The Road to Mandalay – All Aboard the Chrysanthemum Express!

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On the road to Mandalay, from the hill town of Pyin Oo Lwin, is Mandalay’s morning flower market. If, like us, you were expecting a Covent Garden-like covered market, then think again. This is a flower market on wheels. About 20 minutes from the city centre and occupying the sides and central reservation of a busy trunk road, this is where growers from the cool hills and buyers from the steamy city meet on their motorbikes to trade.

Flowers are principally used in Burma as offerings to Buddha, both in homes and at temples or pagodas. The colour yellow, representing gold, is particularly auspicious, but different flower types are offered depending on individual circumstances and availability. The flowers are combined with sprigs of a leafy shrub or tree which has glossy foliage with a reddish tinge to the new leaves. I am still trying to find out the name.

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With the October 30th being a pagoda festival (coinciding with the full moon), the market was alive with activity. Roaring down from the hills came motorbike after motorbike, laden with neatly tied and carefully balanced bundles of Chrysanthemums in shades of yellow, gold, russet, brick red, white and pink. A handsome bunch would cost you 1000 kyats, that’s about 80 pence or just over $1. Tesco could learn a thing or two here about value for money. The market begins at 5am, and during the Burmese “winter” that means starting the morning’s trading in candlelight. By midday there’s nothing left, and the growers repair to the hills to load up with more floral bounty for the night flower market, which is held inside the city.

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Chrysanths were not the only flower on offer, although they stole the show. Piles of old-fashioned asters and Gypsophila could also be found, overshadowed by the the delicate pendant blossoms of the weeping goldsmith flower (padeign gno in Burmese). Legend has it that these beautiful flowers, members of the ginger family, are so called because a goldsmith was reduced to tears by his inability to reproduce the flowers, despite all his tools, skill and experience. They make a particularly special offering at temples.

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We were the only foreigners to stop by that morning and it was great to witness this vibrant place without hoards of camera-toting tourists. Of course that didn’t stop me capturing the sociable atmosphere as the bright sunshine filtered through the dense tree canopy, illuminating the clouds of red dust from the road. In common with all the Burmese people we’ve encountered we were greeted with welcoming smiles and friendly curiosity.

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Flower selling is hard work and the journey down from the hills can take 1.5 hours assuming no breakdowns, which are not uncommon on the poorly made-up roads. And where there are people, there are food sellers, cooking up maize fritters and corn on the cob. Having filled our lungs with the heady scent of sun-warmed chrysanths, we continued our journey up to their source, Pyin Oo Lwin. Passing us on the hairpin bends came yet more bikes laden with bright flowers, ensuring no worshipper need go empty handed to their temple the following morning.

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Coming soon, a post on the National Kandawgyi Gardens – a beautiful park originally created by the British in the style of Kew Gardens

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