roof for more distant assaults on a fire, with a possible secondary function in crowd control. It was backed up on to a ramp so that, if the battery couldn’t get the engine going, a clutch start might.

imgp4889There was something mysterious about this town, too. Its grandest brick and plaster houses, built early in the 20th century by the British, were mostly abandoned and everybody I spoke to about this had a different opinion as to why. Some said the houses had ben holiday retreats for wealthy Brits from the big Burmese cities while the Kommendant suggested that they had been owned by locals who’d moved away looking for better business opportunities. What they agreed upon was that today they are worthless. They sit there, these fine examples of grand British city houses, being devoured by tropical rot, with nobody wanting to live in them. This is no village for real estate agents.

Grand old British style 1920s houses abandoned.

Grand old British style 1920s houses abandoned.

 

 

Fraser’s Octemberfest 10

Crew of the Artist's Impression carving mud steps into the hillside in the rain.

Crew of the Artist’s Impression carving mud steps into the hillside in the rain.

Sunday 23 October

Don’s back!

He and his wife reboarded up-river from Mandalay where he had been the week’s most exciting case in not just one, but two hospitals. The second hospital called in its leading professor of cardiology and assembled a team of students to see Don go through multiple examinations. It turns out that he had accidently overdosed on steroids, thus his malady was self-inflicted. While the professor was checking Don’s functions he found evidence of a previous heart attack. This pleased Don no end because now he has a new chapter to relate in his battle against bodily malfunction. He should have rubbed everything available at that previous temple with the magic statues from Cambodia. He is now doing the rounds again at meal times to bring everybody up to date.

This morning the cruise had scheduled an underwhelming visit to a Yandabo pottery factory – but that did not include a monsoon rain storm. Down it came, while the crew assembled its high-wire walkway to the sandy bank. Trouble was that we would have to clamber up the bank to begin our walk to the pottery factory. While the bottom was sand, most of the climb was over mud. The crew jumped overboard and cut steps into the mud, not the best option for sturdy building construction, I would have thought. The platoon, watching from the disembarkation point in the library, grew increasingly apprehensive. There were mutinous mutterings, resulting in a high percentage of defections. I wanted to brave the mud steps but Michelle threatened terrible retribution if I did, so I joined the mutineers, secretly hoping that some of the brave would come slithering down the slope and land in the river. None did, but the visit got a unanimous thumbs down when many of the foot soldiers, sopping and dirty, returned short of the target pottery factory.

Hotel toaster report

Once again Myanmar has produced a masterpiece in hotel toasters, aboard the Artist’s Impression, no less. When set up for breakfast, the dining room staff brings out its Burmaburner, maritime model. While this looks like your average feed in at the top and delivery at the bottom front tray, it is not. When I put in my three piece of nice rye bread, one came sliding into the front tray, a second dropped out the back while the third shot beneath the bread box. This is the most entertaining hotel toaster in my experience. The platoon members do not appreciate the novelty of ‘hunt the toast’. They get cranky when they put in their bread and no toast is forthcoming. They even blame the omelette chef for playing games, especially when he picks up their toast from the floor like a magician producing an object that everybody thought was somewhere else.

One of the problems, I suspect, is that there is no toast captain and the toaster is left to its own devices. It falls into the same category as our minibar fridge. Four refrigeration engineers appeared yesterday to remove our non-cooling bar fridge and fit a new one. This took quite a while with much debate among the engineers before they plugged it in. Now we have a fridge that then took a full day to go below room temperature but at least the free beer is drinkable.

I’ve got an inexplicable enthusiasm for palm sugar and was overjoyed when we clambered up the bank to visit a village specialising in the production of palm sugar liquor and palm sugar sweets. It is all made very much by hand. The palm flowers are boiled down to a caramel coloured syrup and peanut oil is added to bind it. The ladies of the village earn four dollars as day to produce what looks like caramel lollies. They handed them around to taste. Disappointingly, the peanut oil had won over the sugar. My plan to buy enough to bring home for a palm sugar party had to be abandoned.  Even though the platoon expressed joy at inspecting the village, there was little remarkable about pigs lying in mud, families of chickens, curious children and the occasional white cow. It has a water purification plant which is never used. The village prefers the light brown, cloudy stuff straight from the river. A platoon colleague tried to calculate how long we would survive if we had to eat and drink like the locals. He thought about a week. I agree. Having said all that, I’m sure these people live a far less stressed life than we do.

