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Wednesday 30 Jan 2013
Saigang, Myanmar

Monastery celebrations and temple showdowns

When we finally moored up last night, it was near some sort of settlement. We couldn't see it from the boat, but we were treated to Big Ben style chimes on the hour throughout the night. Not quite so charming after being woken up the third or fourth time. After breakfast we carried on up the river towards Mandalay. We stopped off at a place called Saigang which was home to several hundred monastaries.

We met a dala dala bus by the riverbank to take us around. Our first stop was at a monastery to see the monks eating their lunch. Monks go out every morning with their alms bowls to collect food donations from the people. They are only allowed to accept prepared food as they do not cook themselves and can't be selective about what they choose to accept. All the food is brought back to the monastery and divided out amongst all the novices and monks living there. We arrived as they had finished their lunch and were beginning to clear away. It felt quite awkward to be intruding on their lunch, especially when Joseph indicated we could walk in and take photos of them in their dining hall. Most of us chose to peer in but leave them in peace to finish eating.

Joseph then spoke to one of the monks who led us on a tour of the monastery, which was so big that it felt a bit like getting a tour of a university campus. There was a visitors' dining hall where we could have eaten, but again we felt a bit intrusive and didn't feel right just turning up and eating the food they had collected for the monks and their visiting families. The monastery had just built a new dormitory for the novices and were having a grand opening ceremony, so we were invited to join in. The building was very ornate with red, green and gold decorations on every corner of the roof and windows. It certainly put my old concrete uni halls at Plas Gwyn to shame! We were introduced to some of the benefactors who had donated money for the building and taken up into a large open hall on the first floor. It had a beautiful wood parquet floor and a large Buddha shrine at the end (once again the bizarre juxtaposition of incredibly intricate detail in gold and jewel tones, highlighted with rope lights and flashing LEDs!). The family we had been introduced to insisted that we eat with them, so we sat cross-legged at a long low table and filled ourselves up with spring rolls, cakes, tofu crisps and other local snacks.

After eating and thanking them profusely, we went back outside before the ceremony started. It was fascinating to see hundreds of monks and novices arrive and line their sandles up in rows along the front of the building before going inside - a bit like watching school kids line up and file in for assembly, only far more orderly! We all wanted to make a donation after receiving such generous hospitality (and we still hadn't worked out whether Joseph had pre-arranged our visit or we had just got lucky on the day) so we followed our monk to a separate room. Women are not supposed to touch monks, or even look them in the eye, so it was a little bit awkward and none of us were quite sure what we were meant to do. In the end, we each walked forwards on our knees and offered the money to Joseph, who passed it on to the monk for us. The Myanmar people have a lovely custom of touching their left hand to their right forearm when they pass something to you with their right hand, which is a way of showing respect, so we adopted this custom while we were there too.

After the monastery, we also visited a nunnery. The nuns in Myanmar also shave their heads and wear robes, but theirs are pale pink while the monks wear burgundy. Nuns also collect food each day, but by contrast they can only accept raw food, which they will then prepare themselves. Buddhists go through many levels on their way to achieving Nirvana, true enlightenment, and hope in each life to accrue as much merit as possible to come back as something better in their next life, working up the path of enlightenment. Interestingly, it is not possible for a woman to achieve the final level of enlightenment without coming back as a man first!

We visited a temple that Joseph said was one of the oldest in the area. The custom in all temples is for visitors to have their shoulders and knees covered, so a couple of the men had to borrow Longyis - very amusing watching Joseph teach Larence how to tie his properly. Women were not allowed to approach the main Buddha statue so we had to admire it from a distance, or watch the video monitors to see the men applying gold leaf to the bulbous bobbly shape that had once been a seated Buddha.
It is considered very rude to stand in front of people who are kneeling and praying to the statue, no matter how good a photo opportunity it might be. We watched a middle-aged European man in shorts walk right in front the praying people and stand there filming the statue. A couple of people politely asked him to move but he shrugged them all off. Eventually, Fred (all 6'2" of him) stood right in front of the guy's camera and politely, but firmly, told him he was being incredibly disrespectful and needed to move out of the way right now. He may be in his late 60s, but I certainly wouldn't mess with Fred. The man did move to the side but tried to have a go at Fred, raising his voice and gesticulating wildly, so we all - as a group - moved up to stand by Fred. Seeing this, the man backed down and walked off still muttering, only to be accosted by one of the temple guides. We saw him again later wearing a Longyi and giving us a wide berth.

While we were walking around the temple complex, a young girl came up to Anna, Bryan, Anita and I and gave us each a small wooden owl covered in gold foil on a piece of string. We all expected her to ask for money in return, but she just smiled and walked off. Later on I found out these owls are symbols of luck in love and wealth, so I decided to make mine a mascot for my trip and attached him to my camera strap. You'll see him in quite a few of my photos now.

We headed back to our boat and carried on up river for another 12 miles to Mandalay. I had been expecting some kind of dockyard, given that it is such a big place, but I coudn't have been more wrong. We reached an otherwise unremarkable stretch of river with a line of barges moored four or five deep from the riverbank. Our barge pulled up on the outside and the crew laid gangplanks across the front. They scurried over with all our luggage as we gingerly made our way from one boat to the next. A gang of kids waited for us on the shore, all eager to earn a few thousand Kyat by carrying our bags and helping us climb up the muddy slope. Unfortunately, Elizabeth had been feeling unwell by the time we got back to the boat and spent the remainder of the journey lying down in the shade. When we finally got her to the top of the riverbank, she had to be sick several times and it was all Gail and I could do to shoo the kids away and give her some privacy.

We couldn't actually see Mandalay where we had disembarked, but it was only a short drive to the Golden Country Hotel. 20 minutes later we were checking in and playing the usual games - Do we have a working shower? Does it have hot water? is there wifi?
We walked about 20 minutes down the road to find the restaurant that Joseph had booked us into. It was the same kind of food as all the other touristy places. The added twist for tonight was the power failure partway through dinner which left us all sitting outside in the dark. A few moments later the waiters appeared with candles for us, so this was obviously a regular occurence. Generators are commonplace in much of Myanmar because the power supply is not reliable enough for 24 hour electricity. After a few moments the power came back on and the candles were whisked away again without a word. 


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