Suitcase and World: More of Mandalay. Gold, Monks, and Wood.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

More of Mandalay. Gold, Monks, and Wood.

A young monk eating his lunch.

We started our first full day in Mandalay with Shwe In Bin Kyaung, a most incredible carved teak monastery.

Though our sightseeing day would be cut short because of a midday break to escape the horrible heat and humidity here, Zaw was determined to cram in as much as he could.  Thankfully, our next destination was not a monastery though it was in a way related.

We drove back into the heart of the city and stopped at the King Galon Gold Leaf workshop.   I'm usually not very keen on going to factories but this was something a little different mainly because gold leaf plays an integral part of everyday life in Myanmar.  It shows up as gilding on statues of Buddha, on exterior facades of pagodas, on laquerware and even on the faces of women, applied as a cosmetic.

Our driver parked the car and as I opened the door, I could hear the rhythmic pounding.  We entered the workshop where a group of young men were hard at work.  The room was lit only with the light from the large entry door.  There was no air conditioning - it was not a place I would have enjoyed working in.

The process of making gold leaf starts well before these guys begin the hard work of pounding it into thin sheets.  It begins with  3 tickles (or about 1.928 ounces) of gold bullion that is placed in an extruder where a 20 foot long ribbon of gold comes out that is about 3/4 inches wide. This strip in cut into 5 foot pieces where each of those is cut into another 200 equal pieces of gold. Each piece is placed between two sheets of bamboo paper where all 200 separated gold pieces are stacked on top of each other and secured together into a bundle.

Preparing a bundle for pounding.

Once strapped into a form which is then attached to a rock slab. A man stands behind and straddles the rock, lifts a hammer and beats the gold, up to several hours,  until it is whisper thin.

After pounding to the appropriate thickness, the finished leaf is cut into squares of either 2 inches, 1 1/2 inches or sometimes 1 3/4 inches in size. They are then placed between new pieces of paper a little larger than their size and packed up together with thread. This packaging work is completed by women sitting indoors.

All of this is incredibly time and labor intensive work!  Only in a country like Myanmar, where labor is rock bottom cheap, could you afford to do all this by hand!

As you might expect, the workshop has a salesroom. Neither Bro nor I were interested in buying anything but Ayşe had her eyes on a couple of items so we gave her time to make her purchases.

Zaw, grinding a small piece of wood with water, to make thanaka.

Before leaving the workshop, Zaw made up a small amount of thanaka cream which is commonly commonly applied to the face as a circular patch on each cheek or patterned in the shape of a leaf.  Most typically, you see girls and women wearing thanaka I've spotted boys and men with the paste on their cheeks as well.  Apart from Apart from cosmetic beauty, thanaka also gives a cooling sensation and provides protection from sunburn. It is believed to help remove acne and promote smooth skin. It is also an anti-fungal.

Thanaka cream is made by grinding the bark, wood, or roots of specific specific species of tress with a small amount of water on a circular slate slab called *kyauk pyin* which has a channel around the rim for the water to drain into.

Zaw offered to apply the paste to our cheeks.  I declined as I have very sensitive skin and I don't know if I would have an allergic reaction to the thanaka.  I didn't want to risk having to make a trip to the clinic.   Ayşe took him up on his offer.  We watched as he gently spread a thin layer of the paste on both her cheeks.

To finish off, he took a small brush and made a fine strip pattern on the thanaka that he had just applied.  She's now a Burmese woman....well, at least her two cheeks are :-)

Next, Zaw took us to a modern day monastery.  We entered the grounds of a place that looked more like a modern day boarding school than an Asian monastery.  We had arrived to see the young monks lining up to receive their lunch.  It is a common daily event that takes place in pretty much every monastery in the country.

Unfortunately, this simple daily event has turned into such a tourist spectacle - with reports that at some monasteries, tourists have effectively become papparazzi.  The poor monks.  Tourists need to be more mindful of their surroundings and be more respectful.

Zaw decided to take us to a monastery where tourists don't come.  In fact, aside from a family who was there setting up their donations for the meal and two women who were waiting for their sons to appear,  the four of us were the only other *tourists* around.

A few monks had started to form the line.  In Myanmar, the robes are a beautiful shade of crimson.  At this monastery, the monks were pretty much carrying the same lunch box.  I wondered if this is part of their uniform at this particular monastery.

Shaded from the sun, underneath a covered walkway, the family was setting up large pots of plain white, steamed rice and some offerings for the monks, including some books and pens and small face towels. Each monk would receive one of everything.

As you might expect in a country of devout Buddhists, monks are highly revered.  According to Zaw, outsiders will often come to the monastery to provide a meal to the monks and gift them with a few basic items. 

Then, as if the lunch bell had been rung, the line of young men started to move forward.  As they approached the women standing at the start of the line, they opened the lid to their lunch bucket to receive a very large bowlful of rice.  These are growing boys and  I am sure they can eat a lot!!

As they made their way down the line, they received their gifts.

At the end of the line were two very neat rows of flip flops....sitting outside the entrance to the dining hall.   Very impressive!

I entered the dining hall to the sound of an older monk chanting.  I think he was giving grace because until he was finished speaking, the young monks were seated very quietly, some with their heads bowed.  Sorry for the fuzzy video but I still wanted to post it up solely for a memory of that moment.

Then it was time to eat.  As curious as I was to see what the boys were having for lunch, I respectfully kept my distance.  Each table had been effectively sectioned out to serve six boys at once.  On the table were several plates of food and soup to accompany the rice.

While there was some chatter, the room was far more quiet than you would expect of a roomful of at least 50 boys.  I think they were far too focused on eating than on talking.  One thing for sure.  The regimented diet of the monastic life style does not include any junkfood.  You don't see any overweight boys here!

Our next stop took us to a small handicrafts workshop where we could watch workers crafting some of the art pieces that are typical of Myanmar. 

Of course, the marionettes caught my eye.  There were dozens of them - sitting on shelves and hanging on the walls.  Look at one set,  I realized I could not just buy one of the characters.  I would need to buy the entire lot that make up a play.  Hmmm.....not enough money and luggage space to do that on this trip.  Maybe on the next trip. :-)

They look like characters from a Burmese rock band.  Notice it's the same head, just made up to look slightly different.

Visiting the gold workshop, watching the monks and walking through the handicrafts workshop was a nice break from seeing temples but our next stop would end that.  On to the Mahamuni Temple.