Alas, the time for me to part with Pascal and Ricard had arrived. On the morning of 31 January, I said goodbye to the friendly staff and loaded up a trishaw. When I told my trishaw I wanted to go to the bus station to go to Monywa, he was surprised and smiled broadly. “Me Monywa, my family Monywa,” he told me proudly. I had read in both books and internet forums that Monywa was a gem of a place, rarely visited by tourists because it was just a little bit too far from Mandalay, but had some spectacular sights nearby.
As the trishaw was arriving at the station, my driver starting to drip with sweat as the heat becomes unbearable even at half past eight in the morning, an old white battered bus pulled out of the parking lot, the assistant standing on the door opening, yelling out “Monywa Monywa Monywa.” My trishaw driver motioned to him that I was headed that way, and we quickly unloaded my bags and I jumped on the bus. The seats were so close to each other that there was no way anyone above the age of 8, Burmese or not, could put their legs in the space in front of where they were seated. What this meant was that the floor was stacked high with nylon bags filled with clothes, vegetables, mechanical parts, and presumably many other things that I couldn't see; all the products that would be necessary to transport to Monywa from Mandalay.
I was the only foreigner on the bus, and there was a very old man seated behind me with spectacles so thick they looked like they were weighing him down, and when you looked into this eyes they were comically magnified by the thick plastic lenses. He had a bad cough and was surprised and delighted when I offered him a throat lozenge. From that moment, every passenger on the bus decided I was ok, probably because his incessant noisy coughing stopped.
About two hours into the journey, most of which I had slept through, we stopped at a restaurant along the highway, where a dozen girls and women with carefully balanced trays of bananas, rice cakes, and roasted peanuts rushed out and announced with deep loudspeaker-like voices what wares they were offering. One young girl, who was probably 8 years old, kept waving to me and grinning.
We pulled back onto the main road and chugged along down the road, and arrived in Monywa at about noon. When the assistant wanted to find out where in town I would like to be dropped off, all of a sudden 5 men crowded around, ready to offer their insight to make sure we were communicating correctly. I told them the name of the hotel I would like to stay at and there was a flurry of discussion, which sounded like shouting, and before I knew what was happening they had lifted my bag out of the enormous pile and told me to get off the bus. Had I been in any other country I would have doubts and wondered if I was being deposited somewhere I didn't want to be, but the look of reassurance in the assistant as he stepped down first with my bag told me that I was ok. I descended, and this young man who I knew had been watching me protectively for the entire journey without ever speaking to me until then, held his hand out shyly and said “Than-choo.” The Burmese language pronunciation of the letters k and y together, as in ky, is ch, hence “Thank you” becomes “Than-choo.” We shook hands and even as this exchange was happening in a matter of seconds, an entrepreneurial trishaw driver came running, scooped my bag up and went running off. I decided I had better follow the man with my luggage, and trotted behind. He took me the short distance to my hotel and I checked in.
I opted to take a moto-taxi around for the day, since I had a very short amount of time, and the sights were scattered over a large distance, with very little public transport. I went immediately to Thanbbodhay Paya, which has over half a million Buddha images. I can only describe it as a cacophony of colors, with orange, pink, yellow, and everything in between scattered about with gold and silver tiled, Buddhas looking at you from all sides and angles, from the size of your fingertip to ones that tower over you. It was extremely disorienting to walk through the rows and rows of these statues. There were several pools, almost empty, with women seated around them with flowers to use as offerings, who all smiled and greeted me. Despite the size, scale, and remarkable craftsmanship of the place, I saw only 2 foreign tourists, whereas at Mandalay Hill I saw at least 25.
We continued on the dirt road, and from miles away, the standing and reclining Buddhas next to Aung Setkya Paya beckoned. The reclining Buddha is 90m long, and the standing one which was completed in 2006 stands 130m tall. They are both dressed in golden robes and their white faces with red lips are smiling, looking extremely serene and peaceful. Aung Setkya Paya located just next to them stands 60m tall, with glittering mirror tiles encircling its golden dome with tinkling bells forever creating music for pilgrims who have made the considerable effort to reach this wonder.
