Monday, December 30, 2013

Playing Tourist in Mandalay

Like many people, I haven't taken much time to visit the tourist spots in my own city.  I decided to remedy that over this holiday.  Here are some photos of what I saw yesterday.

First stop was the gold leaf pounding section of downtown.  These guys work 9 hours a day, 6 days a week.  I don't know how much they get paid but $200 a month is considered good pay for a college educated office worker.  By the way, this is open air, not a factory.  Temperatures in the summer are consistently in the 100+ range.  Next, off to visit Mahagandayon monastery.

I saw Anthony Bourdain's show filmed in Mandalay.  When he watched the monks going to their daily meal at Mahagandayon monastery, he commented that it was part of the job that he hated.  He predicted that once the show aired, this simple daily activity would become a tourist draw.  He was correct.  It was amazing to see but disturbing.  I felt intrusive and won't go back.  I was told by a local friend that many of the monks now simply line up, get their food and take it away to eat without being photographed while they eat.

The Buddhist tradition is that nuns and monks eat only once each day, food that is provided to them by others.  The Mahagandayon monastery is home to about 1,500 monks.  Each day at about 10:30 a.m., they gather in line to walk to the dining area.

Usually, monks and nuns walk through the streets with a bowl to receive food offered to them.  Because this is a school, though, they eat food paid for by donations of faithful Buddhists.  

The young boys in white robes are novitiates.

After the leaving the tourist craziness at Mahagandayon monastery, we drove a couple of blocks to a much quieter monastery where I was the only one who saw this monk going about his business.  I was trying to get a picture of the typical house and he happened to walk out.
This reclining Buddha is enormous.

Loved the colors but am don't know the significance of this statue on the monastery compound.
Next stop - bronze casting.  Ever wonder where all the giant Buddhas and other statues come from?  This neighborhood.  They weren't actually casting because many of the staff were in Thailand, installing a giant new Buddha.  These are the beginnings of clay models.

There were Buddha parts everywhere.
A six foot tall bell.

Giant Buddha head with nails sticking out everywhere.  Looked like he was having acupuncture.
Of course, after checking out how they make the bronzes, you can check out the shop to buy one.  Think I can bring home that 200 lb, 4 foot tall Buddha as carry on? 

The next stop was to see the wood carvers, one of my favorite art forms.  Unfortunately, I was so busy talking to the carver and ogling his work that I neglected to take pictures.  This photo is of the work area at an amazing handicraft store.  The women who normally work here make intricate beaded fabrics to be used as pillow covers and wall hangings.
This is one of the beaded fabrics.  This is an old one (or made to look old) collected by the workshop's owners.

I fell in love with this carving/painting of Buddha but didn't buy it.  Craft prices in Myanmar are higher than other countries I've been to in Asia.

The store is large and filled with all kinds of handicrafts from tribes throughout Myanmar.  So much stuff it's hard to focus.  I plan to go back and spend a few hours.  The owners speak English and seemed fine with me wandering around.  They used to have stores in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai Thailand, but moved home when the country opened up to tourists.  Compared to Chiang Mai though, there are very few tourists.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Experience of a Typical Shopping Trip

I was in luck yesterday.  I'd lost the phone number of my favorite taxi driver.  But, the guard on duty at the school speaks English and knows my driver.  Perfect.  15 minutes after he called, U Soe Min arrived to take me to Diamond Plaza for my weekly shopping trip.

Traffic, although it was mid-morning, was bad.  It is never good in Mandalay.  We took 35th St., one of the main roads.  It's 4 lanes.  Cars typically drive down the white line, allowing motorcycles to use the remaining road on either side of them.  That's a great plan unless there's more than one car on the road.  After a couple of near misses (motorbikes who tried to turn onto the road or make a left in front of us almost got wiped out) we made it to Ocean.

Mandalay is a major tourist site in Myanmar, mostly people fly in, spend a couple of days then head out to Bagan and Inle Lake.  Most tourists are with tours, either large or small.  So people seem to be more accustomed to seeing white faces traveling in herds, rather than alone.

Stepping out of the taxi at the entrance to Diamond Plaza always attracts looks.  Many of the vendors and taxi drivers who congregate there recognize that I'm not a new tourist and just smile or ignore me.  Yesterday as I was walking to the sidewalk I heard my name called.  One of the Myanmar employees, a nice woman who was hired to work in IT, had spotted me.  We chatted for a few minutes (I was thanking her for the ability to type this from my apartment) and then went on to do our shopping.

