The daytrip you MUST do from Yangon
The ferry to Dalah is an experience in itself. There is a huge iron waiting hall, crammed with impatient passengers jostling at the gates. We buy our tickets from a man in a back office, rummaging for the ticket pad on a heavy wooden desk covered in papers flapping in the intermittent breeze from a clicking, whirring electric fan. Moving out into the main hall, our flimsy paper slip clutched in hand, we hear the heavy trudge of the disembarking passengers as they pass the other side of the railing. Before they are quite clear the gate is lifted and the stream of bodies begins pulsing in the opposite direction. You can only take each step at the speed of the crowd, very slowly placing one foot in front of another again and again till the crammed wooden walkway widens out to a jetty and the metal deck of the ship seems invitingly wide. The boat is big, with two floors and plenty of seats, yet there is a scramble to board. We find a space upstairs by the open side, held in by a railing, grateful of the breeze and desirous of the view. Everywhere there are people selling things. Women selling dripping slices of watermelon from great silver trays perched on their heads, small children selling packets of peanuts to throw to the seagulls, men in faded shirts and checked longyi (traditional skirt) wafting plastic bags of sliced and faded pineapple from their fingers. A woman selling sun hats wears them all at once, stacked in a great tower on her head. Their calls echo up and down the deck. Not even the heavy chug of the engine as it begins to churn up the sludge coloured water drowns out their cries.
The crossing is a quick one, but the town of Dalah – just across the river from busy, bustling Yangon – could not be more different. A journey of a few minutes transports you from the heat and hurry of the metropolis to a small, rural, fly-blown market place surrounded with open fronted wooden huts. The streets are narrow and dusty and a water buffalo pulls a wooden cart along a track, resting for a moment beneath a canopy of greenery that spills out over the road. There are lots of motorbike taxis all desperate for a fare and a few taxi’s parked by the busy market looking for customers. We don’t spend long in Dalah but the contrast is already making itself felt. Instead, we head further away from the city, aiming for the small town of Twante.
The journey – which we take by Taxi (thank god for air con!) – shows us lands unlike any we have seen so far. Verdant green fields stretch either side of the road, lazing in the sun as a small stream bubbles along parallel to the wheels and tarmac. We pass houses built of wood and bamboo and homes of one room built on stilts in small hamlets. Some dwellings stand alone on the grassy banks, accessible only by a single log laid across the water, as a bridge and a balancing act.
And then we reach our first destination – the Baungdawgyoke pagoda, more commonly known as the snake pagoda. Uniquely situated in the middle of a lake, four long wooden walkways stretch their way over the opaque green water, intersecting the open space as they lead to the central pavilion. Shoes must be left behind and the sun baked wood is hot and rough to the touch. The interior of the pagoda itself is not extraordinary – back to back Buddha statues, a grey barked tree in the centre with its trunk painted to match the dirty lime green walls. But it is the pagoda’s inhabitants, the huge, throbbing reptiles that lie in the heat, that are the main attraction. Somehow, even though we know what to expect, the first one is a shock. You catch your breath for a second. Stop. Release it, breathe out – you knew there were snakes here after all. And then you just see more and more and more.
They lie on the window frames and twine through the huge, drab coloured limbs of the tree. They coil between the statues, motionless lumps of grey and brown tiled shining flesh nestling behind the Buddhas. Are they real, are they alive? They are very still. But yes – look! You can see one breathing, its rubbery skin faintly expanding and contracting. And look, this one is moving its head, looking around, repositioning itself in the sun. They are so big, so powerful, and so placid. I imagined them slithering around the floor and up the walls, but they are content to bask lazily in the sun or snooze in the shadows. These snakes are seen as holy, venerated and cared for by the nuns who live nearby and look after the temple. They have a good life. The Burmese tourists are fascinated, laughing and posing for pictures. It turns out however, that we seem as strange and interesting as the snakes. I pose for lots of pictures with smiley, laughing locals. One woman even hands me her baby – “Here… You take my baby!”
Finally, we say goodbye to our new friends and move away and out over the creaking wooden walkways towards another pagoda. This one is in the full sun and the rust coloured tiles are so hot even the locals run for the shade of the shadow cast by the tall, spired building. Inside, in the comfort of shade, a white Buddha statue sits with the compulsory (at least in Myanmar) flashing disco lights spinning wild circles behind his head. People sit cross-legged or kneel and lower their heads to the floor. Everyone is smiley and friendly, interested that we are here, openly curious and quietly devoted to their faith. Outside, across a dusty collection of heat baked blades of once-green grass, is a garishly painted statue of the Buddha with snakes protecting him from above. It sits in the middle of a small square pool of a steady green, leaves and broken bits of foliage floating stagnant in the unmoving water.
