Pagodas and golden temples let us dive into a distant and peaceful world. We are surprised by patient people, discover and enjoy the slowness and experience fascinating professions like sheetgold hammering people & cigar-makers.
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Tuesday to Thursday, November 27-29, 2012 - Well-rested we leave the vivid Lashio and drive on to Pyin Oo Lwin to an altitude of 1,100 metres. The air is humid; a hazy curtain covers our view of the hilltops. Around noon the weather clears up, we pass rice terraces.
As we arrive in the little town, a hot air balloon drifts by over our heads. The people proudly tell us that a hot-air-balloon- and full-moon-festival is taking place. During this four-day festival, the locals cherish the Temple of Sulamani in heaven with the rising of ornamented balloons. In the evening, we drive, along with thousands of other vehicles, into the stadium of the town from where the balloons will rise.
The next morning, Shin Daewe, our Burmese escort, accompanies us to a monastery. The monks share their rooms with a group of people preparing their balloon. The balloon is spread out widely across the wooden floor, being examined for damages, which are immediately glued. It has 100 proud owners who collected for it. The two brothers Upar and Myo Kyaw are the chiefs. Upar is responsible for the general construction, his brother is responsible for the lighting. At the start, hundreds of tea lights will be attached to the balloon on the outside, so creating certain patterns. A tricky matter. Upar is 46 years old, a carpenter, who also teaches balloon construction, but only as a hobby. His annual income can only cover his expenses for two months. Will things get better, now that the Nobel Prize Winner for Peace, Aung San Suu Kyi, is sitting in the parliament? "We shall see, nobody can tell", is his answer.
While their friends perform folk dances, and an artificial horse amuses everyone, the men around Upar are highly concentrating on the preparations for the lift-off. The tea lights just will not remain lighted. Then, finally, the balloon rises up in the air, carrying the flag of Myanmar. But the joy only lasts a moment. A few hundred metres up in the air, the balloon starts burning, then crashes to the ground. For an instant, Upar is stunned. Then he says "It will work next year".
Friday and Saturday, November 30 - December 1, 2012 - We leave the town heading for Mandalay. We are very surprised; it almost seems noble compared to Pyin Oo Lwin with its broad streets, old colonial-style architecture and glass shopping cubes. We arrive in the dark, but it is still hot and humid.
The town is famous for its many small handcraft shops. We are curious about the gold leaf production, so the next day we are standing in an entrance where loud hammer blows are heard from inside. Three men stand next to each other beating a deer skin with hammers weighing 10 kilograms. Little gold beads lying between the deer skin become razor-thin and light through the beating. The gold leaf is sold to Buddhists who place it on the Buddha statues.
The men work for 33 year-old Chaw Su and her family. The business woman is sitting together with some women in the next room cutting the gold leaves. Almost all are related to each other, it has been a family business for 100 years now, she tells us. Chaw Su runs the business together with two aunts and a younger sister. They all are single. It just turned out that way, and they are all alright with that, she reassures us.
Sunday to Monday, December 2 - 3, 2012 - The most expensive city of the country lies before us: Naypyidaw, the capital city of Myanmar since 2005. Halfway there, we pass a radiant golden ship with the head of a mystical bird. We pass the city border of Naypyidaw on empty six-lane streets, something very unreal about that.
At the Mount Pleasant Hotel they raised the German flag to honour us. The hotel complex consists of flat villas spread along the mountain slope. Its main road resembles an autobahn access. In the evening we sit on the terrace high above the city looking down upon a twinkling ocean of lights. It is truly romantic, a slight breeze is blowing. Naypyidaw is supposed to be the only city in Myanmar without power supply problems. All ministries and administrative bodies were transferred here from Yangon.
The owner of our hotel is from a wealthy family of architects which helped construct parts of the new political capital. When we ask him what he thinks of the development of tourism in his town, he simply shakes his head. Naypyidaw is meant to be the seat of the government, and is not suited to host tourists. The employees of the ministries and their families live here, partially in villas, but mostly in four story high buildings. We are in town around noon, and hardly anyone is on the street during these office hours. On an open field, a crooked sign reads "diplomatic zone". Embassies are to be built on that ground in the next three years. The taxi driver brings us to the house of "The Lady", as Aung Suu Kyi is called respectfully. From inside, her security guards watch us attentively. But she is not there. She is supposed to be near Mandalay, where copper mine workers are on strike.
Tuesday to Thursday, December 4 - 6, 2012 - Daewe, our escort, lives in Yangon. The documentary film maker is a member of the Yangon Film School. The following afternoon, she has an appointment there to talk about her latest project, and we dive into the world of the young film makers of Myanmar. Lindsay Morrison founded the school in 2005. The Anglo-Burmese tells us excitedly about the first not censored documentary film made in Myanmar.
Friday and Saturday, December 7 - 8, 2012 - The Bogyoke Aung San Market has us mesmerized. In more than 2,000 little shops you find almost anything from household goods to art crafts on very little space. Behind their fabrics and Longhis stands the vendors have little elevated platforms on which to stack their goods. Whoever wants to try anything on must climb on top of a chair and disappear behind a roll of fabric discreetly. We are heading northeast to Bago, which is about 85 kilometres away from Yangon. The famous Cheroots are produced here. The typical Myanmar cigars have already caught our eye, since we see mostly elderly people smoking them immersed, sitting on the side of the road
In the Cheroot factory of Khin Khin Soel and her sister, 20 women are sitting on the ground rolling a mixture of tamarind pieces, palm sugar and a bit of tobacco into corn leaves. One of them closes the razor-thin package of cheroots rapidly over a candle.
They watch us and giggle, and of course we try it ourselves, it tastes a bit sweet. The 52 year-old Khin Khin Soel tells us that young people tend to smoke Western cigarettes more and more. So little companies, such as this one, suffer from slumping sales and depend on good marketing strategies. She believes that one answer would be to concentrate on the tradition of the brand. She could also imagine herself starting to work in the internet café of her daughter. That would then be a completely new job. But her heart is with the cheroot production.