Monday 24 October at Bagan

Quite a large portion of the Platoon had booked for a dawn balloon ride above Bagan. It has become so popular that there are now too many balloons and the government is threatening to shut it down. It will probably take an accident to make that happen. Luckily, we didn’t partake. The brave balloonists assembled at 5 am in pelting rain, were taken by a clapped out bus to the flight field and promptly brought back again. They each paid the balloon company $330 in cash to go aloft and are now trying to get their money back.

Still in the rain, we visited Bagan’s biggest market – or was it a fly farm? Chicken, fish and meat were all in the open on the ground. The vegetables go black very quickly. Added to the soggy occasion was the fact that the market was half closed. In any case, we’d already visited a similar ‘locals’ market in Ava Inwa and seen the produce, including heaped buckets of rich green cow manure sold by the kilo and sitting between the carrots and cauliflower.

With the weather clearing up the platoon became cheerful, especially because the Kommendant had been temporarily replaced by a local tourist girl with better English and a plethora of interesting facts. However, as she stood up at the end of the bus using an old PA system, her words came out very distorted. For instance, she was talking to us about peanuts, but what we got was ‘there are three sizes of penis in Myanmar. Penis oil is good for cooking’. She also told us that Buddha had 40 teeth as opposed to her own excellent set of 32. While at a beautiful temple she pointed to the trees in the overgrown garden where there were several tear-drop shaped nets hanging from the branches. These had been made by male tailor birds. Once the boys have finished their work, the females decide which nest they like the most and its builder is rewarded with copulation, eggs and family life. Their forbears must have been students of human behaviour.

She hosted us through several temples, all old, falling apart and beautiful. Bagan is in an earthquake-prone region and many of the pagodas, temples and stupas have been destroyed or damaged by severe tremors. In the gardens where the tailor birds build their nests two of the stupas are tipping over because of shifting foundations. The locals have capitalised on this by putting up a sign claiming an affinity with the leaning tower of Pizza. I suggested to Robert, a Queensland solicitor travelling with us, that he could represent Italy in an action for misrepresentation against Myanmar. “We’d have a good case,” he said, “but who would I send the bill to?” Robert and I had not played chess for 30 years but we organised a challenge during one of the rainy afternoons. I was going well until I didn’t notice that he had a bishop sitting on my queen and while I was busy saving a pawn her majesty was marched off the board to a dungeon. Consequently, he won, but not until I’d given him a fright by nearly trapping his king with a knight and rook combination.

The platoon is made up of universally nice people. They are mostly retired, overweight, unfit and friendly. Vern, for instance, is a long retired aircraft refueller from the NSW Central Coast. He has a megaphone voice that you can identify in the crowd. He seems to attract vendors, and I often hear him sounding off: “No I don’t want it! The price has nothing to do with it. I just don’t want it! I don’t like it! I can’t tell you why I don’t like it and even if I did I wouldn’t pay the price you’re asking. No, I don’t want it at a cheaper price. Look, go away. I don’t want it for Chrissake!”

What I can’t fathom is how these people manage to pay for cruising. This is our first cruise (I’m not breaking my neck to go on another one) but most of the platoon members are cruise junkies. They sit down and compare cruise companies, destinations they’ve been to and where they’re going next. The retiree cruising market is huge and will only get bigger. Yet, with few exceptions, they are not wealthy crowd. In Don’s case, he does collection rounds of his kids, telling them, no doubt, that the next trip will probably be his last. Others are spending their super before their kids can get their hands on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fraser’s Octemberfest 9

 

The AIM look like a fat thong held down by a white brick.

The AIM looks like a fat thong held down by a white brick.

Thar she blows, the HMS Artist’s Impression, hereinafter known as AIM. Still virtually unmarked and unchipped, this was only her fourth voyage along the Irrawaddy River. The plan is to do 17 cruises a year. You can see Michelle reclining in our balcony on the top deck, left hand side. We occupy one of only two luxury suites on the ship. The reason we chose it was that the affordable cabins had sold out when we went to book and we had to move up and pay up if we wanted to see Myanmar before it becomes overrun with tourists worse than us. As soon at the word spread throughout the platoon that we were in a suite, we were labelled as deceptively wealthy, despite my protests that writing has a negative cash flow and Michelle works for a not-for-profit organisation that pays a barely-there salary.

