Hello. You’re reading part 2. For part 1, click here.
Pathein was a busy, yet somehow cosy city. We had time to stroll down the main road and witness the typical goings on of the Burmese people. Most of the woman, half of the children, and a tiny percentage of the men wore thanaka on their faces, which is an off-white cosmetic paste made from tree bark. The men wore skirts which are known as longhis, and they are, I can confirm, very comfortable indeed. Large, bloody-mouthed grins abounded, as the questionable practice of chewing betel nut leaves was followed enthusiastically. Red spit piles graced the streets, and were stepped through by humans and dogs alike. Cars drove perilously close to pedestrians – of which there were many – and honked every few seconds, creating a screeching opera that nobody seemed to care about. The pattering rain brought with it a sea of umbrellas, and added a charm to the bustle. I liked Pathein.
In Pathein, we listened to Sayadaw Ottamasara give his first Dhamma talk of the trip. Everybody sat on small woven mats inside the temple, facing a large, wooden throne and several statues of Buddha backed by flashing LED lights. Sayadaw was lead to the throne, where he sat down cross-legged and faced the gathered followers. With a demeanor devoid of expression, Sayadaw took boxes of offerings and envelopes from a line of donors, who would bow three times at the foot of his huge wooden chair. Sometimes one donor would say something to the high monk, and his face would burst into a smile, showing deep laugh lines. After this flash of humanity, he would revert back to being almost expressionless. I leaned to the person sitting next to me. “Is that cash?” I asked in a low voice, motioning towards the envelopes. He nodded.
Once the offerings had been made, Sayadaw began his talk. Of course, everything was in Burmese, and so Caroline and I understood practically none of it. I could pick out numbers, and occasional words. Something something understand something something two something something… The opening five minutes were filled with Sayadaw saying a line, then all the people saying a follow-up line in unison. It reminded me of the call-and-response you hear during a Catholic church service, or indeed a Latin percussion ensemble. At set intervals everyone would bow down, and so we blindly followed during these moments, mostly out of a want to seem respectful, not because we knew why we were bowing. I later learned that the words of the worshipers were promises to follow the precepts of Buddhism – the same precepts we’d adhered to when we did our silent meditation retreat in Thailand. The bowing was simply “a sign of respect to the monk’s robes”, although I noted with interest that some robes seemed to generate a lot more respect than others.
The talk was lengthy – one hour and forty minutes – and since we couldn’t understand what was being said we simply sat there. Caroline told me afterwards that she meditated during the talk, but I could make no such claim. After trying and failing to meditate, I simply hummed tunes in my head and tried to refrain from drumming on my knees. I also spent a lot of time watching the patterns of the LED lights flashing behind the Buddha statue’s head. Ooh, it’s swirling. Now it’s spiraling! Hmm, it would be better if all the LEDs worked. Ooh! It’s swirling again! I wonder what we’re eating tonight…
After the Dhamma talk, and dinner, we boarded the bus again, and drove for a long period of time into the wee-hours of the morning, eventually stopping at beachside guesthouse in Chaung Thar. We hadn’t meant to stop there, but something was mentioned about a road closure, and it was 3.30am, and so a decision was made to spend the night in the little shacks. The complex was actually no longer being used as a guesthouse, so there was no water, no sheets and no mosquito proofing, but it was 3.30am and we’d had a huge day, therefore any bed looked fit for a king.
“Swimming?” I was woken up by Micky the Croatian. We’d picked him up along the way with his Burmese girlfriend. Micky had huge plans to build a ‘peace zone’ on a large tract of land, and he was traveling around trying to find a suitable space. His ideas were immense, and included building a school for local gifted village children, planting a permaculture forest, developing a sustainable farming community and hosting workshops in new art spaces.
“The water is so good!” Mickey continued. My watch read 8 a.m., which was very late in Buddhist circles, and so I dragged myself outside to see what our place looked like in the daylight. A small, rubbish-filled beachfront village greeted me. Children, chickens, men hammering stuff, and stray dogs roamed about, barking, clucking and spitting respectively. 20 metres away, the surf crashed in small waves against a beautiful sandy beach covered in hermit crabs. Mickey was right, the water was good.
After swimming, because there was no running water, we took turns at a well, dunking in a bucket (bucket = plastic bottle with the top cut off, on a rope) and pouring the chilly water over ourselves while soft rain silently pattered on the sand. Afterwards a large group of us strolled up and down the beach, and paid a boat man to take us to a temple on a small island. There were more hermit crabs here, as well as hundreds of frightened green crabs, and the usual assortment of shacks, chickens and children.
“This place is very, very busy during the tourist season,” somebody said. Right now, however, it was barren apart from locals. The ‘tourists’ were generally not foreigners, but Burmese holidaymakers, although we also heard about how Myanmar’s foreign tourist intake is doubling every year. “In a few years,” somebody predicted, “There will be resorts and souvenir shops everywhere.” Right now, however, there was decay, mud, piles of rubbish, and the bloody spatters of betel nut spit over the ground. Despite these harsh sounding descriptions, it was an immensely likeable place that probably wasn’t ready for the awful effects that western tourism inevitably has on prime beachfront towns in South East Asia. What would make this place better? Ah, yes. A row of ’boutique’ hotels with private infinity pools. And several pizza joints (“I know the best pizza in Chaung Thar, dude!”). And an all-night beach party with buckets of Red Bull and rum. And local people begging with hired babies. Take that, Myanmar (sorry hermit crabs, you’ll have to find somewhere else to scuttle).
That evening we sat through another 2-hour Dhamma talk in Burmese. I was having a lot of trouble staying awake and my head kept nodding. Focus on something, anything. Don’t fall asleep. Think about your breathing. Cool air in, hot air out. Hot. Hot food. Mmm, cake…
Suddenly my elbows were bashing loudly on the wooden floor and the people either side of me were helping me up. I’d fallen asleep and taken a spill backwards. Very embarrassing.
“We’re going back to the centre tonight,” someone announced. It was already 11 p.m., and the centre was over five hours drive away. But of course, these people were Dhamma people, and they simply accepted everything as it happened without complaint. We arrived back at the center at exactly the same time we’d left it three days earlier – 4 a.m.
I got three-and-a-half hours sleep before being woken up and thrust into the interesting world of the ThaBarWa Dhamma centre.
But that’s another story.