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Published: February 5th 2013
Magician has Him Hooked
During the annual festival at the giant Buddha, thousands gather to pray, buy, witness magical feats, and eat.
The Lonely Planet Guide to Myanmar says, "If you thought you'd seen some big old buddhas, just wait till you get a load of this one."
Indeed! Here's the story for the day:
It just so happens that the annual festival celebrating the birthday of the monk who built the Buddha at Win Sein Taw Yaw is in its second of three days. I have to go to see not only the monster Buddha, but also take in the festivities.
The initial problem is getting there. Hire a car taxi? No, I head for the minivans that shuttle people every hour. But twenty feet outside the door of my hotel is the local motorcycle taxi service. They of course ask me where I'm going and I tell them. They give me an offer I can't refuse, and besides, the motorcycle driver looks something like Mario Andretti. A giant helmet is plopped on my skull, and I straddle the velvet covered seat of the bike. Off we go.
About 10 minutes into the ride I realize I've got a death grip on the bar on the seat. The helmet keeps falling down over my eyes, and I'm sliding
A staircase goes into his head.
to one side of the seat. Mario is a careful driver, as careful as he can be, I suppose, and I'm encouraged that he has mirrors. Many of the motorcycles don't have them. We pass a billboard that warns a line of happy teenagers to wear a crash helmet and save a life. Is it supposed to fit?
About 20 minutes into the ride I'm thinking maybe I should have gone with the car taxi. My shoulders are tensing up, and I have to use my other hand to uncurl my fingers that have been welded to the bar I've been gripping. There are bumps in the road, after all, and I could fly off (it seems.)
After nearly 30 minutes we enter a bedlam of cars, trucks, and people, all dressed in their best longyis, some wearing sun hats, headed down a mile and half long road that goes to the giant Buddha. Stalls line the road, selling everything from tattoos to plastic guns to the latest fashions in jeans. Plus the usual variety of colorful food, much of it deep fried.
We are stopped at a gate, my driver must park, and I need to
Get the Fights Underway!
Hundreds of monk await the kickboxing matches.
walk the rest of the way. We agree to meet after 3 or 4 hours at that spot. So off I go, stumbling along with the rest of the crowd, snapping photos now and then and enjoying the high energy in the air.
I spot a circle of people gathered off to the side, then investigate. A man is performing "magic", but I detect nothing remarkable in what he's doing. His partner is standing next to me and says to me, "magician," then strides into the circle and uncovers one of three small baskets. A deadly snake pokes its poor little head out, but wants nothing to do with the crowd. The other magician then begins a drawn out ritual to guide the snakes out of the baskets. He clears a spot of leaves and the ever present garbage on the ground, sprinkles water, special leaves, other lures. He blows a flute now and then, and his buddy beats a gong. He goes on and on, preparing the crowd for some kind of upcoming drama. I get bored, start photographing the people watching, then merge with the traveling crowd.
Soon the crowds grow more dense. I spot Big
We Love Magic!
They're wondering when the snakes come out during the magic act.
Buddha in the distance. Yep, he's a load, all right.
We hit a bottleneck. I find myself amidst a human gridlock. The only way I survive is because I'm taller than most everyone else. A woman three fourths my height has her arms clamped around my waist behind me--she's using me as her plow to cut through the crowd. We couldn't move for the longest time. Finally I break through, the lady loses her grip, and I'm free of the human log jam. I don't want to repeat that!
I head for Bloated Buddha. There's a staircase going up to his head. Nope, not to
his head, into
I head up the staircase with everyone else, including all the little girls dressed in white pants, navy blue blazers, and yellow satin ties.
Then....then....I walk INTO THE BUDDHA. Right into his head. There we all are, in the head of an enormous Buddha, and people are acting as if they do it all the time. I follow all of them upstairs and around, because there are a lot of Buddha innards to explore.
I find a doorway to daylight, and emerge next to a
My Escort to the Festival
For some reason, I wanted to call him Mario...
shiny white Buddha ear. I look up, and there are his three-foot long eye lashes. I can not see all of his pink lips, but I know they're there.
Oh great Buddha! You are so immense! Your giant eyes are so peaceful looking! How amazing you are!
I snap photos of the throngs below. I can't believe I walked through that.
I explore Buddha. His guts consist of lifesize dioramas of his life and times, all made of cement and gaudily painted. There are at least three floors of exhibit guts.
Then I start to examine the construction of Buddha. I can't help it, since I recently built my own house. I note the curved narrow pillars of concrete, exposed rebar, crumbling concrete...hey, I don't want to be in here when there's an earthquake, no way.
Each level in Buddha's head has a Buddha brain--that is, a Buddha image, where people are praying. I chat with a pink and saffron garbed nun named Nellie, who lives in the monastery there. She tells me this Buddha is 500 feet long (the guide book says 560 feet) and they're building another across the way--bigger and better at
600 feet long, and facing the opposite direction. That's two foot ball field lengths!
After a long tour inside Buddha, I exit around about where his belly button is.
And you'll never guess what's just outside his belly. You'll NEVER GUESS!
A water slide!!!
A water slide, that boys are joyfully sliding down into a big pool of murky water.
I run into a student, who tells me he is learning to speak Korean. He speaks excellent English. I ask him to take a photo. He says "Bye bye, have fun!"
Down the stairs I go, taking in all the excitement and activity. People are eating, massive amounts of food, with production line efficiency. Guys are chopping up scores of chicken, servers are slopping rice and greens on banana leaves. A monk chats with me for awhile. The older ones ask me if this is my first trip to "Burma", not Myanmar. As I watch people chowing on food, another monk asks me if I've eaten--he's going to take me in to eat. I gratefully decline for now, because there's more to experience!
Kick boxing! A kick boxing tournament! I buy a ticket,
Baskets of snakes at his feet.
and enter a large round arena with wooden bleachers and plastic chairs up close to the ring. As I wander in, I'm startled to see bleachers packed with--you guessed it--monks! Rows upon rows, they're all anticipating the fights, and raising the energy to a feverish pitch.
A couple of monks and other people ask if I want to sit up in the comfortable plastic chairs, the ring side seats. But, alas, I can't stay for the fights, because it has already been four hours. I head back toward the meeting place.
Along the way, I buy a deep fried something. The lacy thing is draped over a stick, all adrip. I suck every last drop of oil off it as I walk along. I'm left with oily fingers and greasy plastic bag. No trash cans. And I do what I have to do, I throw my plastic bag into a heap of other trash behind a stalll! A moment of guilt, then it vanishes...
The motorcycle parking lot is packed with bikes, but no Mario. How am I to find him? I walk outside it, there he is, calling for me. He can't wait to go. I
He didn't want to come out.
don the loose fitting bowl, tighten the strap, and we putt-putt away, through the crowds, on to the streets filled with vehicles of people escaping the festival.
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