The AIM has 22 cabins, meaning about 40 people. The Australian owner, Scenic Cruises, has Australianised it so that it takes our power plugs and supplies plenty of free beer. In fact, all the drinks are free unless you want get into exotic spirits and Champagnes. Our cabin has a bedroom, lounge, bathroom and private deck area right at the front. When we arrived, there was a bottle of Billecart Champagne waiting on the ice. Assuming there would be one every day I opened it and swigged away as I unpacked with decreasing efficiency. Consequently, I arrived drunk at dinner; not a good start, because I get overly friendly and a bit loud.

The AIM makes quite a song and dance about its facilities, but they turn out to be like looking through the wrong end of the telescope. For instance, when I peered in through the glass doors of the fitness centre, it looked spacious, with many machines, but when I actually stepped inside I found thousands of machines and thousands of Frasers because the three walls were mirrors. There were actually three just-okay machines and one not-okay Fraser.

Speaking of not-oaky, Don was offloaded to the Mandalay Hospital a couple of days ago with a blood pressure problem, accompanied by his wife as prompt. He’s expected to re-join the cruise further up river, but I could imagine him in a grubby bed surrounded by doctors, nurses and medical students all agog as he recounted his medical history, throwing in a brave laugh between chapters. They would soon realise that he is the sickest person ever admitted to the Mandalay General and that most of the occupants of the morgue were in better shape than Don.

Back to the AIM. It is really a cleverly designed ship for river cruising. The food is generally excellent and the grog enticing. There is a swimming pool on the upper deck which tends to overflow when more than four hefty platoon members lower their bodies into the lukewarm water. On the very top deck is a synthetic grass walking track and a canvas roofed sitting area for quiet drinking or a seated smoke for those who indulge.

Our bathroom defies physics by holding more fittings than it can. What it needs are traffic lights if there are two people trying to move around in it. Because it has a bath (which is really a waste of space) the shower door has to be hinged so that you can’t get in and out without impaling yourself on the soap holder. However, the shower pressure is far better than I expected to find on a ship.

AIM interior designers have paid special attention to lighting in the cabins. The lights are all on sensors – sensible to save electricity. But the sensors behave like naughty children. They turn off the lights when you are in the middle of doing something and they turn them on when all you want to do is scratch your nose in the dark.

Our lounge room has a television which suffers from being unable pick up much in the way of regular signals, a desk, coffee table, couch and a bar fridge that does not cool its contents. We asked how to turn it on but were told that while it might look like a bar fridge, with its glass door and interior shelves it is, in fact, a cupboard for holding drinks – which then have to be cooled with ice in a bucket. I’ve discovered a knob inside the warm cupboard which looks like a fridge cooling controller and I’m making myself a nuisance with maintenance to try to morph it back into a fridge. I want to experience what it is like to pig out on a minibar without going to debtor’s prison.

Because there are no wharves along the river for embarkation the AIM simply noses into the sandy bank and runs a rickety companionway on to the shore. It also ties up to the strongest trees the crew can find along the river bank, fore and aft. As we leave each port and head down the river I wonder if the captain ever forgets the aft rope and tows a tree along.

The cruise planners believe, probably correctly, that tourists want to see world record stuff. Thus yesterday we were taken on a walking tour in Mingun to see the world’s heaviest bell. Housed near yet another pagoda, this bell weighs 90 tonnes and is made from an amalgam of five metals. The Kommendant, speaking over his walkie-talkie system, told us that there is a bigger bell in Moscow, but it doesn’t ring. To reinforce this, visitors are invited to wallop the bell with wooden truncheons. I must say it made a wonderful sound. If you didn’t mind dragging your stomach across the dusty floor you can stand up inside the bell to invite hearing loss. I declined, but I saw Don’s bum disappearing beneath the bell. That might have contributed to his blood pressure problem.