From here we proceed on into Twante itself. It is a small town, the streets roughly carved from red dust and lined with a mix of bamboo plaited huts and pastel painted plaster houses. Hot pink blossoms and tall, sun-bleached trees splash colour on the dusty streets as we pass through them. The streets where we stop are quiet, with no one in sight except for a motorbike roaring away into the distance leaving nothing behind it but a brown cloud of silence.
We go up a sandy track between buildings and duck under the cool cover of a high bamboo roof. Red clay pots are everywhere, smaller ones stacked together in great piles like tiny gems discarded by a careless owner, bigger ones standing strong and proud, alone and massive. Every shape and every size is here somewhere in this cavern, lit by nothing more than the sun through the slits in the roof or shining, with a golden brown hue, directly through the bamboo that forms the walls. The pots are a myriad of shades, from copper to rose, slate, to fawn to sludge as they all go through the drying process, transforming from soft and pliable to frigidly formed and breakable. Twante is famous for its pottery, with every piece still turned by hand despite the steady saddening creep of mass production.
In this workshop we see a man, bare-chested, his longyi hiked up around his waist to allow him to squat beside the wheel. An ember skinned woman stands beside him, turning the wheel with the sole of her feet, hanging on for balance to a string that suspends from a wooden beam overhead. The potter is incredibly skilled. He turns modest lumps of clay into three distinctly different types of pots in a matter of minutes. They begin as balls and he places a careless hand on their sides. They succumb, rising into towers, growing upwards and outwards, holes appearing in their centres. A gentle placement of a finger, a slight pressure of the palm and they transform their shape as effortlessly as a drop of water falls from a rain-soaked leaf. It seems so natural. He makes it look so easy. In this age of machines and mass production it is a rare and wonderful thing to witness something being created out of nothing before your eyes. The scale of pots around us and the speed of the potter are a double testament to the rate at which they can churn out their wares. It is their livelihood. To us it is an immense talent, one to inspire respect almost on the scale of awe.
On leaving the pottery we head to our final stop – the Shwesandaw pagoda. One of four identically named temples, this golden stupa filled complex is a busy place – but more for the locals than for foreign tourists. And there are just so many Buddhas! It is centred around a huge golden stupa, which is partially hidden in the skeleton of a bamboo scaffold when we visit. There are numerous halls around its periphery, some golden, some mirrored, some painted with intricate murals. And all of them seem filled with Buddha statues. They sit in rows, they recline beside each other, they are clustered in groups of big and small and they stand alone, seated and majestic, the centre of attention and worship. Groups of teenagers chat in the shade, old women chat and pray and families lie and nap together. Curious children follow you with their eyes, craning their necks to watch the strangers out of sight. It is not just a place of worship, or at least, not as I would immediately think of it – quiet, serious, sombre. It is a meeting place, a place of respite, where talking and laughing and chatting is the norm and where you can come to meet your friends and family and be together in a special place, away from the backbreaking heat of the sun. The scale of the complex is impressive for a relatively small town, and there is so much to see. There is a huge, heavy bell which takes quite some strength to strike. We see funny, coin operated mechanical scenes showing the Buddha floating in the sky and couples dancing, mules traversing a road and boats moving jerkily over a painted lake. Operated by little boys with cheeky grins, their giggles are as much fun as the machines themselves.
When we re-board the still crowded ferry back to the city it feels like we’ve been a lot further than we have. White clouds of seagulls whirl and swirl alongside the boat, jumping gracefully to catch tossed nuts and wheeling down to the water’s surface with penetrating cries. We have just crossed a river today, but the worlds it separates could not be more different. On one bank is the height of urbanity, bustle, noise and pollution, on the other a dusty stretch of countryside, quieter, beautiful and still strongly in touch with its heritage and craft rich past.
You can catch the ferry from Nan Thi Dar jetty near the Strand hotel which you can reach by walking straight down towards the river from the Sule Pagoda. Tickets are purchased from a small side office inside the waiting hall and can be paid for in dollars or Kyat – it costs $3 for a return for one person. The ferry leaves every 10 minutes or so. On the other side you can get either a taxi or a motorbike Taxi. We paid about $18 for a taxi to the snake pagoda and another one nearby, to Twante itself to see the pottery and to the Shwesandaw pagoda. It took just over 3 hours. Motorbike taxis were offering a price of around $6 an hour, so pretty much the same and as it was incredibly hot we felt the air con was more than worth it. Our driver was very good and walked us round the temples, waited patiently and showed us the slot machine games in the pagoda and tipped the potter who demonstrated for us. He went above and beyond what we expected and asked for nothing extra. It was a fascinating day trip and makes a nice contrast with the big city. Highly recommended!
By Bonnie Radcliffe