Our casual conversation was observed by those around us.  Groups of white people speaking to each other in foreign languages (most commonly French and German, in my experience) is normal.  White woman talking to Myanmar woman not as typical.  Not that people were gawking, just noticing.  It's the kind of standing out and lack of anonymity that I never quite got used to in Samoa.  But easier here because it's a big city.

Once inside, I headed to the elevator.  There were a group of young Myanmar women also waiting and as we all stepped on, they looked surprised, embarrassed...I'm not sure what all emotions.  Did they think I was just standing outside the elevator to wish them bon voyage?  Was it because I was at least eight inches taller (and 80 pounds heavier) than all of them?  I don't know but there was a lot of glances at me, smiles and giggling.

Once on the third floor I made my way to Dollar Plus.  I said hello to the guard who seemed to recognize me and zeroed in on the toy section.  I want to stock up on new treats for the kids.  Fun for them and self defense for me to have educational games for when they arrive early or finish their work early.

As happens in every store I go to, as soon as I reached the toy section, I picked up a nice young escort.  A young Myanmar woman who worked there was never more than six inches away from me.  Sometimes, I've been tracked by a covey of five employees, all huddled around me, watching intently.  At first I found it annoying.  Really, if you want to help just get the hell out of my way and let me look around.  And, I'm really not planning to steal anything so you don't have to watch me like a hawk.

Now, I just say hello to acknowledge their consistent presence and go on with my shopping.  They just want to be there to help me if there's anything I need.  And to carry anything for me while I shop.  That deck of Uno cards was getting awfully heavy.

After checking out with my stuff, I headed up the escalator one floor, focused on getting take away sushi for lunch.  Standing on an escalator allows people to watch me unimpeded.  Yup, I'm large, white and foreign.

I was greeted with smiles at the sushi shop, where they know me.  Our interactions are limited to me pointing at the menu and lots of smiles, but it's a relationship, nonetheless.  After placing my order, the girl waiting on me held up a cup, asking if I wanted the complimentary tea.  Sometimes and I do, sometimes I don't.  Today I did.  She happily brought it.  She also seemed happy that I had her keep the change.  Ten cents, USD will buy a bag of fruit or vegetables in the local market.

After stashing the sushi in one of my bags, I was off to the elevator to head to Ocean, in the basement.  I was the only one in the elevator and it was kind of nice.  No staring.

As I entered Ocean, I stopped at the security guard to let him tape closed my packages (even though they'd been taped closed when I left the store where I bought them).  We both smiled as we went through the drill.  He's used to me by now.

Walking around Ocean, I got stares, giggles and was approached a couple of times by kids wanting to show off their English.  They got stuck at "Hi!"  I give them credit for having the nerve to approach a stranger.  I get the stage fright.

When I go shopping on the school bus with the other teachers I don't get as much attention.  I don't know if it's that we're always there at the same time/day and people are used to that or if it's that it's clear that I'm not a tourist, based on what I'm buying.  Most tourists don't buy 12 packs of TP.

One consistent thing is that everyone checks out what I've got in my basket.  Once, at the check out counter, one group of women got carried away and started moving stuff around in my cart so they could be sure to see everything I was buying.  And they were discussing it.  It was as if I was completely invisible until I said hello in Myanmar and started taking things out of the cart to place on the counter.  They seemed a bit embarrassed then.  I think their curiosity just carried them away.  Today, no one touched, they just looked.

I wonder what they think of my purchases.  What's with all the cheese and butter?  But she's got a bunch of local vegetables.  And why all the games?

After checking out, one of the many security guards (who also function as bag boys) helped me load up hands/arms with my full backpack and four large bags.  Scrabble and Monopoly games aren't heavy but they are awkward when you're loaded down.

Up the incline escalator, across the ground floor, down the granite steps with no hand rails, across the busy street and I was back at the taxi.  Another typical day of shopping finished.

Typical Shopping Trip - Prices

Given the more than 1,000,000 plus people in Mandalay and the amount of wealth here, I find it a bit surprising that there are only 4 "major" grocery stores.  By "major" I mean a grocery store as we would call it in the USA.  There are a myriad of open air options for buying meat and produce and small stores in every neighborhood to buy basics but for a western style shopping experience, three stores.

