2015
06.11

About the visit to a charming former Mon capital still filled with a palace, big and small Buddhas, pagodas, and temples. About a day trip from Yangon with the Australians Ted and Rowena. A word about rubbish, too.

To the sound of clapping, drumming, jingling, gonging, and singing we debarked the taxi at our first stop in Bago, a small town about 50 miles north of Yangon.

My original plan had been to spend one or two days and a couple of nights in Bago when I would start my journey out of Yangon heading north. But Ted and Rowena had caught up with me coming back from Mrauk U. At the Sittwe airport we had an unexpected reunion and decided to stick together for a couple of more days. (You can tell how much I like them and they obviously were not sick and tired of me yet either.) They lodged with me at the Thanlwin Guesthouse, and from there we planned a day trip to Bago. If you hire a taxi for the day this is an easy trip. And splitting costs between the three of us made doing it this way even more sensible. Going with a non-English speaking taxi driver and cramming Bago all into one day however, comes at a price. In the end we definitely missed a few of the things we had hoped to see. But at some point you just have to accept that you can’t see everything. And we saw plenty.

As luck had it, when our driver tried to take a left turn into the main pagoda of Bago, traffic was so heavy that he gave up and went straight instead, dropping us of at the Hintha Gon Paya known for serious Nat worship. St. Christopher and Ganesh must have put this traffic obstacle in place as it was only for it that we witnessed a most wonderful full-scale Nat worship ceremony reminiscent of the one we briefly witnessed in Mrauk U, this one in a most wonderful temple setting.

In front of a fully decorated altar, filled to the brim with flowers and offerings, a four-man band banged native instruments accompanying a male singer. Foot-tapping, deafening fun! Behind a curtained-off area one, perhaps two dancers shook their bodies just as we had seen in Mrauk U. A family was seated in the main shrine area and we conjectured that they must have paid for this event.

As the Lonely Planet points out, these performances are conducted to evoke the Nat spirit into the performance venue. Transvestites are the preferred medium to attract the spirit — therefore, our Mrauk U impression that we had stumbled on a “drag queen fest”. But the possibility persists that the Nat prefers to enter a member of the audience instead which may lead to embarrassing exhibitionistic behavior especially if a young girl is affected… Anyone so embarrassingly caught is considered unmarriable until properly exorcized by an experienced senior Buddhist monk.

After about 15 minutes the show was over. But the drummer turned to tuning his instrument, to me an almost equally fascinating endeavor. With some water he lubricated the skin of the drum and distributed a blob of resin at the center. Manipulating the blob either by moving it, adding or subtracting to it, he was able to raise or lower the pitch. Wow!

Snakophobes should skip this next paragraph and drop down to the next one as we are heading for the world’s likely largest and oldest Python at the Snake Monastery.

Indeed, a 17 foot long and over a foot wide (!) Python (what is the difference to an Anaconda I wonder as this snake did not look any different from his smaller cousins at the Snake Temple in Thantwe). Legend goes that 125 years ago a monk had a dream identifying this snake as the reincarnation of a Nat and that he kept it at the temple where it has been ever since! That is quite some record for the history of a single snake and the ever skeptic I am, I am actually convinced that this is not the third or fourth “incarnation” of this specimen as it is just about the fattest snake I have ever seen. It lounged comfortably between a Buddha statue and two hip-looking monk dudes who curiously enough were given cigarettes as offerings! Now there is a story I would like to know more about, but the gatekeeper of the snake did not speak enough English to be of any help and our taxi driver did not recognize anything we said spare his name: Te-U.

The trash-filthy suburb we had come through to reach this temple was only the prelude to a huge garbage field that sprawled right behind a lovely pagoda on a hill. This could have been a nice view point… There is a curious mix in Myanmar between spotless — the road we came on was nearly spotlessly clean — and filthy dirty. Even more baffling is the distribution of filth and clean areas. The roads — far from anyone living nearby were clean, whereas the immediate surroundings of living quarters often are a stinking hell hole. People obviously just take anything they can’t consume and dump it right out of their window or their front doors. I had observed this shocking behavior on the ferry coming from Mrauk U. The people on the upper deck who drank Soda Pop flung their empty cans right over their shoulders into the river without flinching! Rowena pointed out that only the monks could change something like this so culturally engrained and I think she is right: if the monks would come out with a new directive of protecting or cleaning the environment, if in fact they would lead such an effort, let’s say in a monthly cleaning session — this county could be as spotless as Japan in less than a year. Wonder who could put that thought into some master monk’s head?

Hair and teeth are enshrined in some of Bago’s pagodas, of course. And that alongside their age makes them quite special. It is easy to get into a “stupafied” mode looking at one pagoda as just another one. I am certainly beginning to feel Buddha-ed out when I look at yet another cookie-cutter white-plastered smiling Buddha face that must have come from the same mold as a thousand others. But it is worth to look for the nuances in these monuments and to appreciate the subtle differences. What was most impressive to me about the Shwemawdaw Paya which proudly soars 46 feet higher into the sky than the more famed Shwedagon in Yangon, were two brick sections. They were fragments that had toppled down in one of the many earthquakes and rambles the monuments in this region of the world have to endure. In this case, these two parts have been topped with small gilded mini-stupas and quaintly been incorporated into the sanctuary.