That same day we visited Amara Pura, once the royal capital of Burma, where we walked halfway along the world’s longest (1.2 kilometres) and oldest (about as old as me) teak (plus a bit of hasty concreting) bridge. It has its challenges. Because the water level in the lake is low, the bridge stands about six metres in the air on skinny, occasionally swaying legs, has been poorly repaired and has no handrails. Everybody, therefore, is frightened of falling off and walks in the middle, creating a traffic jam. We descended at the halfway point to pick up a wobbly sampan which just manages to hold ‘two person’ in addition to the paddler. Local bubbly was served and we bobbed about until the sun obligingly set behind the bridge and everybody took award winning photos with their tablets and phones. I was the only one with an uncool little digital camera which once was a stunning piece of technology with three megapixels.

Tourism will become a major money earner for Myanmar; goodness knows the country needs it. The unemployment rate is 40 per cent while 36 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. It needs a strong department of tourism to plan and control the potential.

As it is, private enterprise, especially retail, is still being run by little, privately owned stalls or walk-and-irritate mobile vendors who are persistent in the extreme. For example, yesterday afternoon we left the mothership for a horse and buggy ride through Ava Inwa. Before disembarking I saw the brightly clothed vendors gathering like and army on the bank. As we took a grassy track to the assembled horses and carts, the vendors descended, thrusting beads, bells, statues and bangles into our faces. If you ask the price, that signals your interest and you have a fight on your hands to close down the deal. A tactic I’ve noticed here is that the vendors, mostly women, let you off an immediate purchase if you promise ‘maybe later’. But you’re then a marked target and the vendor will accompany you on your tour. When we got into the horse and buggy I was relieved that we would shake off our vendor who had her small son with her. Not so. As we jolted violently over rough stone roads she took to her bicycle, the kid hanging on the back, and tailgated us, with a like-minded peloton behind her. When the boy dropped his thong she stopped, picked it up, told him off, and powered through the peloton to resume her position. In the end many tourists simply give them money to get them out of the way so they can see what they came to see.

 

The vendors waiting for the starter's gun.

The vendors waiting for the starter’s gun.

 

 

 

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Fraser’s Octemberfest 8

Two Burmese female cats bitching about the lack of young, virile toms.

Two Burmese female cats bitching about the lack of young, virile toms.

To Michelle, one of the highlights of the tour was always going to be a visit to a place called Inle Heritage House, a not-for-profit organisation trying to re-establish the pure breed of Burmese cats. The Kommendant allowed us to take a private day while the rest of the platoon lumbered and limped off either to inspect a cave or meander through more graveyards full of stupas and watch another cooking demonstration. These, we’ve found, usually result in a bowl of tasteless soup with tough chicken pieces bobbing about like lost ships – which you have to eat because you watched them cook the stuff.

But for us, an elegant skinny boat and elegant, but more generously proportioned guide arrived at the jetty at 10 am. Forty-five minutes later we were cuddling Burmese cats at a large, well-kept facility on stilts across the lake. In addition to its cat breeding program Heritage House teaches restaurant cooking, has a small hotel (good to recover from a nervous breakdown when you need only to look at water, passing boats and floating weed islands) and teaches other hospitality skills, including English. It is clearly a worthy project and relies on donations to keep going. They charge US$300 for a cat if bought by a foreigner but give it away for nothing if it goes to a local. I can’t help thinking this is not a good business plan.

The cat breeding program is suffering from not enough lilac and champagne toms and needs extra breeding queens as well. The few toms we saw looked pretty tired from their heavy workload as they lay around in the boys-own enclosure awaiting the next romantic meow from the main house. Michelle promised to see if she could arrange some breeding stock to come from Australia.

Heritage House should be on the cruise schedule, especially as the tour passes the place on its way to the bedlam of the temple where I bought my ridiculous clock. It has a reputation of having the best restaurant in the region. Our light lunch confirmed this.

A cocktail party at the hotel that evening and dinner afterwards brightened up the platoon members, most of whom were showing signs of exhaustion from their day. In their weakened condition they offered no defence against Don who did the rounds, his voice powered up by the free cocktails, as he once again described his ailments and what he was doing about them.

