October 27 2016
Because the number one attraction in Myanmar is looking at pagodas, temples and monasteries, the visitor quickly becomes overwhelmed by them. Even as we glide down the Irrawaddy river, stupas arrive and fade along the banks, or sit like random gold jewellery cast into the low, green hills. When the schedule announced the platoon would visit to the Mya Tha Lun Pagoda in Magwe yesterday, the general reaction was ‘so what?’ An added disincentive was trishaw transport, where the seats would be too small for the average platoon member’s buttocks and the peddlers might expire trying to reach even walking speed. Moreover, if we did arrive at the base of this pagoda there were more than 100 steps plus intermittent slopes to be traversed in bare feet. The platoon, however, is toughening up. There was not one defector as we mounted our trishaws and the peddlers gritted their teeth.
Once at the temple compound, we de-shod and commenced the long climb, with the Kommendant stopping every so often to get his own breath while explaining something about the endless array of myths and merchandise we were passing, including local cures for superficial complaints, and a fortune teller for more serious life problems.
At the top we found a massive tiled terrace which looked out over the Irrawaddy River where the AIM was moored. I realised that this was not a river in the accepted sense, but a series of elongated, connected lakes. While the view was impressive enough, behind me stood the most magnificent, commanding stupa I had ever seen or imagined. Immensely tall, beautifully proportioned and perfectly maintained, it was covered in gold leaf, blazing defiantly back at the sun in the sinking afternoon light.
On the way back we stopped to look at chinloe, a game played in Myanmar and nearby Asian countries. Using a hollow cane ball, two teams must keep the ball from touching the ground while using only their feet to keep it moving. A variation is to put up a volleyball net and kick the cane ball over it into the opposing court. Before dinner that evening a famous cane ball foot juggler entertained the platoon on the pool deck with some remarkable acts of balance and foot-ball skills.
There was a man I hadn’t noticed before, standing by the toaster this morning. I could see by the way he was peering under it that he knew his hotel toasters. He introduced himself as Derek Breadchamber, hotel toaster critic for The New York Times. This was a great honour for me to meet him. I told him I’d read some of his books, the best known being: When Hotel Bread Becomes Toast: a Modern Miracle, now into its third edition. Derek has been invited to give a talk this afternoon and I won’t miss it. He agreed with me that the Burmaburner maritime model had the best surprise delivery system of all hotel toasters.
Another talk was given mid-morning by the Kommendant’s tour director colleague, Gareth. He outlined the process whereby a boy becomes a monk. Most remain novices until they turn at least 16, when they can be confirmed as monks. At that point they are expected to obey 227 rules which deny every pleasure I can think of, plus some I wasn’t even aware of, such as acknowledging flavour in food. What goes in the gob is for nutrition only. No saying yum-yum. At meal times the monks don’t talk or look at each other. They’re not allowed to sit in a comfortable chair or sleep in a reasonable bed, but instead retire to a mat on the floor. They renounce all worldly possessions. Upon acceptance into the monkhood they are issued with three dark red robes and a bowl for alms and food. While they may be given an umbrella and thongs, they are not supposed to use them. Rough ground and rain are good for spiritual well-being. If there is the choice of sun or shade they must stand in the burning sun. They must void peeing in long grass in case they drown an ant. They cannot be in a room alone with a woman, or sit next to a woman in a bus. Even ordinary people trying to faithfully follow Buddhism are denied many pleasures we take for granted in the west, like having it off with somebody at the office Christmas party. One of the few good things about passing years is that I’m too old to become a monk. I’m also too old for adventures at office Christmas parties.
Gareth said there were over 400 million Buddhist monks currently in the world. Then there are many other religious orders that have monks as part of their systems. Although some orders teach and do community work, the principle occupation of monks is studying teachings and praying – for which they are supported by their communities. Certainly in Myanmar they rely on donations of food for their two meals a day and I think it is the same in Thailand. Monks are undoubtedly good people, but one wonders at the validity of denouncing worldly goods and then relying for support on those who are working to attain those same goods.
Since, by default, we occupy one of the two AIM suites with large front balconies and other privileges such as free laundry and my bottle of Billecart, we decided to exercise our right to hold a private dinner party last night for four person. We gave our two guests, a fun couple from Wollongong, a choice of anything on the exotic menu, to which I added a bottle of champagne. What we all wanted, it turned out, was change – which manifested itself in four hamburgers. Adding to the down-to-earth evening was the place along the river chosen by the captain for an overnight stop. Of all the quaint villages and tree shaded sandy banks where we could have tied up, we found ourselves tethered overlooking a rubbish tip, with white plastic bags fluttering in the humid breeze. At a certain point in the drinking of champagne, rubbish tips, along with everything else, seem of little importance. We raised a glass to our fortunate lives, the place where we live and the era into which our birth landed us.
Friday 29 October
This is our last full day of moving serenely along the Irrawaddy River. I seems that the cruise is suffering from enough places of interest to visit. Away from the few big cities, this is still a primitive country and there are limits as to how much stimulation the platoon can expect from seeing more bamboo and thatch houses and more stupas, temples and monasteries. Mud also has a repetitive quality about it. Yesterday I forsook a buggy ride to a nine-hole golf course with a tin shed clubhouse of claimed historical importance in favour of another game of chess with Robert. This time I hung on to my queen and was doing quite well when Robert’s wife whisked him away on the golf course excursion. I sat staring at my promising position on the board when one of the crew, a dull looking lad who had been watching us from a respectable distance, offered to take Robert’s place and let me finish him off. Of course I accepted, my ego bristling for a boost. “I have played before,” the boy murmured as he made what looked like a mistake with a rook. Ten minutes later he’d mated me. My king glared up at me as I was putting him back in the box. “You should never lower yourself to play chess with the crew,” his majesty said.
Early in the morning we will be brought back to earth with a seven-hour bus trip to Yangon and another platoon will replace ours, the Kommendant will puff up and begin his introductions, the new platoon will ask silly questions and AIM will blow its horn and edge out into the river. We’ve had a good crowd on this voyage, but I get the feeling that we’ve seen enough to get a reasonably rounded impression of Myanmar. We’ve got two more days back in Yangon at the Shang where we’ll no doubt look at more pagodas and markets and temples – plus carbon monoxide and exciting traffic.