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.
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.