Myanmar: Archaeology, Shampoo Island and the Karaoke Brothel Restaurant

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Shampoo Island under the Thanlwin Bridge

Like always, this week has been interesting to say the last, we’re halfway through our teaching stint and it feels like we only just arrived!

Early in the week we finally got to meet a representative from SST who helped arrange our volunteer time in Myanmar. Our contact the Archaeologist/Writer/Historian was in town because he was to read from his book on the ancient Mon civilisation of Suvarnabhumi. He showed us photos of his current excavations and recent discoveries, and the segments of a huge ancient city wall which has given credibility to many years of work. It was great to meet someone so passionate about what they do. He had also brought along a colleague/friend who was just as much of a character. He told us of his time in Egypt and Libya in the 90’s as a writer of political and religious history. He’s already written nine books alone but I’m sure both men have enough stories for several more. When we got home we realised the school down the road having some sort of musical spectacular as we could hear every note in our bedroom. We considered going to try and get in, but the singing was so horrendous we decided to keep at a safe distance.

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Our SST friend and colleague

The next morning I woke up feeling far less than 100%, and ironically the restaurant from the previous night was called “Thai Food Only 2”. After weeks of Myanmar food from street vendors, it seems still only Thailand wants to hurt us. Laura took my classes that day whilst I lay in bed playing Myanmar’s national pastime, Angry Birds. To help me through it the girls arranged for me to have some plain toast for breakfast instead of our usual traditional rice or noodle dishes. I had an audience of five watch me eat this in fits of laughter as it was obviously the most ridiculous breakfast they had ever seen! I was fine within 24 hours and back in the classroom. This week we’ve introduced some new music based listening activities. So far we’ve used Bowie, Johnny Cash and Pink Floyd. None of our students had ever heard of any of them, it seems there are whole generations of music which never got here when the country was closed. Some found them hilarious, some seemed to enjoy it.

Last night was Chinese New Year so we decided to wander around town and see if anything was going on. Despite a few lanterns and posters it seemed to be a non-event and even the Chinese temple was closed. Disappointed we dropped into a big bar/restaurant along the Strand Road where we had a quick beer once before. On our last visit we sat out back on their small deck along with another westerner and nothing seemed out of place. This time we opted to sit inside, and this is where things started to get… strange. I’m not sure what the first sign that things weren’t right was, the photo of Wayne Rooney on the wall, the catwalk stage, or the rack of beauty queen sashes and Christmas tinsel behind the bar. The potentially underage waiter brought us a couple of beers and offered us the food menu which we declined. Laura then pointed out that besides us and one table with a young family, every other table consisted of a reasonably old man with a much younger woman, and these young women were all dressed in uncharacteristically skimpy clothing. A man on the stage suddenly began playing keyboard in true Myanmar style (somewhere between Wesley Willis and Keyboard Cat), then one of the young women left her partner, ascended the stage and began poorly singing along. As we exchanged “WTF” glances, an underage waitress got on stage and started adorning the scantily clad singer with sashes and tinsel like she’d just simultaneously won Miss Universe and transformed into a Christmas tree. As the song went on some of the staff approached the man she was previously sitting beside and some bargaining appeared to be taking place. “Ummm is this a karaoke… brothel restaurant?”… “Yeah, if that’s a thing, that’s where we are.” Once the woman left the stage, her and the man disappeared into a back room. This exact same process then took place 4 more times until all the girls and their partners disappeared into the back rooms. Despite all the signs we were still debating the obvious, after all this was a restaurant with wide open doors on a busy main road, and there were kids there. Before we left we decided we had to know so both pretended to go to the loo which was down past the rooms where the girls had disappeared. Our suspicions were confirmed when the staff bricked themselves as we walked that direction, and then someone had “time” called on their session by a waiter flicking the lights on and off in the room via an outside switch. The whole experience was a bit of a shock as it was nothing like the Mawlamyine we’ve come to know.

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Shampoo Island

Friday involved a trip to Shampoo Island, so named because Mon Kings would come here to ceremoniously wash their hair before battles and at coronation. Last year the king of Thailand visited and washed his hair which was a big event. The history of the island is long and a little bit bizarre, it was allegedly created by the Nat King who cast a ruby from the sky which turned into an island to shelter the Lord Buddha from a storm during his previous life as a duck. Buddhism has some truly fantastic claims and if you want to read some more look out for our site guide on this island as it has plenty! The island has seen better days and it resembles a kind of abandoned 80’s theme park without any rides, which I found quite cool. Dilapidated and a little creepy. It’s prize attraction is the body of a monk who died 14 years ago and they claim has not decomposed, and did not emit any smell. He is unfortunately inside a sealed tomb with only two tiny holes that you can’t see through, so there is no evidence to back this up. The fact that the room had 8 separate extractor fans puts me firmly in the sceptics camp. I’m told not to completely doubt this though as tomorrow I will get to see the body of another monk who indeed has not decomposed with nothing being done to his body, and is on full display. I’m really looking forward to this, Laura is certainly not!

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Novices on Shampoo Island

Posted from Mawlamyine, Mon, Republic of the Union of Myanmar.

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