Morning reveals that the late-stayers, John & Nev had an adventure getting back from the bar. Nev has a local sim card and does the sensible thing by engaging his Sat Nav app to navigate. Unfortunately he was so busy looking at the app on his phone that he failed to notice a ditch and fell right into it. John remembers saying, ‘You fit quite nicely in that ditch.’ He’s covered in mud, scratched and bruised and causes quite a stir at the Hotel reception. He appears at breakfast with just about all his toes sporting sticking plaster
Not far out of Kalaw there are caves full of Buddhas. This place is very curious as the small statues are placed in niches along the rock walls. Many are cloaked and most lit up with fairy or LED lights. Someone tells me that the far cave is very dirty and slippery and contains bats.
I’m keen to see them, having only witnessed one solitary bat flying over my London garden on summer nights. The first thing I notice is the smell of ammonia, its bat shit. There’s a cry as I enter, which may or may not be a bat warning the others.
Several shadowy shapes flutter silently away from me and I quickly dismiss irrational fears and gain confidence – they have no intention of attacking. Because it’s a temple, I’m again walking bare-footed in shit. I have to hold on to the walls of the cave and in some places crouch to get through the passage way. Bats continue to flee silently and where space above permits they escape back over my head. It becomes quite magical, in spite of the shitty wet floor.
Outside I find a trench of stagnant water surrounding a Buddha and think he won’t mind if I wash my feet. Back near the entrance there’s a tap to give them another rinse. John decides to explore this cave just as we are about to leave. I warn him about the shit and danger of slipping – we don’t need any more accidents. I’m just about to go looking for him, when he’s spotted emerging from behind a row of Buddhas, safe and sound.
As we near Nyaungshwe we stop at Peter’s request at the famously photographed Shwe Yan Pyay Monastery. It’s unusual for its oval windows and looks entirely deserted. We go in and peeing through a doorway behind the Buddha statue see a few boy monks in a very untidy dormitory with no beds, so they must sleep on the polished wooden floors.
Across the courtyard is a revelation – an arched complex houses tributes to all the people who have historically supported the monastery. The effect is stunning. This artistic financial acknowledgement I‘d noticed back in the temple with printed lists on the walls – the most recent are written on a white-board – so up-to-date.
For families, it is an honour to have a son in a monastery as this is a good way for them to get an education and it’s an ambition of every family to have at least one son to find his vocation here.
Oo tells me that he spent four years as a monk.
‘You like?’ I ask.
‘Yes,’ he nods and smiles.
It’s clear that Buddhism is central to the national psyche and has sustained them through years of trouble. I think it will also be important in their future. The other way to be educated is to join the military. All through our travels we pass elementary schools with kids in white shirts and green longyis in the school play grounds or walking to and from their homes. Education is a noisy affair and the sounds of reciting can be heard from the road.
Priscilla drops us in Nyaungshwe and takes Ray for more medical attention.
We can explore the market – relatively free from hawkers, but I choose to try a local barber. Peter advises that I wait and check out what the guy currently being done looks like when finished. He looks fine and goes on to have a shave. The bib looks a bit grubby but I think I can cope with that. I get a quote, it’s 5000Kt around $6 NZ so even if that is tourist rates, its OK. There are several other locals sitting outside on the seats and I think there might be a queue, but no, they are just sitting and passing the time of day, so I’m next. The first thing the barber does is get out a freshly laundered bib, which is a bit of a relief. I manage to convey what I want with sign language and off he goes. It reminds me of the methodology used by the barber in my home town as a kid – the short-back-and-sides method. He asks if I want a shave (I need one) and I agree. I’ve actually never been shaved by anyone else before. He makes a great show of putting in a brand new blade into his cut-throat razor and I try not to think of Sweeny Todd. He’s very gentle, but he’s used to sparse Burmese beards which are mostly confined to a few hairs on the chin and upper lip. He has to work a bit harder for me. Peter returns and I pass muster.
Priscilla, the bus, drives us through Nyaungshwe to the river where we say goodbye and clamber into two boats – luggage in front – for a one hour journey down the lake. It’s quite shallow and is in danger of being choked up with water Hyacinth, which floats around in clumps. The boat has a short propeller shaft, presumably so they can be reached easily and de-fouled. The water is, especially in the busy channels, muddy from being churned up. We pass signs proclaiming ‘conservation of the biosphere’ – this might indicate an understanding of the connectivity to the rest of the planet, but I think it’s about retaining the lake as a place to live, fish and sustain the tourist trade.
Left to its own devices the floating weed would silt up the lake leaving a river of sorts. Already agriculture has reclaimed strips of solid ground where corn is grown.
Our Hotel, on sits to the side of the lake, is charming and I’m sharing with Peter for a few days. He’s fun and full of anecdotes and giggles. Once again it’s cool enough to do without the Air Con and mosquito nets are provided. Richard C has arranged for most of us to have rooms facing the lake.
It’s great at 5.30am standing on the balcony, but rush hour begins early here and the noise of the boats, small and large carrying produce, commuters and tourists becomes ever present and loud. We get used to it along with the variable wifi all over the country. It’s mostly too weak to hook up to on a lap-top and I spend hours trying to up-load the blog. Mobile phones cope much better and it’s worth noting that Facebook, Grindr and my Guardian Apps work OK on low connectivity. Power-cuts don’t help either and these are frequent. I point out here that they are common at home on Waiheke Island so it’s not just a third world problem.