Wednesday, January 16
Our journey down the Irrawaddy River on the RV Katha Pandaw was supposed to take in two pottery villages but the first, Nwe Nyein, was on the far side of the bridge that collapsed in Central Myanmar’s 11 November earthquake. New Nyein is famous for its glazed pottery, in particular 50 gallon hand-made water pots. (See earthquake damage video here).
The second village, Yandabo, is famous for its terracotta pots, made from the riverbank clay. It was also the place where, under a tree on the riverbank, a peace treaty was signed at the end of the first Anglo-Burmese war in 1826. This treaty financially crippled the country but the Burmese still fought two more wars before the British swallowed the whole country in 1885.
Yandabo now is a village of some 350 houses each of which is home to from 5 to 10 people. Thirty of the families are potters; the other villagers are farmers, fishermen or suppliers of raw material such as clay or wood for the kilns.
The women make the pots and it’s a two-girl job with one person potting while the other operates the wheel using a treadle. The women also decorate the pots and arrange them in a circular pattern to dry. There may be up to three thousand pots in a single layer that’s covered with a large pile of ash, straw and wood then set on fire. The temperature in this kiln reaches 1200C and firing takes three or four days, including cooling. At the end of the process the pots have changed from dull brown to a brilliant red colour. The ports are transported by boat all over the country.
Yandabo also has stupas (every village does), a monastery and a primary school that is supported by Pandaw. It was holiday time while we were there but most of the children turned up to see us although they were in mufti rather than their usual green and white uniforms.
All the schoolchildren in Myanmar wear green longyis or shorts and white shirts; this represents purity and growth. Incidentally, the first song the kids sang was about an elephant; I am a big elephant and you’d better get out of my way or I will walk on you!
Tuesday, January 8
I like travelling by train. You can get up and move around which you can’t do on a coach or bus and the scenery’s more interesting than from a plane. There aren’t any railways on Raro though so I have to make the most of them when I’m overseas and that’s what I did in Myanmar.
The railroad was built by the British when they colonised Burma in the mid to late 1800s, and I don’t think much has changed since then. Burmese trains are narrow gauge and very old. They rattle and roll and quite often jump and bang as well, all at the same time. However, they are still running so we took one from Pyin Oo Lwin to Naung Pain in northern Myanmar. This particular route crosses the Gokteik gorge over the Gokteik Viaduct that was once the second highest railway bridge in the world when it was constructed in 1901.
The Japanese occupied Burma in 1942 and the Americans bombed railroads and bridges, including the Gokteik; it was repaired after the war and is still standing in spite of a lack of maintenance reported in some guide books.
We caught the train at Pyin Oo Lwin station and it was a bit disconcerting to see railwaymen levelling up the tracks with pickaxes while we waited.
We were in an upper class carriage but that's not as grand as it sounds as it was well past its use-by date. The seats were wide but they no longer reclined and the seat padding must have seen many thousand backsides! Our guide said that only foreigners are allowed to travel upper class (on this particular train anyway) but that doesn't apply to the military, police and railwaymen. One policeman joined our carriage - in full uniform, wearing a helmet that he never removed and a webbing belt with a vicious looking knife, and carrying an AK47. He sat just opposite us and it rather cramped my style when it came to shooting video. I made a point of not aiming the camera anywhere near him. Actually he looked like a pleasant young man but you don't take chances with people carrying large guns!
The viaduct is about 700m long and 100m high and the train travels very slowly, at about 5km per hour, as it crosses.
The scenery was spectacular and it was a great experience, one of many in Myanmar.