Not a day goes by here in Mawlamyine without something amazing, curious or even slightly bizarre happening. After we finished class and went for a sunset wander on Wednesday evening, we returned to a phone call telling us to get ready ASAP as a car was coming to collect us to see something ‘Spiritual’.
As we pulled up to what seemed like a normal house or shopfront by one of the many pagodas, we noticed things were far from normal. A crowd was gathering and a mix of discordant keyboard, dull thudding drums, crashing cymbals and frenetic Shan chanting was blasting into the night. The closer we got, the less understanding we had of what exactly was taking place. Beyond the band, a man in a wig and a strange traditional dress was dancing like he was possessed in front of an altar covered in idols and countless offerings of food and drink.
Thankfully the ever knowledgeable Thane stepped in to tell us what we were witnessing. It seems on top of the Buddhism, many Myanmar also pay respect to some traditional Spiritual Gods, thirty seven of them in fact. The idols on the altar represented each and every one of these gods, some looking like regular people holding random items, others much more fantastic with my personal favourite being a golden entity sitting cross legged atop four tigers. Costumed men and women danced, chanted, sang, smoked cheroots, ceremoniously ate glutinous rice, pranced about with bottles of whisky on their heads and played sweet air drums with daggers. Another highlight involved a woman presenting the seemingly possessed man with a wad of cash, which he then smacked himself in the crotch with, before slapping her about the head with it. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen or heard in my life and it was glorious. We later heard that this Spirit Festival would go late in to the night and continue for three straight evenings.
The next day was an early start and we piled into the back of a truck with our students at 6AM to head to Mukyi. The reason for our visit was that recently some ancient stone carvings had been discovered high up in the hills. The area itself is a sacred site of Karen people in the region, however nobody has been able to recognise the language of the carvings. There is also a series of caves here believed to have been used by the Japanese as a hiding place on their retreat from the country during WW2. As soon as we arrived our Karen students jumped into action and started to lead us into the jungle, without them we simply could not have accessed or found the site.
It’s safe to say Laura and I were not entirely prepared for the type of trekking that followed. As the site is a new discovery, there is no path. It was straight up bush-bashing through dense undergrowth and low hanging trees, and everything had thorns or spikes. At the same time it was all vertical and there were a lot of boulders to manoeuvre around and over. Not to mention the spiders and ants I kept fishing out of my beard. It was however worth every second when we reached the top. The view down was breathtaking and our Karen students felt proud to be able to show us these carvings and caves, and we were truly humbled to see them.
Our second stop on the field trip was the Bandhi They Lar pagoda which was built in 911 AD. This was another Golden Rock style pagoda which also is believed to contain stands of the Lord Buddha’s hair. It took about half an hour to get 1888 feet up the mountain in the overcrowded tray of a mining truck going at a fairly ridiculous speed. I stood up at the front and it was like being on a rollercoaster with a better view, whilst Laura stayed low with her face to the back of the cab fearing for her life. The pagoda was great and we also got to apply gold leaf to the boulder to help recover some of the areas which had dulled over time. The ride back down the mountain was just as good as the way up, made even further entertaining by a monk sitting on Laura.
The only local beer I’ve come across in Mawlamyine is Myanmar Lager, so we’ve been enjoying a few of these in the evening as we watch the sunset on the Strand Road. After seeing people very keen to acquire our bottle tops we were told that Myanmar Lager are currently running a competition. If you remove the seal from under the lid there is some text and there are all sorts of instant win prizes to be won, from cash to cars. My problem is that I barely even know which way up the text goes, let alone what it says, thankfully there is always someone around keen to translate. This week I had my first big win of 200 Kyats! That’s about 12 pence… Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, as my Dad would say.