Very Old Things. And Cats. And Drums

In English it’s spelled ‘Pyay’, the locals call it ‘Pee’ and the British colonists called it ‘Prome’ (there are so many double names in Myanmar/Burma). But whatever you want call this vibrant little town, we visited it and did what we do best – looked at stuff.

Arriving on the back of a very beautiful and very bumpy 10-hour train ride (which I’d love to write about but probably won’t), we stepped into the sort of bustle you might not expect at 11pm on a Thursday night. We’d read about a promising guesthouse on Wikitravel, one of our favourite quick-research websites, and located it on Google maps – our often frustrating but occasionally accurate location guide. The 10-minute walk to the guesthouse would have been no problem, but instead we were tempted by a trishaw (a guy cycling with a little side seat for passengers) because it would be a first for both of us. And at 50 cents per person, we couldn’t resist.

Myanmar is weird when it comes to the price of things. Our 10-hour upper class train ride (cushy seats as opposed to wooden seats) cost four dollars. Meals are usually under one dollar. Tea is basically free. Puffing men on bicycles hauling your lazy arse through town in the middle of the night costs (as I mentioned above) 50 cents. So far, these are the kind of prices you’d expect in South East Asia. But, for some reason accommodation is expensive. The sort of room we’d pay $6 for in Cambodia was $28 in Yangon. A very budget option – which as of this writing we haven’t experienced – would apparently be in a leaky, windowless cell of some kind. Showering would consist of rubbing oneself up against a damp wall. This would still cost $8 per night.

So it was a bit of a gamble on our part going to the Pangabar Aircon Lodging House which cost $16 per night. Thankfully, any fears we might have had were washed away when we met Win, the manager, who greeted us like we were family and showed us a lovely room. Opening the door revealed a private bathroom, a mosquito net, air conditioning and a fan, a very comfortable bed, and – oddly enough – carpet. We slept like logs (do logs wake?), and in the morning a full breakfast included a peculiar but tasty mix of local and western food: a samosa, a banana, a saucer of mango, a fried egg, four slices of bread, a jar of ‘Strawberry Jem’, and a pot of margarine (with added vitamins).

Pyay is situated along the irrawaddy River, and host views like this.

Pyay is situated along the Irrawaddy River and hosts views like this.

pyay from the bridge

And this.

pyay from the bridge coal ship

And this (that’s a boatload of coal).

Renting a couple of bicycles from the guesthouse ($2 each), we rode 8km east to the recently recognised UNESCO world heritage site, Thayekhittaya – also known as Sri Ksetra. It is a difficult area to describe, but can be summed up as a scattering of ancient structures ranging from the 4th to the 9th century immersed in a small farming community. Vineyards of gourds and winter melons were planted alongside rice fields, and local villagers moved produce about (I’m not kidding, and it wasn’t a gimmicky tourist thing) on oxcarts. Small, sandy paths twisted through the area, and we cycled around the maze-like site greeting the warm farm folk. What made the site so special were the many occasionas where we’d randomly turn down a path and stumble upon an 800-year-old temple.

We were, as is so often the case during low season at lesser-known sites, the only foreigners at Thayekhittaya. The entry fee was 5000 Kyat (about $5) each.

On the way to the heritage we noticed this pagoda, being guarded by two menacing dragon cobra bumble bees.

On the way to the heritage site we noticed this pagoda being guarded by two menacing dragon cobra bumble bees.

The temple housed (possibly) a hundred gold statues, and more were being built and painted while we were there.

The bumble cobra temple housed (possibly) a hundred gold statues, and more were being built and painted while we were there.

Unfortunately, we didn't learn the name of the temple, and Google maps simply calls it 'Pagoda'.

Unfortunately, we didn’t learn the name of the temple. Google maps simply calls it ‘Pagoda’.

Phayagyi Pagoda, just outside the main sction of the encient city. It was a prototype for modern pagodas of Myanmar, but there wasn't much other information available, such as age or height. I'm in the photo for scale.

Phayagyi Pagoda sat just outside the main section of the ancient city. It was a prototype for the modern pagodas of Myanmar, but there wasn’t much other information available such as age or height. I’m in the photo for scale.

A lot of the time the umbrealla atop a Burmese pagoda will be encrusted with diamonds, rubies and other prescious gems. A bold enough person could find out here, by climbing up this safe-looking 'ladder'.