The largest and seemingly most popular is called Ocean.  It is in the basement of Diamond Plaza.  Diamond Plaza is a five story vertical mall.  The fifth floor is dedicated to a movie theatre and arcade style entertainment.  I heard from a friend yesterday that he'd just watched the Hobbitt in 3D there.  It was his first time at the theatre and he said it was on a par with American theatres.  And the great news - icy cold air conditioning.  Something to keep in mind this summer.  And the price?  $2.50 USD.

The fourth floor is dedicated to furniture stores, a couple of massage and/or salons and fast food.  I was excited when they opened AFC recently - a KFC clone with tasty fried chicken.  I've been there a few times but mostly hit up the sushi place, as I did yesterday.  Four large pieces of shrimp sushi and six small pieces of California rolls was $2.40.

On the third floor is one of my favorite stores, which I can never remember the name of.  Something like Dollar Plus.  Everything isn't a dollar, but it is cheap and they sell everything from makeup, toys, clothes, dishes, cleaning supplies, etc.  Yesterday I bought a monopoly game, deck of Uno cards, bag of five large clumps of plastic stuff, foot brush/pumice combo, and a cooking pot for less than $10.  I don't know what I'll do with the plastic stringy stuff but it's colorful and I know there's a craft in it that first graders will love.

The second floor is clothing and shoes mostly.  Since none of it fits me I never visit there.  Did I mention visiting a Tesco (think Walmart) in Bangkok and the largest shoe size for women was size 6?

The main floor is mostly jewelry (artificial) and make-up.  My primary reason for going there is to exchange dollars to Kyat (pronounced chawt) and to access the escalator or elevator to other levels.

Ocean, in the basement is the largest store in the mall.  It is typical in Asia for grocery stores to be in the basements of large malls.  Ocean is more like a Super Target than a typical grocery store.  Having said that, the whole store would fit in the grocery section of a Super Target.  But they have electronics, furniture, clothing, makeup, liquor and food.

Yesterday I was excited.  A couple of weeks ago the government cracked down on stores selling imported goods without paying requisite taxes.  So Ocean (and City Mart, the other large store) pulled all imported liquor and some of the food popular with foreigners) off the shelves.  Yesterday, it was all back.

I didn't need a lot in the way of groceries but picked up a Scrabble game, two 3D dinosaur puzzles that I think my kids will go nuts over, canned corn, marshmallows, large onions (which are 3X more than the small local onions), a large bag of laundry detergent (enough for 3 months), a really large bag of the local peppers that are similar to poblanos), a can of black olives, two packages of white Irish cheddar cheese, apples, 2 cans of imported tomato paste and the grand total was $36.  That's way more than I normally pay but the games and luxury imported items added up.

It cost $10 for the taxi to get to the store and back.  Even with that, everything was much cheaper than in the US.

That's the facts about shopping at Diamond Plaza.  In my next post, I'll describe how it feels to shop there.

Weather in Mandalay

When I got to Mandalay it was hot.  And humid.  It stayed that way.  Remember that I'm originally from Arizona.  I lived in Florida for 20 years.  I lived in the South Pacific for two years.  I know hot.  Mandalay exceeded what I'd experienced.

Beginning in late November, though, I started to realize that I wasn't covered in sweat after my two minute walk to school at 6:00 a.m.  One evening when I stepped outside, it felt almost chilly.  Yes, it does get cool in Mandalay and I wish we had this winter weather year 'round.  Today is typical.  At 6:00 a.m. this morning it was 54 degrees, 100 per cent humidity and foggy.  Very typical winter morning.  This afternoon will be sunny, 84 and less humid.  Perfect.

Here's more weather info.

°C ]   °F
Average Temperature
Years on Record: 50 Chart This
Average High Temperature
Years on Record: 50 Chart This
Average Low Temperature
Years on Record: 29 Chart This
Average Precipitation
Years on Record: 50 Chart This
Highest Recorded Temperature
Years on Record: 50 Chart This
Lowest Recorded Temperature
Years on Record: 50 Chart This
Average Number of Days Above 90F/32C
Years on Record: 17 Chart This
Average Number of Rainy Days
Years on Record: 50 Chart This
Average Relative Humidity
Years on Record: 9 Chart This
Average Dew Point
Years on Record: 9 Chart This