Myanmar: Mawlamyine Monasteries and Karen Jungles

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Queen’s Monastery in Mawlamyine, Myanmar

We’ve now been in Mawlamyine for almost a week and have not seen a single cloud. It’s been lovely and warm in the days, cool at night and no humidity to speak of. Paradise.

This week we have had 3 days off and they have been put to great use. With Thane around there is no shortage of Mawlamyine experiences to have.

On Friday morning she took us to visit some monasteries and pagodas. What an amazing experience. The first place we went to was Yadanarbon Monastery, also known as the Queen’s Monastery. There is a single monk that looks after this amazing building. It’s a wooden structure (not to dissimilar to a giant Old Queenslander) with high ceilings and intricate carvings everywhere you look.

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Queen’s Monastery in Mawlamyine, Myanmar

Sein Don, one of the wives of the second to last Burmese king (King Mindon) founded this monastery in 1860 when she left Mandalay due to the British occupation and later became a nun. Her grave is at the nearby nunnery. Several layers of different coloured paint are peeling from the outside walls and doors making this place very beautiful.

During the time we were there we saw nobody else but the monk. He asked us to sign his visitors book and it looks like they get about 2 people per day. It feels like a real privilege to have seen it.

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Queen’s Monastery in Mawlamyine, Myanmar

After this we went to Kawhlar Monastery, which is a teaching monastery. As we walked around the odd novice poked his head around a corner and waved. This monastery houses a giant Buddha and again, was completely empty aside from us and its inhabitants. There were a couple more pagodas, Kuyaikthalkan and Mahmyatmuni, that we also had to ourselves. It’s so incredible to be in places like this and not feel like such a tourist. There are no entrance fees but we make sure to donate. There are several donation boxes at each one and Thane translates what each is for. I have been choosing the light box as this will go toward electricity keeping their LEDs going!

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Andrew posing and Thane praying at the giant Buddha image in Kawhlar Monastery in Mawlamyine

The Myanmar people pay attention to the day of the week that they are born. They believe this indicates personality, different baby names are chosen for different days, and on the day of your birth you give special offerings. Each day had an animal assigned. Leckie was pleased to find that he is the lion and I am the guinea pig. I got my own back though when we found out that my day means I am talkative and his means he is slow.

We took the afternoon to wander around the markets, which were mostly fish, dried fish and fish paste. They really, really, really love their fish here! One of the dried fish stalls also had the skin of a large shark hanging proudly above their wares and eagerly pointed it out to us. There was one market that’s a bit like a shopping centre and I suspect once was. Now it houses 4 stories of stalls including clothing that would not be out of place in Hot Topic and lots of gold jewellery. It seems nobody maintains the building and you walk up escalators that look like they haven’t run in 20 years. We decided not to use the lift here.

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Piles of dried fish in Mawlamyine’s markets

On Saturday we went on a field trip with the class. So we piled into a small truck with Thane and I in the front and Leckie in the covered tray with 16 students. It was early and the driver (who happened to be the father of one of our students) had still to say his prayers. He did this as he drove, occasionally bending down over the steering wheel. It was a little alarming but he seemed to know what he was doing. Whilst I was riding up front, Leckie had a slightly different experience in the back and wanted to add that here:

It was barely 6am and still both cold and dark as our little truck made its way out of Mawlamyine. The air was filled with the smell of burning leaves from little spot fires that could be seen all along the way as people cleaned their shops and homes. I’d been kept awake the previous night by a monk at a pagoda nearby reciting Buddhist scripts over a loudspeaker from about 3am, and a speaker in the tray of our truck continued to broadcast this now. First we crossed Myanmar’s longest bridge and through a barely risen Mottama before heading out past bamboo bungalows, old colonial mansions, monasteries, shacks and shanties. As the sun began to rise the mountains came into view with their golden pagoda capped peaks glinting in the daybreak. The smoke from fires highlighted the sun’s rays streaming through the palms that lined the road. Most of the students in the tray were trying to sleep, though this soon stopped as a TV screen attached to the cab flickered to life and we were treated to a DVD of a Buddhist abbot giving a sermon. I have no idea what was said but it sounded exactly the same as what had kept me awake all night. As the first two hours of the journey drew on we passed stone breakers, brick makers and columns of red robed monks out on their daily collections. Geese, pigs, chickens, goats and stray dogs all around with the occasional swerve of the truck to avoid a dual bullock drawn cart coming right for us. The journey to Karen state is not one I will forget anytime soon.

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Our students were very, very excited about what they call “ice potatoes”

Our first stop was Maelan. This area marks the border between Mon State and Karen State. Just a few years ago this area was considered a no travel zone as the Karens were at war with the Myanmar army. Now there is peace and as of a year ago, they started to allow visitors. We had to stop at the entrance and be taken the rest of the way in a Karen car driven by a Karen army member. We were treated to luxury in that we had seats in the car. Others stood in the open back of trucks – probably about 50 per truck.

At the top was a golden boulder that is believed to host a strand of Buddha’s hair. It is one of 6 in the area. There is a Buddha under a rock and a couple of other points of interest. We were amazed to find out that we are the first foreigners who have ever visited this site! We became the attraction with some people asking for photos with us and others trying to take sneaky ones.

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Our students at Maelan Pagoda

There was a path that lead to another golden rock and view point. We were told it would take 15 minutes and started to head down the concrete stairs. These soon ended and we very quickly ended up doing a barefoot trek through the Karen jungle for an hour. As it is a holy place no footwear is allowed, I don’t think my feet have ever been so dirty but what a view from the end!

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Maelan pagoda

When we arrived back to the entrance we sat in a restaurant eating the food that Thane brought with her (it seems perfectly fine to BYO food to a restaurant here). We heard that the Chinese have turned up in the area and started to test mine for gold. 🙁 Coca cola also is starting to move into the country. I was really pleased to see that they had no stranglehold here, but it’s just that it’s new. Thane interpreted as a stall holder called out asking if the foreigners would like to try this new drink, coca cola. I just hope they behave in a more ethical way here than they do in Africa. Yeah right!

After this we visited a few pagodas on the way home. During the day we had seen a lot of people lining the sides of the roads waving NLD (Google for more info) flags. As it turns out Aung San Suu Kyi was going to be passing this way on her way to a nearby town. The atmosphere was crazy. Trucks with large speakers mounted on them blasted music, children waved flags, people danced and called out to us. We ended up stuck at the back of her procession as we tried to drive home.

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NLD supporters waiting for Aung San Suu Kyi to pass by

Feeling that we had suitably earned it, we set out for a beer when we got home. We found a bar on the water, and as we were sitting outside sipping our ice cold Myanmar beer, the power went out. A few seconds later the staff fired up the petrol generator and we spent the next hour shouting over the noise about how much we love this place.

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

4 thoughts on “Myanmar: Mawlamyine Monasteries and Karen Jungles

  1. There’s two really good books on coke a cola’s unethical practices, particularly in third world countries that you might want to read one day when you get a chance and don’t have to worry about lugging heavy books around. Belching Out The Devil: Global Adventures With Coke a Cola by Mark Thomas (which I’ve partly read) and The Coke Machine-The Dirty Truth Behind the Worlds Favourite Soft Drink by Michael Blanding. The titles alone give you a good hint as to what they’re about.

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