As we approached the complex on the straight dusty dirt road affording spectacular views, I realized that there was the sound of frantic drumming, and there were more people than usual, who were dressed in fancier clothes than usual, even considering that many Burmese are frequently paying respects to religious sites around the country, often wearing their best clothes because there are always amateur photographers at the sites who earn their living by providing these pilgrims with family photos that then adorn their simple homes, a memoir of their hard-earned trip to visit the holy sites in their country.
I looked around to see what the cause of this excitement could be, and was told by the driver, paya pwe; pagoda festival. Thousands of pagodas and temples around Myanmar have festivals several times a year, usually coinciding with the full moon; many of these festivals happen from January to March, before the Burmese New Year in April. Just my luck! I was one of very very few tourists to witness a village pagoda festival!
We passed by the festival, and I craned my neck to get a view of what was happening. There was a tall thick bamboo stick erected in the dirt, towering 20-30m above the ground, where young boys were hoisting themselves upward. To the left, there was a chinlon match taking place, with instruments next to them, and there were dozens of nuns and monks, and food vendors with rice cakes and fruit and drinks. I couldn't wait to get back.
We parked the moto-taxi at the base of a long covered walkway up to Aung Setkya Paya, and I walked slowly up the path with tanakha vendors on either side, along with a few others selling memorabilia of the site. I took off my shoes at the base of the pagoda, and after spending a moment in front of the Buddha image, climbed the pagoda via an unlit tunnel going through the actual dome, the stone that never sees the sun cool on my bare feet. Emerging into the open sky, there are breathtaking views as you walk along the rim of this enormous pagoda, and you alternate between views of the surrounding plain, with lush greenery, and then the imposing Buddhas just nearby.
I decided to go back to the base of the hill, and a few girls selling tanakha with big smiles asked me if I wanted to buy the tanakha. I declined, since carrying around a piece of tree bark would add more bulk than I could afford at the moment, but they beckoned me to come over and so I did. One girl took a piece of the wood and started grinding it against a round base, also made of wood. With some water placed on the base, a mustard colored liquid was oozing out of the bark. She asked me if she could do my make-up, and I was greeted with much laughter as I surrendered. She carefully covered my whole face first, including my forehead and chin; after all, tanakha is used as sunblock in this country that has constant rays. Then, she used a very fine-whiskered brush to apply more liquid on my cheeks, and used her fingertips to decorate my nose. I was surprised to notice how fragrant the liquid was; how wonderful to have sunblock, make-up, and perfume all in one!
We all went out from the shaded marketplace so we could take photos; they all insisted that with my tanakha on, I looked like a genuine Myanmar lady. As I left them, my walk down the rest of the vending area was completely different than the way up; everywhere I looked people were smiling and laughing at the ridiculous sight of a tourist with a huge camera walking around with golden tanakha on every inch of my face. I was all set to go to the pwe.
It’s impossible to fully describe the energy there; the Burmese on a daily basis are very calm, quiet, reserved, shy, and almost serious. At their festivals, the reverse is true. There were young and old, men and women, grandparents holding their tiny ones, cheering excitedly, kids jumping up and down, others shaking their heads in disbelief at the spectacles they were witnessing, others covering their faces, unable to watch is the climbers would fall.
The bamboo stick, when I first arrived, had young boys standing on each others’ shoulders to progressively work towards reaching the top. At the top of the pole was a metal ring with envelopes hanging off of it; each of these envelopes contained a cash prize and the goal was to grab one off. The boys had their longyis tucked in behind them so they looked much like sumo wrestlers would dress in Japan; their faces were scrunched up in determination and pain as they had the weight of 2, 3, or 4 of their peers on their shoulders. One older man was clearly the coach and kept yelling at them, which the boys would respond with newfound energy and determination to climb ever higher.
I moved to the chinlon area, and when the organizers realized that I was a tourist, and I wanted to take photos, they quickly ushered spectators out of the way so that I could have an unobstructed view of the players. By this stage, many children were curious about this strange person wearing trousers (I maybe saw 5 women not wearing tameins or longyis in 3 weeks in Myanmar) who was walking around with a metal black object pointed at people, so I started photographing them and showing them their photos on my screen, and inadvertently I became more entertaining than the talented young men performing all around us. I soon had a trail of kids following in my footsteps, and this continued until my moto-taxi driver said it was time to head back to Monywa.