We were into our third night at the Aureum Hotel and due to leave at six the next morning. It had been a strange experience staying there. All rooms have water views (or mud views in the dry season), and are very big, entirely built from timber, with a confusing layout of nooks, places to sit, wardrobes and cupboards spread around and easy to confuse, a comfortable bed enclosed in a mosquito net, and a massive, perfectly round toilet bowl that probably served the fancy of a porcelain designer but not human buttocks. The bathroom offered a wooden Jacuzzi sitting up on a platform as if ready for a performance, while the shower resided in a huge open cubicle. The shower room floor was a pattern of dangerously slippery black marble tiles with loose white stones between. Beneath the shower head the management had placed a rubber mat with painful Dr Scholls upstanding nipples to minimise slips, trips and falls – and also to discourage extended use of the shower, I suspect.

Another prop plane trip which landed shortly after it took off (a bus would have been quicker) placed us in legendary Mandalay. To quote Rudyard Kipling:

On the road to Mandalay,
where the flying fishes play,
and the sun comes up like thunder out of China ‘cross the bay.

After another bus ride that stopped to allow the platoon to see how bamboo umbrellas were made from mulberry wood landed us in the Mandalay Hill Resort Hotel. It looked promisingly grand and colonial but the rooms are tired – not that we had a chance to stay in them for long because we were taken up to Mandalay Hill to witness the sunset from a Buddhist temple. The climb from the carpark to the temple is assisted by a series of single escalators. They go up for half an hour and then down for half an hour. I don’t know what happens if you nearly get to the bottom and run into a reversal. You’d have to go up again and wait for half an hour before making another attempt to come down.

The Kommendant told us about the Myanmar health system. Hospitals and doctors are free but there the benevolence finishes. A public clinic doctor can only see you for three minutes because of the long queue behind you. If you must go to hospital you have to take your own bed, bedding, food and somebody to look after you. After that, you have to pay for all medications and other supplies. Idyllic health system legislation has been passed by parliament but there is no money to run it. During the military regime, nobody paid taxes, subsequently all social services are on drip feed until a tax regime brings in the funding.

Wednesday 19 October

This morning we were bussed up at 5.30 am to donate food to the monks. These mostly boys or young men rely on charity for their two meals a day. They eat breakfast at 6.00 o’clock, filing past donors and lifting the lid on their metal bowls to receive a small bag of curry to go with their rice and a modest piece of packaged pastry. They walk solemnly by, making no eye contact with us and maintaining a totally neutral facial expression. Most of them come from orphanages to join a monastery at an early age. Their eligibility is gauged by whether they can throw a robe over their shoulder and wear it without it falling off. They can be as young as six years old. I wonder if any of them grow sick of the monastic life and want to get into the secular world. I asked he Kommendant, but he says no. I’ve heard otherwise. Older men can become monks too after they answer a series of questions including: are you human? (dogs have tried to join previously); does your wife agree?; do you owe money?; are you a public servant?

The rest of the day was filled with more temples, more stupas, more Buddhas, more gold leaf and zillions of vendors desperate to get their hands on your cash and your hands on stuff you didn’t need, want or like. Speaking of gold leaf, we visited one of the last hand-made gold leaf factories still operating. Most of this essential item, if you want to please Buddha, is now machine made, but here, young men simply hammer away at a piece of gold until it is paper thin then cut it into small squares to be mounted on bamboo paper (which is also made on the premises) by a team of attractive young women sitting on the floor. No doubt they would have to be thoroughly searched before they went home each day, just the sort of job a harmless old guy like me would be entrusted to do. . .

Then on to the world’s biggest book, housed in a pagoda built in 1859 by King Mindon. The so called book comprises 729 marble slabs of Buddhist canon, two pages per slab, making the book 1458 pages long, all carved into stone. When it was completed the proof-reading monk found three carveos (stone typos,) did his block and made them start again – typical sub-editor’s behaviour. Each slab sits in a little white temple of its own and can be viewed through bars at the front.

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At this same temple was a room with magical brass figures from Cambodia. By rubbing the part of the body that is not performing very well you receive healing. I don’t need to explain what most men are worried about.

The platoon was again showing signs of fatigue in the afternoon. The big talking point was ‘the boat’ where we could unpack and get into the free grog. At about 3.30 the bus finished its trundle through dusty Mandalay streets. We arrived at the wharf and our first look at the HMS Artist’s Impression. It has another name too, but because it is a brand new boat we’d never actually seen photographs of it, only drawings. How did the two match up? This and other pieces of earth-shattering information will come next time.