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).
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.
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).
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.”