Even as I got into the back cabin of the motorcycle, I knew I wasn’t ready to leave. I knew that I was being irrational, that it was well over 20km to Monywa on a road that was rocky and dusty for most of the way, with very little motor vehicle traffic, whether it be truck, bus, car, or motorcycle, but I wanted to stay at the festival. After 10 minutes in the motorcycle, I told him I wanted to go back. He wanted me to pay him double our agreed price so he could go back to Monywa and come back later that evening, but I told him I thought I would be ok. I was doubtful as to how much of a chance I had getting back, because there wasn’t public transport, but I decided to try my luck.
I had a quick lunch outside, and walked back into the energy. There was a traditional elephant dance costume being set up next to the chinlon arena, a beautiful piece of work with a black body carefully embroidered with bright pink, blue, and yellow fabric. At the chinlon arena, there was now a young girl wearing very shiny multi-colored clothing performing, using hula hoops as props to demonstrate her agility and flexibility. Sweat dripped from her face, forming puddles on the ground below.
I walked back to the bamboo pole, and a man, with grey hairs starting to make their presence known on his head, asked, “Japan?” and when I nodded, held out his right hand, using his left hand to touch his right elbow, grinned at me showing his betel-stained red teeth, and we shook hands. He bellowed, “Konnichiwa!” Everyone who was watching us giggled. He then told me to come up and sit with the announcer, and I obliged. All around me were children; kids with tanakha, poor kids dressed in rags with no shoes, nuns, monks, they were all the same; beautiful, lovely children of Myanmar. The instruments arrived then, with 4 men who kneeled, squatted, or sat cross-legged on the dirt and whose forearms bulged with their deft fingers and hands producing vibrant, dynamic music.
The announcer was a young man in his twenties with especially red lips and teeth, who whenever the camera was pointed anywhere near him, would self-consciously close his mouth as he was embarrassed of his betel-stained teeth. He had a bright yellow T-shirt on, and held the microphone close as he yelled out what was going on in the sky above with the brave young men.
At 5 o’clock 2 boys in red plaid uniforms – apparently the highlight of the show – came to the pole and the space around was quickly cleared. The older man who had first approached me to join them conducted a prayer ceremony to the nats, spirits from Burma’s original religion, asking for protection for the boys who were about to attempt perilous, impressive feats. And they were splendid.
Whereas other boys and men had struggled to move upwards, these two went up so quickly and made it look so effortless. They progressed to do more difficult things, spinning plates, waving flags, hanging upside down and descending the pole upside down without using their hands. I was so captivated by the show that I stopped taking photos, holding my breath when a particularly precarious event was taking place.
When the boys finished, I shook hands with all the competitors, announcer, and musicians, and moved to take a look at the elephant dance. There were two men underneath the elephant costume, moving with flawless synchronization to the drums and bells to make their creature come to life. It was dark by this time, and the many military men who had appeared by then began to eye me suspiciously because there was no obvious form of transport that I would be leaving on. Sad as I was to admit it, it was time to begin attempting to get back to Monywa, especially because nights get cold and I had only the clothes I had on in the very hot afternoon.
I managed to find a horse cart driver who agreed to take me to Thanboddhay village, 4km away. As we made our way in the dark, many bicycles and motorcycles, as well as jam-packed pickups headed towards the pwe. There were also numerous villagers making their way on foot. There were no lights in the street, and the only sound you could hear was the distant drumming and shouting, and the constant clicking and clacking of the horse’s hoofs and the wooden cart bouncing up and down.
We arrived at Thanboddhay junction just as a Monywa-bound bus was impatiently letting off passengers and my driver yelled out to the bus, but they either didn’t hear him or ignored him and continued down the pavement. He assured me not to worry and we left the horse to cross the road where there was a small house. He spoke quickly to a girl there, who told me her name was Dai Dai, and from what I understood he had asked her to take care of me, to make sure I made it safely to Monywa, and he would now go home to his family. Dai Dai had finished technical college for electronics and was 22 years old. She eagerly found an English phrasebook and her mother, aunts, and sisters all came out to see who this visitor was.
