We gather on the roof for breakfast to the amplified music from a local monastery which began at 5am. Some of the guys are looking distinctly drowsy from sleep interruption and Richard (retired tour guide) sharing with Peter from Perth have been unable to turn on their air conditioning. This turns out later to be a human problem with technology rather than any mechanical fault. The Burmese have embraced technology – android mobile phones are everywhere, even affordable to young lowly factory workers carried neatly tucked into the back of the lungyi. There is not an iphone to be seen, Samsung seem to have captured the market here. Amplification has been adopted by the Buddhists to get their message across – gone are the days when monks chanted from a roof-top – megaphones and loop recordings save their vocal chords. The experience is not unlike the calls to prayer in Istanbul. Fortified with fruit, omelettes and toast, we set of later that planned to see the monks have their breakfast/only meal of the day.
The last of them are queuing up in orderly lines as we arrive. Upper class people take turns to provide the food of the day and are on site to hand it to each monk. It’s all done with military precision – huge vats of rice are lined up on tables, there’s a fish dish today along with fruit which the monks put on a plate on top of their bowls. They go into a huge dining room to eat some of it. The huge vats are all scraped into one, leaving one very heavy vat of left-overs. Serving tables are cleared away and the courtyard is swept. Monks scurry back to their quarters clutching the remains of the food, presumably to save for later. They run a gamut of children begging food from them. Some are lucky. Nev and I are given left over bananas. He gives his to a mother with a young child and I give mine to our driver Suu. We go to look at the medieval looking kitchen where two wiry bare-chested young men are cooking up chicken for tomorrow’s meal. There’s a huge vat of raw chicken pieces to which one of the men is adding something that looks like salt. The other one is has a two metre long ladle and is spooning chicken into a giant wok about 1.5 metres in diameter. This sits on a low circular stove and I can see the wood fire below through the open hatch. One of the monks comes to talk and improve his English. He is twenty three and has three hairs growing on his otherwise smooth chin. He is twenty-three and already his teeth are stained with betle juice. He is bright, articulate, good-looking and claims to have traveled all around Myanmar. He has ambitions to travel abroad, but it is not clear if he will remain a monk. Some do, others leave after their time to return to family life. Politics are hinted at, not by us, but mostly things remain unspoken. Richard tells us that he has noticed in the two years he has been bringing tours here. Gradually people are beginning to be more open.
The contrast from the caring but austere life of the monks to the Golden Buddha couldn’t be greater. There isn’t a view of the stupa as the focus is on the statue. Several booths on the entrance way are selling gold leaf packets for the faithful to press onto the Buddha. There’s a huge crowd but only the men are allowed to approach and touch, the women can only sit back on a mat and pray. We clamber up and inch our way around the crowded plinth. John has emerged as our safety and risk assessment commentator and we are made aware of the lack of anything to prevent us falling off.
Gold leaf flaps from the lumps covering the lower body of the Buddha so that he looks as if he’s wearing trousers made of Ferero Rocher gold wrapped chocolates. We attempt to push the flapping bits of gold back onto the surface with little success.
There is no doubt about the deep faith and reverence the people have for Buddha and individual concentration praying whilst surrounded by huge crowds and in danger of being trampled is admirable.
The crew have forgotten where the gold beating place is and the first place we pull up to, everyone is at lunch. We do find the right place and get a demonstration of the laborious process of making the bamboo paper on which the gold is beaten and the time consuming process to produce hundreds of squares of leaf from a small ingot of gold. Gold on bamboo paper is bundled into huge packets and beaten for hours. It’s then divided up, re-mounted on the paper and re-beaten, this process being repeated many times. The women have the task of mounting the leaf onto squares of paper. We buy packets to give as gifts for not very much money. Suddenly we discover the gold inlaid gift-ware in the shop. Gold bodhi leafs mounted on red velvet, lacquer bowls and trinkets. There’s a VISA sign on display, so the credit cards come out.
Our next stop is the marble carving district for the whole country. Buddhas and other figures sit in varying states of completion. Most here have bodies and are waiting patiently for the head and face carvers to complete them.
Our major expedition for the afternoon is Sagaing Hill. We cross the new bridge over the Ayeyarwady river to find a hill-side peppered with temples. Most of them are unremarkable, but together the sight is wonderful as is the view of Mandalay and the river below.
Richard has heard of a row of Buddhas in one of the temples and Georgie thinks he knows where it is to be found. We walk in the heat along pathways and past stupas in search. Georgie takes an opportunity to have a quick pray (we often find him doing this) and suddenly turns a corner and can be found kneeling in front of a statue of Buddha in a small stupa. After a while we find the shrine and it’s worth the walk. A curve of identical Buddhas in a curved building is being restored – re-painted. There are plaques on a wall acknowledging donations from benefactors from all over the world for the restoration of their ancient shrine. Back in Priscilla the bus, we descend, cross the river to the U Bin Bridge.
It’s a foot-bridge made of ancient teak poles so in the late afternoon sun we have time to walk on uneven slats to the other side and back. Health and Safety John notes again the lack of anything which could prevent us falling off. This is a place for promenading, crowded with young people in groups, lovers and monks. Everyone is friendly especially the hawkers. A good-looking young man selling crudely made stone necklaces attaches himself to Nev. The selling of goods to tourists here has caught on but it’s not yet as aggressive as other parts of the world. The young man follows us all the way over the bridge – he says he’s a student and paying for his education. They all say that. ‘Min gle (a)bar’ is hello here and we get plenty of practice here exchanging greetings as we go. Many are curious to see us as it’s low season for tourists, the young men especially so. Nev thinks they might fancy us, but I believe only a few of them recognise that we are three gay men walking on a bridge and give discrete and brief flirtatious smiles. Homosexuality is still a criminal offence in Myanmar and not generally accepted by many. In spite of this I’m somewhat surprised to get so many hits from the gay dating app on my phone. I politely reply that I am travelling with a tour group and sharing a twin room. That usually works except for one young man who wants to take me to a hotel. I tell him that I’m too tired, which after walking bare-footed around temples all day, is absolutely true.
Back at the hotel, a local nunnery, visible from our roof, has taken to broadcasting loud chanting. Sue has been frantic because it’s scheduled to go on for five days day and night. She’s spent hours on the phone pleading with them as a Buddhist to tone it down. They reply that it’s only once a year. Eventually after a donation is made to the nunnery the noise abates and we can sleep.