Often, the umbrella atop a Burmese pagoda will be encrusted with diamonds, rubies and other precious gems. A bold enough person could find out if this was the case at the Phayagyi Pagoda by climbing up this safe-looking ‘ladder’.

An unfortunately common sight in Myanmar. Even nuns are not allowed in these areas, and are seen as being far lower than monks, despite the almost identical sacrifices they are required to make by taking the robes. Case in point: a nun showed up at our guesthouse one morning to collect alms and was waved away empty handed. A few minutes later a monk showed up, and was given food. For an interesting read, here's a short article written by a young Burmese woman who temporararily ordained, and the inequality she experienced.

An unfortunately common sight in Myanmar. Even nuns are not allowed in these areas since they are seen as being lower than monks despite the almost identical sacrifices they are required to make when taking the robes. Case in point: a nun showed up at our guesthouse one morning to collect alms. She was waved away empty-handed. A few minutes later a monk showed up and was given food. For an interesting read, here’s a short article written by a young Burmese woman who temporarily ordained. It goes into detail about the inequality she experienced.

Payahtaung temple. Thought to be built between the 9th and 10th century by '1000 officers.'

Payahtaung temple. Thought to be built between the 9th and 10th century by ‘1000 officers.’

East Zegu Temple

East Zegu Temple

IMG_3616

The roads around Thayekhittaya

The roads around Thayekhittaya

IMG_3617

Bei Bei Pagoda - 4th to 9th century

Bei Bei Pagoda – 4th to 9th century

Bawbawgyi from a distance

Bawbawgyi from a distance

Bawbawgyi stupa. Huge, at 46 metres high, and thought to be built as early as the fouth century. It's all brick, and practically solid, but there are two little gates in the side. I climbed up look inside one, and it showed a tunnel leading into the structure and round a corner. So intruiging! But he gate was locked, of course.

Bawbawgyi stupa. It’s huge at 46 metres high, and is thought to be built as early as the fourth century. It’s all brick, and practically solid, but there are two little gates in the side. I climbed up to look inside one, and saw a tunnel leading into the structure and around a corner. So intriguing! But the gate was locked, of course.

Bawbawgyi Stupa some time after 1907. Since then it has been regularly maintained. You can see the original umbrealla on top, which has since been replaced.

Bawbawgyi Stupa some time after 1907. Since then it has been regularly maintained. You can see the original umbrella on top, which has since been replaced.

The original umbrella

And here is the original umbrella, on a concrete square next to Bawbawgyi.

A storm rolling in

A storm rolling in

When a large storm reached us, we were lucky enough to be next to The Royal Cemetary, and took shelter for an hour while it poured outside. The site, also named 'The Cemetary of Queen Beikthano', was excavated in the 60s, revealing several large burial urns. After the urns were documented, they were buried again to preserve them. In our photo you can see the rims.

When a large storm reached us we were lucky enough to be next to ‘The Royal Cemetry’, and took shelter for an hour while the rain poured outside. The site, also named ‘The Cemetry of Queen Beikthano’, was excavated in the 60s, revealing several large burial urns. After the urns were documented they were buried again to preserve them. In our photo you can see the rims.

The UNESCO certificate. They took it off the wall so I could photograph it, because the sun was reflecting in the glass. Because of this, I feel obliged to add the photo to this post.

The UNESCO certificate. They took it off the wall so I could photograph it because the sun was reflecting in the glass. Because of this, I feel obliged to add the photo to this post.

Another impressive location in Pyay is the Shwesandaw Pagoda. It’s a big pilgrimage site in Myanmar because it houses a couple of Buddha relics. The main relics are a handful of the hairs which Gautama the Buddha appears to have enjoyed bestowing upon people when he was alive (the famous Shwedagon Pagoda, which we visited in Yangon, also has Buddha hairs). This gives the Pagoda its name: Shwesandaw – golden hairs. Another relic of the site is a replica of Buddha’s tooth – the real one currently sits in Kandy, Sri Lanka. The Shwesandaw tooth may only be a replica, but apparently it spent quite a lot of time in the presence of the real tooth. It is said that the replica absorbed some of real tooth’s aura, making it potent too. Whether or not the transfer of aura lessened the power of the original tooth is anybody’s guess (invention).

