Temples Large and Small

After Hpa-An we headed to Mawlamyine. We hired a guide, Hlien, to take us around for the day. He was the most smiling and generous guide we’d ever had, arriving with bananas, bags of chips for the kids and endless water bottles. “We love foreigner children,” he told me. His English was at the level where he could talk to you fairly easily, but if you replied with any level of complexity, forget it. But since he never stopped smiling the whole day, it really didn’t matter much what we said. We just enjoyed his hospitality and enthusiasm to show us his city.

Our first stop was an old church where they were setting up for Sunday service. One man told us that his church had had the first surgeon in the country and that another member of the congregation had brought the first printing press to Myanmar from the US. I would have liked to have asked more questions, like what it’s like to be Christian in a strongly Buddhist country, but on we went to the next stop.

We parked by a meditation centre and went inside, tiptoeing past hundreds of meditators, many of whom sat under mosquito nets that looked like giant food covers made out of netting that your grandma uses at picnics. When the kids saw this an attack of giggles hit them. It nearly got me too as I scurried them out of the hall. 

Just outside the room, I spoke to one woman who had flawless English. “Do you know about meditation?” she asked quietly so as not to disturb anyone. I asked her a few questions. It turned out they were doing Vipassana. I told her about Goenka bringing Vipassana to the West from Myanmar. She pointed out the lone westerner in the room, a woman in her thirties. I would have liked to have talked more, but the others were waiting.

Myanmar not only has more monks per capita than any other country, but has a strong tradition of meditation for laypeople. Goenka’s teacher Sayagyi U Ba Khin was a layperson (and also the Accountant General of Burma).

Then we walked over to the monks’ buildings and their meditation centre, which was a beautiful wooden building (thankfully empty so the kids were free to giggle away – though never as funny as when the room is full). On the walls were various Buddhist sayings, such as “Pay no attention to the faults of others, things done or left undone by others. Consider only what by oneself is done or left undone.”

This stuff was gold. Forget math or history or what have you, this stuff should be taught in school. I pointed it out to the kids but they were like, “Sure, Mum, whatever.” They were far more interested in the plastic foot massage mat by the entrance.

On the way back a monk came out of his little hut and asked us where we were from. He told me that a Canadian guy had stayed at the monastery for a year. His English was pretty good and I would have liked to chat more but everyone else had walked on. This was becoming a theme.

Next we set off to see the world’s largest reclining Buddha, which you can go inside and tour different floors and rooms with large dioramas on Buddhist themes. We wandered around looking at the different scenes, some of which were gory ones of man gone Wrong, complete with demons and red paint. Paul turned to me and commented, “Myanmar is a very different place.” I had to agree.  

Then we toured a few temples. Myanmar is covered in temples and stupas. They also enjoy repeating statues of monks or Buddhas with hundreds lined up in a row. Some have said the abundance of Buddhist structures in Myanmar is because of the strong merit-making thread in Burmese life; namely you accrue more merit building a Buddha than putting in plumbing for example. Whether this is true or not, I have no idea.

The day ended with feeding birds by the Irrawaddy river at sunset. Every so often we’d see a dark shape floating down the river. At first glance we thought it was a dolphin, then a body, and then we realized it was bobbing bags of garbage.