Treading Warily
covering burma and southeast asia
Wednesday, December 12, 2018


Treading Warily



Where showing visitors around can get a well-meaning guide into big trouble

THE reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda in Rangoon, 65 feet (20 meters) in length, is Burma’s largest, 10 feet (3 meters) longer than its older and more famous counterpart at Shwe Thar Hlaung Pagoda in Pegu. 

Reclining Buddha image in Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda
A massive iron and concrete structure, resembling an aircraft hangar with open sides, accommodates the massive figure. The names of hundreds of donors covering the walls and pillars include many foreigners—mostly from Japan, the US, Britain, Thailand and South Korea but also a few from Russia, Poland, Israel and Germany. 

There were no foreign visitors on the day I was there—only five worshippers and a lethargic cat. The small group made the lonely, massive image appear even larger.

One of the worshippers, an elderly, longyi-clad man, sat at the feet of the prone Buddha, his eyes closed in silent prayer, his fingers deftly counting the beads of a rosary. His eyes opened at my approach and he stood up, adroitly adjusting his longyi.

He looked at me quizzically for a moment, before inquiring: “Are you Chinese?  Korean?  Japanese?”

“No, I’m from Thailand,” I replied.

“Thailand, very good,” he said, beaming and flashing a maroon, betel nut-stained smile. “Let me show you around.”

He gestured beyond the open side of the hall, towards the spires of the nearby Ngar Htat Gyi Pagoda, which houses another Buddha image, in a seated position, towering more than four stories high. 

“You can still see the damage from the storm,” said my guide, referring to Cyclone Nargis. “That monastery is over 100 years old.” Many roof tiles and the pagoda’s hti, or sacred parasol, were missing.

We walked around the sprawling monastery complex, whose buildings are mainly living quarters for the temple’s residents. 

“There are over 500 monks living here, searching for the truth,” said my guide. “They eat and live here. We are a country of ethnic groups—Karen, Shan, Mon and others. From all over, they come here.

“We believe that if you do good things in life, you get good benefits. Not just in this life, but in the future too. If you do bad things, you will come back as something else.  A chicken,  goose,  dog.”  He paused and then added, “Or lower.”

He paused again, making sure no one was around before adding, “The monks are our teachers. After September, the authorities came to this temple. Many monks had to go home. Some are in prison. We have so many social and economic problems, we need our teachers.” 

He was silent as we walked past two young novices, busy kicking a tattered soccer ball back and forth. Off to the side, an older novice chopped and neatly stacked firewood, staring quietly at us as we walked by.

Once we were alone again, he continued: “In China, you see what happened after [suppression of the protests] in Tibet? They had an earthquake. We had Cyclone Nargis.” 

We walked the rest of the way in silence, back to the reclining image, where we sat and paid our respects to the Buddha. From the angle we were seated, the steel cross beams reinforcing the building looked like the bars of a massive cage.

“Sorry, I am so shy, I don’t want to ask, but can you give a donation?” he asked sheepishly, breaking the silence. “I used to work in a cooperative, under Ne Win. It is gone, I am old; there are no jobs, no money. It is hard to work here, I have to rely on visitors. No one has come here in the last two months. You are the first.”

His face lit up in a wan smile as I handed him some money. When I took out my camera, he quickly shook his head.

“Please, no pictures. It is dangerous.  I have no license.”1 Then he turned and scurried away into the warren of pathways of the temple compound. 

1The Hotel and Tourism Act forbids tour guides without a license from meeting with foreigners.  Sao Oo Kya, a northern Shan leader and nephew of the last prince of Hsipaw, Sao Kya Seng, is currently serving a 13-year prison term for flouting this law and for “defaming the State.”

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