Saturday morning we were totally shattered from our 15 hour trip the day before. However, the father of one of Thane’s students had offered to take us out for the morning so that his 11 year old daughter might have exposure to native English speakers. So eyelids heavy and muscles aching, we piled into his car. Yep, he has a proper car! With windows and air conditioning and cushioned seats!
He took us to Pa Auk meditation centre, the largest of its kind in the region. The massive site hosts hundreds of monks and nuns meditating, including over a hundred foreign monks. We were allowed to observe them collecting their food. In two long rows they filed past volunteers who put food into the large cauldron shaped bowls that they were carrying. This was all carried out in silence, with the volunteers returning their hands to a prayer position whenever not occupied for a moment. We later found out that many were still meditating whilst walking, hence the silence.
It took us by surprise to see some white monks among the group. The monk that was organising the session spoke very good English and came to us to explain. As well as Chinese, Japanese, Thai and other Asians, Pa Auk was currently hosting meditators from the USA, France, Germany and other European countries.
After this we went on to Kan Gyi. This is a huge lake tucked away behind a pagoda in the nearby town of Mudon. It was starting to heat up and the waters looked clean and inviting. However women are forbidden to swim in the lake. It’s believed that something terrible will happen if you disobey. As it were, we stayed in the air conditioned car so I can’t complain!
Mawlamyine never ceases to surprise and after a quiet dinner that evening we happened upon a quarter fair. There were children’s rides, food stalls, carnie games, gambling and of course, being Myanmar, very loud music!
Leckie now has his first longyi (a kind of traditional wrap skirt) courtesy of Thane. She arrived with it on Monday morning and several of the students helped him into it and showed him how to tie it. Hilarity ensued!
Several of our students are graduating their university courses this week so the schedule was rejigged a bit and we took a Tuesday field trip to the Hpa An region in Karen State. Unless our students were pulling our legs, Hpa-An means basically ‘Frog Vomit’. They believe that once a frog lived in the area and he held a crystal in his mouth. When the dragon ate the frog, something to do with the crystal saved him and the dragon vomited the frog up.
This time we sat in the tray and braved the dust storm. And oh how dusty it was!! There were too many stops on the trip to talk about them all, but my favourites were King’s Cave, Kawgoon Cave, Kyauk Ka Latt and Sa-Dan Cave. After our ordeal the other day and near brush with death (only partially in my mind), I’m quite surprised to be writing about enjoying caves. These are quite different though. Still a high level of authenticity about them, but without the fear of death. King’s Cave and Sa-Dan both had excellent walks with large caverns full of beautiful rock formations and wildlife – monkeys, bats and less happily, giant spiders. Sa-Dan is believed to have been home to elephants once and the local Buddhists believe that this is where Buddha lived during his incarnation as elephant king.
Kawgoon Cave was something different entirely. Walls and ceilings decorated with carvings and Buddha images, believed to have been created in the 13th century. Many are in excellent condition and we spent a lot of time just wandering around examining the ceiling.
Kyauk Ka Lutt is the image people get in their head when they think of Hpa An and it didn’t disappoint. A tall rock pagoda in the middle of a lake, it is picturesque and peaceful – that is until our car turned up at least.
After the longest shower I’ve ever had, where I scrubbed and scrubbed to get cave dirt off my body, Thane arrived with a full Myanmar outfit for me to borrow. We’ve been invited to a wedding and Thane thinks I am ready to be presented as a proper Myanmar lady. I only hope that my longyi doesn’t fall off!!
We had a few amusing incidents today:
1. Many of our class saw their first ever black person. The woman, from Africa, was very gracious about their stares and indulged their curiosity.
2. Across the road from where we had lunch there was a Karen wedding taking place. This seemed to involve very loud techno music, amongst other varieties. We even heard ‘Blue’, which hasn’t been seen since it was rightfully left behind in the mid to late 90s.
3. Also whilst eating lunch, a truck full of speakers and Karen men went past. They were blasting techno, dancing and shouting to people they were passing. It was very reminiscent of London Pride, though I’m sure that wasn’t the intention.
4. In a pagoda we spotted an odd wall painting and asked what it means. Apparently it shows a king, having gotten dunk, trying to cook and eat his baby. Beer munchies can make you do terrible things.
5. At a monastery a scuffle broke out and a cooking lady hit a monk. We were shocked as women aren’t even allowed to touch monks, let alone hit them. It all looked light hearted though and one of our students explained that he had suggested that she wear a shorter skirt tomorrow. I don’t know why, but I’m continually surprised by the deepening realisation that monks are just people too. I’d expected them to be so much more serious, but have been pleasantly surprised – as often as not they greet us with broad smiles and laughs.
With less than two weeks left in our time here, I realise that I haven’t really talked about exactly what we’re doing here and why. Back in London I had my first interactions with a Myanmar community when I recruited some Burmese & Karen interpreters. These people had refugee status and were very open with me about their stories. They held no spite or desire for vengeance against the people that had driven them to flee, nor the western governments that left them in border camps for 20 years. Their nature struck me as so unusual and so beautiful that I decided I wanted to visit their country.
So we responded to a call for volunteer English teachers and were placed here in Mawlamyine with Thane. We have travelled here covering our own expenses and are donating our time to teaching a class of young adults who hope to earn a living from sustainable, community based tourism as more people come. In addition to classes we are going on field trips to places previously unknown to foreigners. This means we can write about these sites in an effort to encourage more visitors, gives our students practical experience and gives them the ability to guide people to the spot in the future.
We always find that volunteering gives a unique opportunity to learn about the culture in a way that just being a tourist does not. Over the last month we have eaten like the Myanmar, lived in a Myanmar house with Myanmar people, worked with the Myanmar and travelled like the Myanmar. Of course this can be tiring at times and confusing a lot of the time (there are so many traditions!!) but we wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’m really pleased that those few people I met back in England were truly representative of the Myanmar people. While of course there are always a couple of exceptions, the Myanmar people are the nicest that I have ever met.