It was a drizzly afternoon, and we decided to spend a nice, quiet day inside…
…of a giant Buddha.
In fact, it was the world’s largest (180 metres long) reclining Buddha, and was lazing on a the side of a mountain near Mawlamyine – a tough word to spell. I say ‘it’, because it was one of those androgynous Buddhas, neither male nor female, and also because it was a statue and so technically didn’t have a gender. I hesitate to call it more womanly than manly, but it did have very red lips and long, curly eyelashes, one of which would probably kill a person if it fell on them.
The rattle of hammers sang in the air, because this particular giant Buddha was not actually finished yet. In fact, it had been in a perpetual state of construction for 15, 20, 30, or 90 years (depending on whose website you believe), and completion still appeared to be a long way off. Buddha reclined at the top of a dirt road in an area dotted crazily with stupas, statues, and other odd installations, and none of them seemed to be placed with any sense of space or symmetry (with the exception of hundreds of giant monk statues, which lined the road and were evenly spaced, their faces repeating every ten statues or so). Construction workers were sparse, with a small handful tackling the giant Buddha, and others scattered about erecting statues, or painting things, or riding in yellow diggers that bored large holes into the mud.
One of the least sensible things about the site was the fact that there were labourers working on the hillside opposite the giant Buddha building a second giant Buddha, facing the feet of the first. They’d only completed the foundations, and made a start on the face, but it was equal in length (and ambition) to its counterpart. Assuming the first giant Buddha takes another 20 years to complete (which seems like a generous estimate given its decrepit interior), and the second giant Buddha takes as long as the first, then it’s probably safe to assume that the world’s largest top-and-tail will be finished just as humans colonise Mars.
The part that really makes you go, “Whoa, weird,” is the interior. When you enter, it’s like being in some concrete bomb shelter – except there are round port holes, a black-and-white checkered floor, and a large, tiled staircase leading up into the darkness. The floor is covered in puddles, and since you’ve taken your shoes off (even incomplete, the giant Buddha is sacred) you have wet feet and are often stepping on stony, cementy, gritty stuff. Although the tiles on the stairs are new, you can’t help but notice the deteriorating condition of the walls, ceiling, and other unfinished stairways and doors. So you climb, feet sodden, and find yourself in what might have been planned as (and may still someday be) the main visitors foyer. It’s essentially another concrete bunker, and there are a few workers sitting around chatting, or welding stuff, or sculpting figures. Fluorescent lights dimly shine above, hanging from wires, and these are dangerously close to internal leaks, which drip down from cracks into puddles.
The further inside the Buddha we went, the stranger it got. The lights did little to illuminate the many – often terrifying – dioramas, and as we trudged through the sometimes ankle-deep water, we witnessed gruesome scenes of Buddhist hell (scenes we’ve seen before, and wrote about here and here), and other depictions of various Buddhist mythology. We noticed that the dioramas and backdrops had been sculpted and painted painstakingly, but since the conditions inside were poor, the paint and figures were decaying and would need to be touched up.
We trudged through the murk as far as the third floor and then thought, “This is all just a bit too weird. Shall we go to a tea shop, or somewhere else more normal?”
And so we left and had le pey.
Helpful information for pilgrims:
Location – Win Sein Taw Ya, about 30 minutes drive south of Mawlamyine on highway 8.
Get there – We rented a motorbike for 10,000 kyat, and got directions from kind folk along the way. If you’re not into that, it’s easy to find a taxi: simply walk ten metres down any street and look foreign.
Price – Free (this might change upon completion, but you’ll be able to save transport costs by simply teleporting there)
What’s ‘le pey?’ – It’s tea sweetened with condensed milk, served in a little espresso cup.