Big Buddhas, Mountain Climbing and a very special Birthday

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May 24th 2013
Published: May 26th 2013
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I'm just back from a local tailors, where I 2 days ago gambled on the skills of the proprietor by ordering a 15 dollar tailored shirt. I just tried it on, and though the fit is nearly ideal, it would be fair to say the gamble didn't pay off. The button holes were done in a rush in front of me, and the closed cuffs cut off the circulation to my hands. Never mind, it was worth a try. Speaking of gambling, last night I drank a hearty amount of army-label rum with a little Burmese fella I met in a restaurant, and he eventually led me to some sort of gambling den, where I boldly but stupidly proposed a pool game between myself and the owner of the bobbly pool table. First to pot 8 balls wins. Though I was pretty drunk, I managed to only lose 8-5, and handed over the 1000Ks note (one US Dollar) without much shame. The gathered gamblers stopped their game of cards to watch, and my friend (called Hto) told me I'd played well considering my adversary didn't leave that pool table, night or day.

A couple of days ago in Yangon, the markets were all shut as people thronged the Buddhist sites in celebration of Buddha's Birthday! It was a bit annoying, as I'd set the day aside for buying some souvenirs, but it was also fairly interesting to watch the people of Yangon celebrate on the revered full moon day, with leaves to brush against Buddha statues, and little clay pots of water to pour over sacred Bodhi trees! Aside from bumming around pagodas to watch Buddhist worshipers, I have, since Chris left for the UK, taken full advantage of my last couple of weeks alone to conduct a few day-trips on a motorbike, which would otherwise have been very expensive in a taxi, or very time-consuming on buses, pick-ups and rickshaws.

The first of these expeditions was an ambitious drive to the biggest standing Buddha statue in the world, which looms about 150km west of Mandalay, on a hill overlooking a huge fertile plain that eventually leads down to Bagan in central Burma. The drive, on a rubbish semi-auto moped, took me first over a huge bridge out of Mandalay, on which I ran out of petrol! I managed to buy some in a plastic bottle at the other end, thankfully. Due to my stern efforts to return my rented bike without so much as a puddle of petrol sloshing in the tank, I ended up running out of petrol 4 times in the day, though it wasn't much of a disaster; every 100 metres or so are helpful little shacks selling bottles of red, white and yellow fuels. After the stuttering start, I raced on the bumpy tarmac road, stopping to check I was on the right track every 15 minutes. It was soon evident that I was driving into a bit of a storm, and I later discovered that my drive towards the west coast was directly towards a long arm of the cyclone that recently hit Burma and Bangladesh. It was weak in comparison to the centre of the storm, which was focused miles away, but still the sky was a throbbing dark grey and the wind, which I hadn't particularly noticed while on the bike, having automatically counter-balanced against it, was strong enough to blow me over when I reached my destination! Thankfully, it wasn't quite strong enough to knock over the giant concrete Buddha. On my way back, a line of army trucks passed me, heading towards the coast with crates of aid and military personnel crammed into the back.

The Buddha, called "Bodhi Tataung" (worth a Google search) was immense. After 90 minutes of driving, I began craning my neck on the bike to catch sight of distant hills in the hope of spotting the 30-storey giant. With a shock of awe, I did eventually spot it away to my right. I found it more impressive at this distance than when I was right beneath the Buddha's base - it was utterly dominant over the whole landscape. With the giant figure in the corner of my eye, I continued for another 45 minutes, driving at roughly 60kph, before reaching it. Photos and figures can do better than the superlatives I could use to describe the Buddha from 50yards away. It was just massive. I would be interested to see if there are any statues bigger than it in the world. The statue is hollow, and the Buddha's long sleek body was dotted, like a skyscraper, with little windows all the way to his chest. Inside, tourists can only access the bottom 10 levels, which mostly depict horrific hell scenes, gory and vivid enough to indoctrinate the hardiest of children. One particularly tasteful one showed 2 lady demons showering a group of cowering little naked humans in spit and phlegm. I hope, for symbolic justice, the top of the Buddha is full of luxurious paradisaical scenes.

I returned to Mandalay just before a huge monsoon downpour which left all the roads flooded up to the shins. People padded through the grim water, pushing their motorbikes in the dark gloomy area of downtown where I stayed. I then shot off to Yangon to sort out my 30-day, $80 Vietnam visa, which I collected on the 23rd after waiting for 3 hours in the visa office for the officials to bother to stick in a little piece of paper. Between dropping off and collecting my visa, I headed down Burma's little southern arm, where the green landscape is dotted with sheer limestone islands, like those of Halong Bay, except here they are no longer submerged - the land having slowly raised out of the water over the years. The mini-mounts have quirky remnants of their marine past, like colonies of crabs, or huge echoey caves, one of which was the size of a football stadium! I stayed in Mawlamyine, where both Orwell and Kipling wrote some of their famous prose. I'd like to say I attempted to join this elevated company, but I was so busy on another rented motorbike, zipping between local and far-off sites, that I had no time to sit pondering with a pen and journal in front of me.

I saw the world's largest reclining Buddha, which is half-finished and is effectively a huge and fairly dangerous building site. Some monks told me it is 600 feet long, while other sources quote 520ft. All I can say, like the Bodhi Tataung, is that is was bloody massive and is again worth a Google search. I managed to scramble onto Buddha's outstretched hand, which was about the size of a tennis court, and sat against one of his tree trunk fingers, settled beneath the huge concrete head. After giving a nun a lift to her monastery, I then bombed it down to the war memorial and graves of the Allied soliders who died building the infamous "Death Railway" - the Burma-Siam rail link which the Japanese brutally forced POWs to construct as a key supply route for their conquest of Asia. This memorial was on the site of the Eastern Terminus of the line. Japanese engineers forecast it'd take 5 years to complete; due to the unimaginable hours and tortures imposed by the Japanese, it was completed in just 13 months, costing tens of thousands of British, Australian and Indian lives. The peaceful Commonwealth War Graves-maintained cemetery was very moving. Some graves simply stated "Life was cruel to us," while others toted the immortal words "There's some corner of a foreign field, that is forever England." The graves were arranged in date order. It was shocking to walk along long rows of dead without that date changing. Nearby was an old forgotten locomotive and section of the tracks where the line's Burma terminus was completed. "Bridge over the River Kwai," the book and British war film, tells the soldiers' story.

Yesterday I went to "The Golden Rock" which is effectively just a large golden boulder perched at the top of a mountain. It's one of the primary pilgrimage sites in Burma and I rode up and back in the back of a roaring truck which squeezed in 42 local tourists, and me! It tipped it down with icy rain at the top, and I had to pay 6 dollars to see the rock.

So, now I have a bit of a dull and potentially hectic 2 days. I fly to Bangkok tomorrow, where I pick up my cash card from the Bangkok Poste Restante, and then return to the airport where I'll spend the night before checking in again at 5am to fly to Vietnam! I wait a day alone in Ho Chi Minh before Sam F and Harry arrive, and the next say Sam T arrives! We have no plans as of yet, but I'm looking forward to ending my solo expeditions for good, come the 29th!


27th May 2013

You have the gift , keep it up, I almost feel I am with you.

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