Streets in the fresh morning are bustling with people working, washing, cooking, selling, creating or repairing stuff. Wandering around the city, you never know what kind of art or craft you’re gonna discover turning the next corner.
Jade is all around
We went to the Jade market by motorbike ($1 tourist entry fee + parking fee). We would advise you to get there early in the morning since the buzzing activity fades around noon, when the sun gets too hot to be comfortable.
We took our time to walk the small alleys where craftsmen examine, mark, cut, wet and polish the stones before presenting them to the buyers. It’s quite a fascinating endless show!
The small high-quality stones are wedged in bamboo straws to be meticulously polished in smooth, round shapes.
Some other blocks are left almost raw after a little bit of work, just enough to reveal their color. You’ll see the whole range of jade greens there, from blueish white to very deep pine, so dark that it looks black at first.
Having skipped the hotel’s breakfast that morning, a snack was going to be needed. We decided to try something which from a distance kind of looked like dried mushrooms, rolled in a fresh leaf with some brown sauce, white powder and a splash of lime juice. Rings a bell? Well the “mushrooms” turned out to be slices of betel nuts :->
It’s worth trying once: the taste is somewhere between toothpaste and nutmeg, leaving the mouth fresh -and red, which will cause the locals to have a good laugh at your sight. One piece of advice though: do take small bites, and definitely don’t shovel the whole thing in your mouth! One roll is plenty enough for 2 or 3 people to try out.
Leaving the jade market, we headed to the gold pounders district. We wouldn’t recommend a visit to King Galon’s shop: there we watched minibuses and private cars flow tourists almost continuously to shoot pics of the workers parked behind some string fences.
It felt too much like the zoo, so we went on our way and reached the Golden Rose workshop. No one speaking english there, but the gold pounders were happy to show us their work and let us shoot videos for as long as we wanted.
They hit and hit again the blocks of bamboo oiled paper -so much that it gets crazy hot. Repeated batter from the heavy hammer and a good deal of sweat are needed to perfect the gold leaves. By the end a leaf is only 0.1 μm thick: that’s over a 1000 times thinner than office paper!
Women handle the end of the process, probably the most delicate one: dividing the circle-shaped gold leaves into equal pieces of 2 square inches. The leaves are so thin than the lightest pressure tears them up and the smallest breeze would send them fly in the air.
You’ll see the women working with their fingertips behind glass walls, highly concentrated on their task as they pile up the gold squares between small pieces of paper.
Mandalay’s gold leaves are dispatched all over the country to be used on the stuppas and monasteries.Travelling to Myanmar you’ll have plenty occasions to admire all of this, so it’s nice to see where it all cames from!
Smaller leaves are also for sale at the entrance of some temples, so the believers can apply gold leaves on buddha’s effigies: on the head for good memory, on the heart for good luck and on the knees for good travel. In Inle Lake there are five effigies so covered in gold that they look -at the best- more like very naive snowmen than Buddha’s.
Woody peckers and the others
One or two blocks further on the the gold pounders street, we came across a street full of wooden furnitures workshops. The ground was covered with wood dust which created misty clouds floating in the sun around the craftsmen.
Amused in our interest, some workers took a quick break to proudly show us the result of their efforts. Thus we had a chance to observe many different steps of the making: cutting, carving, polishing or varnishing the rustic-asian styled chairs, cupboards, tables or altars -all in the typical asian rustico-baroque style.
Different other crafts like bamboo plaiting or t-shirts artisanal serigraphy can be observed in the streets of Mandalay, especially if you get a little bit away from the center.
In some other places (i.e. Inle Lake) you may visit crafting workshops, although it doesn’t always feel very authentic and there can be a lot of pressure to buy something in the shop… All the more reason to take some time to admire craftspeople in Mandalay!