shwesandaw2

Shwesandaw’s main pagoda was completely gilded in gold leaf in 2006. It took four months.

shwesandaw1

The main pagoda is taller that the famous Shwedagon in Yangon (by one metre).

shwesandaw3

It was Saturday morning when we visited Shwesandaw, and there were many locals gathered in groups chatting, sitting around, and eating. In this case, sleeping.

shwesandaw4

One of the lions(?) that guard the north gate. He was chewing on an ox and his partner lion was chewing on a tiger. If I find out what that means in the future, this caption will change.

shwesandaw 1974

The north entrance to Shwesandaw, taken during a heavy flood in 1974.

shwesandaw today

My photo from the same spot, taken 40 years later.

At the foot of the Shwesandaw Pagoda, we were lucky to witness a cart filled with drums and gongs start to crash and bang. I took some photos, and later asked Win, the knowledgable, helpful, and friendly owner of our guesthouse, if he knew anything about it. He was a man who liked to give very detailed, occasionally confusing explanations.

“Hmmm. This is a very long name in Burmese. I need to explain everything. These people are volunteers, and every month they spend a day traveling around the city, collecting money. If they stop outside the guesthouse, we will have to give them money too.”

We made noises like, “Mmm Hmm,” and, “Oh.” Then Win suddenly changed tack.

“There are fifteen months in the Myanmar calendar,” he said, and wrote down the numbers 1-15 in my notebook. Then he wrote 1-15 again. Then again, and then a fourth time, except this time it was only 1-14. Under the first two sets of fifteen he drew a long line and said, “This is the first month,” and then under the next two sets he drew a long line and said, “This is the second month.”

So, what he meant was that all the normal months are simply cut in half. Instead of 30 days in June you have two sets of 15 days (I think that’s what he meant). This is important, because every 8th and 15th day are like ‘sabbaths’ for Buddhists, meaning they get four ‘sabbaths’ each month.

“On the sabbath,” Win continued, “People do not eat after 12pm. And on this same day at around 1pm, the drummers will go around town collecting money until the following midnight.”

“What is the group called?” I asked.

Win wrote ‘U PA THAR KA’ in my notebook, and said, “Orpathakka. It is what they call people who volunteer for Buddhism.”

These were high pitched drums, the playing of which reminded me of Tabla, as the main striking point was the index finger.

These were high-pitched drums. The technique reminded me of Tabla, as the main striking point was the index finger.

The gong rack

The gong racks

This is the start of the march. There was a small cart in front which collected the donations, this large cart in the middle, with drummers and a horn player, and a medium-sized cart at the rear hauling a generator to power the speakers, and a lot of umbrellas.

This is the start of the march. There was a small cart in front which collected the donations, a large cart in the middle, with drummers and a horn player, and a medium-sized cart at the rear hauling a generator to power the speakers, and a lot of umbrellas.

After seeing so many hungy cats in Myanmar, we brought some 'Mee O' dry cat food to carry around. I saw a very wary cat, and threw it some food. Then there were two more, so I threw more food. Suddenly, there were this many cats.

After seeing so many hungry cats in Myanmar, we brought some ‘Me-O’ dry cat food to carry around. I saw a very wary cat, and threw it some food. Then there were two more cats, so I threw more food. Suddenly, there were this many cats.

~~~

Just an ordinary train

4 thoughts on “Very Old Things. And Cats. And Drums

    1. We both never really know what to do when it comes to begging people, but cats can’t cheat people or get a job. They can, however, manipulate people with cuteness. Cat food is a bit smelly to carry around though.

  1. Hi David,
    As I am a bit of a calendar freak (see http://www.stuif.com/calendar.html), I was of course interested in what you wrote about the Burmese calendar. Like the Chinese Calendar, the Burmese one is lunisolar, with lunar months and a solar year. So there are 12 months with occasionally an extra leap month. Within a month, the days count 1 to 15 (“waxing” days) from new moon until full moon, and then again 1 to 14 or 15 (“waning” days) from full moon to new moon. Having four “Sabbaths” (during new moon, full moon and the two quarter moons) is characteristic for Theravada Buddhism.
    With thanks to Wikipedia..:-)

Leave a Reply