2015
06.18

About a bizarre lunch spectacle, a famous bridge, and a trip to Innwa where some of the unrestored past of this area survives.

 

I have sunk as low as a tourist can sink. Anything for a photograph, right? Almost anything…

 

One of the quintessential Myanmar images is the single file of monks begging. With over 400,000 monks in the country  you are bound to see some monks begging during the course of your stay even if you were trying to avoid it and even if you were only here for 2 weeks or less. Early mornings are best of course, and being within the vicinity of a big monastery helps, too. But there always is something. Either you are up too late or you are moving in traffic or there are just two or three monks, or they just break up their single file just as you are trying to take their picture, or the sun is shining in the wrong direction, or else… Why don’t they just pose for you once and for all? You could be done chasing them everywhere you see them?

 

Well, they do pose… Mahagandaryon Monastery in Amarapura, right outside of Mandalay, with 1500 monks in residence, is one of the largest teaching monasteries in the area. Lunch time here is a daily, highly organized ritual. I guess it has to be with so many people. About 10 AM a head monk rings a big gong and slowly but surely on a road dividing the various buildings of this complex two rows of monks are lining up — and so do the tourists. The monks are holding still with their alms bowl in hand and single file, just like you had always hoped for! Cameras are clicking, videos are rolling, the tourists are excited, the monks are lining up.

 

While the two lines get longer and longer, inside the compound near the kitchen area several women stand with a symbolic amount of food in bowls, and the monk in charge that day is blessing the food. At precisely 10:15 AM a second gong announces the start of the parade. The lines of monks pass through the line of tourists and then through the line of cooks and servers who hand out rice plates, drinks and else to each and everyone of the boys. The monks who have been served file into the two-storied refectory which itself is two blocks long.   Like a miracle, within the next 15 minutes the whole 1500 of them are swallowed up at one end of the dining hall and slowly spat out one by one at the other end. What can I say? I have my pictures. I still would rather have a “real” line of monks, one perhaps filing through the picturesque ruins of Bagan when the sun is just right and just when I get there? Just kidding!

 

The same issue — getting the iconic picture — applies for the 1.2 km, 1086 pole U Bein Bridge, the longest teak wood bridge in the world and one of the oldest, too. That’s where real photographers go just before sunrise or at sunset, where they rent a boat to get the right angles and where they still need the good fortune of the monks to line up for them without any “contaminating” foreigners mingling in between. I did not even try. My two world-class photography friends Rosaly and Kulvinder did (Emily, I will try to get you some facebook information for them unless you can find them on my page?) and succeeded…! My hat is off to them both. I will have to download some of their pictures for my students just to show them what real photographers can do.

 

I walked the bridge back and forth at the wrong time of the day and did not get a boat. I was impressed by the fact that what seems like such a high bridge now, supposedly will barely be above water by the end of the rainy season. Really? There will be that much rain? Hard to imagine!

 

After this touristy start of the day my taxi driver took me to Sagaing Hill. It has a history which is not apparent from all the new monasteries, temples and pagodas which line a succession of hills. What is perhaps most impressive is not any one of them, but the fact that there are over 400 of them concentrated in a relatively small area. This is Myanmar at its best — punctuating the green with gold and white and red; dressing up every hill in honor of the Buddha. U Min Thonze Monastery is one of the highest up with a great view across the valley. It boasts 45 life size images in a gently curved temple. I wonder why 45? 45 is not an explicitly Buddhist number I am aware of. But without a guide or a guidebook providing the information, these are the details I am missing. Soon U Ponnya Shin Pagoda provides the opposite view point to the U Min Thonze and a good view of the river winding its way through the landscape.

 

But the highlight of the day was Innwa, also known as Ava, an island formed by the river and one of the ancient capitals of the area. The taxi will drop you off at the jetty, and a short ferry ride will take you to the island. You can rent a bike or a scooter or a horse-drawn carriage, which is what I did with my newly found travel companion Gabriela from England. No reason to drive around in two carriages after all! Our driver spoke no English, and he had his own idea of where to go. It was a bit of a struggle and he always won… When I pointed to some old brick stupa towers to make sure we would go there and stop, he nodded and promised, and then promptly turned the other way, only to skip them. Oh well. We saw enough, I guess, for starters.

 

Parts of the ancient city wall have been restored, but what was most charming were the unrestored monuments: The Bagaya Monastery, another teak monastery, the Yadana Hsemee Complex, a stupa-pagoda-temple combination with some lovely stone Buddhas sitting in the open as their temples have disappeared; a partially collapsed watch tower and the 19th century Mahar Aung Mye Bon San Monastery, a stone version of a teak monastery built in 1822 (damaged in 1838 and rebuilt in 1873).

 

It was hot! This was my first full day out. It was “take it or leave it”. There was no half-day version of this itinerary and I could feel how desperate I became about 3 PM for this all to end. Gab was in similarly bad shape. She was even more fair skinned than I was and sporting a sizable sunburn despite multiple layers of sunscreen. I have been doing all right with the burning, always wearing long-sleeved pants and a long-sleeved shirt — unthinkable for these youngsters in this heat. It has served me well. But it does not alleviate heat nor fatigue… By 5 PM I was back home and after some noodles down the street it was bed-time for me. I do not care what the clock says. Good night!

 

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  1. You are suffering from Buddha fatigue!