Myanmar has an impressive culture of a love for reading and literature, and at every bus station, in the smallest villages, and everywhere you look, there are books and magazines, often held together by tape and still falling apart, struggling until the print has faded and become illegible or the binding adamantly refuses to stay together despite any help that has been offered. I often saw English phrasebooks whilst traveling around Myanmar, and when I flipped through them I always found, much to my amusement, that they taught words and phrases that would serve no real purpose other than to make conversation with the opposite sex, give compliments, and try to put you in a favorable position with your peer. Dai Dai’s book was no different, and she pointed to phrases such as “You’re so beautiful,” “Quite charming,” “Would you like to go out tonight?” and many others along these lines.
The ladies told me I looked like a Myanmar girl with my tanakha, and proceeded to pinch and squeeze me; my cheeks, my arms, all the way up to my elbows, my fingers, fingertips, and palms, feeling how smooth they were. I felt like a farm animal being evaluated for how ready I was for cooking. They chuckled gleefully as Dai Dai told me I was very fat – the best compliment you can give to a woman in Myanmar. I made origami cranes for the sisters, as Dai Dai’s father emerged from the home, a stoic handsome man who had wrinkles so deeply engraved in his face that any sculptor would dream having him as a subject. He immediately told me “You. Sleep here. No pay. Tomorrow Monywa.” I explained that I had to go to Pakokku tomorrow, and that my bag was in Monywa, but I was truly grateful for his offer. Another reason I refused was because I knew that the laws against having people stay in your house are growing continually stricter; no foreigners can stay in the home of a local, and there are routine checks at homes to make sure only the people that are on the official register of a residence are staying there. Punishments range from small fines to imprisonment.
While all this charming conversation was taking place, it was growing ever later and colder, and I began to doubt that there would be a bus passing that could take me to Monywa. We debated this for awhile and finally agreed that I would return to Monywa on the father’s motorcycle. He went and got a wool hat and off we went in the greezing night. Everyone waved goodbye and Dai Dai hugged me, declaring “See you again” as she held my hand. I looked at the millions of stars in the perfect night sky as we raced along the asphalt. We arrived in Monywa and I paid the father for the petrol and he took my right hand in both of his hands before we separated. He made sure I was safely in the hotel, waved and flashed his white smile, so bright in comparison to all his black and navy blue clothes, as well as his dark sun-hardened skin.
After this seemingly endless day, with so much emotional and physical intensity, I was ready to go to sleep and have no stimulation whatsoever. However, I knew that if I didn't eat anything, I would awake in the middle of the night. So, I headed out once again. I walked quickly around the Shwe Eigon Paya barefoot, then passed by a restaurant very close to my hotel. The tables were filled with local people and I decided to go in. I realized, though, that I didn't want a full meal, and what I was really craving was fruit. I saw that many of the tables had plates of papaya on them, and decided that I would just go in and have some fruit.
As I stood by the entrance, a beautiful girl in her twenties with pigtails and dainty glasses walked over and said rice, and pointed at various curries in pots, indicating that I could choose between lentils, chicken, prawns, and other tasty options. I said Fruit, Papaya, Dessert, none of which she understood. So I pointed to the other table, and then she understood. I sat down and ordered a bottle of water, and instantly a pile of juicy orange papaya appeared in front of me, which I consumed rapidly. I asked how much, and she said, “Sister, Free eat.” Apparently the papaya was free for everyone, as dessert, but I told her no, I would pay, since I hadn’t eaten anything. She insisted, and said I could pay for the water (of course!) and we were both shaking our heads and smiling and arguing. She sat down and in broken English began telling me about herself. A student at technical college, which takes 6 years, she enjoyed English classes. She kept telling me to come back next year to Monywa, that she would be waiting. I stayed with her for an hour, as we wrote each other’s names in Burmese, Japanese, and English, we made cranes and other origami, and she gave me her photo.
I left as the restaurant was closing and fell asleep immediately. What a day.