Oh, and did I mention that this pagoda had small hut among the peripheral shrines and image halls where you could have your fortune read? At the stiff price of $20 I nonetheless could not resist… My palm reader credited me with good brain power which would make me most successful in education, archaeology perhaps.   He predicted reasonable health except the usual knee and back pain issues and reasonable material wealth. Not bad, I have to say, for somebody who does not know me from Adam. And all of that from my hands? Perhaps, there is something to it after all? But since we are in Myanmar, the astrological session was topped off with a Buddhist blessing. I would not want it any other way!

I guess this was a full day! I can’t even fit it into my usual two pages. So, let’s go on:

The quite glitzy, fully reconstructed Kanbawzathadi Palace and Bee Throne Hall of the early 17th Century were interesting on one hand for getting a sense of the size and opulence of the palace buildings of that time. On the other hand these replicas raise the age-old question of reconstruction vs. preservation. In this case, the excavated teak columns — all that remained of the palace architecture — were left standing alongside the newly built ones. They had well-preserved inscriptions at the bottom indicating who had sent them as tribute.

And for anyone interested in reading more about the royal history of this area and this period, these kings and kingdoms seem to be the most influential ones:

  1. Mon Kingdom of Ramanadesa
  2. Taungoo Kingdom under King Tabinshwehti
  3. King Alaungpaya
  4. King Bodawpaya

 Either our taxi driver deliberately skipped the four 100-foot seated Buddhas, which are a site in town, or we did run out of time. Hard to tell. But we did manage to see two out of the three giant Buddhas (180 feet each) this town boasts.

One of these images at least is old; very old! It reportedly was built by a Mon king in the 10th Century. When Bago was sacked in 1757 and lost its significance as a royal center the jungle took over and hid the image until its re-discovery in 1881. In the early 20th Century it was protected by an open pavilion and in 1930 it got a mosaic face lift — cushion lift, I should say. The Buddha now can rest his head on a sparkling metal and glass pillow. The image is impressive mostly for its age and the fact that it was not — like his much larger and more recent cousin of 540 feet in Mawlamyine — cast out of concrete.

Hugged by the sky and caressed by the clouds, just down the road from the ancient giant reclines a carbon copy giant Buddha that was built from donations just a couple of years ago. I bet you he is made from concrete… Remember bigger is better and more is desirable! He is lounging in the open and the effect, I have to say, is much more powerful.

But it wasn’t so much the Buddha who I will remember but a young boy named Mju-el (or something very close to that). He had spotted the “foreigners” and with a stack of postcards to sell he approached us. His English was flawless but more impressively, he knew dozens of English songs which he bellowed out with a beautiful voice, verse after verse! Either he is a manic depressive or he is one of the most cheerful people I have ever met. Within seconds he made us laugh and of course, I bought some postcards from him. I hope Hollywood or somebody will discover him. He truly is star material. But when we pointed that out to him he said: All I want is to be happy! Uncorrupted by the prospect of fame; that is something else!

Not on the itinerary of the taxi driver, but spotted by us was a small temple across the road from the open-air giant. It’s those little discoveries that make you realize how much there is on every corner that could be seen. We had no idea what we were looking at, but there was a small four-sided sanctuary with tall standing Buddhas and nearby a group of gilded monks seated in adoration in front of a small stupa. Could it be a burial memorial for a monk perhaps? A king? It was just charming, sitting there, sunlit and hidden between shacks of huts and stalls and trash.

We were pooped, but the intermittent brief moments in the air-conditioned car revived all of us and helped to keep up our stamina. Nobody objected when after this much sightseeing the driver on his way back to Yangon pointed to the left indicating his willingness to take us to yet another site. We did not even know what we were in for, but bring it on! After all the glitter, glass, and gold we found ourselves in the middle of a lush, green, low key rural area approaching a sizable pagoda left entirely white (with a few gray streaks). It had a presence of its own and a serenity that matched the scenery. I don’t even know its name. But it’s one of those sites that give Myanmar its reputation for being magic.

On the way to Yangon we briefly stopped at the famous Taukkyan War Cemetery. Sadly for us, it had closed for the day. Thousands of Allied soldiers, Australians, Germans, British, and French, are buried here. And if I had not ripped out those pages of the Lonely Planet and buried them somewhere, I could tell you a little more about its history… An almost Stalin-era like colonnade divided the cemetery in half. Rows and rows of black marble slabs were sunken into the grass laid out geometrically. It was a simple and stern site that impressed by the sheer endless number or rows of graves…

A day with Ted and Rowena is not complete unless Ted and I have had one (or two, or three) beers and unless Rowena has managed to find some Gin and …no, there is no tonic, she has to do with soda water. They are quite a corrupting influence I have to say. Of course they claim it’s me. But it isn’t!

Good night.