2015
06.08

About exploring a few of the hundreds if not thousands of sites of Mrauk-U with my new friends from Australia.  

We never quite figured out what the locally perceived difference is between a stupa, a pagoda and a temple.  The definition seemed to shift from place to place.  And ultimately, does it matter?  We saw a good many of either and all today, inside and out.

Here is a general link to the ancient sites of Mrauk U for a good historic background.

We had a third unexpectedly beautiful and sunny day in NW Myanmar and I am eternally grateful for it.  The three of us hired a tuk-tuk with a driver and a local guide to show us around.  Between 8 AM and 4 PM we went from site to site which seemed to get better and better as the day went on.   We marveled at the scenery and the dozens of view points from where to admire the array of steeples and bell-shaped spires dotting the lush, green landscape, interspersed with local huts, animals, and fields.  We stood in awe inside the temples examining worn carvings of Buddhas and devotees, jatakas, and donor figures; taking the countless repairs and replacements in stride.

A small unassuming square building protected by an ugly corrugated metal roof stood out to me. It was neither a temple, nor a stupa or a pagoda but a library that once held and protected Buddhist scriptures.  The inside was small but equipped with two windows which created an air conditioning effect.  The decoration on the building exterior was entirely geometrical.  I had not seen a type like this before in this country.  In Japan, the so-called “repositories are part of every monastic complex and hold both treasures as well as scriptures.

I was particularly taken with some of the paintings on wood in several temples.  Typically, small votive paintings illustrating the life of the Buddha or the Buddhist canon are strung up along walkways or are lining the inside of the temple halls.  But one temple in particular had an array of large-scale ceiling paintings, some of them depicting the signs of the zodiac and mandalalike diagrams as well as figurative stories.  They are true folk art and I wish our guide had some more reliable information on it.  It is hard to gauge the age of these, but I would not be surprised if some of them have lasted over 100 years.  Even more so, I would love to find a contemporary artist who is producing these paintings today.  That would be a souvenir to my heart’s content.

Toward the end of the day Miska, our guide, stopped at a beautiful lake used by locals from surrounding villages to pump drinking water.  Water is plentiful in the city, but at this time of the year, village wells in the area have run low or dry.  Locals drive some distance to fetch water.  They have their own generator, hose and cart and bring dozens of yellow water containers which they fill to take back.  I wonder if the people fetching the water will charge their fellow villagers or if this is a communal service?

Today was a national holiday for the Rakhine State.  In preparation for it we had observed a procession yesterday of drummers and young women carrying water bowls.  We were told this water was used in a special cleansing ceremony to wash the main Buddha image in town.  Today, we observed two more events:  at the central park a political party had set up a rally in preparation for the upcoming elections.  For just a few seconds we listened to a speaker yelling into a microphone.  I wonder why politicians all over the world feel the need to yell!

The second event was a lot more fun and a lot more mysterious.  Under a small canopy four dancers were continuously moving to some quite monotonous and repetitious native music performed live by a band of four musicians crouching on the floor.  The music was enhanced (or ruined as the perception may be) by a male singer whose loud voice made the microphone go into overdrive shrieking.   He, as well as one male dancer, (three were female dancers) was dressed in a pink dress, clearly a female outfit.  Was this a local drag queen celebration?   In front of them, a table was filled with food baskets of the sort that are brought to temples as donations.  A small group of locals had gathered around the tent and was following the event.  I made a circle around the group photographing and filming and repeatedly was gestured to take a front seat.  Myanmar hospitality!  Our guide then told us that this was a ceremony dedicated to the local Nat.  How fun!

I had long reached my breaking point and would have turned in for a nap had it not been for the prospect of a swim!  There was a second lake (beside the one reserved for drinking water) the locals use to swim in.  Oh, if we could cool off after this hot and sweaty day?!  What a prospect.  We picked up some cold beer and chips and invited both driver and guide to join us for a lake party.

Let’s say, we greatly amused the locals!  Rawina is a large woman who among all these petite people draws attention no matter what.  She went into the hot and muddy lake with her longhi and T-shirt, but that was entertainment enough.  I chose to go in with my one piece bathing suit, at home considered very moderate.  Here, I was the spectacle of the day and a good laugh for the dozens of kids who instantly followed us: bare legs and breasts showing.  No local woman would be seen like that!  And Ted who properly dressed like all the local men entering the lake in his longhi however, is a hairy creature and the kids giggled greatly behind his back pointing to his hairy shoulders, back and legs.  None of us cared.  It is just fair that we become the object of some fun and some cell phones pointed at us when we usually point our big cameras at them.

Most of the younger kids swim in the nude, chasing and teasing each other and jumping off each other’s backs.  The older ones float around more dignified in big rubber tubes and some privileged ones ride around in boats.  The lake is not only used for swimming but for cleaning bicycles and motorcycles which are driven right into the shallow areas and are given a bath.

The lake was not much of a cool-off.  I bet it easily was 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit water temperature.  Even with stretched out legs you could barely kick up some cooler water from the bottom of this very muddy lake.  But it was an experience and great fun!

When at night my semi air-conditioned room still showed 33 degrees Celsius I realized that we had had a hot, hot day.  I could feel it.  By about 2 PM I once thought I would faint but somehow you just keep moving.  I admit, when I am by myself I try not to do more than 6 hours of active sight seeing in order to preserve energy for the 4 hours needed for photo processing and blogging.  But at times, you just have to power through and catch up later (as I am doing now, at the 7-hour ferry ride home).

The much-needed relief came after sunset when a heavy but short thunderstorm cleared the air and cooled things down to an almost comfortable, if humid 30 degrees Celsius.   Ted, Rowina and I shared a last beer at their porch and said our goodbyes.

I only almost slept through this very hot night as my so-called air conditioner decided to break by about midnight…  But I made it.

What a well-worth excursion!  I could not have asked for more:  good weather, a great place, welcoming people, and wonderful company.

Thanks, travel pantheon.  Well done!

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  1. Apparently the distinction between a temple, pagoda and stupa is simply regional. From Wikipedia: The pagoda has varied forms that also include bell-shaped and pyramidal styles. In the Western context, there is no clear distinction between the stupa and the pagoda. In general, however, stupa is used for a Buddhist structure of India or south-east Asia, while pagoda refers to a building in East Asia which can be entered and which may be secular in purpose.

    I had to look it up, I was curious too.